I was on a school bus this morning. It passed another school bus going the other way.
When I finished junior high school, I thought I was done with school buses forever. And I sort of was. The school buses this morning weren’t the yellow things that are used exclusively for school kids. But they were what was getting kids to school.
I was on a streetcar, actually. A middle school class of about 20 kids – plus a teacher or two – got on, on their way to take the subway to get to St. George Station, probably to go to Varsity Stadium, given that most of them were wearing athletic uniforms. They took up the back third of the streetcar, roughly.
The school bus I passed wasn’t really a bus, either. It was what rich kids come in to the expensive private elementary school at the top of Broadview: their parents’ high-priced SUVs. One or two children in each, being chauffeured by one parent. A dozen luxury private bus seats awaited in line as my streetcar passed, arriving one by one for drop-off in the driveway loop, taking up a half a block. With more SUVs coming from the other direction. Around 8:30 there’s always a traffic jam on Broadview south of Danforth because of the rich-kids-school-bus. Put them all in an actual bus and there would be no traffic problem at all.
Another irony of my morning’s dual school bus encounter is that I go to work by way of Broadview specifically to avoid being on a school bus. If I go by way of Eglinton, the bus platform at the subway station at 8:30 in the morning is jammed with students from Northern Secondary School. It’s a 10-minute walk away, at Mt. Pleasant, but of course they all want to hang with their friends and whatever. And since all the eastbound buses go past Mt. Pleasant, they wait for whichever one comes first and jam on, with no regard to all the adults who have properly waited in line. I do not like starting my morning wanting to murder adolescents. So I go by way of Broadview instead, where high school students are a rare thing. A dedicated route from Eglinton Station to Northern Secondary would probably help a bit, but that won’t happen. In Toronto, there are no “real” school buses.
What is a real school bus? A yellow thing, with padded bench-style seats and no seatbelts. Windows that can be jerked up or down to let in or block out air or allow the egress of projectiles. A door operated by a manual handle connected with an iron bar. A smell of diesel exhaust and pencil shavings and wet dirt and twoscore bag lunches and the sweat and breath of human whelps. And, on many of the ones I took in my school years, enough Skoal snus spit to make the grooved aisle slosh.
I had my fill of real school buses in my childhood. It started nicely enough: for grades 1 and 3 (I skipped 2), I lived walking distance from my school in Exshaw. School buses were only for field trips (yay!). Then we moved to a house up in the foothills in Morley, and for grade 4 I had a trip of nearly an hour to school on the school bus: my brother and I and all the Stoney (Nakoda First Nation) kids. For grade 5 we moved to northwest Calgary and my brother and I went to Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School south of the city. So we had a school bus trip down the entire length of Calgary and then some. The next year we moved to the town of Morley and took the school bus with the Stoney kids from its first stop there all the way to Springbank School, again at least an hour. Then, for junior high (7, 8, 9), I took the school bus to Exshaw School. But halfway through grade 8 we moved to the house at the foot of Yamnuska, putting us at the last stop on the way to school, and the first on the way home, instead of vice versa.
That mattered. The school bus wasn’t pleasant. Stoney kids are not nicer or better behaved than any other kids (and they use – or used – way more Skoal), and kids are mean, especially to kids who are different. Never mind that I was a white kid and all the other kids on the bus (except my brother, when he was on it) were Stoney; after all, they had way more to put up with in their lives than I did – cultural and institutional disadvantage is a fact of life for Canada’s first nations. I got picked on a bit? Boo hoo. The kid who was meanest to me for two years was dead before I finished university. I can live with having gotten a black eye from him. I’d easily assign another two or three shiners to pre-pubescent me if it might have kept him alive longer. He wasn’t an evil person, after all, just a kid. I would have gotten picked on even if the bus had been full of white kids.
As in fact I was every class field trip, and every Saturday through the winter when I took a bus with a bunch of other kids (all white) to go skiing at Fortress. I was a dweeb, a dork, a brainy arrogant socially idiotic shit. Of course I got picked on. Why would school buses be fond memories for me? The only thing I remember fondly was one driver we had, a wry, calm Stoney guy. He never actually intervened in fights. We were just kids, after all. But he was a nice guy and smiled at us and spoke nicely to us and was calm and didn’t tell us to be quiet. So I always liked him.
Once I got to grade 10, there were no more school buses. I rode with my brother in a burgundy Chevy Citation every day to and from high school in Banff for a year. Then he graduated and I lived with people in Banff for two years. And I had no more school buses to ride. Occasionally I have done things like a chartered bus for a wine tour with a church group where the bus has been a school bus. Not really the same thing, though of course it brings back memories: the dark dusty diesel side of Proust’s Madeleine. Now in Toronto I’m on a school bus every time I’m on transit with the kids, but it’s not really the same thing: different look and smell and crowd. It’s an adult space that has kids using it too. Sometimes a lot of them.
School bus. It seems elementary enough. It’s really one word with a space in the middle, like light bulb. But it’s made of two parts. The first is school, which stands as evidence that sch is not always pronounced “sh”. It looks like Dutch because there is a Dutch word school that means the same thing. But it has classical roots. The Latin source is schola, but that comes from Greek σχολή skholé ‘leisure, learnèd discussion’ (and a bunch of other things).
The second, which seems like such a nice, short word, some Anglo-Saxon thing, is bus, which is really a clipping. Imagine if we called fillings ings. That’s kind of like what we’re doing here. Omnibus is from omnibus, which is Latin for ‘for all’; the (i)bus is an inflectional ending the same way ing is – the root is omn(i) ‘all’. School students all like to go to the back of the bus, except for the dorky nerdy kids; this word has gone all to the back of the omnibus, and if you say the front part you too are dorky and nerdy. A possible parallel with school would be if we called it cool… of course if you’re cool you don’t go for school… Actually, I think being smart and well educated and making money is cool, but what do I know? Aside from quite a lot by now.
School bus makes me think of Laurie Anderson’s piece “Smoke Rings” from Home of the Brave. In a fake Mexican game show, the host (Laurie) asks, “¿Que es mas macho, light bulb o school bus?” The contestant guesses light bulb. “¡Lo siento!” says the host. “School bus es mas macho que light bulb.” School bus is more macho than light bulb.
Well, nuts to that. I never really cared what was more macho, either. And I’m happy being quit of school buses. If I ever can be.