School and cars: A mess in the modern world? | AspenTimes.com

School and cars: A mess in the modern world?

John Colson

School and cars.

The two seem inextricably linked in the American mind, dating back to the 1940s and ’50s, when the car was approaching the zenith of its social status and high school seniors were the coolest people on Earth ” at least as far as high school juniors were concerned.

The era also happened to correspond with America’s dominance of the automobile world. High school parking lots were the equivalent of showrooms for GM, Ford, Chrysler and the rest of the major brands. Of course, the variety included everything from stock models fresh from the factory to custom hot rods that represented incalculable amounts of blood, sweat, tears and dough for some motorhead whose masculinity was measured by the noise from the exhaust pipes and the style of his stick shift.

Anyway, the car was king, the place where anything could happen because you were away from the family, the principal and the cops (unless you were speeding, in which case things entered a different realm entirely). Unlike most other circumstances of your life, you were on your own.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ” the anthem of the youth culture ” could any of that have happened without the car? Take a look back at the movie “American Graffiti,” and the television series it spawned, “Happy Days,” and then you tell me.

Like the polish you rubbed onto the gleaming metal skin of your car, the things that happened inside that car could enhance its meaning to you and your friends, forming memories of acts and action that would last deep into your waning years, maybe even to the moment of death, when a fragment of recollection might easily feature your favorite car at the center of the picture.

Yep, cars and school, they’ve gone together like peanut butter and jelly for well over half a century.

But the Aspen school board has announced it wants to sever that link, tone down the impact of the car on the schools’ campus ” in the interests of safety, environmental responsibility and simple peace of mind.

I can understand their line of thought. After all, the car, taken as a basic unit of societal paraphernalia, certainly is a problem out there on Maroon Creek Road, where the schools huddle on their 27-acre campus.

The congestion, the pollution, the inefficiency and wasted resources represented by the daily crush of cars and kids and parents converging in the school parking lots ” all of it is an undeniable blight.

The whole scene also is a searing indication that times have changed since the days when, for instance, I was attending public school.

In the years before my friends and I could drive, the school bus was as essential to school life as the books and desks in the classrooms. The five-mile ride I took every school day was like a prelude to what took place at the school itself. Alliances were formed, friendships cemented, fights broke out, grade-school conspiracies were hatched, and the nascent sexual attractions felt by boys and girls all bloomed on the bus.

As for catching a ride to school from mom or dad, that just didn’t happen. Asking for a ride either way was one sure way to get my folks mad. They had their own lives to lead, their own agendas to pursue, and, dammit, that’s what the buses were for. More than once I opted to walk home rather than risk a confrontation, figuring that being late was better than being smacked on the butt for having the gall to think my parents were my personal taxi drivers.

But things are different now. Parents, possibly as an outgrowth of their own school years and the central role of the car in their vision of independence and responsibility, seem to view the taxi-driver designation as a matter of course.

These days in Aspen, the district proclaims, bus ridership is about 50 percent of what it could be. The school board tossed out a number of rather Draconian solutions to this underuse of an expensive service, all of which highlighted the idea that the school district knows what’s best, and parents had better toe the line.

I don’t claim to have the answers to all this, but I know one thing: The relationship between cars and schools and kids, changed as it may be, is as fundamental as it can be without being actually imprinted in our genetic code. And the fight to change all that is going to be a tough one.


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