September 16, 2019
Stumbling in the front door yesterday after 10 days away, we fell on the sofa and took a breath. Later that day, I rehashed the past week. We achieved our goal or, I should say, my goal of getting to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in northern Georgia. Then we spent a couple of peaceful days with Sandy and Glenn, old friends who live near Atlanta. We went to lunch with grandson Noah, our kindergartener, at his elementary school in Greer, S.C.
We accomplished all these concrete things, and a few others, pushing ourselves on towards whatever comes next in these senior years, which are up to us to fill. The medical stuff is a separate story. But I’ve learned not to waste time thinking and planning. I did that for years. The lesson: step out and do what you’ve talked about doing.
We actually visited the Springer Mountain parking area—the true start of the AT is a mile farther south. Through-hikers get dropped off near the trailhead and hike in; the parking area has a 14-day limit. We got there by pushing our rented compact on a nerve-wracking slog up a seven-mile-long, winding, unpaved Bureau of Land Management road that at times took us flush against a steep drop. The nearly hour-long teeth-rattling climb, and then the descent, had Sandy gripping her seat and gasping, me white-knuckling the wheel.
But we got out at the top and looked around. Check.
A couple of vehicles were parked there, but we saw no one. It was just us, a couple of old folks alone in the woods. The silence calmed us, offering the peace one finds in a Benedictine chapel, where one encounters the presence of the Lord. That peace, on a Georgia mountainside, eased the tensions of the storms we face.
I walked a short distance up the trail, following those unique white blazes that mark the full 2,100-mile-plus length of the AT from that place to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Is that next? Who knows?
At the kids’ home in Greer we entered their world then, at our daughter’s suggestion, ventured into an alien space: public elementary school for the kindergarten lunch break. I think I may have had lunch with our kids at school at some vague point in the distant past. Noah’s school, a mile from Marie’s and Mike’s neighborhood, is a happy, if highly structured institution of something like 700 kids and the requisite number of teachers, aides, administrators, other staff people. It struck me that the parking lot was nearly full. Did students also drive? I kept my bad joke to myself.
I enjoyed the cheerful sloganeering above the walkway to the front door: “Synergize!” “Be Proactive!” “Sharpen the Saw!” Sharpen the saw? Remembering this is elementary school, I had to ask about that one. It means be cheerful, have fun, I was told. To be admitted to the school we handed our licenses to an aide, who scanned them, printed nametags, and simultaneously checked our names against a sex-offender database. That wasn’t done when our kids were in school.
The walkway slogans also hung on signs from the ceiling of the cafeteria. We were a little late, the kindergarteners already were seated, crammed into long tables with their teachers. No talking is permitted for the first ten minutes of the 30-minute lunch period so the kids will eat their lunches. Then we chatted with Noah about his day. I looked around. The walls featured paintings of the new seven wonders—great wall of China, Christ the Redeemer, Taj Mahal, and so on.
The 30 minutes was suddenly over, we said goodbye, the kids lined up and filed out, making room for the first graders. “Eyes straight ahead,” an aide commanded as she marched them back to their classrooms.
It was a happy and enlightening half-hour. The school, no doubt like elementary schools everywhere, works hard on attitudes, judging by the signs: “Win-Win,” “Put First Things First,” “Begin with the End in Mind.” I guess that’s a good thing. Going back a very long way, I recall near-perpetual fear of the nuns at my parochial school; that was the depths of the Cold War, when we practiced air-raid drills. It was the same for Sandy. Our kids’ first schools, both Catholic and public, pushed a happier school experience. I guess it worked, to a point.
It was sobering though, to pick up Noah at the bus stop later. Parents have to meet their kindergarteners and show an identification card that matches a badge on their kids’ backpacks to retrieve them. No ID card, no student—if the adult doesn’t have the card the child isn’t allowed off the bus. No happy, tired piling off and heading for the playground. Horror stories about kidnappings have had a sad impact.
Schools have come a long way: sunny, cheerful, pushing positive thinking and, as with the license check when you visit and the ID check at the bus stop, responsive to the nightmares of modern life. This is America today. We seniors see some of it in the headlines and in the annoyance of airport security checks, but are mostly left alone. We’re baffled by urging to be “proactive,” and “synergize,” or I am, anyway.
People with impressive degrees are trying very hard to think up ways for the schools to protect, and meanwhile educate, the nation’s kids. It strikes me, though—why the stiff dose of happy think? Why are things like this? My grade school didn’t have signs hanging in the cafeteria. Just a giant crucifix. What did I miss? The nuns were strict and sometimes terrifying—but maybe we—and society—were a little less nervous, a little less paranoid, even with the air-raid drills. And we’re reasonably normal, I think.
I know I’m a grump about these things. I didn’t like my grade-school days. Lunch with Noah was fun. It did take us a long way from that other world, the sublime peace of the forest of Springer Mountain. But both convey meaning, and lessons about our lives. We’ll be back to visit them again, I hope.