The noise comes first: a cacophony of music, laughter, and children shouting. And then Bus 94 comes into view as it makes the sharp turn. Only in my imagination is it careening around the corner on two wheels. In reality, I know that Bob is a great bus driver--that perfect blend of enforcer of big rules, tolerator of the craziness of elementary students, and navigator of the construction vehicles that line our narrow street.
As the doors open, Lena and Claire clamber down the steps with the other kids. I look to Bob to get his nod of acknowledgement that another bus ride has been successful for my older daughter. On only a few occasions has my silent question been met with a comment. “Just talk to her—remind her to stay in her seat.” Or “she needs to stay on the curb until the bus stops all the way.”
You see, my older daughter Lena has Down syndrome. Her disability qualifies her for specialized transportation—the “short bus” that is the punch-line to insensitive jokes. But we wanted to try her on the big bus. From her earliest days, we have striven to have her included in typical experiences and settings. She attends our neighborhood school, participates in a Brownie troop, sings in the church choir. And to my mind, part of being a kid in Edina is riding the bus to school. Plus, specialized transportation is expensive for the district. And selfishly, navigating two “out-the-door” moments for two kids who are going to the same place at the same time seems complicated and silly.
I worry about her time on the bus. Will other kids be mean to her? Will she have a seat-mate? Someone who looks forward to her getting on the bus and misses her when she is gone? Is some fifth-grader going to teach her swear words or worse? Will she be called a retard? And yet, I am not the only parent who has these worries. They are the worries of a parent with a young child on a bus first, and the worries of a parent whose child has a disability second. Riding the bus is a rite of passage, and navigating the social chaos that is present on the bus is good experience for the social chaos of the rest of life. Not all bus riding experiences are positive, for kids with and without disabilities. We are lucky. We have a few kind and responsible neighborhood kids, including Lena’s sister Claire, who alert me early to any issues. We are lucky. Bob is kind and conscientious and cares about her success on the bus. So far, we are lucky. 94 is a “good bus”, where the kids seem generally respectful of each other. And so, Lena rides the bus. Just like all the other kids.
Here’s to many more afternoons of seeing that bus come around the corner at the end of the day.
Our youngest, Mark, is changing schools next year. He is transferring from Our Lady of Grace to South View for his middle school experience. We’re comfortable with the fit – academically, socially, emotionally. What I’m not comfortable with is the fact I’ll have to give up my daily dose of Vicki.
Vicki is the driver of Edina Bus 52, swinging through the neighborhood 4 times a day. I could set my watch by it. Our boys have gone through most of elementary with Vicki, acquiring her with the move to the new house. At first, Vicki drove Bus 78 along this route; I still miss the squeaking brakes to notify me that the old bus was almost over the hill and at our house.
Vicki has become important to our family because of her consistency, her stability, her sameness. She has a welcoming word every morning for my son, calling him by name. She has been especially important to Mark because he is the only elementary boy we have left, so he rides the bus without a brother. She knows when huge events are happening in his life, and has a consoling word or two when necessary. When she stops, I get a weather update, traffic notes, and a conversation with an adult out of the deal.
Her latest, greatest feat was the day the History Project was due, and my son had his usual massive backpack, laden with snow pants, boots and the rest of the winter accoutrement, but also a large unwieldy bag containing the much-worried-about History Box project. In his panic to get off the bus and set up the project in a timely (and really decorative) manner, he left his backpack on the bus. Vicki, knowing how concerning this would be to my child, and knowing how important backpacks become once you reach fifth grade, personally drove the backpack over to my son’s school after her last morning route. He, of course, thought I brought it up to school – but I didn’t even know this had occurred. She never mentioned it to him – just all in a day’s work.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’m so very grateful our village has Vicki. Other Bus 52 families will get her next year, and their children will benefit from her careful, conscientious care. I will wave as I see her throughout the community. And I will miss her.
Liz Abt Ellenberger