Kids can get a great education waiting for a school bus. I know I did. And I’m not talking about comparing the answers to yesterday’s homework. Standing around with a group of people you normally wouldn’t hang out with gives you the opportunity to experience things like self-reliance, thoughtfulness, and group bonding. Unfortunately it also fosters things like fear, intimidation and group tyranny. Which means that a bus stop is a good place to learn how you’re going to react to the adult world while you’re still a kid.
I grew up in Marin County in the 1960s, in the San Rafael suburb of Marinwood, and I spent many young hours on the county’s school busses. The first one I ever rode took me to Mary Silveira School for kindergarten through third grade. My memories of Silveira are sketchy, though one particular incident does stand out from the rest: the day the girls’ bathroom was invaded by what looked like hundreds of bloated, sickly-white potato bugs. I think that was my first public screaming incident. Anyway, the other memory that remains has to do with a school bus.
I lived on Quietwood Drive and the bus stop was around the corner from my house, up the slope of Pinewood Drive, in front of a house with a tart green lawn and a front door set well back from the street. One early autumn morning when I was in the second grade, my stop-mates and I stood on the sidewalk, waiting quietly. None of them were my friends, and we never had much to say to each other. This was fine with me, as I was quite content to hang around in my own thoughts.
All the dads had gone to work and the only vehicle we usually saw on school mornings was the little yellow bus. So we were startled to see a Volkswagen bug come down Pinewood’s hill, slow down, pull over to the wrong side of the street in front of us and stop where we were waiting. The driver’s side window rolled down and a man I’d never seen before stuck his head out of the window and said, “Your bus broke down and can’t take you to school. Go home and tell your mothers to take you in today.” Then he drove off.
Now, this seems like a straightforward incident for a suburban school day. It was 1961 and in Marinwood the moms stayed home, though not all of them had cars to take us to school in. There was probably a lot of carpool scrambling that morning. But that wasn’t on my mind at the time. As soon as the unknown car with its unknown driver had coasted close to us I felt a desperate need to get away. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the man, because the other kids didn’t seem scared. But it was a situation I hadn’t faced before and even at seven years old I liked my life to be orderly. The ability to know was very important to me; everything from the right place to sit at lunchtime at Silveira to the correct way to greet a relative so it wasn’t obvious I’d noticed his very large nose. I didn’t like not knowing what the consequences of ignorance would be. I’d never had a bus break down in my morning before, so I was at a loss, as though I was suspended in mid-air off a cliff like one of Bugs Bunny’s adversaries. So I did the first thing that came to mind: before the man in
the car even opened his mouth I hid behind the biggest boy at the bus stop.
I didn’t just stand behind him. I tried to disappear into his shadow by imitating every one of his movements, as if I were a dummy tied to his back: arms out, legs apart, slight turn to the left, right arm up to scratch his head. I was very grateful when he stopped moving to listen to the guy in the Volkswagen because I began to lose the rhythms of his actions and I was afraid my ruse would be discovered. As if it hadn’t already. I’m sure the driver saw me and saw what I was doing. I can only hope he was a dad.
My mother wasn’t too pleased about having to bundle my little sister and me into our car to get me to school, but I made it there on time. I never told her what I’d done at the bus stop, because everything turned out all right. I had another experience under my belt and in my knowledge arsenal. Over the next couple of years there were other changes in the bus stop routine but I didn’t felt the need for invisibility again. Until November of 1963 anyway.
I was transferred to Lucas Valley School in the fall of that year, when I went into the fourth grade. It was close enough from home that I walked to school, so I wasn’t a bus stop kid on the day in November that John Kennedy was assassinated, but I wish I had been. Our principal, Mr. King – known as King Kong to those whom he’d frequently punished – gathered us on the school blacktop unexpectedly, told us the president had been assassinated and said we all had to go home.
He dismissed us, we quietly gathered our things from the various classrooms where teachers sat in shock, and went our separate ways. Mulling over the concept of assassination as I walked alone down Idylberry Road I was convinced that there were assassins running all over the country shooting people at random. If they could kill a president what could they do to a little girl in a plaid cotton dress? I’ve always wondered if my fears would have been lessened had I been able to stand around with a group of friends, talk about what happened and wait for a cheerful yellow bus to take me safely home.
Junior high at Miller Creek School was also just a walk away, but when I went to Terra Linda for high school, it was back on the bus for me. The bus stop location was on Miller Creek Road, and to get there I went up Pinewood again, then took a cement walkway that cut between the houses. There were quite a few of these in the area, which made it easier to cut over to parallel streets in the days when there were tons of kids around and everyone was either on foot or on a bicycle. We called them alleyways, though they bore no resemblance to the urban alleys we saw on our television sets.
My alleyway led to a bus stop set in front of a red house with white trim and the silhouette of a white rooster on the garage door. We were a larger and rowdier group than the grammar school bunch, but the people who lived in the rooster house didn’t seem to mind us milling around in front of their house at 7:30 in the morning. In fact, they went out of their way to make our lives easier. Their outdoor lights were always on when we got there, and during the drenching storms of winter and early spring the owners of the house opened their garage door so we could stand inside and keep dry. We were respectful of the stuff they had hanging on the walls, and thankful for the security the garage provided.
But peaceful shelter didn’t save me from the lessons of humility and self-deprecation that often come along when you're the kid who is the last one called off the blacktop for basketball, and being the spelling bee champion is no help at all.
In the middle of the alleyway that I took to get to the rooster house bus stop was some sort of utility hole or manhole, covered with a rectangular piece of cement with writing on it. We never saw anyone working in or around it, but assumed it had some arcane purpose having to do with our power or water supply and we really didn't think much about it.
One day, after a particularly trying experience at school (probably something to do with geometry) I was dragging myself down the alleyway toward home. Only part of my brain registered the fact that the manhole's cover was pulled a little bit away from the edge. Everybody walking in front of me avoided it, but in my preoccupied state I didn’t notice their trajectory or the open hole. All I knew was that when I stepped down with my right foot the world gave way under me.
There was a shriek and a crash. As my foot slipped into the hole, the cover tilted, slid, met my ankle on the way down and pinned it against the side. The force flung me onto my stomach and sent my books flying. I tried to pull my leg out but the manhole cover was too heavy.
This all happened very quickly. And noisily. Some of the louder sounds came from my fellow bus-mates, who thought my predicament highly amusing as they walked past me, guffawing or giggling, depending on gender. I was not a popular girl; I was overweight, frumpy and spent way too much time in the library. I knew my place in the hierarchy but had never needed to use the geek’s sure road to survival before: laughing at myself. Now was that time. I controlled my panic and tears and giggled along with them until one of the kinder souls lifted the cover off my foot and I was able to hobble home.
But this experience paled next to the events of my sophomore year.
When the Zodiac killer began terrorizing the Bay Area he was the talk of the community pool and the school hallways. We figured he was no real threat to us, so we felt safe dissecting his deeds among ourselves. But in October of 1969 he entered the little village of familiarity that was our bus stop: he wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle threatening to shoot out the tires of a school bus and kill all the kids as they got off.
Of course we all heard about this, and one morning after the letter was printed in the paper our bus stop group was deep into a Zodiac discussion when we heard the familiar sound of grinding gears coming over the rise, so we got into our accustomed places in line. But we were dumbstruck when something black and white met our line of vision first.
It was a police car.
It pulled up in front of us, the engine idling. Our bus stopped just behind it and we got into our seats without a word. We all knew what this meant: if the Zodiac was going to shoot out our tires, he’d have to do it with the police ready to pounce on him. We suddenly felt very grown up as the bus inched toward the more crowded streets and hopefully out of the line of fire. That was the quietest ride of my entire school career.
There are only a few other stray memories left from my years of bus stop life. Dancing in place to keep warm on a dark winter morning. A voice yelling, "My feet aren't touching the ground!" during a mad crush of kids all trying to get out of the rain and into a good seat. Feeling rather than hearing the silence as someone told us that George Wallace had been shot.
My former classmates probably have similar recollections, though I doubt many of them fell into manholes. But the point is that for a few minutes each school day, we shared a special world together on the pavement. You and your classmates might all might be waiting for the same bus, but what happens before and after that ride is plenty different for everyone.