For kids, walking to school just isn’t what it used to be

Step back with me into those simple, sunny days when I’d lace up new tan and cream saddle shoes.

After a few weeks of walking to and from Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary School, those shoes would be broken in for the year.

When the weather turned, I really did trudge miles through the snow. Every day, through the 1960s, we walked or rode bikes to school. In the spring I wore Keds or PF-Flyers. The rest of the year, it was saddle shoes or snow boots.

I vaguely recall a yellow school bus, but we didn’t know many kids who rode it. From our house on Manito Boulevard, we’d walk in a group, picking up friends along the way.

If my parents worried about cars or abductions, they never said so. “Look both ways,” that’s all we heard.

Once, the school called my mother to report that my sister hadn’t arrived. When my mom set out on foot, she found my sister at the end of a trail of snow angels. Oblivious to her tardiness, this little kid was out playing in the snow.

By fifth grade, I hated the saddle shoes my mom made us wear. My walk to school became an act of defiance. I’d stop at my friend’s house, change into gym sneakers, and leave the saddle shoes on her back porch. After school, I’d switch shoes again before going home.

It’s all true, but it reads like some children’s story rose-tinted by nostalgia.

Perhaps you’re expecting me to say that every child should walk to school. Despite my happy years doing just that, and even with today’s serious obesity problem, you’ll get no “make ‘em walk” rant from me.

The world of my childhood is long gone. For some lucky kids who live near schools, walking makes perfect sense. Yet for many families, schedules are too demanding. More critically, the traffic and geography of their routes make walking downright dangerous.

There are so many hazards — lack of sidewalks, dark mornings, rain, rush-hour traffic and the inattention of little kids — to say nothing of strangers with an evil bent for harming children.

“Kicked to the curb” was the headline Monday on a front-page Herald article. It told of the Edmonds School District’s cost-cutting decision to eliminate bus service for 3,000 children living within a 1-mile radius of school.

Other area districts don’t bus kids living within a mile of school, but make exceptions in dangerous traffic areas. The Stanwood-Camano School District has cut buses for some middle and high school students.

In Lynnwood, some 7-year-olds walk more than a mile on busy roads without sidewalks, past a convenience store. One mother quoted in The Herald article doesn’t want her Martha Lake Elementary kids walking by bikini baristas at a coffee stand. Wow, has life ever changed since 1964.

The Edmonds School District cuts are intended to save $500,000 this year. Does that seem like much in a large district where some administrators’ salaries top $100,000? Not to me.

Saturday’s New York Times featured an article titled “Why Can’t She Walk to School?” It focused on fears in the wake of news about Jaycee Dugard, the California girl kidnapped at age 11 on her way to the school bus and held captive for 18 years.

The New York Times story by Jan Hoffman quoted a National Household Travel Survey saying that 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school in 1969, but that by 2001, only 13 percent did.

I live a mile from my fifth-grader’s school. You know what? I drive him.

There are lots of reasons for that, from his backpack weighed down by books and sports equipment to worries that if he walked alone he’d miss the 8 a.m. start time. And in my ZIP code, 98201, the Snohomish County Web site lists more than 70 registered sex offenders.

In his free time, my boy spends hours outside. On school days, there is great peace of mind in dropping him at the door.

I’m all for exercise and self-reliance. And I miss the simplicity of my childhood. Some 10-year-olds have soccer practice a dozen miles from home. Single parents scramble to do it all.

School budget cutters, remember this: Getting to school is no walk in the park. And safety isn’t some optional elective.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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