News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

June 7, 2014

MARK BENNETT: The road ahead

From a hesitant kindergartner waiting for the bus to a confident young woman, writer looks back at journey as daughter graduates from high school

TERRE HAUTE — An invisible force shield — just like those found in comic books — formed a barrier between us and the edge of that road.

At least it seemed that way for two weeks.

Every morning, she and I stood there, waiting for the school bus to take her to kindergarten. She always looked ready (more so than her dad) in a blonde ponytail, colorful T-shirt, shorts, sneakers, freckles and a smile — thanks to her mom. My wife handled that role before heading to work. With a later starting time for my job, my responsibility was to make sure our two elementary scholars got on the bus.

Our youngest son, a fifth-grader, considered this ritual routine. For his kid sister, though, it was her big first day of school.

All appeared well. She’d laugh with her brother and me, quiz us about life at school, and look for the bus to roll into view. Finally, it pulled up, stopping at the end of our driveway. My son practically long-jumped onto its steps. My daughter turned around, grabbed onto my leg and refused to climb aboard. The driver, a friendly guy, patiently waited a couple minutes, grinned, asked if I could drive her to school instead, and said, “Let’s try again tomorrow.”

We did. Once again, she held onto me as her brother boarded the bus, so I waved it on. Same result the next day. And the next. And the next.

Then, a couple Mondays later, something changed. The big yellow machine arrived — diesel engine churning, brakes hissing as it pulled to a stop, and seats filled with dozens of fidgety kids — but it must’ve no longer felt so imposing to my daughter. The driver cranked open the doors, greeted her with a “good morning,” and waited, just as he’d done for two weeks. This time, though, she looked up at me, let go of my hand and scaled the steps.

I’m sure her 5-year-old heart pounded, but she summoned every ounce of courage in it. Her independent spirit emerged that day.

I can still see that anxious grin and those sky-blue eyes peering at me through the window of the bus as the driver revved through the gears and it motored onto the highway and into the distance.

We got to know that country road pretty well as time passed.

While waiting at our bus stop, eagerly now, she and I would scratch our names in the white rock where the driveway meets the road, just to see if the letters would still be there when she got home. Rain determined that.

Once she started riding a bike, she’d pedal over the road beside my wife and me during our evening walks. The girl loved to talk along the way.

Those conversations continued when she took up running and enlisted me as her sidekick. Her knack for that sport caught me by surprise. As a 10-year-old, she joined a softball team of mostly older girls and spent their practices trying to catch up to the others in virtually every facet of the game, except one — baserunning. Her coach asked me, “Have you ever noticed how fast she is?” It dawned on me that she was kind of hard to catch, even as a toddler, when it was time to leave Deming Park or Bogey’s.

So we ran together, conversing as we went. Well, I jogged, and she ran, in low gear, for my sake. She became a sprinter for her school track teams, and ran longer distances in cross country in the fall. She could handle both. I found that out when the two of us ran as a workout for her upcoming meets. We’d jog, side by side, for a mile and a half up that country road, turn around and head back. A quarter-mile from home, she’d say, “Let’s sprint to the driveway.” Typically, she would unleash a burst of speed, look back at me and holler, “C’mon, Dad, sprint.” Breathless, I’d groan, “I am.”

By high school, she learned to drive. Her mom and I would let her practice on that quiet country road — stopping, starting, signaling, backing up and passing imaginary trucks and SUVs. Eventually, she earned her license. The sight of her driving the car, on her own for the first time, smiling and confident, up the driveway and out onto that road, lingers unforgettable.

This afternoon, she’ll drive that road again, on her way to pick up her high school diploma. College awaits, just months away. She’s an amazing young lady. Smart. Funny. Creative. Self-assured. Inspirational. She’s got great plans, and though my inclination is to wrap my arms around her like she did me all those years ago at the bus stop, I’m excited to let her go fulfill her dreams. No invisible force shield can stop her now.

Last week, while we hustled around the kitchen, getting breakfast and coffee, and packing lunches, she reminded me that summer break was just days away. “We can run together in the mornings,” she said. Sounds great. Just don’t go too fast.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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