Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walking to School, Slackerdom, and Other Revolutionary Acts

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

It's been a while since I've written one of my genuine, quasi-Luddist, slacker-in-the-face-of-modern-technology-and-the-pace-of-modern-life posts. But since the semester winding down and another disorganized summer is awaiting me, it seems like a good time for another.

I was born in 1968, and my childhood was the 1970s. My family lived, during those years, in five different homes (all in the same county, though, so it's not like we were moving great distances...just trying to find a place to stick my parents' growing brood), and I attended, by my count, five different elementary schools in two different school districts. When the time came for me be sent to our local junior high school, I usually rode the bus there and back; and when the time came for me to attend high school, I was catching rides with my older siblings or driving myself. But elementary school? I walked or rode my bike to school--which was sometimes less than a half-mile away, sometimes two, and for a couple of years about five miles away--just about every single day when the weather permitted...and sometimes even when it didn't.

I happen to think that there is something important to that, something that might even be considered a little revolutionary today. Years ago I was drawn into a discussion of just this topic, a discussion that involved a couple of other blogs as well, and what I found is that how one answers this simple question--"why don't kids walk to school anymore?"--opens up any number of cans of worms: family size, socio-economic status, public school funding, zoning laws, parenting styles, the rural-urban divide, and on and on. This is how I put it back then:

The responses [of those attempting to answer the above question] are numerous and revealing: fear of crime (real, sometimes, but mostly imagined), poorly designed neighborhoods without sidewalks, loss of cross-walk guards and other services, heavy backpacks, addiction to driving, overprotectiveness, insanely busy schedules, obesity and laziness, two-career families for whom the drive to school is the only real opportunity for parents to interact with their children one-on-one, etc. What I personally found most interesting was the flavor of many of the comments....if you read them closely, you can see language straight out of the conservative playbook: "times have changed," "kids today don't know how to play," "things really were different back then," etc., etc. Some of the commentators try to tie this into their general anti-Republican political orientation, but most just let their complaints stand alone mournfully.

I can sympathize, but I also wonder at the sociodemographics at play here....[T]here was a time when I fiddled with the idea of writing an essay titled "When Generation X Sends its Kids to School." Not surprisingly, I started thinking about this when our oldest daughter started kindergarten, and Melissa and I felt ourselves surrounded, overwhelmed, by advice and strategy and counsel about how best to educate our little girl, and how to keep her productive and safe, and which schools would offer what and how much, and what we should fear and how we could be ready to overcome or circumvent it. We felt baffled and distracted. A lot of it was our own doing, of course--first child going off to school and all that. There was a fair amount of class and regional anxiety involved too (lower-middle-class family, breadwinner just out of graduate school, leaving the big city for a for a one-year position at a university in a poor part of the deep South). But above and beyond it all, there was something down deep that Melissa and I both felt: that the education of children in America--both in and out of school--has become in the public mind a very big, very important, very delicate, very nerve-wracking affair, when really, it probably shouldn't be. This is not to ignore the very real problem of failing schools or dangerous neighborhoods or anything else; we we're fully aware of that. But the high-pressure, time-sensitive, goal-oriented world of today's public schools felt very odd to us, and not a little bit wrong.

I realize that this is much too heavy-handed a generational stereotype, but maybe those in their 30s today remember a time when neighborhoods were (more or less) intact enough, and teachers were (more or less) trusted enough, and the streets were (more or less) safe enough, and families were (more or less) stable enough, to allow children--namely, us--larger amounts of time, space, and responsibility. Bike to school. Be home by dark. Catch the bus downtown. Climb a tree. And so forth. This sensibility does solidify, for many of us anyway, a real discontent we have with a social world that (for economic and cultural reasons) has been so mercilessly measured and surveyed and risk-assessed. Not long before our experience with Megan, I'd read David Brooks's extremely depressing (for me) article on "The Organization Kid"--the child of baby boomers who has been prepped and watched over and groomed to excel. Heavy backpacks and programmed time with the parents forms the basis of this type of person's interaction with the world. The parents of my generation, on the other hand--the older siblings, perhaps, of those who rebelled (my dad listened to Elvis in high school, not the Beatles)--somehow missed out on the need to change the world, and the micromanagement it (not doubt unintentionally) entails. And they raised us to be slackers. A bad thing? In some ways. But if I can somehow make sure my daughters have the power and opportunity to slack off--to find their own way, make their own mistakes, develop their own little world, perhaps all while taking the time to walk to school--in the midst of this high-pressure, paranoid world, I'll feel that I've done some good.

Walking to school sounds like, well, work, especially if one can catch a ride. But actually, walking to school--and the temporal, social, cultural, economic environment is presumes and contributes to--is in a very real sense lazy, at least in a world of organization, because it requires no organization: just two working legs and the basic knowledge required to cross on the green light. There is a real and significant theoretical point to "slacking off" in the face of meritocratic, organized, time-sensitive world, to refusing to carry a Blackberry (as Laura McKenna wisely put it in one of her rants (and which I further commented on): "corporate life is the enemy of the modern family") and insisting that whatever work you do, whatever deadline you have to make, whatever seasonal imperative you're committed to, your family and your life as an human being is not something that belongs, in a fundamental sense, on the clock. Take the time to walk; it's a form of dissent.

Of course, by dissenting you're also engaging yourself in larger questions, questions that need to be a part of ordinary individual, family, and community life, but which so often we moderns fail to engage in, leaving such issues to be addressed those with vested (usually business) interests. Questions about collective action, neighborhood government, and public goods. Why aren't there sidewalks along our street? Where does the spill-over parking from the new Wal-Mart really go? Who decided on these speed limits? Pausing for a moment--or just giving it some thought as you walk to your next destination, rather than going on the usual brain-dead automatic as you fight traffic and Tweet someone on your cell phone--leads to the realization that the assumption that everyone drives everywhere is going to affect the homes available to buyers, the parks and open spaces available to take your family to play in, the friends that your daughters will be able to make at school. And as for those friends...as the father of four girls, with the aforementioned oldest daughter now on the cusp of teen-agerhood, I'm getting it all the time. We're slowing her down, that's what folks say: she doesn't have a cell phone, we make her walk to school, we've got to pick up the pace! Do we want her to "fall behind"?

Well, no...and yes. I'm enough of a modern American to embrace the idea of pursuing opportunities when they present themselves to you, and if said opportunities might involve extra time and effort and attention on my part, as a loving father I'm going to provide those for my children; I won't slack off in that regard. But once again, I think there needs to be some limits, and a lot of those limits are best realized by way of simply thinking of what a normal human being can do, in a normal day, without attending to the hyped-up, commercialized, technologically enabled, impatient, entitlement-oriented speed which surrounds us. Maybe we won't drive our daughters all over town to every party and every lesson and every tutor available to her, simply for the sake or organizing her life around fun and accomplishment. Maybe--as I said in another one of those wonderful discussions which Laura keeps hosting, this one dealing with cell phones and teenagers--my wife and I have come to the unspoken agreement that for as long as possible, as much as possible, we are going to instruct our kids in the value of just plodding along and dealing with the inconveniences and limits of human life as they come, rather than looking for ways or for tools which will hasten their ways around or beyond them (and, too often, at too young an age, beyond us, the parents who, "slackers" though we may be, are hopefully not slacking off on our responsibilities). It's a form of Luddism, I know, but we tend think that too much ordinary common sense--the sort of bourgeois stuff that comes from slowly accumulating life skills and lessons--can potentially be lost if young people are, on the one hand, fast-tracked into worlds of high-tech meritocratic accomplishment, while on the other hand, still feel themselves tethered to parents to deal with real world problems (like when the computer crashes). Cutting down on the former--by, for example, doing all you can to be able to make the choice to buy a home in a neighborhood where they can walk to school and church, and then expecting them to do so--can, coincidentally, teach them a little bit of real responsibility and self-reliance, and thus increase their ability to deal with the latter on their own.

What's that--the hypocrisy accusation? Well, it is true we own a cell phone--one; my wife carries it. Perhaps we'll get another, family phone for latter on, once our oldest learns how to drive. But that's a few years away yet. Take it slow for now, is what I say. Slack off, dissent, turn off the tv, and walk to the park (or ride your bike; in truth, that's my preferred method of travel). Sure, it's a whole mile away. But it's not raining...and the time away from the beeps and whistles of modern life may do you a world of good.


Caleb said...

Thanks for this post. It reminded me of this poem--especially the connection that Berry draws between "slacking," as you put it, and letting go of fear. As you note, so much of what drives resistance to things like letting kids walk to school or taking an hour to walk to work comes down to fear--yet slowing down is the antidote to fear.

Of course, I'm preaching to myself here. We live a mile from the elementary school where my daughter will go to kindergarten in two and a half years. Right now we often walk there with her to use the playground, and I also see other kids walking both to that school and to the nearby Middle School. But I know when she becomes old enough to walk by herself, I'll feel the pull of fear and wonder about letting her go alone.

Caleb said...

By the way, the "word verification" for that last comment was "carcog"--a neologism that a quasi-Luddite could probably appreciate.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the link to the poem--like just about all of Berry's stuff, it's haunting: "My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle"--and thanks also for the thoughtful comment. We too have had to address concerns about their safety, and we'll keep addressing it as long as they live under our roof, I suppose. But in particular, when it comes to your kids finding their own way home, especially as winter comes on and it gets dark earlier, you start noticing things like just how many of the streetlights between your home and the church building don't always work, or how fast people drive in the parking lot of the apartmen complex they have to cross to get to home. It becomes part of your internal calculation--what activities will we allow them to participate in, and how late can they be out, before one of us will have to go and accompany them home, and is it worth the hassle? So far, we've been fortunate, both in the sense that we've taught our kids to be capable and that we've lucked into a good living situation here in Wichita. Our oldest walks to middle school, and our second walks to elementary school. Next year, our third daughter will start kindergarten, and I'm sure Melissa or I will walk with her for a while. But eventually, we're going to trust her older sister to take responsibility for getting her there and back home again.

Bob said...

Good post Russell. I am about 20 years older than you and the choices for my parents were less obvious when it came to which school and how you got there i.e you went to a local school and walked there.
Yes, things may have been a bit different in terms of traffic being lighter etc but walking to school was also about acquiring life skills. Not only the useful ones such as how to cross the road (must have learnt something as I am still here!) but how to communicate with friends and others, observing the world around, pacing your journey to get to school on time and importantly overcoming any fears about the world around you. If you walked alone, you got a chance to daydream or be 'slack'.
My daughter, aged 17, walked/rode on a 50-50 basis and is worried about going to a gig due to swine-flu (only 2 cases in the UK) whereas her elder brothers both walked 100% and puzzle over her fears, I am sure because they learned to see 'real' fears whereas perhaps she did not.
On a lighter note, you have cross-walk guards whilst we have 'lollipop men/ladies' here in UK! This is on account of their warning sign is similar in shape to a lollipop or popsicle.

Russell Arben Fox said...


If you walked alone, you got a chance to daydream or be 'slack'.Absolutely! I can't even begin to calculate just how much of my imaginary world--and hence, just how much of my creative, mental, or even moral development--happened as slowly made my way, through sun and rain and snow, past trees and poking my head into rain tunnels, both to and from school.

Matt said...

My younger brother's daughter (7 or so, I think) goes to a grade school where, when I was a kid, most people would have walked to it. (I used to ride my bike to it to play on it's neat playground equipment.) Now, many or most get rides, with increased traffic being the reason given. But most of the increased traffic is due to parents given kids rides. Sad.

In my current neighborhood, in Harlem, most kids walk to school, it seems. (Some might take the subway, but most seem to walk.) I see them, usually walking in small groups but sometimes alone, as I walk to the subway in the morning. The school is a neighborhood one, and it seems that the kids who go to it live near-by. In many ways the city is better for this sort of thing than are the suburbs these days, at least in dense cities.

Bob said...

Matt makes a good point about the traffic increase being due primarily to kids being driven by their parents.
There is also a huge tendency here to drive in a large 4x4 totally unsuited to our suburban area that presents greater danger to the kids and those of us who walk to work (to quote Bryan Ferry - 'I'm just a lucky guy' (one for Friday Russell?).

You also have to contend with bad parking that means huge traffic delays for those who just have to drive to their offices.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Bob and Matt, good points all. The big SUVs and 4x4s do make an already potentially dangerous situation worse. And most cities are much better equiped to sustain the choice of walking, at least if you can get into some of the "built-in" neighborhoods. That's another reason why we consider ourselves lucky (or wise, or whatever): rather than heading out to more distant suburbs, where the promise of isolation and big lawns means minimal sidewalks and no where to walk to on them even if they're there, we bought a home in a relatively stable old neighborhood that's hemmed in on all sides by streets with shops and schools. It's dense enough that some people do choose to walk--enough people, so far, to avoid the tipping problem some speak of, where you just can't slack off because the structuring society around you has eliminated it around you. (Case in point: the elementary school that gives up on cross-walk guards, because hardly anyone needs them anymore.)

Rob said...

I'm in a somewhat uncommon situation, being on the leading edge of Gen X demographic (born in '63) yet also being a parent to a Ge Z (just turned 3 this week) child. This seems to impart some rather stick-in-the-mud sensibilities to my wife & me that most of our peers who're younger don't understand.

We grew up in a time where there was one TV (with 3 channels) and one telephone in the house. We didn't have technological constraints holding us back or stealing our ability to reason. Instead, we had just the opposite: our bicycles were sheer, unadulterated freedom - liberty on 2 wheels.

Y'know, as parents strive to make their kids' lives 'better' and 'easier,' we're actually crippling them!

Walking to school - or wherever - serves another purpose that may be all the more important now that children seem to be perpetually plugged-in... It gives kids some input downtime. Time to process. Opportunity to mull what's been absorbed.

I've got another few years before this becomes a relevant matter for us, but we'd like for our son to walk to school. However, we do live on a very busy 4 lane street, so safety from that perspective is a legitimate concern. Maybe we can figure out how to walk him halfway to the elementary school that he'll attend (which is only about 4 blocks away). The heavily-trafficked street would be less an issue for a pre-teen, but I'm more than a little antsy about letting a small child navigate that solo.