Saturday, January 20, 2007

At 2:58, I pull into the school parking lot with two minutes until the dismissal bell rings, which means only one thing. I will wait in a long line to pick up my daughter.

Usually I make it a point not to arrive on school property until 3:10 at the earliest. By then, the teachers who supervise the organized chaos known as “pickup” are ambling back to their classrooms to clean up and call it quits.

When I arrive late, I never wait. When I’m on time, I sit in my van, trapped between sport utility vehicles and “crossovers,” fixing my glassy stare on the sidewalk in front of the school building, wondering why my children are nowhere to be seen.

Of course, because they know not to expect me before 3:10, they don’t rush out just to stand around getting cold and watching their friends ride away.

It’s a vicious cycle, to be sure, which reminds me to run late tomorrow.

But here I am today, behind said “crossover” (part SUV, part “please just don’t call it a station wagon”) where a DVD is playing on one of those fancy LCD screens hanging from the middle of the roof.

The movie on the player is “Cars,” the 2006 Disney/ Pixar animated hit. Every so often, I notice the hand or foot of a small passenger in the back seat, who presumably is mesmerized by the images on the screen.

I know I am.

I love the movie “Cars.” Not that I ever saw it, mind you, but I loved what it got me when it was released last year: two hours of peace and quiet while my four children went to the Cineplex together to see the film.

“Cars” has everything I look for in a family film — a G rating for general audiences, big stars lending their considerable talent for the entertainment of families, and an upbeat story with humor that reaches down to my 9-year-old and up to my high schoolers.

In fact, my children keep telling me I should see “Cars” because they all enjoyed it thoroughly; thus it has made my Netflix queue.

Conveniently, I’m watching the movie — albeit without sound — but even through my front windshield and the rear window of the car/movie theatre ahead of me, it’s captivating.

At last the pickup line moves, and I watch as eager elementary schoolers pile into the cars of their parents, grandparents and caregivers.

The “Cars” car must have a few children to pick up because one already has climbed into the back seat, but the mom isn’t inching out of the line to take off.

That’s when I see the sad part of this movie.

The child who has clamored into the vehicle — a boy of no more than 8 years old who has just spent seven hours away from his mother, presumably filling his brain with new information and experiences — opens his window to shout goodbye to a friend.

He is wearing headphones.

Huge, black, padded, “do not talk to me about my day” headphones.

The line starts moving, and I spot Amy heading toward me. Her small frame is overloaded with her backpack, lunchbox and the various homework assignments she carries in her hands — as opposed to putting them in her backpack.

I use the van’s sliding door button to let her in. She drops her stuff with a grunt, buckles up and says, “I had a great day.” And so our chat begins.

Amy tells me about recess (always the top item on her list), homework assignments, the science lab and how she taught her friend Sarah to use the word “tubular” instead of “awesome.”

I’m listening, but I’m also thinking about the boy with the headphones, driving home from school while watching “Cars.” I wonder what he did at recess, whether he has homework or if he did anything interesting in class.

Mostly, though, I’m wondering if his mom will find out.

I have learned that the most crucial minutes of the day with my children are the ones in which we reunite. For this very reason, when we purchased our current van, I declined the DVD package (and let me just say I was none too popular with my crew).

Buying the media package was the only way to get the navigation system, which I wanted, but I realized the temptation to pop in movies and cruise the streets of suburbia was too great. I bought a Rand McNally road atlas instead.

Also, my children aren’t exactly deprived of media on the go. We have personal DVD players and music devices with headphones, and we use them on long car trips as a way to keep the children from killing each other in the back seats, thereby annoying the adults upfront. (Even in those situations, we set limits. Who wants to spend a vacation with a media zombie?)

I know I can’t compete with characters such as Lightning McQueen of “Cars” when it comes to holding a child’s attention, and I know the silence I could buy has a price tag.

We all want a little peace and quiet now and then, and why not a fun film while driving around town to keep the kiddies occupied?

Then again, parenting is noisy business, and sometimes silence isn’t golden. It’s just silence.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth or send e-mail to marybeth.

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