The Vehicle of My Knowledge
“The only source of knowledge is experience.”
The “Dick and Jane” series was a fun way to learn to read in Mrs. Cotton’s first grade class. Later on in high school, Mr. Pedley was undoubtedly frustrated as he tried to teach me how to write geometry proofs, while Mr. La Joire tolerated my awful French pronunciation. I don’t think that he ever knew that I was actually plugged into a another student’s station when he was listening to me from the front console. Her French was superior to mine.
But my most memorable and best lessons came from my experiences on the school bus. For all of my primary and secondary school years, I rode the big old yellow bus with Archie McPhail at the wheel. All ages were mixed on our bus route, kindergarten through twelfth grade. It was a microcosm of the entire district travelling through the countryside for fifteen minutes in the morning and for almost an hour every afternoon. A lot happened during that time. Here are the lessons that I learned that still hold true today:
There were unspoken “bus rules”. Big kids in the back. Little kids in the front. You just knew it and you did not overstep the boundary. As a little kid, when I climbed up the stairs, I barely looked back at the sea of pimply faced teenagers who took up the final rows. I dutifully slipped into an available front seat next to another youngster and we talked about age appropriate things. Then, when I graduated to the back of the bus, I learned a whole new vocabulary and the topics of discussion were a lot different from the ones in the front.
2.Guilt by Association
Mom often requested that I sit next to my youngest sister when she first started school. She went to a different elementary school and she was very shy. Mom liked to make sure that we had a hearty breakfast, so in winter mornings we climbed into our seats with a belly full of oatmeal. It did not mix well with the bus fumes. Quite often Vanessa did not get a chance to give me adequate warning, and there I was covered in her once digested oatmeal. She quickly got off at her stop without a bit of residue on her freshly pressed dress, while I got off at my subsequent stop and headed to the Nurse’s office of my school with vomit squashing in my shoes and telltale oats still clinging to my skirt. Although I explained to the School Nurse that I was not the one who actually got sick, she insisted on calling my mother. The upside was, I was the one who got to go home!
3. What Goes Around Comes Around
There were several boys who frequently got into fights on the bus. It usually started with a disagreement and an exchange of harsh words and insults. It quickly escalated into fisticuffs. The only way to settle the grudge was to duke it out. Archie kept a watchful eye in his rear view mirror as the entangled pair spilled out into the aisle with fists flying. Soon, one invariably had a bloody nose and the fight was over and a winner was declared. The air was cleared until the next incident. And there were many.
4. Grooming Can be Done in a Vehicle
Linda and Peggy, two of the “big girls”, often ran short on grooming time before the bus came. Settling into their seats in the back of the bus, each one pulled out of her over-sized purse a rat-tail comb, an extra large aerosol can of hairspray, a tube of mascara and a large mirror with a super magnifying side. Ready for operation beauty, they picked up where they left off. Sometimes the pink and purple plastic curlers were still in place, so after untangling their tresses, they started madly “teasing ” their hair until they were able to mold the fluffy clump from their freshly curled hair into their signature beehive hairdo. A hearty dose of spray held it in place, as well as lacquering the person behind them. Thank goodness cars today have vanity mirror on the passenger side since I know how to put on my final touches before I get to my social destination. I learned from the best!
5. It is Better to Give Than to Receive
Each December we took up a collection for a Christmas present for Archie. After he finished his morning route, he returned to his farm where he worked tending to his dairy herd until the afternoon pick-up. So it was decided that each year we would all chip in and get him a new flannel shirt. The surprise element of the gift had to have disappeared as the years wore on, but he pretended to be surprised nonetheless. I myself would get excited each year when the secret message of the collection was whispered down the aisle. Then a few days later when the envelope was passed around for a contribution, I was anxious to stuff mine in. On the final day of school before Christmas vacation, we presented him with our brightly wrapped offering. As I crowded around his seat to watch him open it, I felt all warm inside. It was a good way to start off the season of giving.
6. Delayed Gratification
In appreciation for his flannel shirt, Archie always had a huge Whitman’s Sampler box of candy waiting for us under his driver’s seat. The sight of the bright yellow box triggered my salivary glands as the bus filled with the aroma of chocolate. One per child was the rule and we all obeyed. Waiting my turn was difficult and so I distracted myself by thinking about my choice and hoped that it was still in its paper cup when the box got to me. I did not want the maple and nut cream and the raspberry jelly candy was too small. I loved the cherry cordial or the dark chocolate butter cream. Eventually my turn came, and I was never disappointed.
7. Gravity Rules
In junior high I learned about the laws of gravity in science classes, but I appreciated its force way before that. As a child I was small in stature and light in weight, so the slightest bump in the back country roads was an invitation for a lesson in gravity. Feeling like the tethered cork in old-fashioned pop gun, the whole way home I was constantly catapulted off of the green bench leather seat and promptly yanked back down once again. Seatbelts have taken away the thrill of this lesson.
8. Respect Authority
Generally Archie was a quiet man, but his large physical presence demanded respect. If the wise guys in the very last row started to get out of line, he would first bark, “Hey cut it out!” The innocent parties straightened up, even though they were not doing anything wrong. A second “Hey, don’t make me have to come back there” sometimes did the trick while totally silencing and leaving the younger ones in the front seats cowering. Sometimes the offenders were slow to catch on, so Archie would pull the cheese wagon over to the side of the rural road, put on his flashers, and put the vehicle in park while leaving the engine idling. Hitching up his sagging pants, he lumbered to the back of the bus. Fortunately he did not have to worry about being politically correct in the 50’s and 60’s. He simply yanked the smart alecks by the back of their shirts to emphasize his message. Once he even opened the back Emergency Exit and literally kicked two of them off the back of the bus with the tip of his strong work boot. We then proceed on our route, minus two students, who had to walk the remainder of the way home.
9. You Can Sleep Anywhere
My school day was exaggerated by the long ride home and often I found myself nodding off. By snagging an interior seat, I figured out how to bundle up my coat into a big ball and rest my head against the window. Sleep came quickly, aided by the drone of the other kids’ conversations and the rhythm of the bus swaying back and forth on the curvy roadways. Later on in life I used this technique on my train commutes and now I can practically fall asleep in the car before it leaves the driveway!
10. Everyone Deserves a Seat on the Bus
Our upstate New York rural school district only included one minority family, and they were not on our bus route. But within our course was a social and economic variety. However, that did not matter to the riders. We all mixed together in our seats and we all moved over to let someone in. Age was the only determining factor, and within those groups, everyone was equal. We were all on our way to school, and we would all get there at the same time.
I know that things are different on the school buses now. Society has become more complicated. Cameras have been installed to monitor behavior and radios and cell phones signal for help when there is a discipline issue. Truthfully, I much prefer the “old-school way”. Yes we had problems, but we solved them together. We did not have to over think life. We just lived it.
Where did your best lessons come from? What was your vehicle?