It was the first day of public school here in Possibility City, and the kiddos learned a new vocabulary word:
Lanyard: noun, a cord passed around the neck, shoulder or wrist for holding a knife, whistle, or similar object. Origin: From the Middle English for “short length of rope.” Usage: By placing bus assignments on lanyards to be worn by students, school officials proved once again that, given even a short length of rope, they will hang themselves.
When I heard that the local district was hanging its bus-plan hopes from strips of nylon around the necks of its pupils, I could not avoid a bus ride down memory lane.
There on the hot plastic seats of history where the smell of prepubescent armpits mingled with the occasional waft of flatulence, I concluded the following: Had they provided lanyards to my crowd during our elementary heydays, someone would have wound up a). bound; b). lanyard-whipped; c). killed by strangulation, or some combination of the three, within the first week of the policy, provided all of us didn’t lose our lanyards at home after the first day, which would have been a distinct possibility.
I must admit, the thought of thousands of elementary children walking around like little groupies with back-stage passes brought a smile to my face. But that was only until I started to see news reports that the new bus plan was losing children faster than Britney Spears pre-rehab.
A dozen kids didn’t get home until after 9 p.m., too late to catch the beginning of the live 2-hour edition of “America’s Got Talent.” Not that it mattered. They got to be a part of their own reality show: “America’s Got No Brains.”
The following items were actually part of the opening-day activity in elementary schools:
— An instructional video on how to ride the bus, wherein students watched “Mandy” get in line, get on and off the bus.
— A dry-run of the bus line-up procedure in lieu of recess. (Tomorrow, reportedly they will practice lunch.)
Welcome to Possibility City, where our kids study the three “R’s” — Reading, Riding, and ‘Rithmetic — where anything is possible, even your child getting home from school in time for supper. It has gotten this bad – high school students are so embarrassed by the bus performance that they are asking drivers to let them off a block away from school.
Granted, I don’t remember everything about my grade school days. I’m pretty sure we never had to use class time to talk about how to ride the bus. But those were simpler days, before a bus ride home required more transfers than a coast-to-coast Greyhound trek.
Which brings us to the serious root of all this.
On the first day of school, the center of everything — from administration to instruction to media coverage — has been on transportation, not education. When this much time, effort, money and attention is expended on the lone job of getting students to and from school, someone needs to blow a whistle.
Busing, desegregation and diversity are hot-button topics that churn up long-held and deep-seeded emotions. But at some point, emotion must give way to evaluation. At some point, historical heft must be weighed against the experiences and best interests of children today. At some point, people need to be given an explanation of why this very costly way of doing things is the best way, and if it is, why it has not yielded better results in four decades. Where are the success stories? Where is the data?
Proponents contend that it’s about giving those in low-income or some inner-city schools which traditionally have had fewer resources and success a chance to go to better schools. They argue that it ensures that student bodies are culturally diverse, which most of us would agree is a good thing, though there is little evidence to show that it brings a learning advantage to anyone.
No one is arguing to turn back the clock to separate but equal. Separate was not equal. But we’re finding, together is not equal either, not in many cases.
I keep coming back to the kid who has to climb those bus steps before 6. To the first- and second-graders riding 20 minutes to a bus depot, then having to change buses and do it all over again. Twice a day. To the working parents from lower or middle income families who would like to get involved with their child’s school but can’t because it is across town. To the kid who wants to play a sport or take part in an after-school activity, but must arrange a ride back across town when it is over, sometimes by city bus.
And finally, I keep coming back to the expense of all this — expense that could be used for teachers or instruction materials in schools that don’t even have enough books for every student. Is the benefit worth the cost? And when we can pay for more buses but not for enough books, what does it say about our priorities?
Unfortunately, it’s not just on the bus that some of our children are being taken for a ride.
UPDATE: The district superintendent, promising “swift action,” today suspended with pay two elementary principals whose buses had particularly poor first-day performance. Neither, however, appeared overly concerned about being thrown under the proverbial bus, figuring it would be very late anyway, if it even showed up at all.