I’d like to think that I’m not a coward, but the school run fills me with dread.
Perhaps I’m overstating my reaction, sometimes it’s just mild trepidation with a smattering of frustration. Or general indifference with a dash of bemusement. I think it’s a matter of timing, and perhaps also literally dependent on which way the wind blows.
You see, for the most part, it’s running the gauntlet of appropriate social etiquette that leaves me sweaty-palmed. Inclement weather (like the aforementioned high winds) solves a lot of those problems.
In any case, it’s always a relief when it’s over, be it getting out of bad weather or dodging a gang of mean mums hanging around at the school gate.
For context, I live in a fairly typical English village with my wife and two daughters of junior school age. The walk from our side of the village along the main road to the small academy is not unpleasant or long, and our fellow villagers and parents are all very nice people.
The irony is not lost on me that this idyllic-sounding setup was one of the reasons we moved to the countryside in the first place. For our young children, traversing the village has been infinitely preferable to the austere, miserable alleyways and pavements of the town we left behind when they were infants.
But, if I’m honest, I quite liked the undemanding social simplicity of walking along suburban streets. The rules were simple: keep walking and don’t make eye contact. Pretend no one else exists. No one cares, no one will take offence, and you’re unlikely to see them again anyway (unless it’s one of your immediate neighbours, then Standard Neighbour Protocols apply).
But none of that works in villages. The social etiquette for walking around outside is a consequence-riddled nightmare, and nowhere is this more evident than on the school run.
The problem is that when you encounter a fellow villager, not only is it the norm to politely acknowledge their existence, but also to engage in a meaningful, if insipid, exchange of pleasantries. Sometimes this might even result in a cessation of walking in favour of continued conversation.
This is all well and good if you’re a slow-moving pensioner with nowhere else to be and a craving for human contact, but I have to deal with other humans all day at work as well as cohabitate with some at home. When my brain registers that I’m out walking, it expects solitude and time to ruminate. Other humans are a complication.
Of course, I’m not a monster. I’ve adapted to my new environment and am more than capable of a nod and a smile and the occasional quip. I have a perfectly acceptable passing relationship with an elderly couple I often see around the village. They are also a feature on the school run and are such a reliably punctual presence that the point at which we pass each other is a good indicator of how late I’m running.
Other parents travelling in the same direction aren’t a problem either – they’re either behind me and I can’t see them, or in front of me and they can’t see me. And I can change my pace to keep it that way. It’s also worth noting that this formation flying early on in the journey is often quite Dad-heavy. I suspect this isn’t an accident.
As previously mentioned, we’re often cutting it close before the school gate is closed. As much as I’d like to blame this poor timekeeping on the cute engine of chaos that is my 5-year-old daughter, it’s also a tactical choice; get to the school before the classrooms are open and I’ll be doomed to loiter in the playground among the gaggles of chattering mums who are far, far better at this than I am.
So, in order to avoid that particular hell, tactical tardiness is the key for a perfectly-timed drive-by drop-off.
The problem that this creates is that all the mums have already delivered their little darlings and are heading out of the gate and down the street en-masse like a horde of TIE-fighters scrambled to intercept the inbound Dad squadron of X-Wings (point of order: I’m probably more of a Y-Wing to be honest, but I feel I’m losing my audience with this kind of detail).
The pavement is narrow, the approaching mum army is countless. There is no choice but to press on. Do I make eye contact? Which ones should I greet? Just those who acknowledge me? What about the odd Dad who’s tragically mistimed drop-off has probably left him traumatised by the playground wait? It’s a thirty second horror show of countless social faux pas which leaves me feeling offended, guilty, ashamed and relieved all at once.
And it’s not close to over.
A curt acknowledgement to that waiting headmistress and/or subordinate staff overseeing the deployment of children to their appropriate entrances, a quick kiss and hug with the offspring, then engage exit strategy.
But the Mums walk. Really. Slowly.
Inevitably I’ll find myself at the back of the queue forming to exit the school gate which is an inexplicably narrow pedestrian bottleneck made worse by the unspoken agreement to give priority to the infuriating incoming late arrivals (which was me two minutes earlier; my hypocrisy knows no bounds). Fortunately, the narrow passageway works to my advantage, meaning that all exiting parents stand single file and conversation is easily avoided.
But what really makes my blood boil is the blockade of parents who decide that this already poorly designed thoroughfare would be the ideal place for stopping to conduct a post-drop-off chinwag (see early rules for passing villager etiquette). In my opinion, this is just selfish and impractical, but I am acutely aware I’ve probably already been pushing my luck with my strategic scowling and any further negative vibes would probably get me arrested, or worse, torn to shreds by a verbal assault from an indignant Mumsnet massive.
Eventually, I break free of the TIE-mum swarm and try to suppress the urge to run. I cross the road to the side where the pedestrian traffic is minimal and make good my escape. If I’m lucky, the walk home will be somewhat closer to the tranquil countryside stroll I’d been naively expecting. I try not to think about the fact I will see all these people again on the next school run.
On reflection, I accept that I’ve probably over-analysed these encounters a tad, and that my social anxieties are tempered by the knowledge that the majority of the parent-villagers I encounter have given this a lot less thought than I have.
I have nothing to fear.
Well, aside from the risk of becoming one of those gaunt-eyed Dads who have experienced playground purgatory too many times and have been reduced to shambling, zombie-like, alongside their wife-carer as they collect their younglings together.
Or even worse, there is the possibility of becoming socially accepted like some kind of well-rounded, chameleonic Dad-woman, entirely capable of normal social responses and comfortably in touch with their feminine side while living in a rural utopia. Shudder.
But probably not if any of them read this.