Everyone has a memorable school bus story. Here's mine. I must have been in first or second grade at the time. One fall morning, as I walked up to the bus stop at the corner, I watched in curiosity as a bunch of older kids frantically gathered crabapples and layered them in the street. They snatched rotten apples off the ground and picked fresh ones from the tree. Young and naïve, I wondered what they were up to.
With their prep work complete, the jokesters stepped back a few feet from the curb and waited in silence. Moments later, our big yellow school bus, driven by a guy named Norm, came barreling down the road – right on schedule.
I distinctly recall the SHHPPPPLLLATTT sound of the bus running over about two hundred apples – and spraying applesauce all over the place. I also remember the collective cheer of triumph from the kids who made it happen. And even now, more than 30 years later, I can still see the look on that poor bus driver's face as he shook his head in disapproval. He knew that he'd been had by a bunch of kids. Ah, the school bus.
For better or worse, the school bus holds an iconic place in the history of American education. On the one hand, buses have provided essential transportation for generations of children, allowing them to get to school safely from around the block or across the county. On the other hand, buses have been parked in the middle of some hugely significant legal battles regarding who goes to school where. They've also been known over the years as the rolling headquarters for bullies and braggarts.
Of course, school buses and school bus drivers have made their mark on pop culture, too. Which parent doesn't cringe at the thought of a real-life version of Otto – the headphone-wearing, head-banging driver who gets the Simpson kids to school – driving their own kids? And who couldn't help but laugh when Napoleon Dynamite boarded the bus in that movie's opening scene and tossed an action figure tied to a string out the window so that he could drag it down the dusty road? What a great idea.
Last year, when my oldest son started kindergarten and hopped on the bus for the first time, I was struck by the significance of it all. The school bus really is its own little kids club where friendships are made, legend and lore is handed down from big kids to little kids, and maybe most important, a first bit of independence is established. A new world opens up to a child when he climbs up those bus steps and drives away from home.
Luckily, our son enjoyed riding the bus right from the start. Within a few weeks, he was telling my wife and I about his new "bus friends" – the kids who he sat with and near. Whenever we went out somewhere around town, from the grocery store to the park, the boy would run into one of his friends from the bus. This happened so often that I began to think that he knew more people than I did.
Our son also told us what he was learning on the bus. That was an eye-opener. At dinner, he matter-of-factly stated that he had learned the "f-word" on the bus. The f-word? Already? Really? Upon further inquiry, it turned out that the f-word he learned on the bus was "fart." Crisis averted and no need to drive him to school yet.
Later in the year, he regaled us with some song lyrics that he had picked up on the bus. He launched into a rendition of that old holiday classic, Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg, the Batmobile lost a wheel, and the Joker got away! Hey! It was beautiful. Would that song ever have enjoyed such longevity without the bus? We sang that tune on the bus when I was a kid and now my son has learned those time-honored lyrics.
Old timers love to talk about walking to school. Uphill both ways. In the snow. The argument is that hoofing it built character. I'd have to argue that taking the bus builds character, too. A year and a half since my son started riding the bus, it still amazes me that my little boy just jumps right on every morning. As we wave goodbye to each other, I'm proud that he's willing and able to be that independent. I'm proud of this daily act of courage. And I'm proud that he hasn't yet thought of lining the bus's path with apples.