I was in Puerto Rico for vacation. My husband and I went to an island called Vieques and signed up for a tour to see the bioluminescent algae that light up in the bay at night.
That evening we arrived at the location in front of a hotel to be picked up by the van. The "van" that was going to drive us to the shore was a converted American yellow school bus circa 1975. It had high backed black Naugahyde seats. We sat down in one of the benches along with the other tourists. Immediately I started to get extreme anxiety and turned to my husband:
"I have to get off this bus."
My heart was beating really fast, and I felt like I was going to pass out or have a panic attack. As I sat there trying to calm myself down, I realized it was on the school bus that freaked me out. Just sitting on the bus brought back all the memories from my childhood...
My earliest school bus memories were when we lived out in Sage Brush Flats several miles outside of Ephrata, a small rural town of about 5,000 people in Eastern Washington. I was in kindergarten, and I rode the bus for one hour to school in the morning to school with all the grades, and in the afternoon I took the first bus home because I had half days and was the last student to be dropped off. The bus ride home was one hour, and I was usually on the bus by myself for the last 20 minutes. I would often fall asleep in the back seat. The bus driver, an older grandfather type, would often stop at a gas station and buy me an orange creamsicle. I forgot his name, but he was kind and looked out for me, a shy five-year-old girl.
In grade school, we moved to a very rural farm out about 10 miles outside of Moses Lake, a larger rural town in Washington state. This bus ride became a new type of hell.
Our bus driver was "Ben" a drippy skinny guy in his 30's with a scraggly mustache and rat tail. He always wore a trucker hat and a short sleeve western style plaid shirt with a front pocket that was full of candy. My siblings and I were one of the first group of kids to get on in the morning and one of the last to get off at night. This bus ride was anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. It was well known that the bus driver liked little girls. He would buy Karrie* and I (my friend in second grade from a Morman family) skittles or M & M's. Mostly he would buy them for Karrie because she was cuter than me. He would always have the packs in the front pocket of his short-sleeve western shirt. When Karrie's younger sister Mandy* started kindergarten, she was even cuter, and he began to buy her skittles, too. Ben, the bus driver, started dating a high school girl. She would put her cigarette down and come running from the smoking section and get on the bus and give him a kiss when he rolled up to the high school. The rumor was that she was pregnant with his kid. He was gross and would always stare at girls creepily.
Around 5th grade, we got a female bus driver named Geri. She was a divorced mom and could not control the kids on the bus any more than creepy Ben. The other kids on the bus started to throw spitwads and food in my hair, make fun of my clothes, say inappropriate names, and taunt me constantly. They told me I was ugly and so on. One of the overweight, high school girls named Gail, who had an awful perm on our route was a total bully. She told me that she was going to "kick my ass," I was so scared of her that the next morning my dad had to come out to the bus stop and talk to the driver about it. She stopped threatening to beat us all up.
One of the more infamous bus riders was an 8th-grade boy named Anthony who lived a mile away from us, his dad was a Grant County Sheriff, but that did not stop his son from asking my 7th-grade sister if we had hair on our pussy and other lewd comments. He was the ring leader of the back of the bus and had the entire end of the bus gang up on the younger kids. I hated riding the bus. I became even more shy and introverted, and I did not want to go to school. My mom went to the school principal to complain about the lewd comments. I think it got better but not for long.
By 8th grade, the bullies had either graduated or dropped out of high school, so it got much better. No one taunted me anymore, and my older sister got a used Honda Civic, so I was able to hitch a ride with her.
Soon my parents decided to move to a new farm - this time about 5 miles from the town. A new bus and new kids. I rode the bus for a week, and the spit wads were starting up again and of course, being told I was an "ugly dog" with "N-word Afro hair" It was too much. I refused to ride and got rides to school with my sister or a neighbor.
When I look back, all the kids on the bus lived in poverty or in lower-middle-class households. A lot of them lived in dilapidated single-wide trailers, some had lice, and their clothes were dirty. We lived in a double-wide, always had clean clothes, and my mom kept her kids in line. Many children riding the bus came from broken homes, poverty, and the culture that goes with it. Very few of them came from nice families. This was rural America in the 1980s.
When I was in 10th grade, my parents bought a 40-acre pig farm in Warden, a small town about 10 miles from Moses Lake. I was now in the Warden School District, so I was expected to move to a new high school. I threw a fit because I did not want to deal with a new school. My mom figured out a way to keep me in the same school district. The nearest bus stop to catch a Moses Lake school bus was about 2 miles away. I tried it once, but after that, I got a ride with my Uncle Rick or my neighbor who drove their kids to a private school in Moses Lake. I vowed to never get back on a school bus. With the carpool, no one called me ugly or taunted me. I was much happier.
I didn't get on another school bus until I got to Puerto Rico some 20 years later. To this day, I still refuse to use public transportation, and I drive my kid to school.
*names changed for privacy