In first grade, I took the public bus to school. The hometown of my youth, today a tony and sprawling suburb of Baltimore and D.C., was just a slice of Americana then, a small boating town where everyone knew everyone. Like most of the moms in our neighborhood, my mom had the car once a week, just one day in which – I realize with 2018 indignation – a mom would have to get all of her shopping and errands done, and the only day she would be able to – I consider with something close to envy – be expected to drive her children anywhere. The rest of the days, the dads took the cars to appointments and to parking lots, while the moms at home made do.
When it was decided that I would attend first grade at the Catholic school in town, which did not provide a regular school bus, my born-and-raised New Yorker mom – for whom both making do and public transportation were second nature – found the city bus the obvious choice.
This plan was not without its challenges. First of all, this was generally not done in our town; none of our neighbors had ever heard of – had even considered! – a child taking the city bus to school. This reality was punctuated by the fact that in addition to being a small town girl, I was a really, really small girl; on Uniform Order Day, even the smallest-available samples of the wool uniform jumper hung heavy on my shoulders, the Irish whispers of the ladies in charge, tsk‘ing about my smallness and the tailoring challenge at hand, hanging just as heavy in my reddening ears. It just seemed impossible that such a small child could be riding a bus, unsupervised, around even a small, Americana kind of town.
There were some logistical issues, too. The school kids of 1971 were still carrying their books in long-strapped plaid satchels, their flaps secured with a push button clasp, a long strap hanging off one shoulder. We call these messenger bags now, but in those days, we just called them book bags; no one had really thought of a hands-free choice for unusually short school children who might topple over under a one-sided weight while they caught the public bus. No one, that is, until my mother.
She began at the fabric store in town, in search of a bag pattern she could modify into a what she called a “knapsack”, two lengths of marine webbing fashioned into straps, D-rings making those straps adjustable. Even at six, I was skeptical – I had only seen such a contraption carried by hitchhikers and Boy Scouts – but my mother convincingly declared the knapsack “nifty!” and “clever!” and reminded me that it would free my hands to grab the rails as I climbed the giant steps of the bus.
And then there was the necessary bus pass, a pink card that looked more like a library card than a monthly pass, with numbers around the edges begging for holes to be punched for each ride. Then, not unlike now, I had a tendency to lose things, and my mother worried about that, knowing that I’d be stranded without it. She needed a way for me to get the pass in and out of the nifty knapsack on my back without undue delay for my fellow riders, who would be eager to get to work. Undaunted, she punched a round hole in the pink card, reinforced it with a grommet, and put it on a chain I could wear around my neck all day.
For the first couple of weeks, my mother rode with me on the bus, my little brother in tow, sitting on her lap. On the first few rides, she explained everything completely, pointing out instructions, landmarks, potential pitfalls. Together, we decided when to pull the cord to signal my stop, where and when to get off. As the days went on, she became increasingly quiet, waiting to see if I’d learned the way, if I remembered the rules. I was to walk directly down Tyler Avenue to the bus stop. I was never to approach a stopped car. I was to grab the rails and mount the steps carefully. Once on the bus, I should have my pass out and ready, leaning my head and body forward with the pass in hand like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, so that the bus driver’s quick punch could mark the day’s journey. This is where I should pull the cord. If anything went wrong, if I needed help, I was to ask the bus driver what to do.
She had conspired with the driver ahead of time to keep an eye on me and, once on the bus, I was to sit as close to him as possible. Once I had scooted into the big leather bench seat, my knee socks and school shoes dangling off the edge, I could tuck the chain and card back into my uniform, right between the starched white blouse and the wool herringbone jumper. The pass was a source of pride in my precocious independence and of hot shame when my classmates asked teasingly about the “flat thing” under my uniform. Still, I knew better than to take it off; either way, it was my ticket home.
Today, a couple of my grown up kids ride city buses sometimes, and I know nothing of the routes and schedules that they surely know by heart. I have no idea how safe or dangerous it is, of the mistakes they could make and perhaps sometimes do, of where they get off, of how they pay their fare. But this year, a couple of them have been riding another bus – one they call the Struggle Bus – a lot, too. And when they ride this Bus, I ride with them, just like my mom did.
I am often anxious when we are on the Bus together, but I do not want them to ride alone. I know they need to get where they are going, but I wish I could just drive them there and save us all the trouble. I wish there was another way. But I know about the Struggle Bus what my mom knew about the city bus when I was in first grade: it’s the only way to go to and from the places where they’ll learn the most.
I, too, have planned ahead. I’ve spent years trying to think of everything they’ll need to ride this Struggle Bus alone. Sometimes still, I look out the windows as we ride together, giving directions, pointing out landmarks and potential pitfalls along the way, until I remember that if I do not stop doing this, neither of us will ever know if they can do it on their own. They will not learn to recognize when they have nearly reached their stop, when to pull the cord, how to get off the Struggle Bus when it is time.
It is only now that I realize that my mom must have done the dead-end trips, as I do, and it is on those solitary trips when the Struggle Bus becomes my own. My kids probably don’t think about that part, either, about the misty-eyed mom riding all the way back on a route she already knows and has already traveled, just to get where she started out. About how she just wanted to be with them for the ride, and about the double fare she paid to do it.
Since my kids don’t always love it when I talk to them about God, I just remind them to always sit close to the driver of the Struggle Bus, that He will keep an eye out for them. That if anything goes wrong, they should ask the driver what to do. I don’t know if they follow these directions, but I, too, have conspired with the driver ahead of time; He is keeping an eye out either way.
I know that they need to ride the Struggle Bus alone. I know – and I think they know, too – that while their punched pass on the Struggle Bus may be both a source of pride and of hot shame, it is – either way – the only way home.
The steps off the Struggle Bus still seem giant, and I sometimes have grab the rails with both hands, just to steady myself, to get off. I guess I’ll just wait for them at home.