When I got Athena’s enrollment confirmation from the Seattle School District, I also got a note saying that Athena would be able to take the bus to school. I was far more excited about this than Athena was, having spent my elementary school years pining for a bus commute of my own. I decided that I would drive Athena to and from school for the first three days to give her a chance to adjust to the going-to-school part of the equation, and then we would add the complication of riding the bus.
On Athena’s first day of kindergarten she woke up in high dudgeon. She had absolutely no intention of going to school. She had nothing to wear. The cute dress from Cambodia that we had chosen weeks before for first-day wear was too itchy, and not purple.
As we neared the school, Athena asked if we were going to be late. “No,” I replied, slightly embarrassed by my need to be super early for everything, “we are ridiculously early, as usual.” She nodded. A beat passed and she said brightly, “That’s okay, Mom, this way there will be lots of parking.”
The playground was chaos. The monkey bars were packed out with brightly colored first-day-of-school outfits. As kindergarten parents watched the bright bustle of children on the playground they started to tear up. More seasoned parents offered pats on the arm and stories of their own first drop-offs. Athena ran by in her purple polka dotted skirt that I had pulled out of the dirty clothes hamper in desperation. Athena climbed happily into the chaos, and I checked my watch, wondering when the bell was going to ring.
The bell rang and all of the children lined up. The older grades left the playground in well-defined lines while the kindergarteners, weighted down by bags of school supplies and tearful parents straggled into disorganized clumps by class group. One of the teachers made a short, bracing speech about how this was the first step on a path to over 20 years of formal education. He cut a ribbon, strung across the doorway, with a flourish, and threw the doors open. A mother standing near me snuffled loudly into a tissue. Athena looked at me with sullen resignation, her eyes brimming with tears, and filed off with her class. I left the playground weighed down by the thought of 20 plus years of formal education.
I dropped Athena off at the playground for the next two mornings, and Athena became incrementally less sullen as she filed off with her class. The weekend passed and Monday rolled around.
Athena and I walked down to the bus stop in the brisk morning air. A mother in a pink running shirt with long sleeves, expensive looking black running capris and a pink visor, clasped a cup of coffee. Her teeth were white and small and straight and set in a mouth too large for them, and her eyes snapped as she talked to a well-groomed father. She made an effort to talk to me, her eyes darting to the patches of my buzz cut that were sticking up, and down to my grease-stained men’s cargo pants. Athena and I settled ourselves on a brick wall and watched a girl fall out of a tree. She lay there in the grass, clutching her ankle, and trying not to carry on about it. Her mother, blonde and self-assured, hovered over her, a clear mug of coffee clasped tightly in her hand as she calmly asked if the girl could move her foot. The mother stepped back, and the girl went limp into the grass, taking her comfort from gravity’s pull. Her mother let her lie there until the bus came and then set her coffee down to help her up. She said she hoped she was ok, that she’d have to get on the bus, and to call her from school if it was really injured because there was no way she could carry the girl home. I looked at the girl and thought to myself that I could carry that child home. But I think she just twisted her ankle a bit more than her little first-grader ankles were used to being twisted, and that she would be fine.
The bus came and Athena dutifully boarded it. I waved to her until I couldn’t see her anymore, silently giving thanks that she had not put up a fight about getting on the bus.
That afternoon I went to meet Athena at the bus stop. The bus stopped, its amber lights switching to red as the crossing bar swung out from the front and the door sighed open. The bus driver, an older man with a five o’clock shadow and glasses with the shades flipped up, peered over the heads of the children as they trotted down the stairs. The line petered out with no sign of Athena. I walked towards the open door to ask the driver if there was a little girl named Athena still on his bus, but the door thunked shut before I could stick my head through it, and he pulled fluidly away from the stop. I stood there, stunned. As the bus turned the corner Athena waved happily at me out the back window. Swearing loudly I sprinted after the bus. The other parents and their children paused and stared as I kept pace, beating on the side of the bus. The bus kept going, and so did I. It pulled away from me and turned a corner. Athena watched me from the back window until we were out of sight of each other. I caught up with the bus at a red light. I ran the length of the bus and rapped my knuckles against the door. The driver opened it.
“It’s a good thing you caught up with us here,” he said with a British accent, “the next stop isn’t for quite a ways.”
I breathed loudly through my mouth in reply and collected Athena. She held my hand on the way home, skipping happily along.
“I didn’t know which stop was mine.”
“It’s the one I’m standing at,” I said in between gasps.
That night I wrote a note for Athena to show the bus driver. I spelled out her name and the intersection she was supposed to get off at in large, block letters.
The next afternoon I showed up at the bus stop with time to spare and waited. The bus pulled up, the driver set the lights flashing, opened the door, and out came the same line of students that had come the day before. There was no sign of Athena. I didn’t hesitate this time, and shoved my head and shoulders through the doorway just as the last kid hopped to the pavement. “Is there a little girl named Athena on your bus?” The driver peered at me through his glasses with the shades flipped up and then hauled himself to standing. He lumbered to the back of the bus and back to the front. “There is no little girl named Athena on this bus,” he announced primly. I lurched back from the doorway just in time to avoid having my neck shut in the door.
I sprinted back to our house, got in my car and roared off to the school, where I found Athena sitting contentedly in the Main Office. If this had happened to me as a small child, I would have been a nervous wreck, but not Athena. Maybe she figured that if I didn’t lose her in China, where I was so lost myself, there was no way I would lose her here. Or maybe she’s just not as prone to anxiety.
There had been some kind of mix up with bus numbers, and Athena had wound up assigned to a phantom bus that never showed. “We were just going to call you,” one of the office workers said.
Athena’s teacher called me that evening and apologized for the mix-up and the anxiety it had caused. I spent the rest of the evening quizzing Athena on which bus to take home and where to get off. Athena spent the next morning reciting which bus she needed to take home and where to get off. And when I went to meet her at the bus that afternoon, she was there, trotting off of the bus with the other children.