Bus evacuation drills in elementary and middle school punctuated the rowdy ride to school with a bit of drama.
I liked them.
Two boys, usually tall and a grade older, opened the rear emergency exit, jumped out, then stood on either side of the door, offering a hand to anyone who needed it as the rest of us dropped to the ground (which was a considerable distance as I recall). On the best drill days, these boys were Chris and Eddie. Or Skip and Reese. Or Brian Rowe.
I loved this exercise because imagining there was a reason to evacuate was exciting—Bus 98 on the tracks! And because I liked the momentary grasp of the boys’ hands.
Conversely, I thought of myself as self-sufficient, so a cool, effortless jump and a nailed landing were imperative. This is why, instead of moving to the threshold and dropping to the pavement as instructed, one day, in a moment of unbridled 9-year-old joy, I jumped up in order to jump out—cracking my head on the doorframe so hard I could have knocked myself unconscious—only I had to pretend it was nothing—staggering nonchalantly a safe distance away from our bus to readjust my hairband.
Bus 98 (The Old Cheese Crate) was a big yellow box with no shock absorbers and a nation where anarchy reigned. There was the unbearable tension of getting on first, hugging the window seat while the cutest boy at the stop just beyond yours made his way down the aisle, books pressed to one hip instead of hugged like a baby the way we girls held ours. Enduring his slow, assessing approach, the pause at your empty seat, the swing in, the settling down, and the I-want-to-die-tension of adolescent proximity was a daily agony we happily anticipated.
We were so loud, shouting, throwing pencils, bouncing over the bumps; I don’t know how the driver kept his wits about him, ignoring us in his wide rectangular rearview, as we broke all the rules. Yes, there was covert gum chewing and cigarette smoking in the back of the bus, some couples forever immortalized in magic marker graffiti, but the day the boys used a Bic lighter to set Peezie Pritchard’s ponytail on fire, I went to the vice principal. Yes, it was me! (Sorry, sorry, sorry.) I’m the reason we got assigned seats.
I’ve lightened up since then.
It just felt safe being a rule-abider. Even self-imposed rules provided some security in an otherwise amorphous family structure, so after recovering from the head-whacking debacle, I was excited to become a designated class “Safety.” “Safeties” got to wear a white diagonal canvas strap across our chests that buckled around our waists and had a silver badge attached to it like we were short cops. I think we were supposed to help the Walkers cross the street, but since no one in his right mind would have relied on us for this, we kept order in the halls as kids raced for the buses at 3:00. I didn’t want the job, and I don’t remember performing any duties. I did covet the white strap and the badge.
As the bus began to empty out on the ride home, we’d rearrange ourselves. We’d spread out, turn sideways in the seats with our backs against the windows and our knees bent sideways, taking up the whole surface, tentative owners of new real estate. The windows half opened, the wind rushing through, and the smell of fuel and exhaust eventually gave way to the scent of pine woods and river.
We’d glance around, reassessing our relationships as they became subtly more intimate with the lessening density and increasing eye contact. But as the bus became emptier and emptier it began to feel lonelier and lonelier. When I got home, I’d be on my own. No one to tell me to do the homework I would do anyway as the pleaser I was—no one to say not to swim alone or take the boat out. I’d be my own Safety.
The emptiness that crept inside as the number of riders dwindled required a subtle emotional adjustment after each stop, like when the class a year ahead graduates and suddenly, you’re the seniors. You come back the following year with no one above you, thinking, Cool! We’re at the head of the line! But that newly vacated space is a hole. Friends have moved on to new grades, new lives. You will not see many of them again. It feels foreign until time normalizes what is new to what is familiar.
It’s the way it feels when a family must reconfigure as siblings leave home. Or if a parent leaves. And as an adult, it’s your children who get off the bus one at a time, at stop after stop, until they are all launched into lives of their own, and it’s you who reorganizes what’s left of the original family design.
And when your parents die, suddenly you’re the senior class, slamming metal locker doors, dominating the lunch line with no one above you, and it’s not all that cool anymore.
But we are an adaptable species, beloveds, good at closing ranks, making a new organism that thrives even when we’ve lost a limb. We are evolving every minute, albeit at such a glacial pace, we can’t see our hearts contract and enlarge again and again as we let go, then recalculate, making a new design, maybe even a beautiful one, of loss. Eventually, even loss evolves, and we come to call it change.
Did you know that if our species was wiped out in a cataclysmic event… Asteroid! Nuclear holocaust! and there was no bus evacuation to save us; as a species that has arisen from single-celled organisms without hearts, brains, or sight to become us, explorers of the stars, we could evolve all over again, 80,000 times before the end of the world?
Is that not remarkable? Homo sapiens could re-emerge from single-celled organisms to cosmic adventurers in search of the beginning of creation 80,000 more times before the planet is absorbed by the ballooning red star of our sun.
That’s 80,000 more opportunities to keep each other safe, to reach for the hand that is offered, to drop from the back of the bus with gratitude and grace.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.