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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Those Big Yellow Buses

I am pretty sure the last time I was on a school bus was in the early summer of 1981. I rode home from the last day of 6th grade, proud of the fact that I'd been chosen to be a Patrol for the following year. (We got to wear the bright orange belt/strap that signaled Safety, and help the little kids across the street at the crosswalks, keep them from running in the halls, see them onto the buses. A select pair also got to raise and lower the flag outside the school every day, and generally feel all manner of Important.) Iwas a little crushed that after being selected for this honor, and training for several weeks, and feeling the glory that was properly reverent folding of the American flag with my Patrol partner (make a tidy triangle; tuck the end in; do NOT let even a corner of it touch the ground!), my mother was getting remarried, and we were moving, and I was not actually going to get to spend my 7th grade year wearing a highly-coveted Patrol badge.

What I did not feel, that warm June day, was any nostalgia for riding the bus. It didn't occur to me that I would never ride a school bus again, even though in our new neighborhood, we would be walking the mile to school every day. It didn't occur to me that there was anything romantic, interesting, or miss-able about school buses.

Frankly, that thought probably never occurred to me in my whole life.

Until yesterday morning.

I rode a school bus again as part of Son's Kindergarten orientation. And here's what struck me first as I mounted those deep steps and turned left to head down the aisle: school buses smell exactly the same as they did nearly 30 years ago.* E.X.A.C.T.L.Y. As I was inhaling sharply and exclaiming over the fact, the woman behind me was also saying with surprise, "It smells just the same!" We could hardly get over it. The high-backed green seats, covered in that finely-lined faux leather -- just the same! The oddly-shaped windows with corners adorned by those hard square metal buttons that you push towards the center, simultaneously, in order to lower or raise the safety glass -- just the same! The impossibly narrow aisle -- just the same! The lack of legroom -- just the same!

The only thing that was different, as one parent noted, was that no one was rushing to fill the back seats first. But that, of course, was because we parents were too mature for that sort of thing, and all the children on-board were prospective Kindergarteners who didn't know the desirability of those rear seats, and who were seriously and intently following all the directions of Mr. Kevin, the bus driver, who was initiating them into the mysteries and safety precautions of School Bus Riding.

There is a whole post to be had on the wonders of Kindergarten orientation, but for now, I just want to wax nostalgic over riding school buses. Here are my most vivid memories:

* Long lines of little girls wearing ankle-length Holly Hobby style dresses and ribbons in their hair, and little boys in stretchy polyester suits, disembarking from hordes of buses outside the Performing Arts Center in preparation to see a play. With a mix of solemnity and silliness only possible in the elementary school years, we in our fanciest clothes (you dressed up for field trips in those days, especially ones to the Theater) felt the importance of the occasion, if only because so did the hundreds of other similarly attired children coming down the steps of their own buses (who had ever seen so many school buses all in one place?!) and into the cavernous, glamorous lobby.

* Sitting all alone, feeling very small and a little disoriented, on the very high-backed school bus seat -- the only child on the entire bus -- and having the driver look at me in his wide rear-view mirror and ask, "Didn't we pass your house yet?" I shook my head no. "Where do you live?" he asked. I gave him my address. "Oh," he said smiling, "you're supposed to be on the first load. Tomorrow afternoon, you get on the bus when they call for the first load children, and we'll drive right to your house. Now, let's get you home. I'll bet your mother is worried." THAT was an understatement. She was frantic. I was her oldest child, riding the bus on my very first day of elementary school, and I had not gotten off the bus with all the other children on my street nearly an hour before. The driver, of course, took me straight to my house and explained everything. To this day I wonder: if every driver did two routes, how were six-year-olds supposed to know whether they should get on the first load or the second load in the afternoons if no one told them which run they were on?

* The hot breeze filtering through the windows as we made our way home from hours of exploring the Etowah Indian Mounds, and wishing that we would get back to school so late in the day that there would be no time for any kind of work at all. Laughing, and eating our snacks, and singing songs, and telling jokes, and that ride taking HOURS (at least). We got our wish. An entire school day devoted to a field trip.

* The adoration my sisters and I felt for our bus driver, Mr. Henson, who knew all of our names, and trusted the oldest kids on the bus to take a head count and be patrols to keep the younger ones in line. Mr. Henson, who smiled when we ran races at the bus stop and did not look the slightest bit annoyed when he had to sit for half a minute while we, with our pounding feet and flying braids, dashed as fast as we could from halfway down the block back to the corner where we were supposed to be waiting for him and not the other way around. Mr Henson, who drove us all a few streets off our normal route one morning, and idled the bus in front of the burnt-out shell of a once-large house, and said to us, "Boys and girls, do you know what happened here? Some children just like you were playing with matches. And their house caught fire. And it burned down, as you can see. This is why you should NEVER play with matches." And then he started the bus up again, and we continued on to school -- horrified and duly impressed about the danger of matches.

* Mr. Henson, whom my middle sister loved so much that she named her pet mouse after him. And when Mr. Henson, the mouse, had several babies a few weeks later, and I insisted that obviously the name must be changed because the mouse was clearly not a boy, my sister said no. "At least change it to Mrs. Henson," I pleaded. "NO," she said. "Her name is Mr. Henson." And thus the mousie's name stayed, all throught the nursing and nurturing of her babies, a small squeaking testament to the loyalty a child may feel for a loving, responsible, friendly, perfect bus driver.

Yesterday, sitting on Mr. Kevin's bus, listening to him say the children, "Now, we talked a lot about how to get on the bus. Let's talk about how to get off. Do you think it's really important to be the first one off the bus, so that you need to push your friends out of the way to get off ahead of them?" "NOOOOOOOO!" the children said in a sustained chorus of understanding.

And I could tell that Mr. Kevin was one of the good ones. A bus driver to love.

And I found myself hoping that, in all the lasting memories my son takes away from his school days, at least a few of them involve the comraderie, independence, and peculiarly unmistakable smell that is riding the bus every day.

* This thought was almost immediately followed by: seriously?!?! It's been 28 years since I was on a school bus? Horrors, I'm OLD!


Bama Cheryl said...

My husband now drives a school bus after 30 years in corporate America. He (mostly) loves it and his kids seem to like him too. I had the fun of riding with him last year for a day - some of the same memories came flooding back. Thanks for the great post.

TeacherMommy said...


I never had the opportunity to ride a school bus regularly--I think I may have done so a handful of times for field trips and music competitions in 5th and 10th grade. Now I'm all jealous because of the stories of those wonderful bus drivers.

ConverseMomma said...

Oh, I hope my little ones get a Mr. Henson or a Mr. Kevin. Jack starts pre-school in the fall. Even though there will be no bus, I still can not believe he is going to be starting school, away from me and his grandma, all grown-up. Ugh, even the thought of it makes me weepy.

OHmommy said...

Oh the bus.

My son just got his first warning from Mrs. Ethel yesterday. Of course I blogged about it.

He has learned so much on the bus this year. It totally takes me back too.

Ree said...

Beautifully written! and yes, school busses the world over smell e.x.a.c.t.l.y the same. ;-)

It's been 28 years since I rode my last school bus, too. BUT DUDE! I rode up until my last day of High School - in 1981. We lived 5 miles away and there was no way I was allowed to drive. Harrumph.

Mrs F with 4 said...

I've never, sob, NEVER ridden on a Big Yellow Bus. Yes, I lived in England and I had to walk to school.... deprived, eh?

Now, however, Son 1 takes the big yellow bus, complete with amazing driver (Lyne, we LOVE you for changing your route to pick him up right outside the house, so Mrs and her four little F's don't have to pitch out in all weathers to the bus stop), and he comes home smelling totally Bus-y. Eau-de-bus: Vinyl, rubber, exhaust fumes and the merest hint of sweaty boy.

Lise said...

A good bus driver is a god-send, to little kids and big kids alike. My kids don't ride a school bus, but when my oldest daughter was in high school she rode the same city bus every day to community college. The bus driver was always friendly and kind. She wasn't able to ride the bus for several months after being in a bad accident, and one thing she really missed was seeing "her" driver. He missed her too, and was happy to see her when she was recovered enough to ride the bus again.

Momo Fali said...

I LOVED riding the bus. We used to have so much fun and this post brought back so many memories! Thank you for that.

anymommy said...

That was so warm and lovely, it made me happy. I have to admit that I do not have great memories of the school bus. It is a rough, slightly dangerous place to avoid having anyone notice you in my vague memories.

You made me hope my kids will have different experiences!

bernthis said...

wow, there aren't many Mr. Henson's in this world anymore. What a beautifully told story. I remember the hot air blowing through the windows and oh yes, those back seats. I'm just sitting here thinking about my childhood and truth be told, I miss it

Jaina said...

Aww. I love that story of the bus driver taking you home when you missed the right bus. School buses really do still smell the same. Wow. Great post!

JackeeG4glamorous said...

How true! Still no seatbelts eh?
The cranky radio, the sticky floor...all of it brings back memories.

It's a good thing that you "got off the bus early". For those of us who had to endure the humliation of the bus ride home well into senior high...it's not always such a pleasant memory. Like when I was old enough to drive, and noticed the spedometer climbing to a dangerous speed as we turned down sharp country roads, seemingly on two creaky wheels, the bus leaning to the left so...
Or when in high school, other more fortunate could ride home in a car...driven by another teen, and I could not. My then boyfriend giving rides home to his neighbors, some of whom were GIRLS that were not me.
I rode the lumpy, bumpy school bus, sullen and jealous, with a kid who still pooped his pants every afternoon on the bus.

Lovely memories! I hope your kindergartner has a wonderful school year on that big yellow bus.
Darling post filled with touching memories.

Mom of Three said...

You make me wish I had taken the school bus!

E... said...

One of the ONLY reasons my son wanted to start going to preschool was that he wanted to ride a school bus. He was sorely disappointed when he found I'd be driving him everyday. I hate to tell him that due to school funding issues, busing is a constantly threatened service around here, so he may NEVER ride one.
A vivid school bus memory of my own was the time when I was in sixth grade and the bus driver actually made good on her threat to drive us back to school if we didn't behave. Myself, the quiet mouse near the front of the bus, was MORTIFIED when the head bus mechanic (why him, I don't know) got on and screamed loudly at the now chastened group of children.

Amy in StL said...

We had a bus driver in high school that we loved. Nick was an ex-dancer and on Wednesdays he was willing to stop by McDonalds and let us all off for a quick snack if we got right back on. He was such a great old guy, he called us "his girls".(It was an all girls school.)

bejewell said...

This post was absolutely lovely, and brought back really strong memories of my own. Loved it.

Amber said...

I never rode those buses because I lived close to my school and when I was old enough, I just rode my bike. Riding bikes to school in CANADA? It was kind of like walking uphill both ways...in 10 feet of snow. :-)

Scribbit said...

In elem school our busdriver always brought all the kids pops the last day of school. Oh the thrill. He was the nicest guy ever.

MommyTime said...

I love all the memories people are sharing here.

Bama Cheryl, it's nice to think about it from the drivers' perspectives too.

LIse, I would imagine the same nostalgia might show up for your daughter too, then. Isn't it good to know that regular bus drivers can be such good people?

Amy, I can hardly believe that your driver did that! That sounds like a lot of fun -- and like something parents now would lose their minds over. I can imagine that even Mr. Henson's stunt with the burned out house would catch flack now, though at the time, I'll bet most of our parents thought it was inspired.

Beej, many thanks!

Amber, that sounds much worse than walking in the rain to school as I did on many occasions once we'd moved. I did love my giant rain poncho, though. :)


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