Thursday, October 20, 2011

School Bus Memories

As I drove home after dropping my son off at tennis practice today, I pulled up to a stop light behind a small fleet of public school buses. The big yellow ones with NORTH CAROLINA PUBLIC SCHOOLS written on the side. These buses looked fairly new and clean. The windows were closed tight and darkly tinted. I can only imagine how hot it must get on those buses in this North Carolina heat; every attempt to reduce the glare of the sun and increase the breadth of the shadows is worth the effort.

I followed those buses nearly all the way home, watching with rapt attention as, one by one, they turned right and left at various corners in order for the students to arrive safely back at home. At one light, two buses stopped side-by-side. Suddenly several windows were opened and many high fives and handshakes were exchanged between students on the two buses. Then when the light turned green, just as suddenly as they had been opened a moment or two before, the windows were closed and the homeward journey continued.

As I watched that exchange of greetings between buses and the subsequent closing of the windows, I thought back to my own days of riding the school bus.

In elementary school, I attended a magnet school a long way from my house. The school bus picked me up across the street from my house in Flatbush and from there the ride was 45 minutes, crossed the great borough of Brooklyn, picking up tired little people at 15 or 20 bus stops, and deposited us at P.S. 307, the Daniel Hale Williams school in Fort Greene. (I just made the connection between my elementary school and the college I attended, Williams College. Plus my son's name is Daniel. Wowza! How cool is that?)

Because my stop was one of the first of the morning route, I would usually sit up front, right behind the driver. My father was a city bus driver at the time, so I felt an instant connection with whomever happened to be the school bus driver. I would ask lots of questions about driving and traffic. I would offer to open the door at the various stops. I would sometimes slip under the bar separating the driver from the students and sit on the box between the driver and the window. Why those men (all the drivers were men back then) ever put up with my antics is beyond me. But I loved riding the bus. I loved school. And I loved being up front - in the bus, in the classroom, at church, in the car. (I still like being up front. Anybody who goes to church with me knows that I want to sit up near the front.  Some things never change...)

The afternoon bus rides were often tougher. The younger kids would often get on the bus first and  they usually wanted the front seats. So I'd have to sit in the back. The older kids didn't appreciate my camaraderie with the driver or with the teachers and principals at school (I guess I was a bit of a brown-noser, but I truly didn't think there was anything wrong with hanging out with adults - and I couldn't understand why the other students cared who I hung out with.) I had my fair share of fights on the bus. Being the peace-loving, tender-hearted kid that I was, I tried as hard as possible to avoid fisticuffs, but sometimes I had no choice but to defend myself. Pulled hair. Split lips. Torn clothing. Bookbag contents strewn. It wasn't pretty. But I survived.

It wasn't all terror and teasing on the bus. Those same school buses also took us to the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Museum of Natural History, and many other eye- and heart-opening sights in New York City. We went on factory tours and train trips, to concerts and Broadway shows, as well as many other cultural and social events that shaped my malleable mind into the music, art, and travel lover that I am today.


For middle school and high school, I attended a private school, equally far from my house, but at the opposite end of Brooklyn. For six years, the bus picked me up on Ocean Avenue and traversed streets and boulevards heading for Dyker Heights, not far from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, to the Polytechnic Preparatory Country Day School, known more simply as, "Poly." I loved that place. I loved every minute of my six years there at Poly. I loved it so much that, soon after graduating from college, I went back there to teach for two terribly short years. If I still lived in New York, I would still be teaching there. I wouldn't have homeschooled my children because they both would be students at my alma mater.

Life on the school bus, especially during my middle school years, was quite different from school bus life in elementary school. The main reason for the vast change in school bus etiquette was a kid whose name was Frank. I won't say his last name because I want to protect him from potential prosecution for the behavior he incited and committed on the bus.

There were mustard and ketchup packs boosted from the lunchroom and squeezed out onto unsuspecting people waiting to cross the street after the school bus passed them by. Pedestrians were showered with mustard and relish. I still cringe when I think of the poor woman on her bike, dressed all in white, who was doused in ketchup as we passed her. (Maybe that is why I still am reluctant to buy any clothing that is white.) I wish I could say that I worked hard to stop Frank from doing what he did. I wish I could say that I reported his behavior to the driver or some other authority. I'm glad to say that I never participated in the rampant tomfoolery, but nor did I make any attempt to end it. I laughed a lot on that bus. A lot.

Well, except for the few times when the bus driver would pull over to the side of the road, get out of his seat and come to the back to reprimand us for our noise and for our rowdy behavior. And the day that Frank threw a bus seat out of the window - yes, he pried the bottom pad of the seat off the frame, lifted it to the open window and shoved it out - we all knew, even Frank, that things had gone a little too far. The driver of the vehicle that was nearly destroyed by that flying seat stopped the bus and got on. He was not happy. He came to the back of the bus and let fly a string of epithets, insults, warnings, and threats that every single one of us deserved to hear. I felt bad for the driver. He couldn't believe we had been so irresponsible and reckless, plus he was going to get into big trouble for the missing seat.

It was in the back of that Poly bus that I had my first interracial dating experience. His name was Joe. He was one grade ahead of me and about three inches shorter than me. But we got along very well. He wrestled. I played basketball. He played baseball - or was it lacrosse? I ran track. He played football. I screamed my head off at the games. Our homerooms were a few doors away from each other, mine being the very classroom to which I would return several years later as a teacher. In the morning, we would sit in the hallway outside our homerooms and talk. In the afternoon, we would sit next to each other on the bus and talk. After several weeks of that, we began to hold hands. Whenever anyone walked past in the hallway or came near us on the bus, we would let go. I liked Joe a lot. I think he felt the same. But we never spoke about it. We simply sat together and held hands - as long as no one else was around.

It's remarkable how so much of who I am today, who I live with, who I relate easiest to, what I fear, what I avoid, and what I find funny was established during my years as a school bus rider. Many of the most important lessons of my life were learned while the wheels on the bus went round and round.


Today, as I drove home from dropping my son off at tennis practice, I drove behind a small fleet of school buses. And I remembered my own school bus experiences. I smiled. I cringed. I apologized yet again to that beautiful young woman on the bike and the horrified bus driver. I laughed when I remembered mischievous, young Frank and sighed when I remembered sweet, young Joe. And I reminded myself to be alert and cautious when standing on street corners while school buses are passing by. You never know.

I wonder how Frank and Joe are doing these days.
And I wonder if they ever reflect on their own school bus memories.

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