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The Bus: That Magic Buffer Between School and Home

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They say you can find anything on the internet. Well, do you know how difficult it is to find a photo of the back of a school bus to use for a blog post? There are hundreds of images of school buses from the front or the side, or the smarmy pics with the stop sign extended and the smiling kids waiting to board. And there's always some eager student ready to help load his wheelchair-bound classmate. But really, it's the view of the back of the bus I'm interested in. Come September, I want to see that bus pulling away, not pulling up.

So, instead of an image of a jaunty yellow school bus fading into the distance, I offer up this gem. This bus is going places.

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Sure that yellow barge on wheels means school is back in session, but it is also more than that. In just a few brief moments every morning, groups of children and adults wait for a bus. The bus arrives, the children board, parents give a wave and kids take their seats. (And contrary to many an "After School Special," there's actually no drama in finding a seat, because every child knows exactly where he belongs on the bus.) In the scant minutes this drama has played out and the bus pulls away, the tectonic plates of the earth have shifted. It actually is that big.

You head off to the bus stop or even the carpool drop-off circle as a family unit of three or four, a few doors open and close, the pneumatic brakes squeak and you are all alone. And, yes, perhaps happier than you have found yourself in weeks.

What I hadn't realized until late last year was that the bus offers magical transitive powers when it travels in the other direction as well. My boys usually ride the school bus halfway home and I pick them up at a transfer point. Mostly, it is a matter of convenience. It keeps me out of the arduous "carline" that threatens to define the lives of so many suburban parents, and it gets my boys home an hour earlier than if they rode the bus the entire way.

Through painful observation last spring, I learned that the ride offers not only convenience, but also a buffer for my kids and me -- particularly for my child who is letting go of childhood. That 15-minute ride bridges his two worlds. The days are spent in classrooms that demand a student to be simultaneously independent and a dutiful pupil, and the schoolyard that requires a child to be both offensive and defensive. At home, for better or worse, dependence is tolerated, and he can let go of any need to be offensive or worry about self-preservation.

Home and family, by definition, are a safe place. Middle school, by definition, is a proving ground, a stage for pitched battles of discovering and defining one's identity and role in the hierarchy. To have these two worlds collide in a suburban parking lot is almost too much.

When he rides the bus, my son has time to digest his day, let go of most incidents, words or frustrations, and settle into his own skin again. If I arrive in his world at 3 p.m. bringing the protective aura of home -- in the guise of a 2400-pound SUV -- it is almost too much for the raw emotions and fragile state of adolescence. Even Clark Kent needed his phone booth to rectify his two worlds.

As a parent, middle school pick up and drop off has been strangely reminiscent of preschool. I remember watching the teachers working car line crawl into the car in front of mine to physically extract a child from the idling minivan. Most of the time mine were happy to go, but there were days that required extensive negotiations, and sometimes even going in to settle them with a puzzle or Play-Do, offering promises that I would definitely be back (really, how far can you get in 2 hours and 15 minutes?)

Then there was preschool pickup. In the early months, I remember saying over and over to myself as I waited in car line, "please let him be wearing the clothes he went to school in." (I have heard from some mothers of middle school girls, that they actually hope for the same thing now, in seventh and eighth grade.) Such were the demands I put on my children and my preschool. If there was no accident, the day was a success. If the teacher approached the car with a plastic grocery bag and my child was wearing shorts in a snowstorm, well, then I knew I'd be volunteering to bring more than cups and napkins to the holiday party.

Of course, you'd think that with the trappings of cell phones, Friday night dances and homework done while instant messaging, those days of graham crackers and construction paper pumpkins would seem far away. But they seem acutely near.

A friend who counsels troubled teens says that middle school is the time when kids figure out who they are and who their friends are. And because self-discovery is no small task, many young teens spend much of middle school lost, confused and afraid. Sure, most of my son's sixth grade challenges were remembering the right books on the right days, and seventh grade was more work and more books. But in the vast spaces between the books and sports and dances, he battles away at the real work of middle school. And there are still mornings when a little boy wearing size eight men's shoes takes a deep breath before getting out of the car.

And on the afternoons when I do pick up at school, I am the one taking a deep breath saying over and over to myself, "please let him be smiling when he sees me." And really, I could care less if he's wearing what he went to school in. Clark Kent can have his quick-change phone booth. I'll take the emotional buffer zone of school bus #34. Besides, my kids say George the bus driver is hilarious. And he does Sudoku while he drives.

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