School buses have been around since the 1920s, if you include the horse and buggy variety, and have become an iconic part of our educational lore. Most Canadians have ridden on a school bus at some point in their lives and likely have a school bus story worth telling. I have a few.My personal association with school buses began at an early age when from my living room window I would watch my two older sisters walk to the corner across the street from our house and catch an old re-commissioned highway coach that served as a school bus. It would ominously pick up my sisters and take them away in a cloud of black diesel exhaust to… I didn’t really know where. I would not see them again until that same bus deposited them, in the late afternoon as shadows lengthened, in the same location. This almost magical, daily ritual of disappearance followed by the relief of reappearance seemed mysterious and somewhat sinister and caused me a degree of anxiety. School buses were responsible for my later insomnia and recurring nightmares involving abductions, but that’s another story for another time.
As a student back in the mid-50s, I had no need for a school bus because my local school was within easy walking distance, a mere nine kilometres straight down the road from my home. My first experience with a school bus ride happened while going on a skating excursion at that same school, Prince Philip Public. About two classes, or 85 students, would crowd onto one bus holding our sharpened skates like ceremonial swords. It was a miracle that the skates never removed a single eye or left a permanent scar on the bouncy, boisterous trip to the arena. There, our teachers, God bless them, had to laboriously help us tie our skates and usher us around the arena as they nursed the many fall-related injuries. Later, the fatigued teachers had to repeat the process in reverse—remove the skates, get us on the bus, attempt to count the surging kinetic bodies, and land us again safely at school, only to be repeated the next week as part of our progressive Physical Ed program.
My first high school field trip was with Mr. Kegler, my grade 10 geography teacher. It was Mr. Kegler, along with an arduously long bus ride to the Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, that gave me a love for geography and photography and cemented my relationship with the ubiquitous yellow school bus as it steered me toward my own teaching career.
In university, while enrolled in Religion and Culture 101—a basic, first-year, so-called “Mickey Mouse” course—we, as young, responsible adults, boarded school buses on our campus to tour the culturally significant Labatt’s plant in London, Ontario. That trip was a little more rowdy, loud, and out of control than my previous skating trips but seemed to have roughly the same number of people recovering from falls of one sort or another. I have no idea how the bus driver endured the trip, or what lasting cultural impact it had on us as students, but for various reasons, it did prove to be a highlight and milestone in my student life on many levels. We were not tested on material based on the trip nor was the university ever invited back for a similar field trip. It did raise the philosophical question as to whether or not there were ever 100 bottles of beer on the wall.
Since that time I have ridden on too many school buses to count. It seems as I age the frequency of my school bus travel increases, and each trip comes with new challenges. I often ponder the safety of the approximately 40,000 school buses in Canada that carry 2.5 million students daily. My research tells me that although the comfort level of a typical, glossy yellow— the official colour—school bus has not changed since they were first pulled by horses, the safety levels have improved.
I have often wondered, as a parent who has put his own children on school buses, why there were no seat belts. The answer, perhaps a marketing ploy, is due to the unique compartmentalizing of the seating arrangement such that upper body impact is absorbed by the seat in front of the passenger and, therefore, is actually safer than a lap belt. What happens to the person in the front seat? We leave that to speculation and offer thoughts and prayers. To add harness seat belts would require changes to the entire interior design of the bus at great cost and that explanation likely offers a truer picture of the slow nature of change, but don’t think about that the next time you load your kid on a school bus and send him/her off to school or camp.
As a teacher, I have supervised many field trips to museums, historical locations, and ski resorts—both day trips and weekend trips. One memorable trip with overeager, hormone-enriched grade 9 students was to Niagara Falls. This particular route is seared in my mind with indelible, emotional scars because I made the same trip many times as part of a regularly scheduled event for grade 9 students.
The noise level on a bus during a trip generally increases exponentially from the front of the bus to the back. Bus drivers, through years of exposure to pandemonium, have become oblivious to chaos and can endure, while mere mortals wither. On this particular trip, I was seated in the relatively tranquil white flag zone at the front of the bus when motorists, with angry blaring horns and flashing lights, gradually caught my attention as they passed the bus. I eventually sensed something amiss and began the treacherous journey to the rear of the bus where, to my horror, I discovered three very large, life-like puppets “mooning” the passing motorists. I had never seen such a spectacle in all my bussing exposure. Naturally, I confiscated the three offenders and took them to ride out the remainder of the trip in the (very dangerous) front seat. We sat and glared at each other the rest of the way. From somewhere near the cheap seats in the middle of the bus, as if in comic relief, came the cheerful notes of several students in song…
The windows on the bus go up and down, Up and down, up and down,
The windows on the bus go up and down, All through the town…
I glared down at the puppets and said, “Not a word out of you three!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marty has ridden on school buses his entire life and would like to honour the place of the humble school bus in educational lore along with the many bus drivers, including his son-in-law, Harry, in Edmonton, who risk their sanity each and every day getting their charges safely to their destinations. Soon he will be travelling by school bus with his students to the Toronto Zoo. He only asks for your thoughts and prayers…
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.