Car Line Rules

Car line at my kids’ elementary school is like a slowly moving convoy of parked cars. It stalls and creeps forward on a two-lane road that widens only for a single, left turn lane. That lone turn lane happens to be where the crossing guard works his magic of shuttling distracted children safely across the street and intermittently blocking the progression of traffic. If you venture car line, which means you retrieve your child from school by car, you are both willing to exercise patience (as it takes on average 20 minutes to get through) and willing to be a part of a massive traffic blockade. Through-traffic that unwittingly chooses this wrong road at this wrong time of day gets stuck behind you. It has no clue that yours is an idle lane terminating in a slow parade of semi-parked cars swallowing up students whose age, backpacks and lunch sacks make them extremely inefficient at loading. For the through-traffic, it takes some time to figure out what’s happening, and by the time a motorist does, his only option is to use that single left turn lane as escape. No sooner has he committed to his escape route than the sentinel of the street, that safety-vested crossing guard, waves his resolute, red stop sign and blocks the car’s path to initiate yet another slow crossing of encumbered students, parents and gear. Every day I see the pattern repeat.

Today a minivan in the idle line was struggling, its driver determined to change this age-old legacy of logjam. This parent abandoned her car in line to talk to the car in front of her. After pulling my own car in behind hers, I realized hers was unmanned and started the process of getting out from behind her. While doing that, the driver of the van returned to her car. She wasn’t happy that I was pulling in front of her and honked her horn wildly. Apparently she had been making a point to do this to every car that passed her. She got out of her car again, and this time heavy-footed it to my window and scolded me for blocking the bus ramp and pulling ahead of her in line. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t actually blocking the bus ramp or that her car was empty when I passed it. What mattered is that, to her, everyone in this messed up car line was participating in a corporate disregard of the rules. In her mind, everyone ignored the bus ramp in a line-idling hypnosis and blocked the path for buses to enter and exit. If she attempted to honor the rules and keep the bus ramp entrance and exit clear, she was routinely passed; and the cars that passed her took up position in line ahead of her. She was a lone minivan mom on a crusade.

I totally get her. I feel a similar regard for the rules. I hate it when someone blocks the bus ramp and refuses to move to let a bus exit. I also have stopped short of the bus ramp to keep the exit clear only to be passed by other cars. And I too have experienced the frustration of this seeming conspiracy to block buses and finagle a better position in line. It’s just that I’ve been doing car line now for 9 years, and though I know it could move quicker and buses could exit at will if everyone showed a bit more deference to the “rules,” I also know that it will always be slow and inefficient. Car line takes 20 minutes and always has. Buses get blocked from exiting and always have. Cars jump ahead of cars in line. Cars unwittingly get stuck in line and unexpectedly escape the line. And regardless, car line takes 20 minutes. The difference between this frustrated parent and me is that she honked her horn and got out of her car.

I can’t help but observe her frustration with pity, pity for her but also for me. I’d like to think that I am the enlightened one of the two, that it is she sadly engaging a battle she’ll never win, trapped in a rules-based ethical system that makes her life more difficult than it has to be. I imagine her driving home, once she retrieves her student, and struggling to talk herself down from an angry, frazzled emotional ledge. I imagine her body suffering the stress-induced aging of a few molecules, molecules that could have had more of a chance had she resisted this campaign to change an institution. But how often have I been on that ledge too? While I lose little sleep or molecules over my car line wait these days, there are plenty of other situations in my life when I rage against what seems to be a derailed system in disregard of the rules. Rule keepers are funny that way.  We like that we keep the rules and balk at those who disregard them. It makes us better. The problem is that the goal of car line is not to move cars and buses quickly and efficiently. The purpose of car line is to safely transfer elementary students from the care of the school to the care of the parent. When I get frustrated that no one else seems to care about the rules, I miss the goal and object of this whole logjam after all, the idea that makes the 20 minutes of exercised patience worth it: the two little students waiting for me at the end of the line. I miss that the safe transfer of those students to my car is more important than persuading independent and distracted people to follow the rules of car line.

Car line mimics life. We get irked at the behavior of other people, especially when that behavior causes us inconvenience. We wonder why no one else seems to respect the rules anymore. We take up crusades to persuade others to follow the rules so we can all get in and out of here efficiently and with our sanity intact. In doing so, however, we miss the point: that the important things are the precious human lives at the end of the line, waiting for someone to transfer them safely home. As followers of Christ, making sure people follow the rules isn’t nearly as important as the goal: loving others and helping them home.