Newsletter 176: Walking Children Into School

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from September 2019, about walking my children to school every day, something that now feels like an impossible luxury.

Image for post
Image for post

We live within about a 15-minute walk of my childrens school, one of the very first things that appealed to me about moving to Athens. I’d never been to Athens before we took a weekend to potentially look at houses here, but I felt instantly comfortable with the place in a matter of hours. I’d always wanted to live in a college town, where you get to best parts of living in a city without having the worst parts. You have the culture and diversity of a major urban area, but you don’t have the overcrowding and the insane living expenses. (Basically, my only major Athens complaints are with the drivers, the sushi and the lack of quality sports bars.) I remember going to Five & Ten, the finest restaurant in town that first weekend, getting the bill for my meal and thinking, after 13 years of paying for food in New York City, “man, I could make this place my Denny’s.” For what it’s worth, that feeling goes away after a week. Eventually, you catch yourself saying, “OK, that’s a lot for a steak.” Water always finds its level.

But what I loved most was how close the house we were looking at (and the house we eventually bought) was to the kid’s school. William was only 18 months old at the time, so he had a ways to go, but the idea of walking him and a then-hypothetical younger sibling to school in the morning was irresistible. I’d never had a car in New York and knew I’d have to get one in Athens, but walking was a major part of my life and one of my favorite things to do. (Athens is not a great walkable city, but my neighborhood isn’t bad. I don’t entirely trust the Walkscore site anyway; its claim that Mattoon is a better walkable town than Athens is cartoonishly incorrect.) The idea of walking my children to school made me want to buy the house right then and there, and I guess I sort of did. I imagined us talking those 15 minutes every day as time just for us, setting the stage for the day, me giving them fatherly advice, them telling me about their problems, me solving them, probably winning some sort of award, being carried home by loyal subjects, followers and acolytes, fanned and eating grapes, my Father of the Year medallion hanging humbly from my neck, trailed by seekers desperate for any stray morsel of wisdom.

Image for post
Image for post

Now that I have two children who actually attend the school, unsurprisingly, I do not walk them to school every day. That half-hour both-ways trip ends up taking a bigger chunk out of my day than my busy schedule can handle; there’s always a deadline, somewhere. I will miss those stray moments someday, particularly when they don’t want me to walk with them anymore even when I can, but for now, hey, these rankings of utility infielders and Melissa McCarthy movies aren’t going to write themselves. So I drive them to a parking lot across the street from the school and walk them in from there, which saves about 10 minutes each way and still lets me walk them in and around the school. When we get there before they unlock the doors, the boys and I play tag in the courtyard. It never fails to astound me how much energy they have at 7:15 in the morning. I am less “It” during tag than a lumbering bear occasionally reaching out a sleepy paw in vain. Someday they won’t let me do this either. Someday they will bound ahead of me, tackling their friends in the hallway, already forgetting who got them to school in the first place. This is probably how it’s supposed to work. It still snarls the stomach.

But the real fun, today, is that walk through the hallways to their classrooms. Because — and this is not going to be a surprise to you — but I am The Goofy Dad.

You cannot pass me in a school hallway without some sort of Dad Joke being forced upon you. It is my calling. Having spent decades of failing to amuse adults, it is a grand relief to at last have the opportunity to peddle my wares to children. It is my goal every morning to get as many little kids laughing as possible. I do not know why I am compelled to do this, but lord, am I ever.

I have four tried and true techniques. Feel free to borrow them if you wish.

The Serious Businessman. Adults never treat children like adults, and it drives children nuts: Children always want to be bigger, and be seen as bigger. (It’s one of the things they’ll end up regretting the most.) So I like to steer into this skid by going up to kids, grabbing their right hand, shaking it vigorously like I’m at some sort of Important Meeting Of Business, and say, “Will Leitch, good to meet you, nice doing business with you. Buy! Sell! Buy Sell! Nice firm handshake, you’re an excellent business person, good doing business with you.” The first few seconds are confusing, but then they start cackling. I went to talk to William’s class the other day, and one of the kids in class remembered me from doing this joke with her in the past, came up to me, stuck out her hand and said, “Good to meet you, nice doing business with you.”

Image for post
Image for post

The Walk Into The Open Door. A tried-and-true pratfall, this one is self-explanatory. You see a door open, you walk into it, you fall backwards, you roll your eyes around grab your head like there are imaginary little birdies circling it. Extra bonus points on this one if, right before it happens, you say something to one of the kids like, “Now, kids, listen up, because this is important. The most important thing you have to do is always, always make sure you watch where you’re going. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, you’ll end up [BASHES HEAD INTO DOOR].” Tripping on a chair also works here too. Just make sure you don’t accidentally land on a first grader, a piece of advice I am giving you for no particular reason.

The Confused Guy Who Just Can’t Find The Right Word. This is more a wordplay gag than one of physical comedy. Basically, you set up an entirely obvious answer to a series of questions to a kid, like you can’t find the right word and need assistance, but keep insisting when they get it right that it’s not the answer. Example:

“Hey, what’s that one song? The one with the Cowboy?”
“Old Town Road?”
“No, that’s not it. It’s the one that goes, ‘Gonna riiiiiiide ‘ til I can’t no more.”
“That’s Old Town Road.”
“Yeah, it’s something like that, but that’s not quiet it. Oh, which one is it? It has the part where he says, “You can’t tell me nothin’ …”
“It’s Old Town Road! That’s the song!”
“It’s close. It’s close to that. But the one I’m talking about has that line about Wranglers on my booty.”
[Child hits me with a polo mallet.]

Kids always enjoy when they understand something better than an adult does. It happens a lot more often than they think.

The Low-Five Head Slap. This is my go-to move, and I have to say, it has never, ever failed to work. It is incredibly simple.

  • You put your hand down for a high five.
  • They hit your hand.
  • You act as if they are so powerful that the force of them hitting your hand has not only propelled it toward the ground, but in fact has also propelled it back up, toward your head.
  • This head smacks you in the face.
  • You stagger backwards, confused by their overwhelming strength.

You know, like this:

Image for post
Image for post

This has never not made a kid laugh. (Though my own kids, as you can see there, have begun to roll their eyes at it. Which delights me even more!)

I will be doing it the rest of my life. If it were socially acceptable, it would become my new handshake.

I am comfortable with my role as Dad Joke Guy. It is a role I’ve been preparing for my entire life. We all have to have one special thing in this world. I am just fortunate to have found mine.

Subscribe to the newsletter right here.

But what I loved most was how close the house we were looking at (and the house we eventually bought) was to the kid’s school. William was only 18 months old at the time, so he had a ways to go, but the idea of walking him and a then-hypothetical younger sibling to school in the morning was irresistible. I’d never had a car in New York and knew I’d have to get one in Athens, but walking was a major part of my life and one of my favorite things to do. (Athens is not a great walkable city, but my neighborhood isn’t bad. I don’t entirely trust the Walkscore site anyway; its claim that Mattoon is a better walkable town than Athens is cartoonishly incorrect.) The idea of walking my children to school made me want to buy the house right then and there, and I guess I sort of did. I imagined us talking those 15 minutes every day as time just for us, setting the stage for the day, me giving them fatherly advice, them telling me about their problems, me solving them, probably winning some sort of award, being carried home by loyal subjects, followers and acolytes, fanned and eating grapes, my Father of the Year medallion hanging humbly from my neck, trailed by seekers desperate for any stray morsel of wisdom.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store