The sounds of the neighbor’s air conditioner, a cardinal’s cry, and a big yellow bus’s “pfssht” all congeal in my last-minute dreams during those minutes just before I have to get out of bed. Those sounds are native to Alpha Street at 7 o’clock on any weekday.  

Our windows are open, the blinds are up. From our bed under the window sill, I prop my chin on the pillow to watch the world awaken. The bus turn on its flashing lights to stop. Neighbors start cars, dogs bark. A minute later, I abandon my post to brush my teeth in our attic bedroom’s half-bath.

Usually, I think about my kids sleeping downstairs. How they were supposed to be on that particular bus; how the Lansing school district assigned them to that route as late as last month. How I put that letter in the recycling bin.

That letter was our latest “Instead.”

Instead.

Instead, I rouse the girls around 7:15, begin nagging them to brush their hair, teeth. The soundtrack inside our Alpha Street home: “Get dressed in two minutes or you’re wearing this dress to school,” I threaten the tomboy. “Pink pants and purple shirt matches,” my first-grader tells her younger sister.

“Ack. Grab your school library books. Kids: unload the dishwasher while I put my oatmeal in a jelly jar for the ride. Kiss Dad. Why don’t you have shoes? Where are your shoes? YOUR TOOTHBRUSH IS DRY, GET BACK IN HERE.”

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We clamor in the van around 8, 8:10, stopping for ten to twelve stoplights between our home and their schools in the next school district south.

As do most of the neighbors we know, by the way. Only two tow-headed siblings get aboard that Lansing bus. Another girl and her mom walk to Kendon, the elementary just across the pedestrian bridge from our neighborhood.

Other folks have chosen to enroll their kids in schools in other districts: Mason, Okemos, Fowlerville. A family living behind our house chooses to homeschool. I’ve not yet dared to ask which school the family on the corner chose — half the kids look too old to need to walk to the pre-K to third-grade building across Pennsylvania Avenue — but they don’t get on Lansing’s 7 a.m. bus, either. Wonder which school they chose. (And this is not the post in which I’ll be talking about those who don’t get to choose — that’s a whole book.)

As for us, we choose to drive our kids to Holt, another Lansing suburb.

I’ve been choosing things all my life: colors, CDs, clothes. School isn’t the same — it’s not inconsequential. I’m coming to realize that as our options proliferate we as a culture are missing things.

Case in point: just about every Wednesday, we head to Holt to (my coauthor) Sarah and Tom’s house for a meal and conversation. It’s part of our Year of Small Things experiments that’s just now entered its third year. We drag each other along (or cheer each other on) and discern together all the “radical faith” stuff in our imaginations.

Wednesdays are also early release days for Holt schools, so Sarah invites a neighbor boy over to play with her boys so her neighbor can get some work done. So we pull up in our van and my kids jump out to the sidewalk where three boys are already riding bikes, red-faced from playing so hard. Oh, so good. 

Then another kindergartner rounds the corner, spies the boys, too, and says “Hey bro! What are you doing here?” as they realize they — schoolmates — are also neighbors.

They ride the bus together, learn together, play after school.

Choice makes us, my kids, miss these things. Choice has a cost — a steep one for public schools, especially Lansing — but personal, too. That cost is often relational — not for my kids at school, but in the overlap of school and home. Those “Hey bro” moments.

Bummer.

I don’t regret enrolling my kids in Holt this year, but of course I cannot stop talking about the stupid broken system, the horrible consequences, that I’m complicit and own these ever-changing feelings: that’s ongoing discernment (and it’s caused my friends to hide from me when I bring up the subject).

I’m simply wondering: where do we, friends, hope that our lives overlap with our neighbors’? How then will we come to know and be known the same way? Who’s riding down our sidewalks whom we need to meet? Where’s our “hey bro” moment? 

And are we asking the right questions? What questions will our kids ask?

Etc.:

  • Celebrating Thanksgiving in Lansing? Join me and some friends and strangers at Hawk Island County Park. We’ll meet at 8:30 am to run/walk 3.1 miles for St. V’s Refugee Services. It’s the most laid-back 5K ever, meaning no bibs, chip timing, snackies … or first aid. Just bring a donation of a small household item (or toilet paper, detergent, or just a check for St. Vincent’s Refugee Services) and then walk or run your way to eating pie later that day without any guilt.
  • When you turn the corner from writing a book to publishing one, I’ve found a certain malaise hits — I’ve fixed grammar, lazy writing, and awkward transitions. I’ve fleshed out my citations and scrolled through a Word document that nearly killed four computers. And if I have to read this book again before it comes out January 31, I will be violently ill. It’s really a great book. You should read it. Pre-order it now.
  • Oh, and go peek around the unfinished website I’ve created: www.yearofsmallthings.com. You’re a first to know.