A first-grader is transported by love

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As a child growing up in urban New Jersey, I never once rode a school bus. But I often watched as the yellow things rolled by. Each seemed to have its own personality: One was a raucous mob scene as the students vaulted the seats and congregated in the rear; another was as calm as an oasis, with each kid prim and proper in his place, silently facing forward; a third contained an unhealthy mix of eighth-graders and kindergartners, the latter peering forlornly out the dim windows as the bigger kids roamed the aisle. I was content to walk the eight blocks.

Despite these recollections, I did push my 6-year-old son, my first-grader, to ride the bus to school. I had two reasons for doing so. The first is my early teaching schedule, which makes it a tight affair indeed to drop him off at school before high-tailing it to work. The second was a desire to encourage some independence in him.

"Anton," I noised one day shortly before the start of this school year. "Would you like to start riding the bus to school?"

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To my utter amazement he nodded with alacrity and said "yes" three or four times. Hmmm, I considered. This is going to be a piece of cake.

The first day of school dawned bright and warm. We waited in front of the house, with Anton champing at the bit to get on the bus. The thing came around the bend and pulled up in front of us. Anton took one step forward. But when the door opened, he absolutely froze and stared into the dark maw, at the unfamiliar bus driver, at all those early-morning kids' faces, none of which he recognized.

"Go ahead," I prompted, giving him a gentle push from behind. But it was no-go: He was a monolith and only continued to stare in silence. "Sorry," I said to the understanding driver. We watched as the bus lumbered away.

As I drove Anton to school through the snarl of traffic, I asked him what had happened. "Tomorrow," he quietly said. "I'll take the bus tomorrow."

As with the first try, his enthusiasm waxed strong, as a sort of preamble to the wonderful experience of riding the bus. The next morning we were once again on station. The bus pulled up, the door opened, and Anton froze. "Maybe next time," I said to the driver as the door clamped shut.

Truth to tell, I felt the deepest empathy for my son. Was I, at some level, glad that he hadn't gotten on the bus, that he'd wanted me, his dad, to take him to school? Was a child's overwillingness to get on a school bus the first tentative goodbye that would be echoed with increasing resonance as the years peeled away?

Yikes. I was making too much of a minor situation. I decided not to even raise the bus issue again. But it raised itself one day in our house, when a little girl – one of Anton's closest friends – was visiting. I was watching, and listening, from the kitchen window as the two sat out back at the picnic table, chattering away as they arranged my son's Matchbox cars. A few minutes later, Anton came inside and made an announcement. "Daddy," he said, "I'm going to marry Diana."

"Really?" I remarked. Ever the pragmatist, I informed my son, as gently as possible, that one needed money to get married. A low-toned "Oh" was all he emitted in response. He went back outside, walked up to Diana, and with a heavy heart communicated the following: "Diana, we can't get married. We need a dollar."

After they had come to terms with that terrible blow, they returned to the toy cars. Diana picked up a small yellow bus and said she liked riding the bus to school. Anton looked at her with his big brown eyes, and I wondered what wheels were turning in his head. A light bulb had gone on in mine.

By that evening the plan was complete. I asked Diana's parents to drop her off at our house the next morning. When she arrived, Anton was beside himself, as Diana had always been an after-school friend. And now here she was, pretty in pink, standing in our kitchen while he was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

I let the two of them hobnob for a little while. They chatted amiably, most of their conversations of this nature:

Anton: "What do you want to play?"

Diana: "I don't know. What do you want to play?

Anton: "I have a big car, but just one."

Diana: "I know! We'll share!"

Anton: "Yes, we'll share!"

The bus rumbled in the distance. I got the playmates together and ushered them outside. If Anton knew what the jig was, he wasn't letting on. The three of us stood by as the bus approached. When the door flapped open, Anton hesitated. "Come on," said Diana as she took the lead and then extended her hand. Anton took it and ascended the steps, not even looking back to say goodbye. As the bus pulled away, I caught sight of them sitting together, laughing like school bus veterans.

With love, anything is possible.

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