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My kingdom for a parking space. Oh, never mind

My first teaching job was in a pretty rough school. So imagine my surprise one day when one of my colleagues said, “This is a great school to work at.” I waited for him to elaborate and tried not to fall over. He added, “Because of the parking!” He was right about that. We had a small section of the street that was reserved for teachers, but there was also ample street parking. The issues at that school were too vast for me to consider staying, but I still miss the ease of parking there.

Being a perpetual early bird, I didn’t find it too difficult to park when I transferred to my current school 10 years ago, even though there was a lot less street parking that wasn’t reserved for the school. I had my placard and usually had no problems, save for the very rare occasion when there was an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I arrived later.

Much as we loved the city, my husband and I decided to buy a house and were unable to afford the city. We decided to head north, to Putnam County, where our daughter could have a yard and a small-town childhood. Since I loved teaching in the city, and still do, I didn’t look for a new job. Once I’d left Queens, I found myself leaving earlier than ever, but I wanted to make sure I could get a parking spot. And I have always relied heavily on that hour before school to get myself mentally ready for the day and set up any materials I needed. I am also neurotic about punctuality and am almost never late.

This worked well for me until last fall, when Mayor Bloomberg decided to strip most of our parking passes, citing abuse and a desire to see more people using mass transit.(I am not sure how one can abuse a Department of Education parking placard; I did once park in a Red Cross spot next to Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, and I got towed faster than you can say “parking pass.” It was my own fault because I didn’t read the sign carefully enough, but is it abuse if you’re ticketed and towed?)

After our current passes were revoked, I found myself leaving home earlier than ever, but I still had to loop around the neighborhood until I found a space. More than once, I crossed my fingers and took a questionable spot, hoping I wouldn’t find a ticket when I got out. Sometimes I was lucky, more often not.

I suppose I could have paid to park in the lot near my school, but I have a philosophical problem with paying for something that suburban teachers get for free, even though our salaries are supposedly on par with theirs. And I was already spending a lot of money on gas. On average, I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes, wasting gas, looking for a spot, but more important, I wasted time that would have been better spent in my classroom. My commute, an hour from door to door, was extended substantially by the time I spent looking for a parking space.

Each month, I’d wait hopefully for my name to be pulled out of a hat so that I could take my turn with one of the eight passes we were issued, to be shared among 30 teachers who drove. Three times since the fall of 2008, the parking placard fairy smiled upon me. During those months, I got more work done. I drove up to the school, parked, and went inside, just like I used to, with a full hour or more to grade papers, organize my classroom, or write lessons. This left about 12 months during this school year and last that I did not have parking privileges. The number of placards my complex got from the city was also way out of line with the number of spaces we estimated ourselves — it seems like there is space for 10 more cars but of course, since we don’t have enough placards, we can’t use those spaces. My UFT chapter leader told me that the city estimated 20 feet per vehicle. Since most of us don’t drive stretch limos to work, that estimation seemed a bit high.

In February, fed up with the situation, I decided to start taking the train. Though I have to be out the door at 5:30 a.m., so that I can arrive in Melrose by 7:30 a.m., there are definite benefits. Most important, I get a lot of work done during the ride. It’s less stressful than driving, especially in the winter months. I spend about half the ride home reading a book of my choosing, which helps me unwind. When I get home, I’ve done nearly everything I need to do for the next day and can devote myself to spending time with my daughter. When I was driving, I would have to bring home the work I didn’t get done because I was looking for parking, which left less time for her. Due to the train schedule and the length of the train ride, I now arrive home an hour later than I used to, but my daughter gets 100 percent of my attention from the minute I walk in the door. I usually have to do a few minor things, but there’s time after she goes to bed.

Ironically, my commute by train is shorter and easier than it was by subway. When I lived in Queens, it took an hour and 45 minutes, and involved a bus, two subways and a walk of several blocks. Now, it’s two commuter trains and a very short walk and an actual lot where I can leave my car. Living and working in the same city does not automatically equal an easy public transit commute, especially for those who have children, attend school or have other obligations.

I am grateful that the train has worked out for me. It’s not perfect, though. If my daughter gets sick during the school day and needs to be picked up early, it may pose a problem because the trains run very infrequently from my school. My first train leaves from my town and the second from White Plains, but for two weeks in a row my first train had mechanical problems, which led to me missing my train from White Plains, which led to me being late. It’s ironic that I’ve been late more often using public transit than I was when I was driving. Fortunately, I have an understanding principal.

If our parking passes were restored tomorrow (I know they won’t be; in fact, I wonder what we’re going to lose next) I would still continue to take the train, but I would be grateful for the flexibility of being able to drive if I needed or wanted to. I had to pass up a music class that I wanted to take with my daughter because the train won’t get me home in time and the class is held on the worst parking day of the week. I still feel for my colleagues who were not able to find a solution like mine. They are still spending lots of time driving around, looking for spots — time that could be better spent on other things. If the situation weren’t so frustrating to so many of us, maybe we’d laugh at the fact that parking is considered a perk and not a necessity.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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