Communicating with Your Passengers
(and their parents)
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then kids are from…another galaxy. They don’t speak or understand English, although they give every appearance of doing so. They speak Kiddlish and every word you speak to them is processed through an invisible Kidlerian translator, which scrambles your meaning.
Kids do not, by and large, intend to be disobedient. They think they are complying. They have been wrested from their cozy comfortable nest in the womb. They spend the ensuing five years thusly: First lying in bassinets while brobdingnagian giants who would scare Gulliver senseless coo thunderously at them and tickle their defenseless little bellies with fingers the relative size of redwoods; then with great relief learning self-mobilization so they can roll and then walk themselves out of that puddle of pee so they no longer have to wait until Oprah is over. If a green seven-fingered hand snatched you out of your La-Z-Boy during “Survivor” and dropped you on the star Altair, you would not be in a more alien culture than your toddler survives every day.
Most non-scientific adults don’t know the term for Kiddlerizing, but all have experienced it. When you say to your ten-year-old Sammy on a warm summer afternoon, “Go see if the clothes on the line are dry,” and she dutifully trots to the screen door, you are about to be Kiddlerized. You will busy yourself with other duties, confident that the laundry situation has been dealt with, only to glance out the kitchen window to see that your week’s laundry is sagging on the line, drenched in a monsoon rain. “Sammy! I told you to take the clothes off the line!” Sammy will look at you with hurt and betrayal. “You did not! You said see if they’re DRY. They WERE.” Kiddlerization. The hidden context of “Go see if the clothes on the line are dry,” was “and if they ARE dry, take out the clothespins, fold the laundry into a basket and bring it in to the house.” Grownupish makes assumptions, similar to the ‘understood’ you in “Go to the store.” Everybody over 14 knows that sentence means “You go to the store.” Everybody under 14 does not. Kids don’t know from hidden context. They are literal beings.
What you think you say is not what kids think they hear.
My first traumatizing day as a solo bus driver began again at 3:15 as our conga line of buses idled rumbling along the curb beside the elementary school. I now had a passenger list, a copy of the route, and a false sense of security.
The little darlings came pouring through the doors at dismissal bell, not running exactly, but electric with the energy that had not been expended during the hours in class, like spring lambs standing stock-still but trembling with excitement just before they erupt into “SPRONG SPRONG SPRONG” stiff-legged jumps around the pasture. They climbed the bus steps, with a few false starts as a child answered my “Name, please?” with a moniker that was not on my list. Mild confusion and much milling about for the next few minutes, while teachers’ aides tugged a child this way or that to the correct bus; at last all the kids were at least ON a bus, although whether the right bus or not remained to be determined, and the conga line started out of the school parking lot.
Compared to the morning’s bus run, which could have been more accurately called a ‘bus stagger’ or ‘bus lurch,’ the afternoon went swimmingly. Now that I had the actual children in my possession, THEY could tell me where they lived so I didn’t have to intuit a small presence behind a front door. Most of them, anyway.
We arrived at stop 13, Mairzy Doats, kindergarten. I eased to a stop, activated the warning lights and called pleasantly, “Mairzy Doats? You’re home.” An ominous silence followed. I turned in the driver’s seat to scan the half-full bus. Three dozen sets of eyes (those that weren’t engrossed in scribbling mild elementary obscenities on seat backs) met mine. Their expressions were those of an accused prisoner: “Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it. I’m not Mairzy Doats.”
“MAIRZY DOATS,” I called, louder but still pleasantly. No answer. A boy in the left 1st row jerked his head at me in a “lookee here” gesture and pointed down to his side.
“I think this is her,” he said. I twisted in the driver’s seat to peer down at the tiny girl beside him. She was frozen, eyes the size and color of Wedgewood saucers riveted on me. “Mairzy?” I inquired quietly.
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Is this your house, honey?” She turned her head ever so slightly to bring the large pleasant home with the meticulously groomed front lawn into focus. Her head vibrated once, twice, stopped. It looked like a ‘no.’ “It’s not your house?” Another vibration or two.
I frowned. The route list seemed fairly clear for a change. Right description of the house, right age of the kid. On the other hand, there was no adult anywhere around to receive delivery of Mairzy, which wasn’t common for a kindergarten child. I tried again. “You don’t live here, Mairzy?”
Twitch twitch of the tiny blonde head. I sighed. “Okay, sweetie. You’ll just ride along with me while we figure this out.” I turned around and plucked the two-way from its cradle near the sun visor. “Bus #30 to dispatch. Come in, dispatch.”
There was, of course, no answer. They could get in touch with ME readily enough, but where were they when I needed them?
I completed the route until at last the only remaining passenger was Mairzy Doats, as talkative as an ice sculpture. Along the way, I had asked parent after parent, pointing at Mairzy, “Do you know who she belongs to?” Head shakes. Commiseration. But no information.
Dispatch did not answer. Dispatch never answered. At a loss, I returned to the original attempted drop-off point and stopped the bus to think. A moment later an elderly woman with steel-wool hair and a frantic face banged on the bus door. When I opened it, she leaped nimbly up the bus steps.
“WHERE IS MY GRAND-DAUGHTER?” I turned to look at Mairzy, whose blue eyes blazed from the dimness of the large bus seat that dwarfed her. She didn’t move, her expression didn’t change. I pointed at her for her grandmother’s inspection.
“Mairzy!” she cried in relief. “Come here.” She gathered Mairzy up in her arms and turned to look at me with accusation. “Where have you BEEN?”
I wanted to employ “the best defense is a good offense” and retort, “Where were YOU when I was here?” but I didn’t. “She said this wasn’t her house,” I said.
Grandmother and I both looked at Mairzy, who moved her nervous little thumb out of her mouth just enough to say the only words she had said to me since the ride began. “It’s my gramma’s house,” she whispered, and plopped her thumb back into position.
As I guided the bus down the country roads in the now-quite-late afternoon sun, the two-way crackled and a man’s voice said, “Bus #30? Where’s Mairzy Doats? Her grandmother and mother are about to call the police.” I spat at the two-way microphone.
At home a bit later I reflected that a couple of tall bourbons-and-Cokes would’ve have gone a good way toward reknitting the frayed ends of my nerves. However, it was only Monday, and school happened every week day.
I went to bed early.
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