November 2004

The wheels on the bus go round and round

By David Feela

While the aspens are turning various shades of red and yellow, school buses keep returning to their bus garages. As we sweep fallen leaves from our front doorsteps, bus drivers are sweeping trampled candy wrappers from beneath rows of empty seats. Autumn comes and autumn goes, but school buses are here to stay.

Many adults who have yet to come to grips with their childhoods are watching their own children file into those large, yellow conveyors of pranks and boredom with a fair amount of skepticism. How can the same things we did on those buses still be happening? The driver yells, “Everyone, sit down!” as the stop sign snaps shut and the bus heads down the road.

Recently I got to wondering about school buses because unlike the leaves, they never seem to change. The students I work with complain about their bus-riding experiences the same way I complained about mine, and it’s likely that despite the world’s leap toward the 21st century, school transportation has essentially remained at a standstill.

Stasis always reads like a dirty word. While autos and trucks have undergone dramatic style changes since the 1950s, school buses look and, what’s worse, probably feel much as they always have felt. Start with that garish shade of yellow, that hallway design, and those rows of windows that prompt even our brightest minds to fog over with complacency.

While seat belts and air bags have become an international standard for passenger safety, we have yet to enact legislation in this country that requires our bused children to buckle up.

Sticker tags, of course, have changed dramatically. RE-1, with its ever-fluctuating budget, tries to commit money to two new school buses each year, to the tune of $77,000 for each bus. This year, however, the district salvaged a better value out of a used vehicle. With a mere 50,000 miles on its engine and at practically half the cost of a showroom special, Cortez and its outlying county folks will be served by a $35,000 replacement that should help county taxpayers heave a sigh of relief.

But as that reconditioned bus pulls up to its first stop, the children boarding it will let loose their usual collective groan. You see, the experience of riding to school in a bus hasn’t evolved very much from the good old days.

Still, if you stick to statistics, the school bus is a phenomenal achievement. These vehicles nationwide log 4 billion collective miles annually, transporting roughly 10 billion students to their classrooms. Impressive numbers, I think, for perhaps America’s only genuine, viable, national-scale public transportation system. There are 450,000 school-district vehicles in this country and for over nine months out of every year, they rack up a lot of road time. Just ask anyone stuck behind one, waiting for the red lights to stop flashing. They’re everywhere.

I remember the school bus as a perfect breeding ground for small-time terrorism. Like it or not, kids pick on kids, and when I rode my bus I witnessed more than my share of taunting. On my bus, circa the 1960s, we were left almost entirely unsupervised among our peers. We were privy to a different kind of education on an island made of Naugahyde and steel, like those children from “Lord of the Flies.”

Headlines on SchoolTransportation. com suggest that in some places things are a little out of control:

“Water balloon may have caused New Durham school bus accident.”

“3-year-old left alone in sweltering school bus; driver charged.”

“Suspected vandals star in bus video.”

“Pupils hurt after gang stones bus.”

“Environmental group charges diesel fumes inside school buses...”

“New Jersey school bus contractor gets life in prison”

It would be easy to blame the drivers, but they are expected to steer a clumsy vehicle safely, watch for traffic, remember a route, memorize the names and faces of their passengers, and make sure everyone – students and traffic alike – obeys the little folding “STOP” sign. All this while trying to maintain order through a rearview mirror – a lot like watching the Super Bowl through the lens of a disposable camera.

School-bus experiences run like instant replays. How many elementary children get traumatized by accidentally stepping aboard the wrong bus, like I did over 40 years ago? If the driver doesn’t notice them or if they’re too scared to say anything, they’re in for a ride that might make Waldo squirm. Of course, as adults we hope they have sense enough to stay on the bus until the route is through, at which time the driver will hopefully be able to decipher the incoherent sobbing and take them home safely, or at least back to their point of origin – namely, their school.

A lot of this confusion could be alleviated by breaking with tradition – if we simply color-coded the elementary kids. But that would mean changing the bus color as well, and isn’t that un- American? I mean, in the case of school transportation yellow has somehow become our color for national pride. It might be nice to have a sky-blue bus to match the badges worn by the children boarding it. Or how about apple red? That’s a good school symbol. A pumpkin-orange bus might have a designated parking space beside the Panther-black one, and so much the better if it’s Halloween.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there’s an economical solution for buying replacement buses, but what about the perennial problem of bladder control? Somehow just stepping onto a school bus signals the kidneys and because the bus is slow, it only accentuates the problem of having to go. All that jarring doesn’t help either.

Shouldn’t we consider installing toilets at the back of our new buses? We could afford to lose the last few rows of seats, because the kids who sit in the back are perfectly positioned to be troublemakers. With the introduction of toilets, the back of the bus will become the least-popular place to sit and all those devious plans will be more exposed to the driver’s scrutiny.

There’s a lot to be said for changing the way we think. It’s possible to envision an era of school-bus reformation that reaches beyond mere purchasing options, when kids will grow up to fondly remember those days of excitement on the way to school, when the driver put the bus into four-wheel drive and did that off-road thing, when the air bag “accidentally” opened and scared the crap out of the bus bully, or that time when the drop-down DVD screen wouldn’t work and everyone stared out the window all the way to school, mesmerized by the autumn leaves that look like they’ve caught on fire.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.