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School Bus Crucible

February 8, 2012
English: School bus seats, photographed from b...

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The bus pulls away from the school.  He pulls out his new library book and starts to read, savouring the first words of his favourite author.  Suddenly he feels his backpack slide off the seat beside him.  He puts one hand out to stop it but it’s gone.  Raising his head, he sees another boy leaning over the seat, sneering.  The boy pulls the backpack over the seat and starts rifling through it.  Planner goes onto the floor, then lunchkit pulled out and opened.  What to do?

“Give that back!”  Laughter in reply.  Bus lurches to a stop.  It’s time to get off.  He stares at his lunchkit contents spread over the seat in front and floor, planner on the gritty, grey floor.  Bus driver, everyone staring, waiting.  He grabs his book and stands up, stumble running to get off the bus, following sister down the stairs and to the safety of mom.

It’s not until we’re halfway home that I notice the backpack’s absence.  He looks at his feet and walks slower.  “I must have left it on the bus.”  Then the story comes out.  My heart bleeds.  I hear myself saying reassuring things that sound as powerless as I feel.

My mind casts back to my grade 10 year.  I moved to Edmonton to live with my mom while she upgraded her nursing training at the U of A.  There were more kids at that high school than the population of the whole town I had left.  There were kids of all different colours travelling in packs.  Tall, gangly black boys, swaggering with fake confidence.  Girls with head coverings and beautiful eyes.  At lunchtime I wandered, invisible, trying to look like I had somewhere to be.  Pushed open the double doors to the cafeteria and held my breath against the smells – sweat, teen boy cologne, stale air, a revolting mixture of food.  The long tables covered with discarded trays, dirty napkins and half eaten food.  Sitting down would make it obvious that I was alone.  I went into the bathroom and closed the door to one of the stalls and cried a little, trying to figure out how to make a friend.  A group of girls came into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirrors.  They talked about walking over to the mall to have lunch at the food court.  I recognized one of them from my English class.  I took a deep breath, came out of the stall and washed my hands, trying to act casual, working up the nerve to talk to them.

“Do you think I could come with you guys?” I squeaked.  The girl with straight red hair looked at me, then at her two friends, then back at me.  “Sure”, she said. “We’re just going over to the mall. What’s your name?”  I introduced myself and said I had just moved here.  The last few weeks of tortured lonliness evaporated.  I ditched my lunch bag in my locker and walked across the crunchy snow-covered field to Southgate Mall with my new friends.

Making new friends takes courage and practice.  It’s a skill learned at school that’s as important as reading and writing, but not taught outright.  My Big Boy has always been slow to warm up to new situations, and talking to kids his own age doesn’t come easily.  I’m sure the boy on the bus wasn’t targeting him in particular.  He probably just wanted to see what would happen if he engaged my Boy during the long, boring bus ride. My first reaction is to blame myself  for his awkwardness – if I only scheduled more playdates, had him in more extra-curricular activities – but I know he’s coming into the age where he needs to learn these lessons on his own, with my support and guidance in the background.  Finding people with similar interests and creating opportunities to share experiences, and learning to trust others and accept them for who they are – these skills take a long, long time to develop.  It’s hard to watch him stumble with something that doesn’t come easily, but I have to stand back and honour that these lessons are his to learn.

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