A civics bus ride

By Margaret Heffelfinger

It’s been awhile now. But for some reason, when I see the bus 8 headlights come down the hill on these dark, wet mornings, it all comes back.

     Me, on the bus to tally the number of riders for Bus Ridership Week. I’d never even considered it until this year, but I ran into a friend who said, “Oh yes. You gotta do it! Not just because they need people. You gotta do it for yourself.  Just to see.”

     I trust my friend. She said she’d taken tally on the bus a number of times over the years and it was a great learning situation. But what was there to learn on a school bus? 

     I grew up within easy walking distance to school, so I wasn’t ever a bus rider. The one time I was going to ride home with a friend after school, I lost my permission slip and my carelessless was going to cost me. 

     To this day, I have a vision locked in my mind of Little Me pounding the pavement down my block, furious with embarrassment and crying with disappointment while the bus, front door open, drove slowly next to me and the bus driver and my tearful friend pleaded with me to just get on anyway. I wouldn’t. 

     Over the years, I’ve ridden buses for ski lessons, field trips to the Children’s Theater, a historic Greyhound trip to May Day in Washington D.C. during college, the Sheridan 151 in Chicago before I could afford cabs and the inevitable old buses named Jesus (also transporting chickens and goats) in various parts of the world. But I was a neophyte on a regular route.

    My kid rides regularly, like most Island kids. And now that he’s in middle school, the bus comes early — about 6:50 a.m.  So I was curious about what it would be like on a bus at that early hour. When the email came for volunteers who could handle a clip-board and a pen,  I signed up for Monday and Wednesday. (I only rode two days, but the kids had to ride at least three out of five mornings to be counted and earn the school district its critical additional funding.)

  Arriving in the light of day, I wandered into the bus garage, where a chart shows other moms and dads penciled into every available seat. My kid had warned me not to talk to him or pretend I knew him when I got to his stop. But the joke was on him. I was assigned to another bus, where I proceeded to not talk to or pretend to know his classmates.

      My kind and competent bus driver was outside going over her bus with a practiced eye: checking tires, flashing lights and diligently checking all systems. Who would have thought? The first stop was for one girl. She was a no-show. The driver knew who should or would be at each stop and greeted each with a cheery “good morning.” She told me she never got around to having kids of her own, but it was clear she enjoyed her riders and had personally provided them with those light flashers that every kid who rides the bus recently received. 

     Though I anticipated rowdiness like I’d experienced on various field trips, this crew was quiet.  Many were plugged in to music-players; the others rode along talking quietly. This day we had an older, substitute bus, which was slower going up hills but had a great heater to make up for it.  And in the course of conversation in my seat front, right, I learned that the district bus contract had recently gone from Laidlaw, a Canadian company, to the largest-in-the-world provider, First Student.

     So besides counting students, I had a short lesson in bus civics! I didn’t bring up my pet peeve of no seat belts (which I went so far as to write the governor about when my kid started riding in first grade).  I’ve been told numerous times by various folks who know that it’s too expensive.

   I marked which kids were middle school, which were high school and designated their stop.  I found I was good at this and made big, clear hatch marks, while overhearing reasons why homework wasn’t done, (she fell asleep doing it at 1a.m.) and how someone might have the flu, (oh, great).  No one talked directly to me, parent that I was. I wasn’t insulted: the driver herself only got grunts!  That in itself was enough, it seemed, because she told me she loved her job.

     I left the clipboard on the seat for whomever would be next.  And I walked back to my car feeling that bus had delivered more than a ride to me — as so many everyday experiences on Vashon Island have a way of doing.

— Margaret Heffelfinger is a parent and artist on Vashon.

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