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On the Bus

A recent Memphis school bus incident offers food for thought.

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For years, in the early 1960s, I rode the bus to school every day, for an hour each way, back and forth. As one of the few black students living in the central Missouri countryside, most of those who endured this ordeal with me were white. It wasn't because of some court ordered edict designed to offset segregation. It was because our junior high was 25 miles away in the community of Williamsburg.

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What brought me to remember those days was last week's furor over the decision of a Durham school bus driver to stop her vehicle after some Bolton High School students began acting up on her route. She emptied the bus and gave them an expletive-ridden tongue-lashing about their conduct and how she wasn't going to tolerate it while she was driving.

As always seems to happen these days, her tirade was captured on video and went viral. Durham opted to temporarily suspend the driver, but by week's end, public support of her actions forced the company to reinstate her as a driver, though not in the Shelby County School system. The school system vowed to take disciplinary actions against the students, who were ready to incite a fight on the bus.

It may sound like I'm waxing nostalgic, but on those long bus rides with my classmates on the way to school, we actually had many meaningful conversations. My best friend, who I always sat next to, was Robbie Christensen. On a socio-economic scale, we shouldn't have even come close to bonding. His parents had money. Mine did not. Yet, through sharing our youthful observations of the changing world around us, a genuine friendship blossomed.

As 12 year olds, we told each other of our fears about dying during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. What if a nuclear war broke out against Russia, we wondered. Who would be our allies? Robbie told me his family had already built a bomb shelter and he'd have to ask, but he was pretty sure my family could use it too if we were attacked.

As school opened after the summer of 1963, the March on Washington had taken place. Robbie told me he'd heard his parents say they didn't know what the Negro people wanted in terms of civil rights. Didn't we have rights already? I told him I thought it meant more than just being able to go to places we hadn't been able to go to before. "We want to have the right to choose our own paths in life," I said. "Whether it was to be a doctor, a lawyer, or somebody on television." Robbie promised me that if I ever got on television he'd watch me.

But when we got to our freshman year in high school, we found our friendship wasn't immune to societal pressures. After getting off the bus, we sat together in our school's auditorium, with black students on one side and whites on the other. For weeks, we tried to ignore the polarization. Sadly, I was the first to crack. It was the toughest and longest bus ride home I ever had. Robbie and I sat together again, but we didn't speak. The age of our youthful innocence was over. We would see each other at school and briefly exchange pleasantries, but it wasn't the same. Our estrangement seemed complete when my family moved into town and I stopped riding the bus.

So, who could have imagined that, years later, when I circulated a petition to become the school's first black student body president, the first signature at the top was Robbie Christensen? When I won, he held my hand up on stage in triumph.

It makes me sad to think that times have changed so much that our children can't think of any more to do on a school bus than to be disruptive, obnoxious, and unmannerly.

When that lone bus driver took her foot off the gas pedal and put it down to try to stop that unruly behavior, her words were perhaps harsher than they should have been. But, they were earnest and necessary. And the fact that she felt the need to say them at all bespeaks the loss of respect for common decency too many of our children display. I know from experience that a bus ride can offer an opportunity for meaningful discussion and growth. It's too bad the kids in question don't seem to know that.

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