My Failure on the 2nd day of School
“No really, I want to do it…..”
“Are you sure?”
“Seriously, I blocked my calendar. I’m all set. Really…….”
Jen and I are shuffling around the kitchen, navigating around each other for breakfast, elbowing into each other to the coffee maker, Vaughn’s homework and backpack are spread across the breakfast table. It’s the 2nd day of school on a beautiful September morning - a blue, cloudless sky, temperature in the 70s. In past years, most kids would not be looking forward to going to school on such a lovely day, but not this year, this year is different.
“I left the rules on the counter,” Jen says, taking a big sip from her “Coffee Makes Everything Better” mug
“I already know them. I got the email too”
Jen is, of course, referring to the new rules. The guidelines for school drop-off and pick-up, which are oddly reassuring in their complexity. Different grades have not only staggered drop-off times but alternate modes of the entrance to the school auditorium, which is where every child starts their day at Vaughn’s school. Pick-up at the end of the school day has its own unique set of rules. Jen has printed a map of the school, which shows arrows, entrances, and key legends for grade pick-up times. The night before, I took a highlighter and yellowed in everything for 8th grade.
“I’m so sorry” Jen repeats
“What are the chances?” she says, throwing up her hands. “What are the chances that my dermatology appointment is moved to the 2nd day of school”
“It's totally fine. As I said, I blocked my Outlook calendar. All good…”
Vaughn saunters into the kitchen in his T-shirt and boxers, holding his tablet up near his right ear, resembling a waiter holding a tray of drinks. He is playing YouTube videos of amateur gamers playing Nintendo Mario Kart. The sound effects of the game are drowned out by blaring rock music edited into the video. Vaughn dances and sways around the kitchen, listening to the video - a throwback scene to 80s teenagers perching a boom box on their shoulder blaring Van Halen at the beach.
“Tripping the light fantastic, my son?”
“What…...?” Jen asks
“Tripping the light fantastic….it’s an expression they used in the old days…..for dancing”
Jen’s response is a terse furrow of her eyebrows, clearly with no appreciation for my use of this long-outdated expression.
“Vaughn, Mommy’s dropping you off, but Daddy’s picking you up, remember”
“Yessss……..” Vaughn says, the tablet still held high to his right ear.
“So, remember to look for Daddy after school. He’ll be waiting for you on the far side of the parking lot, near the buses”.
“Text me if you have any questions” Jen adds.
“It's really not that hard…..” I say
As Jen and Vaughn head out the door, I set up my makeshift office in the living room. I regret making this room my office, as this room is where Vaughn decompresses after a day at school. The living room is staged in such a way as to limit all sensory stimuli - no television, no stereo, the room intentionally spartan. After a day at school where Vaughn’s senses are assaulted by any number of external stimuli, he retreats to the living room, tablet in hand, shutting both doors, and enjoying the full control he now has over his environment. He needs this quiet time to unwind from his day, so it is with a certain measure of guilt that I set up the office. The day before, Vaughn peered through the glass of the French door after coming home from school, the look on his face irritated, as if to say, “What the hell are you doing in my room?…….”
The day at work is typical, immersing myself in web ex meetings and emails. With Vaughn’s pick-up time at 2:25, I can leave the house at 2:!3 to get to the school on time. Lost amidst the shuffles of the workday, I look at the lower right corner of my screen - 2:!5 pm. Holy cow, I need to get moving. Bolting out of the house, my mind is still replaying the work of the day - emails that need to be returned, meetings still scheduled later in the day.
As I cruise down Station Street, it doesn’t take long to realize that the traffic before the light onto Route 3 is backed up. Really backed up.
“Is this because it’s the 2nd day of school?” I think to myself. Worse yet, the traffic is not moving. In the distance, I see the traffic light change from green to yellow to red and back to green, with cars making spartan progress into the intersection. “What the hell is going on? Why now?”
Feeling a surge of anxiety in my system, I inch along in the traffic until I see what’s creating this slow-down --- a massive construction project occupying the intersection of Route 3 and Main Street, all the way to the next traffic light where there is a plaza with a Dunkin Donuts, Dave's Supermarkets, Family Dollar.
“Come on!”......I shout in the car to no one, barking at my windshield.
Glancing at the time, it is now 2:21, and my heart races even more. “Call the school.” I say to myself, “Just call the school. Tell them to tell Vaughn, so he doesn’t have a meltdown”
Since I’m stuck at the light and not moving, it’s fair to make this call, rationalizing to myself. I dial the pre-set school number, only to have it ring and ring and ring. No answer - not even a voicemail.
“Come on!” I yell in the car, whacking my palm on the steering wheel. I’ve missed yet another green light and still haven't made it onto Route 3. Can anything else go wrong?
As the light changes to green for the 5th time, I intentionally tailgate the car in front of me and finally make it onto Route 3. Looking at the clock in my car, it’s now 2:24. One minute before pickup. Vaughn may even be getting ready to leave the building.
I take a too-fast left at the next light and speed down Main Street to the school, my mind playing images of my son walking outside and not seeing anyone -- no Dad, no Mom, amidst the peopled chaos of dismissal. I lean my foot onto the accelerator a little more.
As I pull into the school, the parking lot is the predictable disorganized mess that happens every day at pick-up. The 8th graders are picked up last, so there are cars and parents everywhere. Many families are already leaving school as I arrive.
I intentionally park in the most distant part of the parking lot, so I can run out and meet Vaughn near the buses. Looking at the clock, it's 2:29, I am four minutes late. Vaughn has been outside the school alone for four minutes………..waiting for me,.
Is he by the buses where I told him to wait? Did he get so frustrated that he went back to school when he didn’t see me?
I half walk / half jog to the bus area - no sign of Vaughn. Like most Dads, I’d spot him immediately, as he is almost as tall as his mother now. Clearly, all the kids in this area are much younger. I head directly to the school, hoping to catch a teacher's aide. “He probably went back inside”, I rationalize to myself.
I see Mrs. Franklin outside the building, an aide who has known Vaughn for close to 8 years.
“Mrs. Franklin, it's Vaughn's Dad…..” I say apologetically, knowing she probably can’t recognize me with my mask. “I haven't seen Vaughn - I'm a little late. Can you check to see if he’s inside?”
“I didn’t see him inside, but I‘ll check”
“Thank you. I’m late so I think he may have headed back inside……”
As she makes her way into the building, I stand outside, but the adrenalin surging through my veins makes me itchy. Every parent knows this feeling -- when you can’t locate your child, the state of near-panic, the frenzied decision-making that has no basis in logic. I can’t remain still any longer, He knows my car, a maroon Ford Escape, and it’s possible I may have missed him. He's gone to meet me at the car, I think to myself, which is what Jen and I always tell him to do. “Don’t ever wander…” Jen has told him on several occasions. “If you ever can’t find us but see our car, just meet us there.”
I now do a full sprint down the cement island in the parking lot to head back to my car, not caring what other parents think - this Dad thinking he is Usain Bolt, racing across a parking lot with a painful worried look across his eyes
I see him…….
He is beside the passenger door of the car, rocking back and forth, tugging his right ear, which is now crimson. His face is completely crestfallen, caving in onto itself. Even with his mask on, I can see the worry and anxiety etched across his face. His schoolmate Joshua is next to him.
As I get within earshot, I hear an agitated “Where were you?????????....”
“I’m so sorry I’m late. I tried to call the school. There was no answer”
His body language is clenched, tense, like a frightened rabbit, but he is not screaming, he is not crying, he’s not even loud, but I can feel his anxiety radiating from him like mist.
“Thank you, Joshua! Really appreciate you staying with Vaughn.”
I glance over my left shoulder and see Joshua’s Mom two cars over, sitting in the driver's seat, waving to me, I can barely recognize her with her mask on.
“No problem- I could tell Vaughn was scared,” Josh says spinning towards his own car.
“Thanks again”, I say, with an enormous exhale.
Vaughn and I climb into my car. “I am so so sorry I am late. There was massive traffic near Dave's Supermarket”
“Joshua was nice. He stayed with me... He could tell I was scared.”
“Joshua’s such a good kid….”:
“When I didn’t see you, I went back up the middle and I saw your car, but you weren’t there”
“You did exactly what you were supposed to. You stayed in one spot. I would find you. I will not find you. Ever.”
“If you hadn’t come, I would have gone back to the school”
“Right - that’s the right thing. I’m so proud of you - you made the right choice. “
Swinging onto Main Street, I glance at the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of my son. Vaughn has calmed down. He is no longer pulling on his right ear, but looking pensively out the window, splashes of sunlight and shadows dancing across his face.
Drawing a deep breath through my nose, I now turn right onto 117. Man, have I calmed down? I still feel itchy adrenalin on my fingertips, like a lobster shell peeled away, now exposing the tender flesh.
“Bad Dad bad Dad bad Dad”. I whisper musically to myself, “Bad Dad Bad Dad…..”
“What did you say, Daddy?
“Oh, I was just talking to myself. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. “suddenly feeling discovered and self-conscious. “Do you want some music...?”
I switch on the satellite radio to Pop Hits, playing BTS’s “Dynamite”. Yuck, I think to myself……….” how about 90s on 9?”
“Keep it - I like this song.”
“Bad Dad bad Dad” I say softly to myself.
Vaughn can’t hear me over the music. His gaze is fixed serenely out the window, into the full brightness of the afternoon - head, neck, & shoulders rocking back and forth to the music, tripping the light fantastic…..