Morning Walks With My Son

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When Lev was going into third grade he couldn’t decide whether to switch to a new school, so we made a list of pros and cons. The pro side filled up with cramped sentences written in Lev’s sweet, illegible handwriting, while only one word appeared on the con list, in huge letters: FAR!

Distance is definitely an important consideration when choosing a school, especially when there is no school bus available and your parents don’t have a car. But, still, the cramped sentences on the pro side won out, and Lev enrolled in the new school, a bit of a distance from where we live in Tel Aviv. There were three ways to get there: Take a taxi, ride a bike or walk. The walk took half an hour.

A taxi or a bike would get him there faster, but I tried, every morning, to tip the balance in favor of walking.

There’s something magical about Tel Aviv at 7:15 a.m. The half-awake streets are filled with industrious birds and languid cats, but almost no people.

At first, on our way to school, we played a game called “Where’s Everybody.” Each of us took a turn explaining where all the people who filled the streets later were: They’d been abducted by aliens; they’d moved to an enchanted castle; they were establishing another Hebrew-speaking country in the African savanna. But wherever they were, their absence enabled us to discern all sorts of sounds and details we could barely notice when the city was bustling, and to talk about things that somehow, at other times of day, we had no time to discuss, such as:

Which superhero has a more highly developed sense of humor, Spider-Man or Hawkeye? (Spider-Man, by a knockout.)

And what government minister we wanted to be if the prime minister offered us a position in his cabinet. (I wanted to be education minister and Lev chose the very specific position of minister of desserts.)

There were regular stops on our long journey to school: the bald guy’s grocery store where we bought soft pretzels and chatted with him about sports; the natural juice bar where we drank banana-date shakes and heard updates from the bleary-eyed owner about his baby girl who refused to sleep at night; the square with the brazen pigeons that insisted on having all the benches to themselves and cooed in complaint whenever we tried to sit down next to them for a minute.

Since I am not a creature of habit, those morning walks with Lev became almost the only ritual in my life, a kind of slow, pleasant awakening in an equally sleepy universe, until one evening that spring, Lev had a slightly upsetting talk with my wife, Shira, and me.

He told us that all the kids in his class were old enough to walk to school alone and, at 10 and a half, so was he. I stammered something about living much further away than the other kids, but Shira traitorously pointed out that even though it was a long walk, there was almost no traffic, and so with a broken heart, I had to agree that there was no reason Lev couldn’t go to school by himself the next morning.

Saying goodbye was hard. Not to Lev, who looked even more excited and determined than usual, but to our shared journey, which I had grown so used to. That evening, Lev told us that he had walked to school quickly and arrived 10 minutes earlier than he usually did. The next day, he broke his previous record by two whole minutes. On the third morning, when I walked barefoot down the steps with him, a bag of garbage in my hand, I told him that I was proud of him for being responsible enough to walk to school alone but if he ever wanted company, I’d be happy to go with him. Not to supervise, I stressed, just to share a morning walk. He didn’t answer, just nodded, and after I threw the garbage in the bin and turned to go back home, he called, “Are you coming?”

That conversation took place a year ago, and ever since, we’ve been walking to school together every morning. Israeli sports, according to our grocery store owner, could use some improvement, the brazen pigeons in the square just seem to be getting fatter, and the natural juice bar owner’s baby girl sleeps through the night now and can even say “Papa.”

The day after school ended, the sound of obsessive bird chirping woke us to the first morning of summer vacation. After we brushed our teeth and got dressed, Lev opened the front door and gestured with his head for me to come. We went downstairs and began walking quietly toward the school.

“Isn’t it great that summer vacation is here?” I said casually, in an attempt to make sure he was aware of the new circumstances.

“Absolutely,” he said with a nod, and bent to pet a cat. “I don’t have to schlep my schoolbag anymore.”