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The Yellow School Bus, Just Like in Movies!

School bus in rural Ontario, 2010
School bus in rural Ontario, 2010

As usual, Mark is busy playing and he doesn’t notice when I step in. I stand there, in the middle of the room, observing, relaxing, and planning the evening. Another kid gives him a nudge: “Mark… your mommy here.”

So much for filial instinct—isn’t he supposed to feel I’m about to come before I’m even here? Mind you, I was 100% sure I was having a baby girl, so maybe human instinct is overrated after all.

Finally, he sees me.

“Mommy! I went to the farm!”

I know. I signed the authorization slip and wrote the cheque.

“So, so, so… How was it?”

“I had a ham sandwich!”

I know that too. I made the sandwich the night before and put it in his lunch box. What I really want to know is…

“It was stinky.”

“Stinky? What? The sandwich?”

“Yeah. No. The pigs are stinky.”

“Ah, I see. But how was the…”

“And there was poo-poo and mud everywhere and…”

“Maaaark! Did you… did you take the bus? The yellow bus?”

“The what? Bus? Oh, yeah.”

I can’t believe how casual he is about it. It’s the bus! The yellow school bus! The magic bus!

Or maybe to Mark, it’s just a bus, and I’m projecting.

But I can’t help being fascinated by these yellow school buses. They are among the many cultural discoveries I made when I first came to Canada. In the early morning of 2002, I woke up to the sound of kids’ chatter and loud idle engine noise. I look out of the window and saw parents, standing at the corner of the road, waving kids goodbye as they were getting into a giant yellow school bus. “Oh my God!” I giggled. “Suburbia and a school bus—this is just like in a Hollywood movie!”

Nothing says “North American schools” like the iconic yellow bus, except maybe these rows of lockers. For some reason, in the U.S. series, students seem to spend their time hanging out in hallways, stuffing something (or someone!) into their locker while some drama unfolds—arguments, after-school plans or budding love stories. We were jealous—in France, we had to walk to school or take public transportation. We didn’t have school buses or lockers, just basic learning tools like the complete works of Victor Hugo in twelve volumes to lug around and packs of cigarettes to smoke in the cour de récré. Life is so unfair.

Hollywood movies resort to so many stereotypes and overuse so many clichés that I had half suspected school buses didn’t actually exist or were anecdotal, a bit like not every French man is cheating on his wife and not every Parisian family lives within a five-hundred-meter radius of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées.

Much to my initial surprise, school buses do exist and make billions of trips every year. And sometimes, they are used for various school activities.

Over spring break, Mark’s daycare planned a special week of fun, including the dreaded “let’s pretend we are at the beach” day. Two field trips were also scheduled for pre-schoolers: one at the Aviation and Space Museum and one at the Experimental Farm. If you ask me, I think you have to be insane to volunteer to take a bunch of preschoolers for a day out at the museum but hey, I happily paid $15 to let Mark join the fun. Of course, he was excited to go to a museum (although I suspect he would have been happier to hit all the worship places in Ottawa…). “And you’re going to take the yellow school bus!” I added, already expecting a full report on the experience.

Technically, I rode these school buses too, although I took the “chicken bus” version, these refurbished Blue Bird buses that make up the transportation network in Central America. Foreigners nicknamed them “chicken buses” because you often have to ride with locals heading to the market with goods to buy and sell, including chickens. These buses are painted in bright colours, windows are wide open, they can carry up to a thousand passengers (no room? Ride on the roof!!) and they stop every two meters. Yes, I can picture these buses, three passengers or more per bench on seats designed for children, squeezed together, the ticket guy making his way up and down the crowded aisle, collecting fares, the driver screaming the destination to whoever wants to join the party, the stereo blasting music, the food vendors selling snacks for the long ride…

On the other hand, what I cannot picture is kids riding the school bus. It feels… weird. To me, this is a true North American paradox. If you drive your own car, you have to strap your precious snowflake in bulky death-proof age-appropriate devices—rear-facing car seats, forward-facing car seats, booster seats. But you can totally let your child ride a giant bus without seat belts, driven by a stranger who works part-time as a bus driver, part-time as a Tim Hortons employee and probably smokes pot to carry both duties day after day, kind of like Otto, the school bus driver in The Simpsons.

Go figure.

Maybe I’ll volunteer for the next field trip, just for peace of mind… and mostly for the experience.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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