This month, many American military children home and abroad are boarding busses for their first, excited days of school. Despite the iconic yellow vehicle being the subject of happy nursery rhymes and jolly cartoons, taking school transportation is not always a stress-free experience.
In fact, riding the bus to school each day can seem like a gauntlet, a survival test, a rite of passage. School buses are tiny microcosms of society, where kids must quickly master small group dynamics just to find a seat. And thereby, find one’s place in the complex social hierarchy.
As a squishy little second grader at East Pike Elementary School, I thought the bus stop on Chestnut Street seemed like a huge, unruly mob.
By the time the bus arrived at 7:23 am, the kids at our stop had already climbed trees, thrown chestnuts, knocked books to the ground, acquired fresh grass stains, and executed several wedgie attacks. Much of the shenanigans were prompted by the older boys, which included my brother, Tray.
Boarding the bus each morning, I found my seat so as to attract the least amount of attention. Most days, I kept a low profile (literally, since I was short and could hide behind the green vinyl seat), but one particular fall, I was forced to take my turn as the subject of harassment.
Tray and his buddies had been ordered by the driver to sit in the first rows due to their boisterous behavior. But rather than serving as a penalty box, the front seats acted as a podium, effectively making the gang of boys our sadistic morning dictators.
Snorting, giggling, and kneeling on the seats, the boys led chants and jeers targeting riders in a twisted game of Russian roulette. One morning, the barrel of their gun was pointed at me, and the chamber was full.
Quite fond of nicknames, Tray had a vast repertoire of epithets for me based on my chunky frame. I was called Bubbs, Bubbs McGraw, Chunk, Chunky Dinners, Skunk, Chung King, and, quite simply, Pig.
A summer trip to Hawaii to visit our grandparents inspired Tray to add a Polynesian nickname, “Lee Lae Lon,” to his inventory. It was meaningless, but I hated it, which was exactly what Tray wanted. Unable to come up with an effective retaliation other than, “Shut up, you big meanie!” I had learned that incessant whining was my only recourse.
That morning, after the gang of boys tired of their normal rowdy routine, they turned their attention to me. After some conspiring, Tray’s hulkish friend, Jimmy, yelled, “Gimmie an L!”
Everyone looked confused, so Jimmy yelled the order again, and the crowd hesitantly responded, “L?”
Jimmy and the gang continued, “Gimme an E!” Even I repeated, “E!” and the chant gained momentum.
Jimmy added another “E,” then another “L,” and so on, until he screamed “What’s it spell?!” No response was forthcoming from the confused riders, but Jimmy’s gang yelled the pre-planned answer: “Lee Lae Lon!”
“Who’s a pig?!”
“Lee Lae Lon!”
“LEE LAE LON!”
Except for the snickering troublemakers, no one understood the chant, but it soon became a well-known part of our fall morning regimen.
Thankfully, I passed the test — I didn’t cry or tattle — and was not singled out again after that fateful season. Other than my middle school years, when our bus driver played the same outdated AC/DC “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” 8-track tape in excruciating repetition, the rest of my school bus experiences were relatively torture-free.
Our children rode the bus, too. They endured rumors, scuffles, mooning, name calling and wedgie attacks — and, there was the time when Anna ran home from the bus stop crying because the middle school boys were using the F-word. But all three kids survived without major incident.
Whether school bus experiences will train our children how to throw spit balls and use the F-word, or teach them to be brave and kind, we don’t know for sure until they run the gauntlet themselves. We can guide them, but all we know for certain is that the wheels on the bus go round and round.