T is in Junior Kindergarten, where the class are released a few minutes before the bell so parents can collect them and still make it round to the Grade school entrance in time to meet the older kids as they come bounding out.
The current discord between teachers and the government in Ontario means that all extra-curricular/after-school activities are suspended; teaching staff now leave the school within about fifteen minutes of class ending to comply with union guidelines. Any Kindergarteners still awaiting pick-up after five or ten minutes are taken across the hall to wait in the school office.
T has found himself there a couple of times now, thanks to his younger sister’s recent refusal to move at a speed greater than a shambolic amble on the walk to school. Oddly, this doesn’t apply to the walk home, but that’s a whole other subject. A quick confirmatory glance into a deserted Kindergarten yard, and S and I veer left to the main entrance where a large window in the vestibule reveals the administration desk, a row of chairs facing it and one or two desultory five-year-olds, the ferocity of their scowls matched only by their vigorous leg-swinging.
As we walk back out of the wide double-doors T berates me for my poor timekeeping and my mind goes back to the days when my father was supposed to be collecting my sister and I from school. I smile to myself at how lucky he is; I know all about waiting…
I surged carefree and oblivious out of the school gate, insulated by the crush of bodies, inane chatter and the effervescent happiness of sudden freedom. One by one, kids peeled off towards the car-caterpillar that lined the curb opposite, metal glinting in the sunshine, mystery occupants screened by reflections and tinted glass. Others set off on foot or bike for nearby homes, tossing nonchalant goodbyes over their shoulders. After a moment or two my younger sister joined me – we stood side-by-side, backs against the wall, barking occasional farewells as the flow slowed to a trickle.
Gradually the cars melted away, leaving the stubby garden walls of the terraced houses opposite oddly naked. Rust flaked soundlessly from front gates, dust settled and, in the subsequent quiet, we were suddenly aware of the silent watching windows and spaciousness of the road. The more time passed, the more acutely we felt our incongruity, typical 10-13 year-olds we dreaded becoming a subject of curiosity.
The sun sank lower in the sky and the school gate swung shut from the inside; the sound of bolts shot home confirmed no one else would be throwing us questioning glances – the risk of public humiliation had passed. Further down the pavement from where we leaned against the six-foot wall, the last cars exited the staff car park and the heavy double-gate was closed there too. Fortified, the school sank into solitude behind its ramparts as night closed in.
Dusk turned to darkness and we pulled our coats more tightly around us against the growing cold. Traffic had thickened to a steady rush-hour flow and we scanned the endless stream of headlights for a Peugeot. Experts in our field, we could guess most makes from the shape of their headlights. This was by no means an isolated incident, being collected by our father often meant either a long wait by the roadside until he turned up, or a long wait in the car while he ducked into the office for an hour or two, sometimes both. Pick-up by our mother was infinitely preferable.
We moved a little further down the road to where the school wall ended and a lower one marked the boundary of the next-door churchyard. Tired, we sat for a while, grumbling about our situation. We had no money and in those days only yuppies carried mobile phones – but who were we kidding? We had no one we could call anyway. To assuage our sense of impotence we imagined hailing a cab, coolly directing the driver to our parents for payment once we reached home. But we both knew that would never happen. We’d never even sat in a taxi, much less commissioned one, and the potential violent punishment for such an act of defiance made sure it remained in the realms of fantasy.
We stood, huddled on the narrow pavement, two immature outlines silhouetted in the darkness by the glare of oncoming headlights. My father would arrive when he remembered us, all we could do was wait.