The walk to school had benefits undreamed of by science
In a recently published study in Scotland, children 10 and older who walked to school were found to be more active during the rest of the day than those who arrived by car, bus, or train. The report's authors invoked health, social, safety, and environmental benefits from bipedal transport to and from the classroom. "Sma' wonder," as they might say in Edinburgh.
In Rochester, N.Y., where I grew up, we walked to school without a second thought about the merits of the exercise. We had no choice.
The kids in my neighborhood often met at the corner by my house on the first day of the school year. One long and two short blocks later, we Wunders turned up the path of the George H. Thomas Elementary school (also known as No. 49). Most of our friends continued another block and a half to their Catholic school, St. Anne's, whose bells were a part of all our timekeeping.
Our own school was a large brick building that has since been remodeled into a medical complex. The raised relief brick outline of a teacher's desk can still be seen high on its west side.
Not only did I walk to and from No. 49 twice a day (there were no lunch programs then), I often returned after dinner with my mitt and ball for a little pitch and catch practice on the ball fields that surrounded the school.
Hitting that desk relief dead center and fielding the ball on its return was hugely satisfying, and well worth the third trek.
I don't remember ever resenting those walks - they were a natural and unquestioned part of my daily existence. The streets were lined with Dutch elms, big shade trees that arched over much of my childhood.
The familiar houses I passed all held my interest for one reason or another - as the home of a friend, acquaintance, or baby sitter, or for special features of their architecture or landscaping.
There was even the requisite "haunted" house, which I knew was not really - I just didn't know the people who lived there, and that was excuse enough for me to eye it with suspicion.
On rainy days we pulled on overshoes and slickers. In the deep snows of Rochester winters, we bundled up in woolen coats, leggings, and high boots - and walked through the splendid quiet. One's mind could wander then in a way I can't imagine it would on a crowded bus.
It took a downpour or serious thunder and lightning to send a parent our way at day's end with a car - generally one car for a pile of kids.
My high school was several miles from home on the edge of the city's commercial center. It was also right on the way to my father's workplace, which meant we could ride in the luxury of the Chevy's back seat rather than catch a city bus.
We had to take the bus home, though, and to get to our stop was a walk of five or six blocks, one of which included a wind-whipped bridge above the traffic, one of the coldest places in winter I can ever remember encountering.
The neighborhood seemed indifferent to the troops of students headed to the city's edges. In contrast to the idyllic walks to and from grammar school, this was a slog, lightened only by the companionship of my peers and the little market at our destination. Getting there in time for a package of Hostess cupcakes before the lurching arrival of our transport home was ever a goal.
I imagine that many kids today don't have a choice any more than we did - they are driven or bused, or walk to school as mandated by distances or perhaps school systems, neighborhood, and family schedules and resources.
To my way of thinking, the fortunate among them arrive and leave school under their own steam, prepared for the day by the quiet rhythm of their own thoughts and footsteps. It is good, but not essential, to know that science has just come down on my side.