So this past week I chaperoned a field trip for my son’s 4th grade class. This is his first year in public school. The past years in a private Montessori school also included such trips. Difference being in private school the parents drove (with proper identification). In public school the mode of transport to and from the trips is the county’s big, yellow school bus (as a chaperone proper ID along with hair sample and DNA testing required).
Now I hadn’t been on one of these mustard-hue, boxes of mayhem in I-can’t-remember-how-many years. Must have been since the early ’90’s. I was the only senior standing in the freezing cold, 6:15am, with straight-out-of-the-shower wet hair at the bus stop. Scattered around me were a handful of freshmen, a few sampling of sophomores, and one or two financially strapped juniors. Especially embarrassing since my younger brother had his own car. But since his drum-core band practice sometimes took place at odd hours, I was forced to ride the bus whenever I couldn’t find a ride with anyone else. Which was most of the time.
But those were the days of the non-amusing treks to school and back. Most kids took naps, drooled, or listened to their Walkman. Let’s rewind to a happier time: the end of elementary school and the early ’80’s.
There was this older, burly African-American kid who lived down the street from me who I think failed about two grades. I don’t think we said two words to each other but he offered the greatest entertainment (and memory) I could have hoped for on a bumpy bus ride to educational semi-bliss. The guy always carried a boom-box (also known as a ghetto blaster) on his shoulder. He propped it onto the top of one of the doo-doo brown vinyl seats and blasted us with Doug E. Fresh, Whodini, and Michael Jackson. We loved when Michael’s Beat It rolled on the tape deck. It usually happened about a minute before pulling into the school lot. We excitedly waited for the “just beat it/beat it” chorus line, singing the Uh! in amplified unison while pumping our fists to our sides.
Later in middle school times were only slightly as happy-go-lucky. There was a hierarchy to sit in the back, and that was usually saved for this skater kid who let the older boys pour Laotian hot spice into his mouth. As the wheels on the bus spun round and round we bounced on the hard, torn benches with nothing to keep us from banging our heads on the half-open windows or each other. There was no boom-box music but our driver, Miss Eadie, played top 40 hits from the vehicle’s worn-out radio and blown speakers. She was a tough, wiry broad who sounded like she’d spent her life smoking and living in the local trailer park. I felt safe in her care. Once we passed a convenient store being held up (did I mention I went to middle school in the ghetto?). As we heard shots ring out Miss Eadie in her raspy, redneck accent yelled, “Everybody DUCK!” We did not hesitate.
So as I entered the bus with my own son for this field trip I passed the Wilford Brimley look-alike behind the wheel and scoured the rows for a place to sit. I found the very back seat to be empty, which surprised me. No fighting for it. No hot spice needed. There was a slight motor oil smell throughout which greatly differed from the scent of activator and Aqua Net of my youth. The seats were exquisite– a pleasant blue color, no rips, and almost comfortable. Each one had a back high and soft enough to double as an “air bag” for the passengers behind. And what were these attached to each bench? Seat belts! I clicked mine into place after having to extend it to fit my non-4th- grade-inch waist. I felt as if I were flying to Turks and Caicos.
There was no music on this flight. Just the sound of children chatting, bopping each other on the head with water bottles, and singing the latest advertisement jingle for Subway. The road noise and engine hum was louder than I recalled but it was bumpy like I remembered. And the wheels went round and round propelling us forward to other adventures, memories, another era.