Everything I Needed to Know I Learned on the School Bus
by National Hall of Fame Teacher Alan Haskvitz
It was a very cold morning. Bitter cold. And I didn’t have to go to work. Smug and delighted, I closed my eyes and enjoyed one of the greatest benefits of retirement: time. And with this time I began to make connections on what I had become and why and how. The quilted bed cover couldn’t hide the underlining commonality of my choices. Yes, after seven decades of life the unifying theme, the force that created my life style, paid for my childrens’ education, home, and way of living was the yellow school bus.
From kindergarten through junior college the stodgy, sometimes packed school bus carried me to my destination without fail. And, as a teacher of 40 years plus years, I watched my students use the same style school buses. All told, after 70 years of life, the one constant was the school bus. Remarkable, in that time they essentially have not changed. The seats are the same, the ride the same, and the doors are the same. Sometimes I even wonder if bus drivers are not cloned with the same personality and demeanor.
The bus is above all steadfast. You were always eager to see it come and eager to see it leave. So the first thing the school bus taught me was to be consistent and on-time. So lesson number one, in life, as at the bus stop, don’t be tardy or, to coin a phrase, you are going to miss the bus. Many a homework assignment that was not eaten by the family dog has been forgotten in the rush for the bus.
I believe of all the institutions we honor the school bus is the most under appreciated. Put it in the public service category. It is expected to be there and it is, rain or shine. But what is most appealing about the yellow school bus is that it is also the most respected of all vehicles. Police cars and ambulances and fire trucks need blaring sirens and bright lights to get respect. The school bus just has yellow paint and it works. So lesson number two is that what you wear is important to others regardless of your thoughts on the subject. Indeed, it does not matter what you really are, it is the perception that counts. You don’t have to call attention to yourself what you really need is to be yourself. If you are successful at this people will see you for what you are and that is how respect is earned.
The bus teaches us lessons, but so do its riders. Jerking open, the school bus door opens to expose to the riders even more important lessons. Those huge entry bus steps are an entry to a stage. For a few brief moments you are the center of center of attention. Before you spreads mankind and it can be intimidating. You can accept the honor and quietly look for an empty seat or a friend, or you can call attention to yourself with some wit or action. Regardless, you will blend into the masses and your journey begins. Consider your entry a job interview. Prepare yourself for acceptance as well as rejection. So lesson number three is to be accepting of others as some days they may return that favor.
The school bus neutralizes any individuality with a set of strict rules. The bus driver is the enforcer and dictates the rules. The driver is the fascist government using the mirrors to watch you at all times and the operator even has the authority to stop traffic. Anything considered anti-social is considered cause for alarm. If the bus driver gets up and walks through the masses something needs correction. The Constitution is on longer in effect. So lesson three is that the driver represents society and is there to interpret norms. A prank, well placed blow, hair pull, or even an “accidental” trip are felonies on the bus.
This obedience to a dictator is also reflected on what school is designed to do: follow the rules. Indeed, by the third grade the damage has been done. Line up, sit down, be quiet, play nice at recess, and don’t offend. In other words bow to authority. Since a substitute teacher has not really earned that authority all bets are off and anarchy can rule for a while.
When you enter a school bus your initial concerns are where to sit, who is going to sit next to you, and what happens if you are sitting next to someone of the other sex. Unless you are a late arrival, you usual have a choice. On a good day a friend is waving to you. On an average day you take an empty seat and make yourself look at big as you can so there isn’t room for anyone else. On a so-so day you have to sit beside another of the same sex. On an almost horrible day you have to sit beside someone of the other sex and that person is just as unhappy as you are. On a really terrible day you are the third person on that seat and brace yourself with your foot in the aisle. As in life, you are not always able to control who you work for or your neighbors. The school bus seating is thus lesson number three: always be thankful you are on the bus and make it a learning opportunity.
The bus ride can be anywhere from a half-hour to several hours and just sitting there is a lost opportunity. Sharing and learning from others adds spice to your life. An old friend can be trusted to help you. Trying to hog the whole seat is a missed opportunity, even if it is more comfortable for some people to be by themselves. Sitting next to someone of either sex is a chance to share and learn. If that person happens to be attracted to you or vice versa the opportunities to practice small talk are precursors to finding a significant other. In fact, sitting on the bus is unique in that that person is essentially trapped by you. You have their attention for long periods of time and there is little they can do to avoid it. For example, let’s say you aren’t the most beautiful creature to walk the Earth and don’t have much confidence. The bus seat is the perfect place to prove that looks aren’t everything. Your charm, humor, intelligence, and general ah-shucks effectiveness can all be practiced. And unlike airline seats, where the person can get up to go to the bathroom and disappear for most of the trip, the school bus is as close as you are ever going to get to a captive audience. So lesson number four is the bus is the perfect place to learn how to deal with different people.
The bus is where you can gauge your popularity. If you take a quick look around and there isn’t anyone signaling to you to share a seat the odds are you really haven’t tried to make friend. After all, this is the same bus you have been taking all year. Okay, for the first couple of week’s maybe strangers, but after that you should have found your pack. Most people accept their fate and sit silently with a stranger. Mistake. The bus has given you the opportunity to learn about new people. So lesson number five is that the ride is a chance to turn a stranger into a friend, and, with luck, someone who will welcome you aboard in the future. So the next lesson is to consider each bus trip your chance to see what it is like to be the president. You don’t have to be yourself, but you better be significant even if that requires a few Fox News like “facts” to enhance your street cred.
Sitting with your friends brings about another aspect of your growth, the ability to bullshit and see if it sticks. Any rumor with sex is especially ripe for repeating. Teacher rumors, who is going with whom, and funny stories are all part of bus conversation. So lesson number six is to practice your ability to develop a rapport with facts that suit you and prefect your small talk.
The last ones on a crowded bus are the beggars. With all the seats taken they had to look for the least likely to hate you for being the third one on the seat. If you were fat you knew immediately that everyone on the bus feared you would choice their seat. With luck there were two skinny girls and you could at least get one cheek on the seat and brace yourself with your aisle leg. The beggars taught you three things that could help you in the future all wrapped up in one lesson. First, look at people in the eyes. If they divert their attention they are yours. If they stare back they are up to your challenge. Secondly, don’t trust friends to move over for you. They may be your friend, but that doesn’t have to mean that they want to share with you. Thirdly, being in the aisle, being uncomfortable, isn’t always a disadvantage. When the bus stops you are the first out. You are now in control. You can slow up a busload of students as they cue up behind you looking longingly for a way to pass. So turning negatives to positives is something that can prove valuable in life and is lesson number nine.
A bus full of students can be a torture zone if just one of them has a hygiene or a gas problem. Telling someone they smell can be considered bullying. Being clean is not everyone priority and some resort to chemical weapons; cheap after shave or perfume to mask the odor. You have three choices. First, if there is room you can move to a vacant seat. Secondly, you can let your eyes water and bear it. Finally, you can tell the person about their problem. The latter requires a sophisticate approach best left to the diplomats or self-assured girls. So lesson number ten is the fact that the bus teaches you problem solving and people skills.
Lesson number eleven is that regardless of how confident you are getting on the bus you may be defeated by the caste system. This system is based on an unwritten rule that those of your caste sit in certain parts of the bus. The most dangerous is the backseat caste based on the fact that distance from the bus driver builds boldness and a breakdown in discipline. Being forced to sit in a different caste area is as close to death as you can come unless your mom visits your classroom. So the lesson to be learned here is to be flexible and hopefully, learn to be tolerant of others.
Lesson twelve is two-fold. First, making friends with the bus driver is time well spent. The person in charge can give you confidence and even allow you to adjust the windows. That is power. So the lessons to be learned here are to try and control the situation, give kudos to those that can help make your day, and the importance of taking the responsibility of making friends with the leader.
The emergency door and practicing emergency procedures is lesson thirteen. Basically, the bus is offering you the knowledge that having an emergency plan is vital in life. You want to be prepared.
Perhaps the most important lesson the bus ride can teach you is how to deal with rejection. You are among the first on the bus get a primo seat and make yourself as big as possible. Suddenly the doors swing open and there is the person you have a crush on. You make eye contact, you slide over, and nothing. You know the person saw you, and yet there was clear rejection to your offering. Within the confines of the bus ride there was nothing that you could do. You have but one choice, except defeat and move on to another prospect. So lesson number fourteen is that the bus is teaching you is that love may be fleeting, but there is always another bus ride. And always remember that Rosa Parks turned a bus ride into a national movement.
Finally, the bus teaches you to plan ahead. You must stay alert, know where you are, and realize that if you miss your bus stop it might take you longer to get where you want to go.