Growing Up Catholic in a Small Texas Town: The Carpool

There was a lot to learn from being a first-grader at Saint Mary’s school. Besides what went on in the classroom, there were things like carpool rules, which no one teaches you. At least in the classroom, we knew what to expect. But with the carpool, you had to discover on your own — and some of the older, more experienced kids didn’t make the process any easier.

You see, I was a shy, quiet child even into my high school years. If you looked at my high school yearbooks, you’d see a lot of end-of-the-year messages that started with, “To Kathy, you are so quiet and shy . . .” Those who know me today just laugh. I, too, know it’s hard to believe. I finally shook off my timidity by the time I got to college. And when I began teaching middle school, any residual shyness was gone entirely. (A shy and quiet teacher will get eaten alive.)

At the age of six, my biggest fear was making a mistake, and forgetting the carpool rules right gave me nightmares.

Almost every family on Harrison Street was Czech/Catholic. Besides the Kaskas, there were three other families with school-aged kids who attended St. Mary’s. Collectively these four families had what seemed to be a hundred kids. The mothers would take turns driving us to and from school. This is how it worked in the morning: a mother would drive up, honk the horn, and all the kids would run out and jump in for our ride to St. Mary’s, which was also located on Harrison Street. Even though on the other end of the street, past our house, there was a menacing wooded area, I still often wondered why we didn’t all just walk to school in one large mass. But I didn’t ask questions. I just followed the herd.

The going to school part of the carpool was easy. But it was the coming home part that terrified me. I was afraid I’d forget who I was supposed to ride home with at the end of the day. After seven hours with Sister Strausberg talking about hell and damnation, you can understand.

Sadi Kupec, who was a year older than me, told me to never, never, ever miss the ride home because I’d have to walk. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t get lost along the way because it was almost a straight shot and just a half-mile to our house. But to a six-year-old, it still seemed like the other side of the world. Would I make it home before dark? Would I be able to avoid the dangers along the way?

Between school and home, Harrison Street had a sharp curve. Sadie warned me about all the crazy, wild teenagers speeding down the street after school on their way to drink beer in the woods. She said they usually forgot to slow down at the curve and ended up in Mr. Kraus’s yard. Mr. Kraus was the public school superintendent. Whenever this happened, the wild things would ditch their cars and take off on foot. I pictured these drunk teenagers running amuck in the neighborhood, and if I met one on my walk home, who knew what might happen.

And just about a block from our house was the witch’s house. I never saw the witch, but I knew she lived there because Sadie told me so and because no one but a witch would live in that spooky rundown house with lightning rods that looked like pitchforks. Then if I made it safely past, I’d still have one more obstacle. This was a big one.

The Goat Man. He lived in the woods. I’d never seen the Goat Man, but Sadie had. She told me he only came out after school, looking for stupid kids who missed their ride. Maybe his favorite thing to do was snatch us up, and he’d take us straight to hell. Like I said, after afternoons with the good sister, you don’t think clearly.

I guess that’s why we didn’t walk home. Damn good reason.

After the three o’clock bell ran, millions of kids all ran out to the parking at once. Adding to my stress, I was the terror of getting trampled by an eighth-grader.

The mothers all parked their cars three rows deep, facing the school. All the cars looked the same to a first-grader — big hunks of metal, grills gleaming in the sun like shark’s teeth. The carpool mothers never made it easy on us younger kids. You’d think they’d stand outside their car and wave so we’d know who to ride home with. But NO. They sat in their car, their eyes glued on a magazine, listening to the radio, smoking a cigarette, and drinking ice tea from a huge tumbler. At least they said it was tea. Those carpool moms were soaking up every last second of freedom before the horde of kids arrived. And they NEVER took a headcount before leaving. When all the car doors were slammed, they just took off.

So if I missed a ride, I’d have to walk past crazy, wild teenagers and the witch. If I didn’t make it home before dark, maybe the Goat Man would whisk me to hell.

All terrifying, I know. But my worst fear was my mother. I could almost hear her when I finally made it home, running into the house red-faced and frantic.

“Where in the world have you been?”

“I, uh, missed the ride.”

“What were you thinking?”

“About hell and damnation.”

“And you should.”

Except for my family, the names in these essays are sometimes changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty), and I’ve embellished a little.

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Kathleen Kaska

Kathleen Kaska

Metaphor Writing Coach. Author of the Sydney Lockhart mysteries and the Kate Caraway mysteries. I blog about, “Growing Up Catholic in a Small Texas Town.”