Woog's World: Is walking to school a thing of the past?

I don’t want to date myself. Nor do I want to sound like my grandfather, boasting about walking to school both ways, uphill back and forth, in blizzards.

But I will.

Sixth grade was a memorable year. On the cusp of adolescence — that wonderful, woeful time of self-discovery, independence and existential angst — I was fortunate enough to live on High Point Road. I was surrounded by kids my own age, just behind Staples High School. A bit further lay Burr Farms Elementary School.

It no longer exists. Erected hastily to handle Westport’s post-war baby boom, it was demolished in the 1970s. In its place are large houses on Burr School Road. Its only legacies are a few forgotten athletic fields.

But it was our school. And in that sixth grade year, two friends and I vowed to walk there and home every day. We could have taken a bus, but that was not our style. Through sun, rain, heat, cold and — yes — blizzards, we headed across the Staples soccer field, through the high school parking lot, over North Avenue and Rippe’s Farm, and into our classroom. Each afternoon we reversed the route.

I can’t remember whether we asked our parents for permission, or simply told them our plan. But they did not try to stop us. We were 11 years old. We were unstoppable.

I have no idea what we talked about, on those 15-minute journeys to and from school. At that age, it was probably everything and nothing. But I recall clearly how I felt. Like the four boys in “Stand By Me,” that was our time. We had places to go, and things to do. But we felt as free as birds. Nothing could hold us down. Not then and, we believed, never in the future.

I walked to junior high, too. Long Lots was then a seventh through ninth grade school. It was closer than Burr Farms — just a half mile down High Point.

A larger posse went each morning, arriving early enough to sit outside with other friends. Junior high/middle school years were (and still are) brutal. Our walks became tests of social Darwinism. Sometimes we were the taunters; sometimes the taunted. Roles shifted daily. But still, we walked together. It would have been unfathomable to take the bus.

Of course, because we lived within a mile of school, there was no bus to take.

I thought of all this the other day, after seeing a photo of cars doing afternoon pickup at Kings Highway Elementary School. Lined up on Post Road West, from Burr Road to Kings Highway North, they stretched as far as the eye could see.

The scene was not unusual. It’s repeated every afternoon, at all five elementary schools and both middle schools. At Staples, the line winds around both sides of the building.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Each year, more and more parents picked up more and more kids. Since COVID struck though, the trend has exploded.

The pandemic — with worries about children sitting in close proximity on school buses, and drivers unable to monitor mask-wearing — is only partly to blame.

There are many other reasons. Boards of Education and school administrators, realizing that Westport drivers are both distracted and fast, not only actively discouraged walking (they eliminated Cross Highway sidewalks during planning for Bedford Middle School); they’ve also gotten rid of the one-mile rule for walkers. At least one student takes a bus from directly across the street, into his school’s parking lot.

With schools starting half an hour later than before, the race to get youngsters to after-school sports, lessons and tutoring has gotten tighter. Many parents simply cannot wait for the school bus to deliver youngsters home.

The bus company itself is under the gun. There is a dire driver shortage. So more parents form longer lines everywhere. Roads jam. Traffic slows. Bus routes lengthen. And even more moms and dads pick up their kids. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, leading us ever downward into traffic hell.

There is no single answer. Sidewalks, revisiting school start times, more reliable buses, a different perspective on “walkers” — all play a part. Yet no one person — principal, parent, town official, bus executive — can wave a magic wand, making endless lines of traffic (and unfathomable amounts of wasted time) disappear.

Perhaps walking to school is a memory of a bygone time. If so, I’m grateful to have still-fresh memories of the year my friends and I walked every day to Burr Farms School.

Full disclosure: It wasn’t uphill both ways. The route was actually quite flat. But we did do it in blizzards.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.