School bus lessons
Everything I needed to know I learned from riding the school bus.
One of the first nuggets of wisdom bestowed by the bus was the importance of punctuality. The bus would arrive at our driveway every morning at exactly 7:50. It was seldom late. Even when the roads were an ocean of snowdrifts, the bus would plow through like an unstoppable yellow dreadnaught.
Getting ready for school each morning involved more than just rubbing the sleep out of our eyes and eating Cheerios in our pajamas until we realized that the bus was honking its horn at the end of the driveway.
We lived on a dairy farm, so getting ready for school started with rolling out of our racks at six bells. My siblings and I would stumble to the barn in the predawn darkness and milk the cows, carry silage and water, feed the calves and weave our own clothing from straw. Every morning was a decathlon of chores.
At 7:30 we hustled to the house, ate a hasty breakfast, changed clothes and did our best to clean up. After I had breathlessly taken a seat on the bus, one of my fellow passengers might gleefully point out that I had missed a spot during the cleaning process and that the side of my face contained evidence of an encounter with a wet tail.
But that was my own fault. If I had only hustled a little harder, I might have gained an extra ten seconds, precious time that could have been used to glance at a mirror!
A strict social hierarchy was enforced on the bus. Little kids sat up front while the bigger kids ruled the distant realm of the back. There was a vague aura of mischief and danger associated with the back of the bus, so of course every little kid wanted to sit there. This was never allowed, which only made us covet it more.
The lesson there was that you only want that which you cannot have.
Graduation gradually claimed the big kids at the back of the bus and I eventually acquired a seat by a rear window. It was disappointing to discover that that section of the bus was populated exclusively by zit-faced teenaged boys. It wasn’t the least bit dangerous; the main mischief taking place were the wisecracks we made regarding one another’s acne.
The takeaway: having something is seldom as satisfying as we imagine it will be.
Some important classroom lessons were reinforced on the bus. For example, we had learned about Benjamin Franklin and his fascination with electricity. Through experimentation we found that we could rub our backs against the bus’s seatbacks and build up a static charge. Touching a grounded object such as another person’s earlobe would create a miniature thunderbolt that could have powered a small city.
We delighted in sharing our newfound electromagnetic know-how with unsuspecting fellow passengers. Girls whose attention we hoped to attract were favored targets.
Buses back then theoretically had heaters, but in practice none of the warmth ever got to the passengers. During deeply cold weather, the bus’s windows would sport a layer of frost thick enough to be classified as meringue.
We used the frost as an improvised canvas, with the most popular artwork being a baby footprint made by pressing the side of a hand to the glass. Once, as a gag, I wrote “help” in the frost. A girl quickly pointed out that I should have reversed the letters and that when viewed from the outside my message read “qleh.” This seemed more like an expression of mild dissatisfaction than a plea for assistance.
The lesson: details matter!
Hank De Knikker was our bus driver for many years. He was a jolly and rotund fellow, quick with a quip and a perpetual twinkle in his eye. Hank was also the kind of bus driver who, at popular request, would change stations on the bus’s AM radio. This request usually took the form of a chant that sprang up from somewhere in the back of the bus.
Hank had a knack for knowing what was going on behind him, as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Or maybe it was the mirror mounted above the driver’s seat.
Whenever someone “acted up” too much, Hank would sense the transgression and put a stop to it with an unintelligible guttural growl that somehow included the perpetrator’s name. Order would be instantly restored.
The lesson there was that friendliness is fine, but a certain amount of respect is also required for every good relationship.
Besides, we knew that Hank knew where we lived.
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