It may have been nearly 20 years ago, but I can still remember the way the afternoon breeze would sweep through the open windows, carrying school bus yellow sunshine and diesel smoke inside.
It was always at least a 30 minute wait after the bell rang while the buses completed their first run, and returned to pick us up for their second run. Being one of the rural kids that lived outside of town meant we were picked up an hour before school started and dropped off more than hour after school ended.
The trick was to wait around the side of one of the brick pillars of the breezeway that connected the gym to the main campus. The bus lane bordered the breezeway, and it was always a game of chance which pillar to pick, wagering on which bus would return first, and how far up the lane your bus would pull. We always mobbed the bus, pushing and jostling against the after school duty teacher standing like a warden to keep us away until it came to a complete stop. The teachers and coaches all rotated weeks of staying late to patrol our shift. We were an interesting group. There were the farm kids like me, a little socially awkward due to growing up in the stillness and solitude of a farm. And then there were the kids from the trailer park on the edges of the city limits. Mostly Hispanic or Navajo, with an occasional token white trash kid thrown in for good measure--they were the rough kids.
The rough kids were the reason it was important to be aware of which teacher was on duty after school. Some weeks I breathed easier because it was someone like Mrs. Boognl, the algebra and geometry teacher. Red haired, 6 feet tall and mean, she could cause all algebraic equations to flee from your mind with nothing but a casual glare. I withered in my chair in her class when she called on me, but I basked in the protection she provided when it was her week on the bus duty beat. Other weeks someone like Coach Mascarenas would be in charge. During the 4 weeks of PE that we played flag football, Coach was known for removing his glasses to clean them. The rule was absolutely no tackling allowed. However, he'd say with a smirk, what he didn't see, he couldn't punish us for. And he couldn't see when he was cleaning his glasses. His glasses were often dirty after school too, and I'd constantly be on my guard those weeks.
The rough kids were the reason it was important to be near the front of the line to board the bus. They sat in the back of the bus, and the really awkward kids sat in the front to suck up to the driver. The best strategy I found was to be among the first few on board, so I could select my own seat somewhere between the front and the back. Then I could hunker down as everyone else found their seats around me. Most days I could simply blend into the green vinyl and the rough kids would rattle their way past without paying me any mind.
I suppose in the grand scheme of the world, the bullying I experienced really wasn't terrible comparatively. I was never beat up. The physical attacks rarely went beyond slaps to the back of the head or slugs to the arm. The mental attacks were constant though. Incessant teasing, continual degradation, threats, belittling remarks were the course of the day. Every day.
I invited much of it I'm sure. I was above average intelligence. Not in a get-all-your-work-done, slather-on-the-good-citizenship, and ride-the-honor-roll way. I was way too lazy for that crap. In fact I was merely average when it came to rote operation activities. Times tables I hated. Learning Spanish was a nightmare. My aptitudes were much more instinctive. I just knew things. I always assumed that it was because I was a voracious reader that I accumulated knowledge, and truth be told, I'm sure it didn't hurt. But even today, sometimes I just know things without distinctly remembering when and where I learned them. Regardless, I was at the very least an easy target because it bothered me so much to be teased.
Fighting was strictly prohibited by my parents. I knew it down to the very core of me. So much so that when I was once attacked, unprovoked, on the playground by a boy saddled with an emotionally unstable label, I just stood there, doing nothing. I didn't fight back for fear of getting in trouble for fighting. After it was over, I still got in trouble. My parents couldn't fathom that I'd been pulled into the principal's office for anything other than something of which I was surely guilty. There was no chance to plead my case, only the sentencing hearing.
And so this particular afternoon, like usual, I worked hard to play all my cards correctly. I managed to avoid any confrontations during the eternal 30 minute wait after school. I managed to get on the bus near the front of the line, and sat in my usual seat midway back. There in the early spring warmth, I sat. Just in front of the wheel well, on the right side of the aisle, while the afternoon sun streamed in from the left side of the bus. My only mistake was that perhaps I sat in the middle of the seat instead of huddling against the window.
The rough crowd was boarding the bus now, with Manuel leading the way. Manuel was Hispanic, and taller than me. A junior high top dog 9th grader, he was already reaping the benefits of puberty, filling in muscle, scraggly black hair on his upper lip, and the body odor to go with it. He wasn't terribly popular as far as the in-crowd was concerned, but he was included simply based on his terror factor. He wasn't just brilliantly intelligent, and I always thought he looked a little cross-eyed like the inbred cats on our farm. As he was coming down the aisle we locked eyes. I quickly looked away, but not before he noticed my existence. As he drew close to my seat, he paused and reared back with a fist as if to hit me. I of course, ducked quickly to the side to avoid being hit.
He sneered at my reaction, and his cronies behind him laughed. Then he joined in with his raspy cough of a laugh.
And I snapped. It was too much. The injustice of a thousand different affronts roared in my ears.
I burst to my feet. My hand clenched itself into a fist, and the farm-hardened muscles in shoulder and arm coiled to strike. My eyes sought his and gripped the lapels of his return gaze, breathing harsh, acrid anger into his face. He stumbled backward in surprise, nearly falling as he tripped over someone's feet.
It was in that moment I saw it. In his eyes lapped another emotion, filling in like an incoming high tide around the scattered stones of surprise.
It was fear.
A tense moment ticked by, and he realized I had seen it.
I lowered my fist, and a smile twitched just at the corners of my mouth. He recovered his footing and reared back as before, acting as if he were going to hit me. I didn't duck this time.
Instead I calmly sat down, and slid to the window completely ignoring him. I think not really knowing what to do, he went and sat at the back of the bus like usual.
I wish the incident stopped the bullying, but it didn't. That would have been too poetic I suppose. It did change things though. While he never touched me again, or threatened to hit me, he redoubled his mental warfare for the rest of that year. It wasn't until we moved to the high school that his class schedule took him to different parts of the campus. He was old enough to drive at the beginning of the 10th grade, so he no longer rode the bus with us rural kids. I didn't turn 16 until June after 10th grade, so I got another whole year of riding the bus.
In that square, small instant on that 9th grade afternoon though, the entire universe reordered, and quantum reality peeked its auspicious face into the aisle of that bus. I stood up for myself and rendered the bully harmless for an afternoon.