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By Anu Varma Panchal

Anyone who has a child in fifth or eighth grade knows that fall in these parts is not just about Halloween costumes and Diwali parties and waiting in vain for the temperature to fall below 80 degrees.

No, for us here in the Tampa Bay area with 10/11 or 13/14-year-olds, fall with its school choice window is the time to ponder the endlessly frustrating question of which direction to catapult our kids in their next phase of education. As elementary and middle school years come to a close, we deliberate, research and agonize: local or charter? Choice or magnet? AP or IB?

But here’s the real question: Who’s going to be in my carpool?

Because we all know that’s what it comes down to, especially if we succumb to peer pressure and ditch our adequate neighborhood school to drive an hour through the Interstate of Hell to some other school that looks exactly like the one five minutes away but now contains everyone from our neighborhood.

Levels of criteria used in carpool admission can rival those of secret societies, as one friend found out when she tried to arrange one for a child who attended a magnet school. Some carpools take only girls, others only boys. Some are so strictly sorted by year that even siblings don’t use the same ones. Some are so sensitive to the chemistry of the group that new kids aren’t accepted if the existing kids blackball them.

Do we really care which kids clamber into our Odysseys and Siennas? We should. After all, they are the first ones our kids see in the morning and the ones they close out their school day with. Ideally, each car pool would contain kind and supportive friends who use deodorant and make bright and polite conversation. The reality in high school, as I’ve heard from parents ahead of me in the parenting slog, can be vastly different — and anticlimactic. “They put in their ear phones and go to sleep,” a friend reported. “Right away?” I ask. “Yup. And all the way there.”

Then there are matters of etiquette. Do you still do your turn if your kid stayed home sick or has a club after school? How do you deal the chronically late parent? Or the one who decides to run a couple of quick errands on the way home, or the one who could teach a master class on the art of WhatsApp passive aggression? Or how about the one who says she’ll drive but then shunts her father-in-law/visiting cousin into the driver’s seat so your kids are sailing off onto I-75 with a perfect stranger?

Is it really worth the hassle? Some of my best memories are of times alone with one or the other child in my van. It’s this bubble of intimacy, a lull in the constant busyness that allows us to just be with each other without the stress of multitasking. Sometimes, it’s easier to just listen to what they have to say when it comes from a disembodied voice from the backseat and I’m not face-to-face, analyzing every reaction. It would be wonderful to have this time every day.

But this would be overlooking the major perk of carpools: Spying. It’s a goldmine for the nosy parent who wants the deets on their kid’s and friends’ social lives. Just hum along to boring music and pretend you’re not paying attention, and you’ll have piles of dirt in no time.

Personally, I’ve had wonderful carpool adventures. My first one was to a Montessori 20 minutes away, with my 4-year-old, a 3-year-old and 2 kindergarteners. My afternoon pickups entailed distributing snacks and juice, requesting passengers to keep their sticky hands to themselves (mostly my toddler) and playing nursery rhyme CDs. The hardest thing was stopping them all from trotting out at each house to start a playdate.

I walked my girls to their elementary school, and later teamed up with an awesome neighbor whose daughter attended the same middle school. We had a wonderful, low-key arrangement of texting Sunday evenings to confirm which times and days worked for each of us. James Corden had nothing on these two girls. Both chorus members, they’ve entertained me with everything from Disney to carols to Zulu chorale music, complete with clicks.

So when I try and decide to which high school for my daughter, I’ll be closely watching her friend’s decisions too. Because: I-75. And also because the teen years can be rough and competitive and exhausting, and maybe they’ll be easier if they start and end in the company of friends … with whom they can spill their innermost thoughts. Not, of course, that I’ll be listening.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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