Walking to School

This past Wednesday was Walk to School Day. I helped a pass out stickers and fruit roll-ups to Emerson students walking to school. The small town where I grew up is far from urban Los Angeles, but as kids passed by with their friends, I doubt their walks are all that different than the ones Robin, Bianca, and I took most days to school. Those walks were a block of time without adult supervision so we walked slowly toward Pilot Butte or away from its shadow discussing our day, our plans, our fears and dreams. On those walks my friends and I grew closer, or we tested the limits of our bonds and I imagine the same thing happens with my students as they make their way to and from school each day. Here’s an excerpt from Overdue Apologies: a Middle School Memoir, about those long-ago walks.


Every morning in the house on Jones Road we execute a carefully choreographed dance. Dad starts a fire in the woodstove, and Mom turns on the heater to take the chill off the rooms upstairs. Dad showers and leaves for work before the rest of us race through the shower. Mom makes breakfast and packs lunches. We scarf down pancakes, waffles, or cold cereal. Chet and Laura eat first, and then Mitch and me. We move near one another, through the kitchen, and around the breakfast table. It's a silent dance except for Morning Edition playing on the radio. We brush teeth, and then Chet and Laura rush out to the old Datsun 210 and drive to Mountain View. Mitch and I walk up to Pilot Butte, but not together.
Mornings in Bend are always cold. Even when the sky is clear, the sun's rays can't penetrate the cold of the high desert. In fall, yellow, brown, and red leaves litter the ground and the first snow paints the Cascades a gleaming white. Soon ice will form a slick crust along the roads. Every morning, I leave the quiet chaos of home and wait along the side of Jones Road to walk to school with Robin Crank.
Robin lives across the street with her new-age-mom, step-dad, and two sisters. Her mom buys organic chips and natural sodas. A couple summers ago Robin and I played makeovers with her Fresh 'N Fancy makeup kit, and when I came home wearing pink blush and blue eye shadow Laura said I looked like a clown. Robin has a tetherball pole in her backyard and an indoor pool where we play Marco Polo and Sharks and Minnows. Robin's older sister, Heather, is nothing like Laura. Heather wears thick black eyeliner and lipstick. She's into music and film. Laura never wears make-up, and she's into sports. Robin and I have way more in common than our older sisters, but since we went to different elementary schools we've never become close.
Once I start Pilot Butte though, I see another side of Robin. At school she is popular. She's tall and has an asymmetrical haircut streaked from the summer sun. She wears braces and so many cool clothes that she can go three or four weeks without repeating an outfit. Her best friend is Bianca Weston. Bianca and Robin went to Juniper Elementary together. Bianca is skinny with straight light brown hair. She lives in a huge house on Revere. Bianca has great clothes too and she doesn't repeat outfits forever. Kim Mitchell is their other friend. She went to Buckingham, and she's tiny (even shorter than me). She has shoulder length, wavy blonde hair, and she's a spaz.
I don't know how everyone knows in the first week of school, but already Robin, Bianca, and Kim are popular. Maybe it's the clothes and jewelry that only kids with money can afford, or where their dads work, or the size of their houses. I don't know exactly what it is, but the differences between the popular girls and the rest of us are clear.
Popular girls have Polo shirts, Guess jeans, Swatch watches, Trapper Keepers, rubber jelly bracelets, and Lip Smackers. Popular girls have a different attitude. They smile and laugh as they walk through the sixth grade hall. At lunch, they sit with the cool boys and ignore the rest of us. They are in the best class with teachers who are young and cool.
Not-so-popular girls have Levis, hand-me down t-shirts, bare arms, plain blue three ring binders, and chapped lips. We walk nervously through the halls to our lockers. We grab brown bag lunches and sit with girls from lame teachers' classes.
Still, Robin waits for me every morning for the walk to school. Even though my family isn't rich, even though I don't wear exactly the right things or carry the right supplies, I think maybe, just maybe, I could be popular too.

As Robin and I walk down Jones Road, we leave behind the girls we are with our families and head toward the girls we are on our own. Clouds of breath appear and disappear before us as we talk about school, teachers, and mutual friends. Half way down the hill on Revere we stop at the two-story house with a circular driveway and a broad front porch.
Bianca's mom answers the door in her bathrobe. "Morning girls," she says sleepily as she lets us into the warm entry hall. The Weston's house always looks and smells clean. "Bink! Your friends are here," Mrs. Weston yells up the stairway. "Hurry up!" Then Mrs. Weston turns to us.
"Cute sweater, Robin."
Robin and I look around the entry hall and wait.
"Sorry, guys," Bianca yells. "I'm almost ready."
"Your nails look nice," Mrs. Weston says holding my cold palm in her warm hand. She studies my fingers and the pale pink polish. "Where did you get them done?"
I've never had a manicure. "I did them myself," I say quietly, worried that doing your own nails isn't very cool.
"I wish I had the patience to do mine," Mrs. Weston says examining her French manicure and the red polish on her toes.
My mom files but never paints her nails.
Bianca rushes down the stairs, a messenger bag flung over her navy pea coat. Mrs. Weston looks her daughter up and down. "Your shoes don't match, Bink."
"Mom, they're fine. We're going to be late."  
Sometimes Bianca makes it out the door, sometimes she sprints back upstairs to change. I walk with Robin and Bianca, the two most popular girls, up the path by the irrigation ditch toward school. We take our time, walk slowly, and I start to understand: If I want to be popular I have to be patient. It's totally not cool to want to be cool. I have to watch for a pattern and figure out what it takes to be popular.

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