It is September in Connecticut. Here, the change from summer to autumn happens quickly, and while everyone is sleeping. The first morning of fall is distinct and totally invigorating. During three years living in California, this one season is the thing I missed the most about life in New England.
Driving back from pre-departure errands in town today, I am stuck behind a school bus. With no reasonable alternate route, I settle easily into the slow drive home. Smack behind that bus, and two weeks away from beginning a Master’s Program in Edinburgh, my thoughts wander to things academic. Backpacks, new pens, new notebooks. All the things I could write in them. The nervous energy of the first day. I become a 4th grader again. There is just something about September.
Each hundred yards, the school bus blinks its yellow taillights, slows to a halt, swings out its red sign, opens its door.
I think back on chilly autumn school mornings. Sitting next to my sister in the kitchen, warming our feet on the heater vent by the floor, our mom would make tea with milk and sugar in little cups, then our dad would wait with us at the bus stop. I adored school, but often felt nervous those mornings. Some bus drivers were nice, and some scared me. One (nice) lady always played a Wilson Phillips tape. One (scary) guy had a curly-cue mustache. One year it was a mousy woman was named Mrs. Colthart. Over the course of many morning waits, my dad and I composed a lengthy song based on her vehicle, “The Colthart Express”, a tune we sang each time she began the ascent from Main to Chestnut.
Throughout the summer, I’ve sorted through mountains of school papers filed away in our garage. Most went to the trash, some were pretty adorable. In Kindergarten, I wrote obsessive notes to my parents insisting how much I loved them. A list of 10 ways to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, beginning with, “pretend it’s not Christmas Eve”. Regular journal entries to a teacher revealing that kids were mean to me on the bus and I absolutely hated it. My recollection of this trauma is so vague that I have trouble believing it now.
The lights blink, the bus slows, the stop sign swings out. A young boy bolts from the steps and runs toward his house without looking back.
I think of Adam Belanger, the boy in my 1st grade class killed by mistake, killed by the school bus that had just let him out. At the funeral, I stared at his little sisters in pretty dresses, both looking sad, barely old enough to understand. In high school, I’d often wonder where Adam would have fallen in the mix. A popular kid? A loner? Class president? The prom date that I couldn’t find? Twenty years later, I still wonder about Adam. How his parents ever kept going. What memories those two little girls, now young women, have of their big brother. I wonder about the bus driver’s burden.
Another few houses, yellow lights, red sign. Flashes of pink and blond and lunch boxes and backpacks as neighbors run to their front doors.
The pattern emerges. Every child exits in a full-on run. Definitely no walking. All of these kids bolt off the steps and run across their yards, happy to be done, bursting with energy despite the long school day. They already understand the freedom any afternoon can bring. The lucky ones run to their moms and dads, waiting and eager to hear about their children’s adventures at school. Maybe they can’t wait to share what they learned.
In a handful of days I’ll get my own school bus, in the form of a bright green Aer Lingus jet plane, letting me off in Edinburgh to begin what will likely be my last year as a student. I have plenty of expectations, figured from program descriptions, international phone calls and email threads, tales told, Rotary scholar veterans. Of the things I expect, disappointment is not one. I have a feeling that when I return from this year abroad, I'll come bursting forth, much like these kids, energized by stories and lessons learned from my own school-day adventures as a Rotary scholar.