Over the years, standing in line has apparently held me in good stead, professionally. I once paid for Bruce Springsteen tickets by writing an article for the Athens, GA weekly paper about waiting line for Bruce Springsteen tickets (article headline: Born to Stand in Line). The essay I published a few years back in Brain, Child about waiting in line before preview night at one of intown Atlanta’s most (in)famous consignment sales might be one of the more widely-read pieces of writing I’ve done.
Given all that, how could I resist saying something about the sight I walked past this morning? A row of family-type cars parked nose-to-tail along the curb in front of the neighborhood elementary school, hatchbacks tilted up to meet the dawn, minivan doors slid back to reveal welters of sleeping bags and water bottles and fast food wrappers? And on the sidewalk, a gathering of unshowered, tousle-headed parents (mostly dads) that eloquently expressed the middle-aged need for coffee?
Oh, the blessed ignorance of the childless! Once upon a time, back when I was in that state, the fact that the Georgia lottery funded preschool meant less than nothing to me. My head was full of weighty matters (which convenience store sold the cheapest cigarettes; what restaurant served brunch at 4 p.m. in the afternoon). I didn’t even know the difference between daycare and preschool. I didn’t even know what preschool was, for God’s sake. I myself had gone to a single year of nursery school before kindergarten back in those dark late-sixties days when parents still occasionally spanked their kids and said “NO, STOP IT!” rather than “That’s not okay.”
But I would say that the three topics most engrossing for groups of intown Atlanta parents who don’t know each other all that well might be, as follows:
- Intown real estate: how much it costs, who’s selling it, who’s buying it, and whether the restaurant in the ground floor of the latest loft, “green-living” or “live/work” development is child friendly.
- Sleep: the parents’ lack of it, their children’s ability to go without it.
- Preschools —where to send kids, why to send kids, and, most importantly, how one might to get into a state-funded preschool program the year before kindergarten.
Why might this be important? Well…because, thanks to the lottery, it’s free? Well… because, if you’ve got an older child already attending elementary school, it would add years to your life if you only had to orchestrate one drop-off and pick-up a day? Because, to paraphrase the sentiment from Field of Dreams, the state of Georgia built it, so you might as well come?
I haven’t ever had a dog in the state-funded preschool hunt (elder girleen didn’t go, and younger girleen isn’t at the age for it), but you can’t live in intown Atlanta and not be aware of it. When Elder Girleen was a baby, I remember a new friend mentioning that she’d gotten up at 4 in the morning to stand in line to sign her older son up for pre-k (as that year before kindergarten gets called) at the school a block away. That was six years ago: this year the line began to form at that particular elementary school four days in advance of pre-k registration. And that’s not even a record. Last year the line started two days even earlier than that. That’s six nights, folks, of sleeping in your car. Rumor is that this year a group of parents at that school has rented an RV for the duration.
All that happens north of Interstate 20. South of that divide, in the part of Atlanta some people still consider the wrong side of the tracks, there was no pre-k line until last year. Last year, it formed the night before. This year, two nights before. At the rate we’re going, nobody’s gonna be able to call this the wrong side of the tracks much longer.
As I type this, parents stand in front of the elementary school in our neighborhood, marking time. 22 hours to go. Good Lord — I only waited for Springsteen tickets overnight! The Dylan line in Austin in 1990 was aided by a six-pack and flirtation. At least somebody brought a guitar!
Rumor is that next year Atlanta Public Schools may finally distribute spaces in the state-funded pre-k program through a lottery. Will that be fairer? More sane? Yes. Nobody will miss the line. But a part of intown Atlanta parenthood that has become more folkloric than any other will be gone. I doff my hat to local color.