Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's only a minor problem -- but I'm not sure I can solve it

My father is fond of saying that some problems have no solutions. Right now I’m facing one of them. It’s not a really big problem. It’s just a challenge that I don’t think can be successfully met. And yet to even say those words sounds so somehow un-American. Doesn’t everything from my education to my country of birth to my religion inform me that challenges exist to be met? Am I really ready to say there are cases when simply giving up is the right thing to do?

To make a long story short, last spring our school’s parent volunteer association decided that rather than having Walk-to-School Day be a twice-a-year event, we should form a Walk-to-School Committee whose mission would be “to make walking or biking to school a safe and regular habit.” In other words, something that happens all the time, not just on two designated days that include raffle prizes and lots of ceremony. And they asked me to chair this committee.

I pulled off a bang-up launch. On October 5, despite impending rain, nearly 200 kids in Carlisle’s elementary and middle school grades walked or biked to school. The grades with the highest and second-highest rate of participation won cool prizes. Fourteen volunteers staffed the crosswalks to ensure safe passage.

But the event’s triumphs, ironically enough, may have turned out to also be its downfall. As successful as it was deemed to be, I’m now stuck with the suspicion that it takes three months of planning, $50 worth of prizes and fourteen volunteers to make it possible for kids to walk to school.

My committee wants to make Walk-to-School Day a weekly event. And we can do it without the prizes and heraldry. It’s the fourteen volunteers that I can’t seem to get past. Carlisle simply isn’t a walking town. Our town doesn’t have traffic lights: walkers are strictly at the mercy of the judgment of drivers. The new footpath system is wonderful as far as making it possible to walk somewhere other than in the roadway on the main streets, but the cars that pass through the center aren’t expecting to stop for crossing foot traffic. The side streets have neither sidewalks nor footpaths, and many of them don’t even have adequate shoulders, at least adequate enough to shelter pedestrians during rush hour.

I put out an appeal for adult volunteers to help with a weekly Walk-to-School plan, but the response was scanty, and I can’t say I blame anyone. Most parents of school-aged children I know are already booked to the hilt with volunteer activities, whether or not they also hold down full-time jobs that might prevent them from being available at the walk-to-school hour. Some of the town’s older residents who do not have young children in the schools provided a great deal of help at our Walk-to-School launch, but I can’t blame them either for not wanting to make this a weekly commitment.

So I’m stuck with how to admit that I might not be able to do this. It would be a much better story – and a much more traditional one – if I rose up against the odds and showed that a safe walk-to-school program could be done. If the naysayers were someone other than me, over whom I could triumph in the face of their skepticism. The problem is the task is mine – and I’m also the one most skeptical.

It puts me in a problematic position. I’m not much of a hero if I say “Sorry, I tried to lead this effort but it’s not going to work.” That surely won’t put me in the annals of American mythology. After all, my friend Deborah faced down fifteen years of obstacles simply to get Carlisle’s footpath system installed. It doesn’t make me look very impressive if I can’t take the project the next step and ensure that they are used.

I haven’t given up yet, and at the same time, I see no evidence that I can make this work. In the end, I may have to be the anti-hero: the one who admits that sometimes a plan just can’t be pulled off. I don’t want that to be my role, and I’m not willing to give up yet. But it may be that Dad is right: some problems do not have solutions. As un-American as that may sound, it just may be true.

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