Latchkey Kids

We were bored and shackled. Our afternoons were long and dreary, no matter the weather. When the bell rang at 2:30, our days did not end happily. There was no joy in dismissal because the day had just begun. The buses were called. The kids who were picked up by their mothers in SUVs left, grabbing their Jansports and running down the hall. We looked at them, envious and spiteful. We listened for our cue and headed to the cafeteria. Latchkey had begun.
            We were the kids who had two parents working. Some of our parents were divorced. We didn’t go to Brownies or Cub Scouts. We didn’t have nannies, or play after-school soccer. We went to Latchkey nine months out of the year because our parents had nowhere else to put us. We went to Latchkey because the school brochure had made it seem like fun. Activities! Snacks! Movies! Homework Helpers®! This stuff existed, sure—but it was a version of fun so watered down, we found it unrecognizable.
            We fancied ourselves abandoned when it was a particularly awful day. It was an awful day when the same generic-brand snack was served three days in a row. It was an awful day when they played the same movie two days in a row. We liked some of the movies they had. No one could resist the charm of Peter Pan or the thrill of Mufasa’s death in the Lion King. But we hated Neverending Story, and we hated that it was so long that they’d split it into two days. They usually did that in the middle of the week, the awful, long week. We didn’t realize then what the word awful could really mean. We didn’t know then what it means to be truly and utterly abandoned.
            Tommy used to say that the best days were when his mom came early. The door would swing open and we’d all look up, only to be disappointed when it was someone else’s mother. Three, four, five years in The Program, that disappointment would still sting. Tommy never wanted to be the last one left, but he usually was. We’d all trickle out, around 5, 5:15, and wave guiltily as he sat in his chair and re-copied the day’s notes. Latchkey should have driven us all to genius but only Tommy and Sarah took advantage of the long, languorous afternoons. They’d study and study while the rest of us drew circles and smudged chocolate cookie stains on our books.
            When it was warm out, we’d get to play on the playground. We’d hatch plans, Tommy the main conspirator. “How about,” he’d start. “How about I fall off the monkey bars? Then I can sue Latchkey, and we’ll split the money and they’ll never make us come here again!” We’d cheer him on, but he never fell hard enough to crack a bone, to break something, to finally, finally set us free.

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