She waits for me by the curb outside the public elementary school while other kids gather to walk home together. A lucky few get whisked away, ushered into cars far better than mine. It is after three; dismissal’s come and gone. I’m running late but on my way, almost there. This she does not know.
Other parents have real cars, not clunkers that drive on whim. They have better work hours, better schedules, better everything. I’m doing the best I can. Sometimes ends never meet.
If I had it my way, she’d be in a different school. A private one. Or maybe just a better one, where the schoolyard is a place for kids to play, not for teachers to park their cars. A school where they don’t need metal detectors to deter fifth- and sixth-graders from coming in with weapons. A school where the scaffolding eventually comes down because the repairs actually get completed. A school where they let kids wait inside instead of hurrying them outdoors to leave them unsupervised in the cold.
Stuck three cars behind the light, I see her, a tiny thing tucked into the shadow of the building’s scaffold. Her body tells the story of waiting—the fingers plucking the straps of her backpack, the head hanging low, the small frame hunching beneath the toll of all those minutes in which I have failed to show. She doesn’t have a watch, so she can’t count the minutes; instead, she counts the ways in which I disappoint her. Or maybe she thinks of all the reasons I might not make it, wonders if I’m dead somewhere, slumped over the steering wheel of my car, shot by the officer who stopped me on my way to her. She already knows that this is a thing that can happen to people who look like us. Or maybe she’s reciting our address and phone number, and wondering who she might go to in order to tell them she’s lost. The teachers are all gone for the day, and she knows to never ever call the police. Finally, I pull up to the curb and honk, and she looks up, surprised and relieved. I wait for her to say how she was scared that I wasn’t coming, but when she climbs into the car, she asks me only what took so long.