The Parents of School-Age Children had been just that for so long they could not remember ever having been anything else. It was 19 years, to be exact, since that September morning when the oldest child, hair in place (almost), new sneakers white (nearly), first walked past the policewoman, up the steps to kinder-garten.
For the onlooking parents, that had qualified as the longest, most significant walk in all of human history. They marveled at their child's bravery - a lot braver than they proved to be.
It was, for a fact, a significant walk - the first leg in a journey that would in due course, the parents knew, omit the return route of back-the-same-day. But that eventuality was so far off.
Each September brought another first-day walk with it, and soon the pioneer entrant into The Big World Out There was joined by siblings. The veteran of the kindergarten sandbox - the expert at recess time when chocolate milk and cookies were served - went on to even greater skills, and so did the others. But the rhythm - outward and back, departure and return - remained so regular that the Parents of School-Age Children could not believe it would ever end.
Every August the ''Back to School'' sales appeared in the form of personal messages. Every August the big policy decisions got made. What kind of a lunch box - ''Batman'' or ''Peanuts''? And was this year's teacher a pen fanatic or would pencil be allowed?
For 19 years the random processes of education rolled on. To this day, framed poster-paper cut-outs decorate a kitchen wall. In particular, there is one black silhouette of a whale with an enormous white eye that everybody thought was an ingenious evocation of a locomotive at night until, years later, the artist confessed.
A yellowing paper badge strung on a necklace of green yarn still hangs from a hook. It reads, ''Official Checker,'' memorializing a trusted role as inspector of other children's work in first grade - now 13 Septembers ago.
Beneath it, paper clips rest in the hollowed shell of a clay turtle - the project of a ceramics class maybe nine years ago.
A door frame in the kitchen still records their annually measured heights as each September the ''children'' became something more, and the first walk extended further and further until finally it graduated into a trip to college.
Then September partings became almost as much of a wrench as that first day of kindergarten. And there were more decisions - not a question of which lunch box to buy, but would the stereo set fit in the trunk. And if so, where did the winter gear and the desk lamp go? And don't forget the alarm clock. Never forget the alarm clock.
Sometimes it seemed there was no end of colleges.
Sometimes it seemed there was no end of ''children.''
But now, for the first time in 20 years, September is going to be for somebody else. The Parents of School-Age Children must think of another identity for themselves. The manufacturers of crayon boxes no longer speak to them. Those seasonal walks finally took right off from the roads that lead to brick buildings with playgrounds out back - to college quadrangles.
What has been learned all these years at the far end of all these walks? Only the ex-children know, and they don't tell. Education seemed a simpler matter to the Parents of School-Age Children before the whole business started - a straight line begun in September and completed in June, followed by another straight line the next September. Straight as that first walk into kindergarten.
Now, in retrospect, the 19-year course looks far more meandering. How much did the ''children'' learn from this teacher and that? Who would have guessed how much they would learn from themselves?
Still, two decades later the general faith in education remains. Surely all those September roads must lead somewhere, else why is there this unnatural silence and strange calm as the walking time approaches for a family that has run out of walkers?
Well, maybe not quite. There is talk of graduate school. Wait until next year , the retired Parents of School-Age Children keep telling themselves as they watch the Official Checker badge swing gently in the late-summer breeze blowing through the window that looks out over the road leading to kindergarten.