The number 5 school bus stopped outside of my door at 6:30 a.m. every school day from the beginning of 6th grade to the day my sister set us free with her driver’s license. I can still clearly remember the screech of the brakes as the bus driver pulled to a stop right below my bedroom window. We were the first pickup on a long ride that carried all middle and high school students in a five-mile radius around my house, plus a few stragglers closer to school. The bus driver was a farmer who lived down the road, so we got the distinct pleasure of getting picked up first, and thus riding the longest. At least we got our choice of seats.
The radio on the bus always played country music on a station named Froggy 99.9, which all the cool kids pretended to hate but secretly tapped their feet to. It was much better than the alternative, a recording of high-pitched screeching noises that the driver would play on full volume when one of us made him mad. The high school kids swore it was the outtakes from his daughter’s clarinet practice. If I have hearing loss later in life, that screeching sound is probably where it started.
Putting middle and high school kids together on a bus was a strange necessity of life in a rural town. It certainly made the ride longer—high school kids had to wait while middle school kids were dropped off across town in the morning, while middle school kids waited on the bus for the high school to get out in the afternoon. It also made for some interesting social hierarchies, usually geared toward age. The seats in the back were reserved for the oldest kids, period, and they had final authority on who was allowed to pick on who. If you were lucky, they would watch out for you, and sometimes even let you get a seat close enough to eavesdrop on conversations otherwise forbidden to a preteen’s ears. Oh, the things I learned from the back of that bus.
On the rare occasion, the bus’s hierarchies would be put aside and we would band together against a common enemy. Usually it was a substitute driver, but one day it was a cocky 7th grader who walked onto the bus wearing a camouflage hat with neon orange letters that read “If it flies, it dies.” That hat provided the bus with a source of humor for weeks, and it was a recurring topic at my family dinner for years after. The hat gave my sister and me endless hours of entertainment as we found new ways to make fun of it or mimic its prose. Over the years, it became a euphemism for everything I hated about my town. When my dad argued against me moving away for college, I distinctly remember bringing up the hat as part of the reason why I needed to move away.
Last week, the boy who wore that hat walked in to my mom’s office on business. My mom recognized him and called me, and we laughed about the hat and I made a joke about how much I hated riding that bus. And yet, if I had to pinpoint a list of the things that gave me the drive to succeed in life, the number 5 bus would probably be one of them. Riding that bus made me want to get a job and work hard to earn money to buy a car. It made me realize that I was going a completely different direction than a lot of kids in my town, and that I liked it that way. While I can’t say that riding the bus is the only reason for whatever success I have, I do know that it fueled the fire. And I know that if I ever have kids, they’re definitely being forced to ride the bus.