Wednesday, March 7, 2018

School Bus Gratitude

Can we talk about school buses for a minute?

Last week, I had a 9 a.m. dental appointment, so I took a few morning hours off and was able to put my kids on the bus before getting my teeth cleaned.  For years, my loving and dependable mother-in-law has taken this responsibility while my husband and I rush off to work; she comes to our house to do the whole bit—breakfast, teeth brushing, lunches packed in backpacks, last-minute shoe-tying.  She gets them to the bus stop and waits with them, through the white winter-cold and August heat and everything in between, and she gives them the have-a-good-day-I-love-you hugs.

But thanks to this dental appointment, on this day, I was the mom who puts her kids on the bus.  My mother-in-law took the morning off and I tried to fill her shoes with their morning routine.  When it was time, we meandered to the bus stop.  “It’s never late,” my daughter reassured me.  Sure enough, exactly on time, there it was, gently spiraling around the corner, like the millions of big yellow buses before it, on millions of roads, all over the country, for years and years and years. “There it is!” from my youngest, “Always on time!” from my oldest.  The bus wheezed and sighed, and the doors opened; my little people got on, and I could see them, through the bus windows, jiggering down the aisle before they swung, backpacked-bodies, one fluid motion, into their seats.  The driver grinned at me, kindly, a sweet man who takes my most loved people to school every day.  I waved to the other kids, who half-waved back with sleepy eyes.

I thought back, decades, to the bus I rode, when I was a student myself.  I could conjure it up, clear as today—the smell of the seats, the rumble of the tires beneath my sneakers, the gasp of the exhaust when the bus idled.  We lived in a deeply rural area, so I was on the bus just under an hour:  I used to smuggle Twizzlers in my Trapper Keeper to soften the twirling stomach of motion sickness.  If the driver was feeling generous, we were permitted to open the windows; the fresh air would clear away my nausea.  Sometimes there were senseless arguments with the other kids, mostly about who got the back seats; there was name-calling and shoving and pleas from the driver to My friend Christy sat with me all through third grade, and we played approximately 5,000 rounds of slap-hand games.  In fifth grade, Shawn Franks got kicked off for three days for writing cuss words on the back of the seat.  His mother was furious at him and refused to drive him to school, so he just didn’t come to school.   We missed him.

My mother had four children.  Counting kindergarten, that’s 52 years’ worth of buses coming to our house to pick us up, take us to school, and get us back home again.  For “free.”  And that’s just one family. 

There is a lot of aggressive opinion, nowadays, about public education.  A lot of it isn’t flattering.  But I’d argue it’s one of the things—warts and all—that is actually working in our country, and I think of the bus, and the driver behind the wheel, as its symbol.  The pre-dawn bus warm-up, the driving of infinite miles on city roads and over rural potholes, the tribe of kids, all living in one area or apartment or street, riding together toward school and then home again, all secure and safe, the whole thing as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning.

There is ugliness that happens on the bus, of course.  Bullying and misbehavior, fights and misplaced lunch boxes, traffic infractions and missed turns. It is a social and behavioral petri dish, and as such, it is a heavy stress that the bus drivers carry.  And that is, of course, its own symbol, reflective of our world, and reflective of kids learning to get along and figure it out.  They learn to ask for help if they need it.  They learn resiliency and toughness and self-advocacy.  Or they learn to wait it out.  

It’s not perfect.  But it is pretty extraordinary, no? The regular-ness of it all, the simple way it happens, all over the country, again and again:  The bus comes, and it takes students where they need to be.  Just like that.

It’s comforting to me:  The sight of a school bus, the idea of releasing my children to the open doors, the steadiness of the driver’s greeting.   It is a sturdy and reliable kind of comfort, one that hasn’t changed in a long, long time, and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  Which is, perhaps, the biggest comfort of all. 

Many, many thanks to every single bus driver... ever.  

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