A gathering tree, a strip of sidewalk, and a small retaining wall that can double as a bench border the parking lot at my sons’ elementary school. In the morning, this spot teems with children hopping off of bikes, emerging from cars, and loaded down with backpacks and lunch boxes. But each weekday afternoon, the spot transforms into a gathering space for parents. There are a few neighborhoods within easy walking distance of the school, so this corner of the school is transformed into a virtual oasis where moms (and a few dads) gather each day to wait for their kids.
The moms unconsciously form themselves into groups reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. There’s the Old School crowd: these moms have kids who are at least in third grade, and they know the school and each other well. They choose the prime “retaining wall” location and chat about teachers, schedules, soccer camps, childhood illnesses, and shopping. They compare notes on How Things Are Done this year vs. last year.
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Then there are the Moms with Young Kids. They stay closer to the playground or guard the grassy slope that leads down from the tree to the school’s walkways. They are less likely to know each other, so their interactions build gradually, making small talk as their kids pile leaves together and throw them into the air.
Finally, there are the Loners. Some are distracted by their phones, others look impatient or nervous, some are a stray grandparent or two babysitting for the afternoon. I wonder if they feel like they are missing out.
The first several times I waited at this oasis, I felt oddly nervous. I was reminded of the times when I entered a school as the new kid and wondered where I would sit at lunch, or who would play with me at recess. The familiar feeling of being the only person who doesn’t already know everyone else came back with a rush.
I smiled gently at the retaining-wall moms, but didn’t attempt to join them. Instead, I hovered near the gathering tree, watching my then-3-year-old explore the grounds. One day I started chatting with another mom whose daughter was in kindergarten with my son, and gradually, we became friends.
Two years later, I have other friends I look forward to seeing at the gathering tree, too. A friendly dog; a random conversation about homework or the weather; seeing someone with a book that looked interesting; all of these have served as conversation starters that I’ve used to test the waters, to find kindred spirits in the crowd. We chat; we bond; we try not to be too invasive or needy, which can happen when you stay at home all day and then finally come across another adult.
All along I wonder what becomes of these gathering tree friendships. Do the moms who chat during the elementary school years stick together in middle and high school, when they’re past the point of waiting outside for their children? Do they support each other during the rough teenage years? Or do they lose touch, only reconnecting when they run into each other at a football game or a concert, years later? Do their children become friends or rivals?
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I wonder the same thing about my children’s friendships, too. Will the child that my Kindergartner hugs every day after school be his best friend in high school? Or will they even remember each other? Will my older son’s Cub Scout buddies grow closer or farther apart when they move into middle school? Will they protect each other from bullies or will one of them become a bully?
Of course I can’t predict the course of these friendships any more than I could have predicted the course of my own friendships in childhood. But I do know that as long as this school is here, with its sidewalk, wall, and tree, parents will gather to collect their children, pausing to mingle while they wait. Friendships will form, then dissipate; children will play in the leaves one year and attend school the next. Fifth graders and their parents will move onto middle school and beyond.
New families will take their place, and the cycle will restart itself each August. The cast changes, but the play remains the same. And hopefully, in these moments, a few stay-at-home parents can make new friends and feel a little less alone.
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