The Case for the School Bus as the Final Tech-Free Frontier

05/28/2015 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

A friend of mine has elementary-school-age daughters who attend school about 45 minutes from their home in Manhattan.

"Do they like riding the bus ride to school?" I asked her recently over coffee.

"They love it," she responded. "It's unlimited iPad time!"


My view of the rite of passage called Riding The School Bus has never involved an iPad or its predecessors. Now I'll admit that, as a child, I did not ride the bus daily to and from school. But the (limited, but memorable!) experiences I did have on the bus -- on school field trips, back and forth to day camp, etc. -- did not involve a single screen or button. To totally date myself, the bus was decidedly a No WalkMan Zone.

My memories of riding the bus as a child are as vivid as the ones of the places I was traveling to and from -- perhaps more so. For five years, I attended a day camp at a school-slash-farm about an hour away from Washington, DC, where I grew up. While the free-range goats and chickens at this charming hippie era relic certainly made an impression (perhaps because it was the complete antithesis of my very buttoned-up elementary school), it was the bus ride that I really remember.

I remember waiting with the other kids and parents at the bus stop, which was at an overgrown playground a short drive from my house. I remember my sweaty legs plastered against the plastic seat on the way home from a long day riding horses and singing Peter Paul and Mary. (It's possible that my sticky legs are even more memorable because I absolutely refused to wear pants to camp. Just a swimsuit and oversize, straight-from-the-eighties t-shirt. I didn't think pants were necessary -- or cool, for that matter. My mom, to her credit, bit her tongue.)

I remember singing songs in my head while looking out the window: "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Up Where We Belong"... I remember that special, uninterrupted time with my best friend, who attended a different school but the same camp.

But it wasn't all sweat and songs. The driver (Mary) was a little scary -- just enough so that you'd stay in your seat. The older kids could be intimidating.

Then there was the fact that every morning on the way to camp, I boarded the bus with my backpack in one hand and an empty plastic grocery bag in the other. I would get so carsick on the way to camp that I would barf my brains out into that empty bag within the first five minutes of the ride before settling in for the rest of it. I really loved that camp; it was totally worth the vomits.

I remember school field trips, too. We sang "99 Bottles of Beer on a Wall" (yes, they let us sing about beer!) and "Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar."

I remember another camp, where they had a 16-year-old kid driving the bus. You may recall that no one wore seatbelts in those days. The bus driver got in an accident (hit the railings on a bridge) and one of the really mean girls went rolling down the aisle of the bus. She wasn't hurt (nor was anyone, thank goodness), but if there was someone who deserved a little aisle roll, it was her, for sure.

I remember middle school ski trips. The bus partner you paired up in the days leading up to the trip was a statement of friendship and of status. We listened to Nirvana on the radio. Everyone wore plaid. My girl friends and I flirted with the boys in the dark on the drive to the mountain in West Virginia.

I was in a theater group in high school that traveled locally on the bus. I remember the couple that used to make out in the back of the bus -- as if the driver couldn't see them! I remember listening to the news of the Oklahoma City bombings on the bus radio.

OK, maybe it seems like purpose of this post is to confess that I didn't wear pants in the summer. But it's also about the fact that had we had access to iPads and their ilk back in those days, I truly feel like I would have missed out -- on the moments, and perhaps more importantly, on the memories -- from the bus. The school bus -- perhaps more than any other place -- is for getting into trouble, horsing around with friends, shooting paper airplanes, singing silly songs, making faces at truck drivers, staring down bullies, daydreaming out the window, and every every once in awhile, throwing up. It's not, in my mind, for Candy Crush (or whatever is it is the kids are playing these days).

I don't blame my friend for allowing her kids the iPads. If, as she claims, all of the other kids are doing it, I'd probably let my boys use technology, too. (Though it's worth noting that these things are pricey; surely not the standard for every single kid on the bus.) And I have no major issue with a little technology: I'll readily confess to plying my toddler with the YouTube Kids app when an attempt at a restaurant dinner goes on for too long and piles of shredded cheese cease to entertain him.

But if home and school aren't it, then shouldn't the good old school bus be a one last remaining tech-free frontier?