Saturday, June 9, 2012

Musings upon my daughter's graduation

Eight hours ago, I was sitting in a football stadium, watching as my little girl, my youngest child, graduated from high school. In three short months, she will be off to college and starting life. But that is a blog post for another day. Right now is to reflect on how she got here.

North Allegheny is a huge suburban school district, with over 8,000 students. Maybe a sub-title for this post might be "Never anything but the car," as that aptly describes how NA works. Every child, every time he or she goes to school, every time a parent needs to visit the school, a car (or school bus) is involved. With almost no exceptions, nobody walks to school. Even those living in houses bordering a school's property are carted to school on four (or six) wheels. No sidewalks, no trail system, no bicycles, no bike racks, no public transit of any sort. It's all done by cars and school buses.

Whatever. It works. Six hundred forty-five graduates. Of them, 158 have grade point averages of 4.0 or better, and it's not grade inflation. These kids are well educated. My own daughter pulled a 3.8 GPA for third-tier, mere "with honors". These are the kids who got 600 on each section of the SAT -- when they took it in seventh grade as a placement test for some other program. This is the school district whose marching band is so good, it played in President Obama's inauguration parade, the only one in Pennsylvania to do so. Night after night for years, we "parental units" were called upon for homework help, and the resources I drew upon to provide that assistance were more what I learned in college than high school.

I look at my daughter and think, "What did we do right?" and the answer is, a lot of things, starting at birth, but even that is not the whole story. It's the district, and the ability for the automobile to provide the backbone of support, from kids who oversleep the alarm clock, to needing to be shuttled home after school, or carting an art project or large musical instrument to and from, to getting kids to another one's house for a study session. It also does not hurt that everyone in this district is well paid, lives in a huge house, and owns three cars apiece.

Nearly every child drives by 17. The district has two high schools, one for 9th and 10th grades, and another for 11th and 12, and the junior high has about 30 designated parking spaces for student parking. Yes, enough 10th graders apparently need to drive to school rather than take the school bus that got them to the same school the prior year, that space is provided for them. That is how embedded the car is in the North Allegheny culture.

I can only wonder if we've reached a peak of sorts. What will happen to this district when it no longer becomes feasible for each family to keep three cars on the road? Are we there already? I don't have to think too hard to come up with a smattering of families who have moved, houses foreclosed upon, or a parent left to take a job after a long period of unemployment. Even in my own case, I muddled through a few years of austere existence, pretty much unable to do little more than provide food, housing and heat, and that only because I had only one car and no car payment. If I had had to replace a car six years ago, I don't know how I would have continued to live here. You have to be rich to live in North Allegheny. I honestly don't know how everyone else manages.

Well, we will see what happens when the frog boils. I've been saying for a while that life will change, big time, when daily use of a car becomes unsupportable. The effects will be felt in areas like this much sooner than in walkable areas. It will be less a matter of "how do we make do with only one car?" and more "why would anyone want to live out here if a car is so necessary?" And when those choices are made on a large scale, the people who have said means will choose not to live here but somewhere else instead, and leave NA for those who have no other choice but to live "out here". This might be a generation away, maybe only 10 years. Thus, I write this down so as to take a snapshot, to preserve a glimpse of how good it was, and how good my daughter had it, when it all still worked.

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