School Bus + Train Tracks = ?

school busLena begged months ago for me to chaperone her final field trip of the year, and I agreed, not truly believing the day would arrive when I had to spend precious school hours shuffling through a damp cavern tour.

The day arrived. Parents had to drive our own cars, and we could meet at Howe Caverns or follow the buses. Lena wanted me to follow; she was worried I would get lost. I was worried I would lose my mind waiting for dozens of third-graders to settle onto their buses. I assured her I would be on time.

I was—along with a dozen other parents. But the bus wasn’t. We waited. And we waited. Parents kept arriving, including some who had started out following the buses, but then passed them. Where could they be? As the moments ticked by and the small talk faltered, I began to imagine all of us—the scrum of social moms, the scatter of silent dads, me and another mom marveling at the classic ugliness of the middle-of-nowhere Tourist Attraction—as characters in some awful short story that begins with snark and ends in school bus tragedy. I hate those ones that lure you in and then punch you in the gut.

The first bus arrived, and along with it, the story. The other bus—Lena’s bus—had been stopped at some train tracks when the lights started to flash and the crossing bar came down on its roof. With cars lined up behind it, and teachers inside it screaming, the bus managed to reverse just in time to miss an oncoming train.

Our children were now pulled over, waiting for the first bus to come back to get them.

We were told to expect freaked-out children, and when the bus finally returned with our precious cargo, we spilled out of the lobby and clustered in the parking lot, waiting to receive the sobbing crew, take them into our arms like the babies they were until very recently, and murmur reassurance into their ears.

Naturally they clambered out of the bus laughing and talking. “Finally!” was the first thing Lena said to me, in her best impression of an exasperated teen. And where was the bathroom? Courtney urgently had to pee.

Field trip ensued. The kids exclaimed at the stalactites and stalagmites and argued with the guide when he told them not to touch (“What if we touch it just a little?”). Over their heads, the parents talked about The Incident. Was the crossing faulty, such that the train arrived too soon after the warning signal? Was the bus actually on the tracks before it backed up? How close did the train come? Were the kids in danger or just inconvenienced?

That’s the question that comes up again and again for parents: what do you take seriously and what do you not? Although we’re pretty sure we’re going to mess up our kids, most of us are still anxious to minimize the damage. But which way is more damaging? I could shrug the whole thing off, sympathize with the hapless bus driver, lift an eyebrow at the fury of fellow parents. Not taking it seriously suits my temperament, but surely it does not always suit the occasion. In this case, it could make my daughter feel less safe, less protected, maybe even less loved. It could even—through my failure to take some action—put someone else’s daughter in danger in the future.

By taking it too seriously, though, I could turn something trivial into something traumatic. We’ve all seen a kid look to the parent to see whether a scraped knee is an “oh my god, sweetie, are you ok?” moment or a “you’re fine, honey” one. We all know how alarming a parent’s alarm can be. And, conversely, how soothing a parent’s nonchalance can be.

At the Caverns, I was in the dark: was this a big deal or was it not? Lena, though chatting and laughing, held my hand almost continually when we walked, and leaned her back against my front and pulled my arms around her when we stood still. But maybe she was just cold, because once we returned to the sunny outside, she ran off to do the “gem mining” (sifting through a bag of prepackaged sand for the “gems” within). Later at the picnic tables, she cheerfully pointed out all the great food the other kids had packed. “See Mom?” she said. “Now are you going to give me Pringles in my lunch?”

Meanwhile, the principal had arrived, and the social worker and a member of the crisis response team. They milled around for awhile taking our emotional pulse, and then the principal gathered us together and told us we could take our children home with us if we wished, but that there was a new bus and driver if we wanted our kids to go back to school as planned.

Lena rode the bus. First, though, she hugged and kissed me goodbye; when I left she was holding her teacher’s hand. At home, she was excited to tell her dad the news. But when I tucked her in that night, she said, “I wish our bus hadn’t taken a wrong turn” (which was how it had ended up at a train tracks in the first place). “It ruined everything.”

Did it? I asked. You had the same field trip you would have had, didn’t you? With a little extra wait? Plus you have a good story to tell. “That’s what Alison’s mom said,” said Lena. Well, at least I had some company in the nonchalance camp. I kissed her and left, as usual, with little ceremony. “Goodnight, baby. I love you,” and a flick of the light switch.

When I went back to the kitchen, I picked up Lena’s school folder to put in her backpack, and found a letter from the principal inside.

This morning on the way to Howe Caverns, our bus drivers accidentally made a wrong turn. In their attempt to turn around, the buses stopped at a railroad crossing. The bus drivers stopped before the tracks and followed all necessary protocols. While the bus was in no danger, the crossing bar momentarily touched down on the first bus. . . . 

In other words, “you’re fine, honey.”

I did the math. The principal had managed to get a letter into these kids’ backpacks in the ten minutes between their arrival back at school and their departure for home on their regular buses. The language of the letter said “no big deal.” The fact of the letter, on the other hand . . .

Maybe I should have given Lena a few more kisses.

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