The ever-changing environment of the oft-overlooked school parking lot is a world unto itself
By Aislinn McNiece
While high school students may come and go, one piece of the Acalanes campus remains year after year, virtually unchanging. This slab of asphalt knows more about the school than most students and some faculty do. It bears witness to everything from frazzled students rushing to class on a typical harried Monday morning to celebrations of ultimate jubilation and freedom following the final bell on the last day of school. It even sees the cutthroat parent drivers fighting for an elusive spot in the drop-zone.
It has a front-row seat for illegal weekend activities, the dejection of a disappointing defeat against a rival team, the high of an exhilarating home game win, and the day-to-day turf wars between the different grades and social groups. The Acalanes parking lot has seen it all.
Because most students have never pondered or truly observed the seemingly inconsequential black concrete expanse surrounding the school, they often don’t recognize its significance. This single environment becomes multiple, dynamic environments that change with the time of day, week, season, and school events.
“The parking lot isn’t something that I really think about that often. For me, it’s purely functional,” said sophomore Allison Nichols.
It’s easy to pass over and ignore the many personalities that the lot passes over through the course of the day, yet the drama involving the school parking lot is almost endless. More than almost anything else, the parking lot is a haven for upperclassmen–a place where they can establish their own territory in the midst of the sometimes impersonal and overwhelmingly large institution that is public high school.
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A Social Sanctuary
In a school largely ruled by teachers and administrators, students have a certain degree of autonomy in the parking lot–it’s their turf. After rushed parents drop off underclassmen and before they return again to pick them up, juniors and seniors are able to dictate the atmosphere of the lot. In the universe that is Acalanes, the front lot is its own freely floating galaxy.
“The parking lot is a place where I feel at home,” said junior Kathryn Hill. “I can hang out with my friends and almost forget that I’m actually at school.”
In some ways, the parking lot has taken over the role of the archetypal high school cafeteria table. Friends tend to stick together, often parking near each other in the same spots every day. The lot occasionally even becomes a battleground, as groups of students jockey for control of the best territory.
“[During] the first few weeks of school, I had no idea where to park and no idea where my friends parked,” said junior Kelly Collins. “I parked there for a week in a row, and one Friday I got this note that said, ‘This is our spot, don’t ever park here again. We’re seniors and you’re not, so get out.’”
This tension is not always limited to the confines of the low concrete walls surrounding the main lot. Though supposedly only juniors and seniors are allowed to park in this highly coveted area, the rare sophomore sometimes sneaks in. Upperclassmen can be fiercely protective of this parking sanctuary, just as sophomores sometimes feel left out and dejected when they are forced to make the long trek to the Springbrook parking lot. When underclassmen attempt to breach this age barrier, tempers can quickly reach a boiling point.
“Sophomores need to stop parking in the main lot,” said junior Edward Huddart.
One of the few adults who can attest to these many parking lot stories is Andy McDonald, campus security and parking lot extraordinaire.
“First and foremost, my job is to make sure that the students are safe and to keep intruders off of campus and make sure everyone is in class,” said McDonald. “So I’ve seen a lot, and a surprising amount of it goes down in the parking lot.”
• • •
The Morning Madhouse
Whether or not they realize it, students spend a significant part of their day in the school’s parking lot. Unfortunately for busy students, much of this time is spent attempting to maneuver through mazes of other cars and frustrated drivers, making the experience unpleasant and intimidating.
“Getting to school is pretty hectic when I’m almost late, and leaving school right after the bell rings, [the parking lot] is also really crowded and scary to drive in,” said junior Sophia Takashima.
While some students, like those with zero periods, arrive before most other people on campus and are assured the best parking spots, there is always a hectic rush of students swarming into the lots as the clock ticks toward 8:00 am.
With only minutes until the first bell, Starbucks drinks slosh on the ground as latecomers hurriedly grab their belongings and sprint to class, attempting to lock their cars that are hastily parked in one of the very last spots. All Acalanes students can fall victim to oversleeping, but when the battle for limited parking spots rages before the bell rings, tardy drivers must simply cross their fingers and hope for an empty spot.
While the lot is nearly empty at 7:30, save for several students jamming to music in their own behind-the-glass worlds, by 7:45 the race for parking places is on. The majority of student drivers arrive at school right about this time, so there is a steady stream of traffic attempting to enter the parking lot from 7:45 until a few minutes before the bell.
“If you’re late and you need to park, especially later in the year, the feeling can best be described as a frantic race for the last spot between you and at least three other people,” said junior Adam Chan.
Along with these harried drivers comes the inevitable fender-benders. Not only are student drivers new and inexperienced, the morning rush can cause a lack of attention and awareness.
“The parking lot is usually pretty crowded and chaotic in the mornings,” said sophomore Madison Maderious. “I have seen a few fender benders because drivers were so rushed.”
As if students frantically filling up the lot wasn’t enough, parents dropping off their kids clog an entire lane adjacent to the front quad. Students must maneuver around these stopped cars before they can begin the desperate search for a parking spot.
“The most annoying thing in the parking lot are those moms that stop in front of the gym and block everyone,” said junior Kevin Robertson.
Because many students don’t have their licenses yet, there is no other option but to have their parents drive them to school.
• • •
The After-school Standstill
Few things compare to the headache-inducing maze of students and parents trying to escape the parking lot, slowly funneling out through the exit lanes at 3:05.
Many parents still have trouble maneuvering through the lot and abiding by its rules, despite years of driving experience. It goes without saying that many students without licenses must be picked up from school by their parents, grandparents, nannies, and the like. These people are not quite so familiar with the school parking lot and the way student drivers would prefer it to work.
“In the afternoon, parents are the worst in the parking lot. I think kids are better at driving in the Acalanes parking lot than parents,” said junior Angela Falk. “Parents block everything, and they give you really dirty looks and get super angry if you get at all close to their cars, even if they’re doing the wrong thing.”
Drivers funnel out at a glacial pace, leaving no chance of a speedy escape through two tiny exits. Cars are stationed bumper to bumper across the entire expanse of the parking lot, making it nearly impossible to move until the car at the head of the line does.
“Leaving can only be described as a torturous waiting game. You sit and watch for a gap between the cars of parents who park where they shouldn’t, only leaving one lane for two-way traffic,” said Chan.
Nonetheless, it is not only the parents who have a hard time following the rules of the parking lot.
Unless students spend hours diligently reading through the 22 pages of school policies in tiny print at the front of their planners, there is a slim chance that they will be familiar with each nitpicky detail involving the parking lot, such as the five mile per hour speed limit. Thus ensues the chaos of the Acalanes parking lot.
Of course, some students choose to wait out the drama of the afternoon rush, instead hanging out with their friends in the lot. For example, the “Blue Truck Boys,” a group of junior students who spend almost every afternoon in the back of junior Richard Butzbach’s faded blue pickup truck, see the lot more or less as the waiting room of the school.
“We just hang out and chat like we would anywhere else. We hang out in my truck during seventh period because people are waiting around for sports to start after school ends,” said Butzbach. “Beyond that I usually give five or ten minutes for the parking lot to clear out and another five to warm up my truck [before I leave].”
After the traffic jam finally trickles out, space is left for people unfamiliar with the lot to break rules. This always seems to include a random car driving upstream against the traffic. While other people are still trying to get out, these bewildering roadblocks frustrate and annoy hurried drivers.
Most of these rushed drivers are new to the streets, as high school students make up the majority of the world’s infamous new drivers.
“I’d say three quarters of the people in the parking lot leaving and going to school are new drivers,” said Falk. “I’ve noticed that there isn’t a whole lot of politeness.”
The concept of politeness is virtually nonexistent in the parking lot, because once a car is put into drive at the end of the day, it’s every man for himself. While most drivers stick inside the slow-moving stream of traffic, there are some rule-breakers who cut across lanes of cars and barrel full-speed ahead to their exit of choice. Nevertheless, these risk-taking drivers aren’t the only ones breaking the parking lot rules, unwritten and written.
• • •
Devious Daytime Drama
According to school policy, Acalanes is a closed campus, meaning that students are not allowed to leave campus or even go out to their cars during school hours.
“I don’t want to be a parking lot Nazi, [but] I definitely understand that there are times when people need to go to their cars,” said McDonald. “I look at it like this, if it’s something you’ve really got to have, like your food, I’m not going to deprive a kid of his food. Then again, there are rules that you have to adhere to.”
Once cars are parked in the lot in the morning, students are legally supposed to stay out of them until they leave school for the day. Nonetheless, high school students are busy, rushed, and, most importantly, teenagers. Often they are forgetful and tend to leave things in their cars, accidentally or even intentionally.
“I’ve gone out to the parking lot during lunch to get something out of my car and so have my friends. This happens pretty often, as far as I can say,” said Chan.
The administration is rather relaxed about letting students go out to their cars to grab forgotten items, as it is a natural event that can’t really be avoided. However, other rules that seem like they should be strictly enforced are also cleverly dodged by students.
“I’m sure [kids escape at lunch] from time to time, but there are 1,400 of you guys and one of me so we do our best. I like to think that it doesn’t happen as much as people think it does,” said McDonald. “[However,] if we catch somebody doing something in the parking lot that they shouldn’t be doing, he is punished. We don’t let it go.”
Even though McDonald tries to crack down on student escapees, some still manage to get away.
“I hear about people leaving school to go buy lunch and they’ve done it multiple times without getting caught,” said Takashima.
Some students sneak off and escape the confines of school to buy more appetizing lunches for themselves and their friends. The exhilaration of getting away can make the risky endeavor worthwhile, but oftentimes the risk is not worth the potential reward.
The punishment for being caught sneaking away is detention or Saturday school, but the rules get overlooked when some students tell tales of their near-miss campus escapes and auto shop students seem to be sneaking.
“During STAR testing week I left school during lunch with a friend to go get Casa [Burrito]. It was a spur of the moment decision and we figured we would be back soon enough so we just decided to go,” said a source who requested anonymity because his actions were against school policy. “It was kind of exciting because we had never done anything like it before. Looking back, it would have sucked to get caught but we didn’t, so I don’t regret it.”
Another policy that students sometimes breeze by is rule about restricted parking areas. According to the handbook, no student, whether or not he or she has a permit, may park in designated staff parking areas, the lot adjacent to the auto shop unless he or she has special dispensation from Grant Cusick, the auto shop teacher.
Also, students cannot park between the school buildings and Pleasant Hill Road, and on red zones, fire roads, or handicap zones without a handicap plaque, on any area without designated white parking lines, or in areas that may obstruct emergency vehicles or delivery trucks.
Even students with permits, however, are guilty of disobeying these rules on a regular basis. Students also question the validity of their parking permits, as it seems easy to go unnoticed when a permit is not displayed.
“[Rules in the parking lot are not] maintained very well. I’ve forgotten my parking permit in my mom’s car a few times throughout this year but I never got a warning or anything,” said Takashima.
According to the administration, these slip-ups are just flukes in the system because parking permits are checked daily. When McDonald isn’t riding through the school hallways in his stylish golf cart, he is out making his rounds through the parking lots.
“If it’s a kid, [he or she must] have a parking permit, plain and simple. I hear rumors every year of sophomores trying to buy permits from juniors and I know there’s probably some underhanded stuff that goes on there,” said McDonald. “I try to police it as best as I can. Everyone that has a parking permit is in a database.”
On occasion, however, a parent car parked in the lot will receive a ticket, revealing a flaw in the system
“If it’s a parent’s car and I write a ticket and then I have a parent come to me, it’s no problem. There are a lot of cars here and a lot of stuff I have to [do],” said McDonald. “It’s probably the least fun part of my job writing parking tickets. I’m not here to bother the kids. I like to think of myself as being here to help you guys, not to make your lives worse.”
Other than checking for parking permits, McDonald has been called out to the parking lot for other car-related conundrums.
The early morning rush often causes students to forget minor things, like a bottle of water or a notebook. But, every so often, something much more important gets forgotten.
“I got a report of a car over in the far end [of the parking lot] by the gym that was running,” said McDonald. Apparently, this person had forgotten to turn the car off and left the keys in it, and I didn’t discover it until about four hours later.”
Luckily, the owner of the car had a parking permit, so McDonald was able to locate her in the database and alert her of the problem.
• • •
Weekend Meet and Greet
As unglamorous as it sounds, the parking lot is a popular place for students to meet up before outings, hang out to see who is around, or even participate in illegal activities.
“Usually we find remnants of kids that have been there. We’ve found empty alcohol bottles and empty cereal boxes but usually that’s about it,” said McDonald.
Because of its proximity to the freeway and multiple routes to Moraga, Orinda, and Walnut Creek, the Acalanes parking lot is an easily accessible place for students to meet up.
“People meet up [in the parking lot] to carpool to or wait for parties. I think it’s cool because you can always find someone you know,” said a source who requested anonymity and the pseudonym Parking Lot Partier. “When I’m there, I feel like everyone is friends with everyone.”
Whether or not this feeling of friendship is a result of the alcohol being consumed and the marijuana being smoked or just the general feeling of community and familiarity that can also be felt at any normal high school party, the atmosphere of the parking lot at night is a sharp difference from that of the daytime school days.
Little human interaction is exchanged during the daytime, as students are either gearing up mentally for a grueling school day or heading out to their cars trying to beat the afternoon rush. Yet come the cover of darkness and subtle anonymity, students are prepared to hang out with anyone else who may stop by during the course of the night.
“I occasionally go to the parking lot on weekend nights because there are usually friends there,” said Parking Lot Partier.
Of course, the dark provides a shield of anonymity for not just fellow students, but adults especially. It’s nearly impossible to pick out any specific person or car under the low lighting, which allows the perfect escape from cops who are cracking down on illegal activity.
“A majority of high school students feel immune to laws no matter what the environment. I don’t think that people think they are any more above the law in the parking lot than they would be in a private residence or even at school,” said Parking Lot Partier.
However, this implies that there is a sense of impunity when students are shrouded by darkness and in a familiar, comfortable place, like school. Acalanes is like a second home to most students, as much of their days are spent within the school hallways, out on the fields, or in the parking lot already. The pitch-black parking lot provides a perfect safety zone for rabble-rousing students.
• • •
While the parking lot serves as home base for Acalanes students meeting up on the weekends, they are invaded at least once a week by swarms of buses, parent cars, and random fans during sporting events.
Especially leading up to a game with one of Acalanes’s biggest rivals, Campolindo or Miramonte, the parking lot can transform into a battleground to fuel the cutthroat competitors. And at the end of the night, the parking lot can serve as either Acalanes’s field of glory or the opponents’ gloating terrain.
Because sporting events are school-sponsored, the administration does not let the game and rivalry continue into the parking lot.
“When we’re supervising a big game versus Campo or Miramonte, we have extra people working and as soon as a football game or basketball game ends, usually Takahashi, myself, and Seelenbacher go out to the parking lot and try to keep an eye on everything,” said McDonald.
But as parades of Escalades file out of the lot, crazy rivalries can cause crazy predicaments.
According to a source who requested anonymity due to his participation in illegal activity, after a heated basketball game with San Ramon Valley High School, the defeated opponents were spotted throwing handles of vodka around the parking lot. Of course, they were immediately shooed away by McDonald and his security gang, but the memories live on.
“Once after a track meet, while we were deciding what we would do next, somebody started blasting music out of their car and we all ended up just hanging out there,” said junior Keenan Byrne. “We bonded as a team over our job well done at the meet and it was one of the best memories I have with my teammates.”
Just as the exuberance of a big win is invigorating, the despondency of a crushing defeat can be paralyzing for determined athletes. Especially when it feels as if the school is riding on the team’s back in hopes of a big win, an eventual defeat is absolutely heartbreaking, and the mood in the parking lot afterwards is an obvious reflection of this agony.
Fans slowly head out to their cars, either discussing the bad calls in the game or just sulking, as they disgustedly watch victors clamber onto their buses to head home to a crowd of spirited supporters. After a locker room debriefing, players dejectedly wander out to their respective cars, contemplating what they did wrong and sometimes even mentally accusing other players for mistakes they may or may not have made.
All fans and players alike can do is hope for victory in the next big game, whence they will be gloating and celebrating the win just as much as the current champions.
After almost any sports game, on looking passerby can drive by the parking lot and simply take a glance to determine whether or not Acalanes won the game, and this classificatory nature of the parking lot carries on all week long.
• • •
Whether or not students, faculty, or parents realize it, the parking lots of the school are integral parts of Acalanes. Once each and every dynamic environment of the constantly changing parking lot is recognized, nobody can ever really look at it as a nondescript blacktop expanse again.
“There is a lot more to the parking lot than meets the eye. We’re students, we’re teenagers, we’re crazy, so we do crazy things. The parking lot is a great place to do it,” said senior Marshall Crawford.