Sixty minutes is a long school bus ride, especially when it’s 92 degrees in early September with no air conditioning, the seats are sticky with sweat, and every row is filled with hormonal middle schoolers. That 60 minutes seemed interminable to us, the said middle schoolers. From my 47-year-old vantage point, I know now that it must have seemed even longer to Betty, my middle school bus driver.
Our ride was protracted because we were Catholic school kids in rural Southwestern PA. There wasn’t a neighborhood school on every city block. We had to wind our way through several towns and along mountain roads: Possum Hollow Road, Rustic Knob Lane, Fish Hatchery Road, Zion Church Road, Rectory Road.
Reminiscing about the street names takes me right back to the mountain environment. Gorgeous wilds, sparse population, and a uniformly Christian citizenry. Not uncommon: the shack with a washer (dish-or-clothes variety) and a couch on the front porch. There was no “as the crow flies” route. The only option was to pack 72 eleven through 13-year olds together, and wind them through the towns: from Greensburg to Lycippus, Latrobe to Derry, and Ligonier to Laughlintown. It was the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and even though we were approaching the 21st century, sometimes kids had to traverse dirt roads on their way to school.
Betty must have been in her 50s in 1980, though she seemed ancient to me. She wore her salt and pepper hair in a tight, curly perm perhaps inspired by Barbara Streisand in the Main Event, but looked more old-school nun, sans habit. Perhaps it was her resemblance to a nun that struck fear in our hearts, having suffered all day by being disciplined by Sister Gertrude — discipline which might have involved a pointer stick or a ringing slap on the desk. Betty was Gertrude’s after-school doppleganger. She inspired a culture of fear. She knew no one’s name. She glowered as we stepped onto the bus. We sat in silence.A quick Google search of the phrase “middle school bus incidents” shows that the bus environment might actually be complete anarchy.
Generations collided on that terribly hot day at the start of the school year. Our era was the start of the Saturday Night Live era, where schadenfreude was comedy. (Though most of us weren’t supposed to stay up until 1 am, we did our best.) Betty’s era: the sit-and-be-quiet-and-obey era. One kid poked another and so on, until, in the ensuring chaos, a lone falsetto voice was heard, “oooohhhhh noooooo, Mr. Bill!” Over and over, the voice called out in what we termed The Mr. Bill Noise each time we retold the story of our torture that day.
Considering the silence and fear that normally enshrouded our lengthy bus rides, a few Mr. Bill noises constituted utter anarchy. In a split second, Betty pulled the bus over to the side of the road. It was the first time I had ever heard her address the entire bus at once. She demanded that we put every single window up. Then announced that we’d be sitting still until she knew who had made The Mr. Bill Noises.
The bus quickly heated in the blaring sun. Mostly, I recall the utter horror at being commanded to sit inside the Dutch oven of a school bus on a hot fall day. And my utter terror at being faced down by Betty. But someone finally admitted to the crime and was sent to sit at the front of the bus next to Betty, rather than anonymously hanging at the back (where, as we all know, the cool kids go). Being doomed to the front of the bus, for days or months or perhaps an entire school year, was a fate that no 7th or 8th grader wanted. Those middle school years were the years of fitting in, the years of trying to deflect attention. Betty knew that the worst punishment she could dole out that day was to forever imprint the offender with the fate of having to sit at the front of the bus.
My memory suggests that we were mainly well-behaved on that bus. But memory is odd and subjective. Now I’m the parent of a 7th grader and I’m guessing that if we were anything like a group of kids from his school, there were many incidents leading up to this fated day. A quick Google search of the phrase “middle school bus incidents” shows that the bus environment might actually be complete anarchy, where bullying, violence and accidents abound. In reality, the Mr. Bill Noise incident might have been just the final straw — the one that finally sent Betty to the brink and which finally restored order. I can’t know now if it was, but can say with clarity that I hope to never in my life again be condemned to ride a bumpy, boiling hot, tin-can of a school bus with 70 middle schoolers for an hour over twisty mountain roads. Betty was condemned to a life of doing that twice a day for 180 days a year. Maybe it’s time for me to develop a little more empathy for Betty the bus driver.