By mid-September, most children west of the Ohio have a month of the new school year already on the books.
That means some young scholar right now is discovering the beauty of the Pythagorean Theorem, trying to remember what “is” is in Spanish and wishing he or she didn’t have to get on that big, yellow school bus in the morning.
Truth be told, geometry and Spanish came and went in a blink but that yellow bus came and went every day for 12 school years for me, my brothers and sister.
By the time we finally stepped off the bus as high school graduates, we each had sat, bounced, sweated and froze on a school bus for nearly 4,400 hours.
Does anyone spend that much time on a school bus today? Back then, every kid in rural America did because if you lived in the country and went to school, you rode the bus. Period.
I clearly remember my first bus ride. Although I was not yet in school, I went with my older siblings to their last-day-of-school picnic in 1961. The picnic was incredible but even better was riding the noisy, alive bus.
The new-penny shine of that day soon tarnished when bus-riding became a two-a-day drill. Most mornings were quiet because the back-of-the-bus bullies were too sleepy to pester anything bigger than their droopy eyelids.
Oftentimes I used the quiet ride to memorize that day’s assignments from Luther’s Small Catechism. Memory work, like riding the bus, was daily and mandatory and missing either threatened death.
The afternoon rides were never so quiet or so heavenly. The bully boys, wound-up from the hard work of being lazy all day, made every trip home an hour’s persecution.
They and their ringleaders — mainly two brothers named Ronnie and Del, their wiry pal Larry and a bruising, tough girl named Kim — pushed, poked or clobbered every kid they could reach every minute they could reach ‘em.
They were awful and everyone on that bus despised them but no one dared to challenge ‘em. And rare was the driver that challenged them, either. Many seemed to be operate — while we were pummeled — under the banner “No blood, no problem.”
To avoid the mayhem I usually sat in the forward half of the bus and read books. It was on that yellow bus that I discovered the adventures of real people like Ethan Allen and Francis Marion and even larger-than-life people named Finn, Joad and Gatsby.
The bus took me away and then back to the farm each day and the books took me far, far away and back again during those takings. It was those thousands of hours of reading that made me a writer and it was the riding that made me a reader.
Another fact is that my brothers and I (my sister was born a saint) could not have joined the bullies because the really smart people who managed the buses mostly hired members of St. John’s Lutheran Church as drivers for our route.
That meant that any less-than-Lutheran move on our part would’ve been reported to Grandpa (or worse, Mom) the following Sunday at church by Ralph M. or Emil J. or Frank H.
Death, again, would have followed but this time, of course, only after we boys had finished that evening’s milking.
Do schoolchildren still ride big, yellow buses? The buses I see today are big and yellow and mostly empty, a reflection more on a nearly-empty rural America than a worry of riding the bus for 4,400 hours.
Or, years later perhaps, the pleasure of a short, sweet ride down memory lane.