A School Bus and a Smile
Few say as many hellos and goodbyes as I do in a day. These greetings are the bulk of my interaction with people ranging from 6 to 18 years old. In those short 1-2 seconds much more is said through body language. Little of this is apparent at first.
As a school bus driver, I am the most invisible person in the most visible vehicle on the road. For many students, I am simply not present in their lives. The soft and kind “good morning” barely audible floats by them like a dying breeze. It is there, but they pay little attention to it. Or, so I think.
Yet, for me, these kind whispers are the highlight of my day. On average, I say “hi” and “bye” or some combination over 480 times per day. And each time I say one to each student, my hope is that they will respond. My noticing them will bring some acknowledgment to the invisibility that I feel and project onto them. They must feel invisible, too, sometimes.
We are the first representatives of the school system to make contact with students, and we are the last ones to do so at the end of the day. The bus driver’s greetings and goodbyes are the first hellos and last goodbyes they get. Interestingly, few parents ever know who their child’s bus driver is.
Yet, in the morning, such feels like a lonely marathon. I say one hi after another and often nothing but silence on the other end. I start to feel embarrassed. My hellos become less confident. The students are the mountain I seem to be running against. Am I not the fool? I think. If I say hi to someone for months and they don’t say hi back, then I need to stop. Maybe I am harassing or bothering them. No one else does this.
No, I should take the other bus driver’s advice. He said, “Don’t be nice to them. Be mean to them. They don’t listen if you are nice to them.” But these are high school students, not the children we like to call them. To me, they are adults in every sense of the word but in experience. What they feel, we all feel.
After all, when boarding a school bus, one has to climb the stairs and face the driver. Such can be intimidating, like my lonely marathon of greetings. Their eyes fall down. The phone, the screen, is an often-excuse for running away from human interaction. Such is not an attribute to a high schooler’s inexperience. They are often two-years or less from entering the ocean of adulthood, and as an adult, I, too, use my phone as a hiding place for my eyes and my face. We tend to hide from those we’re closest to, even if only in proximity.
But I stick to the marathon because as a former runner I know this. When we get halfway and we feel like we are ready to collapse, when we feel that this idea of running was stupid, we know somehow that the only way is through. In our darkest of hours, we must persevere. The result is often runners’ euphoria, a blissful state of renewed energy and strength.
Not all my students are silent, nor do they avoid eye contact. Just as I feel like giving up, just as my good mornings become almost silent to myself, one makes eye contact with me, smiles, and says, “Good morning.” It’s bus driver euphoria. This student chose to run up the mountain while facing forward. Such a quick and small interaction is the foundation of any successful relationship, whether it’s saying hi to your bus driver, a person on the street, or “I do” at a church. Being strong often is the result of being vulnerable.
Yes, I still have a pulse. In those silent, voided, and absent eyes, I see some trying to find a place, a space, or an identity. In those eyes that lock onto mine, I often see those I loved, those I lost, and those that I wished I saw when I was younger. For some reason, my life was always anchored to school buses. My childhood friend was killed in a tractor trailer school bus accident. One took me to our honeymoon in Toronto as a celebration of my now long-lost marriage, and one helped me escape a home I should have left years earlier. As a child, school bus 46 and 71 served as a refuge from home. All three of these events involve loss: a dead female friend, a divorce, and a home that no longer exists.
In the afternoon, the “thank yous” come in droves. Many that were silent now find their voices, and I theorize that it is easier to engage me when they are walking toward me from behind. They don’t have to look at me. I look at them because I have a rear-facing mirror and a head that is made to turn toward those I care about. And I do care about them, all of them, though I suppose, well, I know, I have my favorites, even a favorite. I have to give myself that bias. I am only human after all, and my high school life does not feel as distant in time as it actually is.
But those that make eye contact in the morning, also make eye contact in the afternoon, and that takes more effort and consideration. They must turn toward me or face me in the mirror.
I’ve come to learn that the most valuable things in this life are a genuine smile, a tilt of the head, the locking of eyes, not the language. Sometimes I get such a smile and a greeting that I wish I could save it, keep it preserved. For the most priceless moments in our lives are only 1-2 seconds long. What if we could all have a little movie that showed us every loving and genuine smile we ever got in life?
I helplessly watch as my childhood friend’s image of that little girl teasing me on Bus 71 becomes fuzzier and fuzzier, so much so that I just cannot remember what she looks like. So, I try and find her obituary because there was a picture of her at 18. At least, I could have that. However, I cannot find it but stumble on the article detailing the accident and her death. All the grief I thought I processed hit me again.
What was it about this kid that made her so important to me, I wonder? It was because she smiled at me. She would come over the school bus stairs and our eyes would lock. I’d see a big smile emerge. She sat with me and engaged me. At that time, we did not have screens that hid or eyes and our faces. Yet, students still have such kindness and consideration in them.
No, I don’t see defects in our youth. I see the defects of adults in our youth, and I think our high schoolers are doing the very best job they can in navigating a life they never lived before. Parents do the best job they can raising kids they never raised previously, but we seem to forget that our kids actually do more than we think they do. They are much more sophisticated but often struggle with communication just as most adults do. In most of them there is this kindness. It’s just that kindness can seem uncomfortable when so many of us focus on hurt and the trauma hurt causes.
Earl Yarington is a social worker and bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work.
One thought on “A School Bus and a Smile”
I really liked Yarington’s article. Thanks for publishing it.