Playing the Parking Lot Game

Did you ever think that navigating something as innocuous as a school parking lot would be so much like a game of chess or, dare I say, RISK?  For the love of Pete. It’s downright cut throat if you don’t know the rules folks. I grew up learning to drive on the city streets of San Antonio, TX – NOT small-town America, right?  However, those freeways did not prepare me for the school parking lot shenanigans I would encounter as an adult. Perhaps “strategies for surviving the school parking lot” should be added to the curriculum of Driver’s Education across the U.S.

I have found this phenomenon to be present in all school parking lots, with each school having its own set of social mores.  If you go to different schools, be sure to do adequate research prior to attempting to play the game at each location.

Drop off is always far more laid back than pick up – well, until the bell is about to ring and the late folks come screaming in (that’s me btw, no judgement here).  It’s generally orderly with people in decent spirits.  It’s a new morning, teachers & parents still have hopes of a good day ahead of them, but just remember, it is early in the game people.

Pick-up is where it gets dicey.  At one school where I played the game, the REAL “rules” go totally against the WRITTEN rules. You know, the ones actually painted on the pavement?  Therefore, if some poor dad gets sent on an off day to get a kid, he’s SCREWED if he tries to do something like follow the information painted on the road.  I mean, duh, right – why would you do THAT? Ahhhhhh….tricky. Well-played school, very well-played. 

I remember once we were picking up from school to leave directly on a trip and my husband was driving.  I was not paying attention and he drove into the parking lot, THE WRONG WAY, then parked THE OPPOSITE WAY, of every single other car in the lot.  He was all flustered, couldn't figure out what was going on.  I was trying to crawl into the floorboard. I am not kidding you when I say the other moms were literally openly laughing at him.  Amateur.  I was horrified to be seen with him.

At another school where I compete I was given a brief rundown of the rules, but thought: “yea, I got this, I’ve done it before.  How hard can it be”?  Naively, I thought that simply going through the line would keep me safe in the game.  Seems pretty straightforward, right? Was I ever wrong.  Enter cones, numbers, attendants and “off-limits” areas.  At this particular venue, I am the scourge of the earth to some of the parking lot dictators.

The morning crew at this place is lovely.  Friendly, gives smiles and waves, even if maybe you don’t line up EXACTLY IN LINE with your designated cone. For crying out loud, I even saw one SUV mom run over a cone and she still got a wave!  I think this might be because the morning crew are just regular moms, like the rest of us, who also have to navigate the parking lot tomfoolery in the afternoon, so they get it. So, THANK YOU a.m. moms. Thank you for standing out there, rain or shine, with your eternal patience.  And for handling everyone’s parking lot imperfections with grace and goodwill. 

Now pick up.  Egads. I tell you people.  The struggle is real.

It’s S.C.A.R.Y.

Let me introduce the players.  There are a handful on the opposing team.  They are worthy opponents, don’t be fooled.

·       Pollyanna – always smiling and helping the kids.  Shuffling them to cars with a smile.  Courteous to parents. 

·       Cheech – The ultra-laid back, unflappable one.  Methodical.

·       Richard (Simmons) – The harried one (no pun intended) at the end who is a mass of flailing limbs and barking orders at anyone within a 2-mile radius.

·       The Minion – Richard’s minion, emulating Richard’s best moves from the 80’s.

Here’s how it goes down in the afternoon.  First of all, there is one road flanking the parking lot and it’s a dead end, so the deck is already stacked against you for a quick in and out.  This parking lot serves everyone mind you, both those in the car pick up line and those walking up to get kids personally. It’s a certified cluster.

The car pick-up line goes in a horse-shoe pattern, beginning with Pollyanna and Cheech and ending with Richard and the Minion.  There are cones set up along the way with numbers sticking out of them. PAY ATTENTION to the cones!  They are IMPORTANT.

NOTE: If you are one of the first cars in line, you better PRAY that your kid is on their game (as well as their teacher) and hustles on out at the end of the day, because if you start the pick-up process by agitating Richard, I assure you, everyone behind you is cussing you.

Proceed in the line, getting marshalled in like a plane coming into a gate at the airport (as if there is anywhere else to go at this point, you are trapped).  Pollyanna and Cheech are working hand in hand on the right side of horseshoe to carefully count cars and match them to cones (Cheech knows which kids belong to most cars). Cheech communicates the numbers to Pollyanna & the kids to help aid in extracting children from the mosh-pit and transitioning smoothly into parental custody. It’s a solid, efficient process. You are in pretty safe territory if you land on the right side of the horseshoe.

The left side is much trickier to navigate.  There are land mines everywhere.  Cars in front of you are dropping bombs as they leave and you are at the mercy of their game-play. On this side, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting in perfect line with your designated cone.  If you do not, you will be met with an onslaught of gestures from Richard directing you to pull up, move over, do a headstand – no one really knows exactly what is being communicated, but whatever it is, the basic message is YOU SUCK for committing such a horrid offense as stopping short/long of your cone.  If said cone offense happens in the range of the Minion, the response will not be quite as severe, but WILL fluctuate in direct correlation with Richard’s temperament, so you better cross your fingers that the cars in front of you have their acts together that day. Whatever you do, do not make eye contact.  This is taken as a direct threat and will earn you additional non-verbal admonishment.  Eyes on the road people.  Have the talk with your kids to watch, listen and move quickly towards your vehicle as directed.  This is no time for idle chit-chat with their friends. No dilly-dallying. Throw your stuff in and shut the door quickly kids.  Make them understand this is the only acceptable place for you to begin driving before the doors are 100% closed or seatbelts buckled.  It just is.

Now a couple hints for my friends who like to fetch their little ones on foot. I do this when on the rare occasion that I arrive on time, because I don’t trust my kids to pay attention and get to the car in a timely manner in the car pick-up line. I only do the car pick-up line when I am one of the very last cars to arrive (read: tardy) and my kids are sick of waiting so they are actually WATCHING for me.  This is just smart play my friends.

1.       NEVER – and I mean NEVER – dare to step foot in the main parking lot.  Even without a child.  You will be quickly accosted by both Richard AND the Minion together and verbally chastised for walking in the off-limits zone. After committing this heinous offense once, I now pretend the parking lot is hot lava.  

2.       Train your child not to come to you.  You must go get them, within the allowed area, but not encroaching on the bubbles (see #3). Allowing your 14 yr. old (who has their driver’s permit to operate a full-sized vehicle on public roadways) to navigate the non-lava portion of the parking lot is strictly prohibited. Punishable by public redress from Richard or the Minion.

3.       Do not walk too far into the “bubbles”.  I’ll be honest, this is a bit of a gray area to me still. There seem to be a couple “bubble” areas that most parents seem to avoid – they are around the mosh-pit of kids and also surrounding Richard and the Minion.  I have gotten the side-eye a couple of times when treading too close to these protected areas.  Enter any bubble areas at your own risk.

4.       Lastly, just as in the pick-up line, avoid eye-contact – except with your child (who you are no doubt trying desperately to send telepathic messages to at this point, announcing your arrival in the safe zone). The safe zone equals the narrow point in between the portable, the lava, Richard’s bubble and the mosh-pit.  If eye contact is made, there is a high likelihood that you will receive a stare from Richard that in another life would turn you to stone. The safe play is to approach as inconspicuously as possible and wait quietly in the safe zone, eyes on the ground. You are almost home-free with your dignity intact, do you really want to make a risky move now? I think not.

With another school year upon us, I hope that you find some of these survival tips helpful. Go forth, my fellow unpaid taxi moms, and good luck. May the odds be ever in your favor. As for me, I’ve got my orange cones out in the culdesac with my teenager screaming at me through a bullhorn, practicing my skills. Game on.