"Hey Brit, how are you getting to school this morning?" I ask groggily, shoving the cat away from me with my foot. I hate these stupid cats.
"Ugh," Britney laments. "The bus."
Ah, the bus. Her tone is afoul with disgust, and the incredibly dramatic eyeroll that accompanied it is one that only a fifteen-year-old girl could exact.
I am house-sitting now, for the second week in a row. Last week it was for my own parents as they traipsed around in Whistler, Canada with some friends (I had to stay with my brother, who is 17 and is a total invalid when it comes to matters of the laundry room, kitchen, and operative real world).
This week, it's for a family friend who has two kids (Britney, the sophomore in high school, and Drew, the 7th grader), two dogs (I love), three cats (I loathe), and a one-eyed Gerbil named Bubba (neutral). It has been slightly disconcerting to be disconnected from my weekly social network for two weeks now, out here in the suburbs. Relaxing, somewhat, and isolating.
Brit dashes out the door around 7:00 AM to catch the dreaded bus, while Drew is still in the shower. His friends start to arrive around 8:00 so they can wait in the living room that faces the street, and can see when the bus is coming from the comfort of a warm house rather than in the January drizzle on a corner.
Can you think of a place where the politics of children are played out more fiercely? A place where you felt the sting of rejection, or humiliation, or apprehension, or anxiety more than The Bus?
It's the first day of Kindergaerten. In the throng of wee-ones outside the elementary school a monitor glances at the tag saftey pinned on my red-yellow-blue backpack and shovels me onto a bus. I am barely five years old, and somehow end up next to a fifth grader with the same name as me. She is kind...especially when we realize that I am definitely on the wrong bus. Hours later, I arrive home to my panicked mother and say goodbye to Louise, a wild haired redhead who will drive me to school for years. She is slightly reminiscent of Miss Frizzle, stewardess of that other yellow school bus, but Louise definitely smokes and probably drinks Hamms.
Through elementary school, we meet on the corner of Siletz, by the stop sign. We watch our breath and pretend we are smoking cigarettes. We play tag. I am the youngest neighborhood kid, and often get teased. I am friends with these older kids though, and generally get to sit near the back of the bus- the Elementary School World's Highest Honor and Show of Power, if you do remember.
One time, Lizzy (widely acknowledged as The Neighborhood Meanie) starts the teasing in the afternoon before the bus departs from the school parking lot. I cry so hard I get a bloody nose.
I believe I saw my first glimpse of male anatomy on the school bus. Travis and Melissa sit in the front during first grade and for a brief stint of time, like to show each other their "privates." I think I cry that day, too.
I am terrified of Rodney. Rodney lives in "the apartments" and is notorious for oral warfare: we hear terrifying tales of his playground escapades and whisper about them on the bus- how he bit one kid through the lip and sent him to the hospital for stitches. How he bit a teacher, and got suspended. And then, one day, on the bus, a wail erupts from the front and a tubby child of no more than six blubbers through his fresh tears: "Busdwivah! Wodney....Wodney bit my bottom!!!"
Rodney sits next to me one day and I treat him like I treat cats: with suspicion, because you can't predict their movements. Careful not to provoke him, I sit perfectly still the entire ride. I might have cried.
In middle school, we have to cross the busy street and wait, exposed, on the corner. It is awkward and quiet there, save for the passing traffic, and I am nervous being a dowdy 6th grader with the older kids there.
By 7th grade I bypass this stop and walk further to another stop, between two tall oak trees in front of Gabby Forte's house. This is my first step in aggressively trying to assimilate myself into The Cool Group, many of whom come to wait for the bus here. It works, and I am invited over to Jenna Olson's house in the morning to get ready. In fact, I am allowed to just come in through the back gate. I watch her put on her 8th coat of mascara before we walk to the bus stop together.
We have a crazy driver named Linda. She is often late, or forgets about us entirely. One week, she lets us dismount the bus from the Emergency Door in the back, and hands out paper for a paper fight. The next week, she has us in assigned seats. We get her fired.
By 8th grade, I am one of The Cool Kids. I sit in the back of the bus, Jenna in the single seat, and I in the bench seat with Greg. By the next stop, I am wedged between Greg and Brandon -the biggest crush of my 13 year old life- while Mallory and Josh sit in front of us, Kate and Mark across from them. For a while, Greg brings a boom box and plays music entirely inappropriate for 13 year old kids until it gets confiscated. I am safe here, and secure, and established. I love the bus, now.
We have a driver who pulls over one day on the side of the road to announce tearfully that he thinks of us as his children. We get him fired.
We end the year with Wally, an old man who cannot hear well, and tries to give us a a new "Word of the Day" as often as he remembers.
I didn't ride the bus in high school. It was no longer cool to ride it, and I was lucky enough to be driven to school each morning by a neighbor, first Mitch, then Lizzy- now a close friend- and I don't believe I ever cried.
Then it was my turn, and I drove the neighborhood kids and saved them from the humiliation of the bus.
And now? I drive to work alone. I realize there is public transportation, but if I could somehow arrange it so that a big yellow bus with a crazy and depressing driver picked my friends and I up and dropped us off for work, for play, whatever, I bet it would be cool again.
Growing up is increasingly isolating like that, though. I started 2009 in a crowded club, surrounded by friends, and felt alone. It was a self-inflicted pity-party to round out the end of 2008, I know that now, but I became acutely aware of being single, or believing I was being excluded from certain circles or conversations, of being self-conscious. In short, I felt like I was in the midst of School Bus Politics, and I didn't want to be there, and the difference now is that I got off the bus.
I walked home alone at 12:30 on New Year's Eve.
The fun part about living on one's own is that you get a lot of choice about when to get on and off the "social bus" and I am going to try to find a balance in that this year. House-sitting has been a good way to do that: to remove myself socially to gather myself internally these past few weeks, as my group of friends tends to be my life these days. It's a good start to that whole re-learning how to enjoy my own company initiative I started and want to realize. I will sit next to my Rodneys, and next to my Brandons, and Jennas (fears, loves, & aspirations), and I hope to do so with grace, and a womanly sureness I want to continue to develop this year. I will get off the bus when I want to at the stop I so choose.
And there will be days that I cry, but they will be few- far between- and deserving.