The oldest boy on the school bus carried a plastic baggie filled with cinnamon-oil soaked toothpicks. He sat at the back of the bus and collected our quarters. We dug our hands into the bag and took out toothpicks and gnawed on them for the rest of the ride to school, our mouths full of sharp wooden sticks. We didn’t think about the danger.
The bus had no seat belts. We slid down on the vinyl, slouching so we could press our knees against the backs of the seats in front of us; we traced the imprinted THOMAS with sharpened pencils, silvery graphite dust outlining the metal grooves.
It was hot on the bus. We sweated through our new back-to-school clothes: acrylic chevron-striped sweaters too heavy for the first of September, wool jumpers and ribbed knee socks itchy and tight against our skin.
The windows on the bus only lowered halfway; we jammed our fingers trying to tug them down, and when we’d pushed them as far as they’d go, we stuck our heads out. We didn’t think about getting hurt.
The bus driver was always a high school student — North Carolina was one of the last states in the country to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to drive school buses — who didn’t mind that we threw things: paper footballs flew across the aisle; rubber bands shot against the backs of seats and, yes, the backs of heads. We chewed wads of Hubba Bubba bubblegum and, I’m ashamed to say now, spit it out the windows when it lost its sugar.
Someone’s lunch box always popped open, and grapes rolled around on the sticky floor. We picked up the loose grapes, wiped them on our pants, and put them back in our lunch boxes. We thought it’d be fine.
By late fall, it was cold on the bus. The heater up front created condensation on the windows; we drew hearts and smiley faces in the fog. We wrote our names backward on the glass. On chilly mornings, we waited by ourselves at the bus stop. After daylight saving time ended, we stood in the dark, watching for headlights. We never felt unsafe.
We didn’t think about the workers who had built those buses, just one county over from our school, who welded and riveted and bolted and painted and safety- tested and inspected. We didn’t think about the mechanics and assembly technicians, the engineers and electricians who made sure that every piece on the bus held, ran properly, and kept us safe.
We didn’t think about things like that, because other people thought about it for us.
We didn’t think about the teachers waiting for us at the school, the ones who took time to straighten our desks, the ones who helped us get the gum off our shoes, the ones who helped us get a new lunch in the cafeteria if our lunch sacks didn’t survive that morning bus ride.
We didn’t think about our mothers, who stood watching us through the kitchen window on those mornings, steam rising from a cup of coffee, waiting every evening for our safe return, trusting that everything would be all right.
Elizabeth Hudson Editor in Chief
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