After 13 years of near daily walks to our elementary school, it has finally happened. We are no longer part of the TCES community; we have “aged out.”
It started in 2003, when my oldest began kindergarten. My youngest was still inside me; he had a few more months to bake. Save for those early postpartum winter weeks after my youngest was born, and about 30 days to use Kiss & Ride on “weathery days” I walked my kids every day to and from school.
The path to school is gorgeous.
It was perfect to quiet the mind and give the body just a little jump start to the day. Often it was leisurely and we did see all the things in the images above. I am not a huge believer in stressing out being late to elementary school. What do we miss? Perfect attendance? Or the little TV show they broadcast each morning which announced the cafeteria menu, the weather outside, TC birthdays, and anything else of note … but … please. All of my kids say no one ever listens to that broadcast. I could often be overheard saying to the boys, “It’s not Harvard. We have time. Look around the path… look around this place…” And we would.
Once the final baby came along, so came the daily use of the double stroller, that godsend and albatross. I remember grabbing the leash of our faithful golden, Maggie, wrapping it round the handle of the stroller and pushing off for school as she would keep perfect pace with me, never wavering from her parade. My middle son who is my mirror, often made the experience more melodious than many people were likely ready for so early in the morning. Because he wasn’t a student there yet, he saw little need in going to school to drop off Big Brother. We disagreed daily.
We had a song for him,
Oh I won’t ride my stroller to school
I told my mommy I’d walk
But now my mommy won’t pick me up
So I’m gonna screech like a hawk.
More often than not, we were just on time.
Our first year at the school, around winter break, it was struck by a Norovirus outbreak. Norovirus is a vomiting illness. I was walking home the first morning back from break and a TV crew was outside on the main road leading to my house. A well-known female roving reporter, Gail Pennybacher, asked me if she could interview me. With her cameras. I was a new public school mom, recently postpartum with Thing 3, and she wanted to talk to me about the outbreak.
“Are you a parent at the school over that way?” she asked, pointing to TC which you could see now the the trees were bare.
“Yes… what’s this about?” I asked, I’m sure.
She talked about her intentions.
I had no clue about the outbreak. It was over. I guess there was some form of communication from the school before it opened after winter break but I was barely functioning.
I noticed that the disgusting low-pile industrial carpeting was replaced by shiny linoleum tiles, but that was all I knew. Gail told me about the outbreak and asked me if she could film my then-kindergartener son and me washing his hands. I said yes, immediately followed by the caveat that my student son wasn’t home and that I had to put my kids down for a nap. It being a Monday, a half-day back then, I assured her he would be home in three hours.
But I felt weird, as though I was betraying the school. Being a new mom and knowing NOTHING about FCPS and Terra Centre from a parent standpoint (plus people can be assholes), I didn’t want to make enemies over there. During the meantime, I reached out to the principal to let her know that the news crews were stalking the neighborhood.
That was my first interaction with that principal. She called me back and asked me for intel. She said I sounded like I was someone who was media savvy. She was gooood. I said I had worked in PR and was a freelance writer. She said I would be helpful to her. She prowled up to her saucer, got down on her haunches and wrapped her tail around her hips, slowly lapping. “Tell me more…” she said. I told her about me, and then she asked me how to handle the news crew.
That night, the news was on and I saw our segment. My jaw hit the floor when I watched that woman OWN that reporter. She played me. I was so naive. Over the remaining nine years, she and I barely spoke. Outside of the Carter administration, I considered her one of the least effective leaders I’d ever witnessed. I learned over the years that parents had tried unsuccessfully to oust her at least twice before we got there.
I made friends through Terra Centre. Some I still know, others have faded away or moved away. But while I have faded some, I have not moved, which is an oddity here, in one of many communities referred to as the Pentagon’s bedroom.
Most families who roost here are military or somehow entwined with the federal government in public service, civil service or as a contractor.
Once again, my team is an anomaly of two anomalies. I do not hail from a government family, nor does my husband. His family, I think a third-generation Washingtonian tribe, was in private business and my family was in journalism. I feel confident saying there are not many of us around here, those who’ve been here consistently as long as we have.
We moved into this house in 2000. I met this home when it was under contract.
“It’s under contract and it’s higher than your range. Forget it,” Barb, my ever-enthusiastic realtor said.
“I don’t care. I have to see it. Get me in there.” I said.
Barb used her keypad and we were in. I felt dirty, as though I had to whisper everything I said and thought. It was like breaking into a bank vault.
The house wasn’t well-appointed, but it had my requirements: a fenced flat backyard and a basement. It also had other things I didn’t know I had to have: hardwood floors, a playroom, a main floor bedroom with full bath. It didn’t have what I really wanted: a garage, but I’ve found over the years that those just get stuffed with crap no one uses.
“It’s under contract. You can’t be here…” a little woman whisper-shouted in broken English from the top of the stairs. I remember her to this day: graying hair in a bun, half glasses perched on her nose. A floral quilted housecoat. She thought she was protected by the UNDER CONTRACT sign on the post outside her house.
“I understand. I had to see it. I’m compelled to be here. I have a son, he’s 2 and I’ve got another one on the way,” I said, patting my newly swelling belly with the same hand holding my toddler’s wet sticky palm. He flashed his enormous green eyes, long lashes and deep dimples at her.
Her shoulders softened. Her voice warmed and she descended the stairs to just three from the main floor. She was Filipina.
“My name is Corazon,” she said.
“That means ‘heart?’ I said back, smiling. We nodded.
“If the contract falls through,” I said, “Please call my realtor. She’s leaving her card. Please. I need to be here.”
Corazon gestured to the kitchen and said, “the yard … for him.”
For them, I thought to myself. Peering through the windows, I agreed, “it’s lovely.”
“Shade,” she said.
I continued out the kitchen door on to the “deckette” to look at the flat fenced back yard, feeling a little breeze and cooler air than the front. We were nestled beneath a canopy of Oaks, Dogwoods and Sugar Maples. I tried to keep my composure. I needed to be in this house.
It was August. We were still in our bright and airy seven-year-old townhouse. Well, sort of.
Y’see, we don’t have much luck with real estate endeavors. Long story short, our first buyer was under-qualified. I knew it when I saw him cross the threshold late during our open house. When you’re pregnant, you don’t ignore your gut. They wanted to close within 30 days. They were hot to trot. We hadn’t found a house yet. So we got cooking.
Most of the houses around here don’t last long on the market, but it was a weird time. The ones that lingered were absolutely horrendous, smelly, dark and dreary as though the people in them were having to leave against their will. “Aren’t these people motivated to sell?” I would ask my agent, shaking my head and feeling lost every time we unlocked a door.
After living here, in Burke, for almost 16 years though, I get it. People DON’T want to leave here.
Eventually our townhouse sold. It might’ve even been larger than the house we’re in now. My husband likes to think so. I heartily disagree. Doesn’t matter. The first buyers of each house fell through. Our buyer was a cabbie. I knew it was him and he was a cabbie when I saw him drive by in his work vehicle and slow down in front of the house, indicating to his riders (I think his mother and wife or sister) that this was going to be their new home.
My stomach fell out of my body, My vision honed and I got prickly all over my skin witnessing his gestures and sitting there in front of my house under the hot sun. There was no way they had the money. I panicked. I called my husband, he was certain I was wrong. I called our agent, she was telling me I was pregnanty-nervous. She used to be a nurse. I’m really glad she got out of that gig, she had no empathy skills. She listed “weight lifting” as one of her hobbies.
I knew it would fall through. It did. It fell through likely about two weeks after our contract on this house was accepted. The good news is that I wasn’t nuts and pregnanty-nervous. I pointed at my husband and chided my agent. The bad news is that we were effed.
The first buyers of this house walked on the contract because of a Radon issue. Two days after we dropped our card for Corazon, they walked. Her agent called my agent at night. My agent called me. The next morning we went to put an offer on the house contingent with Radon remediation, which she had a contractor there installing that afternoon. My husband hadn’t seen the house until we wrote on it.
Our agent was all “this school and that school… and oooh and shopping and oooh metro… and banks and conveniences…” and I was all, back yard. Shade. School? What do I know of schools… It turns out we landed in a really good school district.
I remember when my husband first stepped on to the tiny deck, “Land!” he said. It’s not a lot, but it’s ours. The kitchen is modest. When my children were very busy and smaller, it was manageable. We did finger painting and conducted general mayhem in the kitchen. Now that they’ve grown, it’s a little tight a lot of the time, even after our renovation. They “eat” (it’s more of inhaling and grunting) at the breakfast bar. We don’t have as many family dinners as we used to. I have two man-childs and another one, the one who just left elementary school, burgeoning. Soon though, the biggest man-child will be off to college so it will be less man-childs.
I’m not sure I’m ready for that either. It feels like it’s all happening so fast.
Terra Centre used to be underground. Well, not really underground, like sub-level, but it was covered in grass. We used to call it the EduCave. But it’s been renovated and that renovation came with a new principal who is leaving…. TC teachers are strong, many of them have been there for at least 10 years and despite the administration being yet again in flux, I have very few reservations about TC’s promise. The class sizes rarely hit above 28 because our neighborhood is 30+ years old; all gross residential development is over. It’s a good school. It’s so good that it’s hard as heck to find a house in this ‘hood.
The other day a realtor came to talk to me about the house next door to me that sold in 4 hours. I had met her clients when I was staring down my sprinkler. They asked me questions about drainage and the walk to the school. They didn’t win the bidding war and the husband was in tears. They loved the house. They loved me too.
The walk to Terra Centre, for me, was part of my routine too. It is 1/3 a mile door to door. Going there and back twice a day ensured I saw other people. It meant exercise, community, sisterhood. I volunteered at the school to assist the teachers, absolutely, and to help the children, no doubt. But I also volunteered to improve my life. To not feel like a failure for not having a job, and for not sitting on my ass eating bon-bons.
I’m not a nostalgist in the least. I’m a “GSD” (Get Shit Done) person. But I am sort of taking my time here. I think that makes people nervous: when someone like me, who’s normally driven, Type A and a go-getter, decides to sit, feel and write and emote… it can be off-putting. Luckily for me, my boys know how I value feeling the feelings so we can process them and get through them. They know I’m not going to run off to the basement with a bottle of vodka and deny myself into oblivion.
The fact of all of this is that I’m a little blue. I feel like I’m losing a part of myself. And I guess I am. Will I get over it? No, I will get through it. I don’t want to “get over” anything; I want to process things.
Undoubtedly, people tell me to think of the happy memories. That change is good! That I should remember to concentrate on the tremendous growth the boys have achieved. It’s hard to witness it all, frankly. There was a time when I felt that their growth meant I stagnated, but I see it now, we’ve all grown.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: EVERYTHING and EVERYONE we encounter is our teacher. Sometimes they are teachers reminding us to hold our ground, and other times, they are teachers telling us to get our shit together. Terra Centre taught me about service, friendship, neighbors, boundaries, and duty.
I remember early in my volunteering that it had occurred to me that I wasn’t much of a volunteer. I sort of got down on myself a little about that. I grew up in a largely narcissistic environment, so I was conditioned to deal with and for myself because, well, that’s how a kid survived narcissists. You had to be a narcissist… When in Rome…
But I also gave myself a pause. How do we change? By changing. So it was at Terra Centre. It was the first time I was a mom of a student somewhere. At the preschools, they’re all about getting moms out of their houses and out with others: shopping, doctor appointments, taking care of themselves. They are purposely short days 3-4 hours apiece so the kids don’t get antsy and the moms can maybe get a nap.
I was nudged by a neighbor to volunteer at Fun Fairs (think mini carnival populated by drunken toddlers). She is a child of service members and married to one. I learned that Fun Fair isn’t my jam. So she suggested a dance. Tried it. NFW. Movie night. Nope. I realized eventually, while jumping through the proposed hoops, serving on the PTA, presiding over the PTA and other involvement that I’m more about GSD than telling kids to stop running or to “put that down” and getting other parents to see me as a performer.
While I’m an extrovert, when it comes to getting shit done, I’m a silent partner. I bought a tiger suit for the school mascot. Either they hadn’t had one in a decade or they never had one (since the present principal at the time arrived). So I bought one and the PTA paid me back. I’ll never forget the first day I wore it. It was after school. The Friday before Columbus Day in 2008 and a young teacher was walking the halls and I was in the tiger suit. She screamed and JUST ABOUT passed out. She almost fell down running away. She left the school after that year. I want to say TC Tiger had nothing to do with it but … phobias be powerful… The story is that got engaged and moved to Ohio…
I had no idea she actually had “masklophobia”: a real phobia of people in costumes / mascot suits. She told me about it later. She wasn’t around to see me when I took the tiger head off my head and said “It’s OK! It’s ME! It’s Molly!”
I wore that suit for school events for little over a school year. It didn’t fit me. I looked like a malnourished fake tiger. “TC Tiger” was the mascot name and the kids simply could not get enough of TC Tiger. I was ready to pass the baton despite my obsession to make sure TC Tiger was well-handled: you can’t see less than 4 feet in front of yourself in a mascot suit and so accidentally mowing down a kid is entirely too possible.
The funny thing about being inside that suit is that you’re smiling but people can’t see you. So when tiny children run away traumatized but you’re in there cooing and making “It’s OK Toodles, it’s just me, Molly,” faces, they can’t see that. All they can see is a giant head, fangs and a stupid smile and huge hands trying to hug (NOT GASH) them.
The principal at the time wasn’t too thrilled with the PTA being so “school spirit-y” she felt that was her job. Sitting in her office, hiding most of the day, biding her time until retirement. She was lukewarm to TC Tiger. Or maybe it was me she was lukewarm to. It was most likely me… By this point, I think all three of my kids were in the school and she and I had cooled from that first encounter when she gaslighted me after Norovirus. Often she was content letting the school be “cleaned” by employees who’d rather be hanging out smoking at Starbucks across the street… Truth. We had issues with that. Hence, the Norovirus.
I learned that exercising my talents: writing, public relations, empathy, awareness of our connection to others, art, rallying for a cause to benefit all, enthusiasm for other people, their right to live on Earth and their promise, is really what works for others and what makes me hum. Doing all the volunteer stuff I was talked into doing didn’t further anythig of any value, for me or them. I learned to advocate and get the attention of the County on important matters such as hygiene, safety and communication.
At Terra Centre, as in any school environ nestled in Power Play central, the real work can be in dealing with adults.
Now I’m talking about the parents… persons with multiple degrees, fancy letters or abbreviations before and after their names, ranks, and connections. I also learned about projection, inadequacy and self-esteem issues, drama, need for excitement, and the predilection for some of those parents to stand on the narrow shoulders of or behind the gentle chests of their children.
The children? They taught me kindness and patience. They taught me boundaries. You have no choice when a little girl grins at you through her gapped teeth, “I GOT IT I GOT IT” when you try to help her with her milk carton.
In May, my youngest banished me from the walk because he wanted to walk alone to school for the last three weeks. A helicopter parent, I am not, but the kid seldom gets out on time, and I like the exercise. We also use that time to chat about stuff. He banished me from the walk home back in November, “I’m 12 now…” so … yeah. There was no excuse / little brother onto place my interest. He was the excuse. He was the little brother.
So we made a deal: he gets out of the house by 8:27 and he could walk by himself. He did alright. But on the last week, I pulled rank. I told him I would be walking with him on the last day of school. To and From. He didn’t balk. I think he got it. For 6th graders, the last day is traditionally a “recognition” ceremony. The kids get “certificates of achievement” of being a student at the school and passing 6th grade. Other awards are given out — it’s lovely actually.
The morning of the last day, it rained, so his dad drove us. The walk home though… I was not giving that up. I would NOT make the day before my last walk home from school. I did not give up a career in corporate communications and PR to miss this moment.
Here’s how it went:
If you watch that video until the end, you’ll see he turns around to look at me. The fades in the video were not my doing, it was the light coming in as we left the shade of the path. The house in my comments is not mine.
At first I was self-conscious about doing it but I quickly put that away. As you will see, our walks to and from school are Rockwellian. I’m good with the video now. I didn’t discover his backward gaze until I watched it last night. That it’s 1:43 in length, “143” being our code for “I Love You” makes the capture all the more lovely to me.
In a sense, I grew up here at Terra Centre. I learned that persistence overcomes resistance and that a gaggle of noisy parents who give a damn can effect real change on a busy over-traveled street. I learned that school principals are just people too and they come with their own dreams, fears, alliances, and hesitations. I learned that rational people can run a school and that kids needn’t be afraid of principals.
Most of all, I learned about myself. I learned that it’s ok for me to miss the school. After 13 years, I felt like family. To my kids, it’s a place they where they learned to tie their own shoes. To me, it’s a place where I liked to walk. I always appreciated my walks to Terra Centre.
I will miss it very much, and so I get it when I see moms of kids in high school or college or medical school or living in Manhattan on their own with a family walking their dogs with the moms of kids in third grade… just to see a little kid again or to mosey beneath the shade on the way to another day to ourselves.