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Today, I sent my son to middle school. Not only did I release my first born to the land of lockers, school dances, and PE uniforms, I literally sent him off: I said goodbye at the curb and watched him pedal off on his own.
What would have been a no-brainer a generation ago—an 11-year-old boy riding his bike less than 2 miles through a residential neighborhood to go to school—feels like a really big deal for today's parents. In 1969, almost half of all kindergartners through 8th graders rode their bikes to class. By 2009, only 13 percent did.
So when it was time for my big boy to try biking to school, I did not just leave him to his own devices in finding his way to a new campus. Last week, when the incoming students had two days of orientation (another thing we didn't have back in the day when we walked barefoot in the snow only to be shoved into a locker by upperclassmen), we mothers organized a group of kids to test out the route, and even rode with them to ensure they got there. It was Critical Mass for the middle school set. Some kids already had cell phones, and I planned to get one for my son.
Contrast this with my own childhood. From age 5, I walked by myself to the end of our long street and caught a school bus. In the afternoons, I got off at my appointed stop and walked through an empty field to my babysitter's house. By the time I reached 6th grade, I could not only ride my 10-speed to school and friends' houses, but I also knew how to purchase a pass for the city bus and find my way to the local mall. We had no phones with GPS in our pockets, just quarters to call home if needed.
But these aren't the 1980s. My children aren't familiar with the concept of running around the neighborhood or going alone to a neighbor's house. I walked them to elementary school, watched as they crossed busy intersections and waited outside the classroom doors at the end of the day. As did all the other parents. After all, Jaycee Dugard was 11 years old when she was abducted while walking home from school—and that was in the small town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. That might be a worst-case scenario, but I don't have to look that far to see more common examples of the dangers of tweens going to and fro by themselves. In my hometown of San Jose, there have been several recent incidences of pedestrians and bicyclists hit by cars. It's terrifying enough that part of me wants to chauffeur my kids around in the minivan until they go to college.
I waited for the sound of the backyard gate creaking open and the clickety-clack of my 6th grader's BMX bike.
Then I also remember the thrill of riding my bike to buy an ice cream bar at the corner store and the awkward flirting that takes place at the junior high bike rack away from the mothers honking from station wagons. And I want my son to be able to buy ice cream and flirt awkwardly; those things are as much a part of middle school as algebra and frog dissection.
So this morning, I sent my son off on his own two wheels. I watched as his friends came cruising down the street to meet him, my stomach dropping as one boy raced to beat a red light at the intersection. My mom eyes zoomed in on a man with a backpack following the cyclists. I recognized him as the father of one of the boys, trailing half a block behind and hiding behind a bus shelter so he wouldn't be seen.
This afternoon, I waited for the sound of the backyard gate creaking open and the clickety-clack of my 6th grader's BMX bike. But 45 minutes passed in torturous silence. The middle school was less than 2 miles away. There was no way it should take them this long to get home. I kicked myself for not giving my son a phone before his first day biking to school. Starting to panic, I texted some of the moms. One of the women offered to drive along the bike route. But before she could hop in her car, I received another text. Another mom had spotted the group biking down her street.
A few minutes later I heard the beautiful sound of bike tires skidding in the driveway. It turned out the boys had stayed after school to sign up for their lockers. So I guess this is my welcome to the new world of waiting for my kids to get home. It's easier in some ways, and much, much harder in other ways. But it's part of being a parent, isn't it?