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1st days of school are an exercise in learning, loving


Asked what he planned to accomplish this week, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. mentioned two events. He would break Lou Gehrig's record by playing in 2,131 consecutive major-league baseball games. And he would drive his 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, to her first day of school.

Cal's comments struck a chord with me. I can only imagine what it feels like to make baseball history. But I know what it feels like to send your kids off to school. You experience a surge of emotions.

One is panic. You wonder if are you are going to make it to school on time. This is often a problem early in September when those possessing the who-cares sleeping habits of the summer have to adjust to the up-and-at-them style of school mornings.

Late Tuesday night, I listened on the radio to Cal's post-game press conference. That was when I heard him say he was planning to drive his daughter to school the next morning. I looked at the clock. It was close to midnight. I felt the urge to call Camden Yards and remind Cal and his wife, Kelly, that, "Hey, this is a school night. Get to bed!" Sure enough, I later learned that the Ripkens overslept and were late for school.

After clicking off the radio, I went to bed. I was scheduled to drive our kids and a couple of neighborhood kids to school the next morning.

The alarm clock at our house went off at what seemed like dawn. People climbed into clothes that had been set out the night before. Book bags were packed and zipped. The car was gassed up and pointing in the get-rolling position.

Thanks to these and other preparations that rivaled those of the D-Day invasion, my sons and I got out of the house and into the car at the appointed time. I was pleased but not cocky. Experience has taught me that later in the school year, when enthusiasm and clean socks are in short supply, getting out the door on time can be difficult.

As I drove around the neighborhood picking up the other kids in our car pool, I was struck by another September insight. Namely, during the summer kids grow like weeds. The kids in our car pool -- five boys, 10-14 years old -- seemed gigantic. A few years ago, these car pool guys could easily fit in a mid-size, four-door sedan. Then they outgrew the four-door and we bought a station wagon. Now these five big bodies seem to be pressing at the sides of the station wagon. If the car pool kids continue growing at their current pace, I figure I will end up having either to strap a few riders on the roof of the station wagon or buy a bus.

As we headed up the road, some of the passengers expressed concern about missing school supplies. One of my sons felt the sudden need to have a sharpened pencil in his hand. He had about 6,000 pencils at home, but he wanted a sharpened one in hand as he entered his new classroom. Miraculously, I found a sharp pencil, with an eraser, underneath the front seat. Another of my sons asked if I had seen the combination lock he needed to secure his locker. I told him I had seen the lock in May, when he had carried it home from school. Armed with this "fresh" information of the lock's whereabouts, he seemed confident he could track the missing lock down when he got home from school that afternoon.

As we rolled along the road, a wave of nostalgia washed over some of the car poolers. The high school freshman said he longed for the familiar surroundings of the eighth grade. The fifth-grader spoke fondly of his days in the fourth grade. I dropped the car pool at school a few minutes early. Not bad for the first day, when most car pool drivers are exceedingly polite and traffic moves slowly. Then I joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic headed in toward downtown Baltimore.

When I arrived at the office, folks were drinking coffee and engaging in early September chatter. Some talked about what had happened the night before at the ballpark with Cal, others talked about what had happened that morning at school with their kids. It made me think that Cal was right: These first few days of school are a big deal. The kids are looking at the coming school year with a mixture of curiosity and concern. The parents are trying to make sense of the stacks of papers, the schedules and the range of feelings the kids carry home. Everybody is afraid to ask the big question: What will the class project be this year?

If ever I see Cal in a school car pool line, I'll flash my headlights. This is a greeting among parents who drive kids to school. It means, "Welcome to our league."

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