Open Wide the World


How the after school pick-up line is like moving to Australia

Reflections on travel and daily life. From a returned foreign exchange student stuck in an elementary school pick-up line. #travel #openwidetheworld

Present Day

Every year, around BTS time (that’s Back-To-School time, for those who haven’t experienced the insanity of this annual phenomenon), scores of posts start popping up about the horrors of the drop-off and pick-up lines at elementary schools. Everything from polite, what-not-to-do posts to videos where ranting parents (humorously?) take down anyone who dares defy their unwritten rules.

I don’t drive my daughter to school, so I don’t experience the drop-off line. But I can wholeheartedly attest that the after school pick-up line can be exasperating. To say the very least.

And yet I love it. 

Yes, I said it. I love the after school pick-up line. 

Not because I’m one of those moms who looks forward to hearing their little cutie pie’s every word after a long day of separation. I mean, I am one of those moms, but that’s not why I love the line.

I love it because it’s my Australia.


The Younger Years

Let me explain. When I was 14 years old, I started dreaming of being a foreign exchange student. I knew I would have to be 15 years old to begin the application process, and at least 16 to participate in a year-long program.

So for almost two years, I was stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward with my dream. Just waiting. 

During that time, I spent countless hours envisioning my life abroad. I mean, pretty much every waking hour.

Now, this was long before Instagram (and even before the internet, if I dare date myself so specifically). Meaning there wasn’t endless visual fodder to fuel my daydreams. So I had limited visual references to focus my dreams on.

Somehow, one scene worked its way into my mind, and became a sort of representative for all my foreign exchange daydreams.

It was a visual picture of a few locals in Australia. Just sitting around in a sort of rickety looking, half open air, cafe-type place, chit-chatting about nothing important. Outside the cafe was a vast, open area with some scrub brushy plant life growing from reddish clay earth, which I assume was my 14-year old understanding of the Outback.

No major adventure occurred in my daydream about life abroad. No well known city or landmark or monument or event was the focus.

I truly just (obsessively) pictured myself as part of the mundane daily life of an unknown, unimportant town. With only an occasional imagining of horseback riding breaking into the daydream. (Not sure how that last part worked its way in, as I’m pretty indifferent to horses. I could ride, or not. Either way is good. Interestingly, I did end up spending a week on a horse farm during my exchange year.)

But back to the daydream: it was just a boring vision of daily life. But it carried with it such excitement and adventure. Somehow, the thought of the mundane elsewhere seemed to open the world to me in a way that the mundane at home could not.

Or at least not yet.

Present Day - Again

Fast forward almost three decades later.

I’m sitting in my car in the afterschool pick-up line. The line that most people despise. 

I casually glance around, for no particular reason. As my eyes take in a 270 degree view of prairie-flat farmland (only the school obstructs the view from being 360 degrees of farmland), I suddenly see my 14-year old self’s vision of the flatlands of the Outback.

For the first time, the mundane around me, in my hometown, elicits the excitement and adventure that it previously had not.

I am hit with the realization that life in any place can be an adventure. If you fully invest yourself in it. If you dig deeper. Seek more. Ask more. Listen more. Explore more. Invest more.

The draw to high school foreign exchange, for me, had not been to see famous sites and have epic adventures (although I did both). The yearning had been to become a local in a new place. To feel and know and live a new place so deeply that it would transform me into part of itself.

Looking around at a fairly boring terrain, surrounded by people going about a daily task, the after school pick up line reminded me I was doing just that. For the first time, at home.


I’m not sure how exchange programs are run in today’s world, but when I went abroad at 16, we were assigned a country; we could take it or leave it, but not choose our own destination.

My daydreams turned out to be non-prophetic; I did not, in fact, get assigned to Australia. Or perhaps my prophetic abilities were merely geographically miscalibrated, as I ended up being assigned just 40 degrees east of Australia, to the North Island of New Zealand.


More New Zealand

Read about my first day of school in New Zealand—and a flower that haunts and excites me—here.


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Reflections on travel and daily life. From a returned foreign exchange student stuck in an elementary school pick-up line. #travel #openwidetheworld

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