Waiting For The `Big Cheese'

For younger kids, riding the bus is fun. But for older ones, it's just a ride.

Maryland Journal

September 05, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Amanda Owens is the first one at the school bus stop. With another school year just a few days old, she figures it's best to get off to a good start.

Bus No. 57 isn't due for at least a half-hour, but she makes her way to the corner of Royer Road and Stacy Lee Drive anyway. Partly, she likes the peace and quiet. But mostly, she just wants to make sure she doesn't miss what she considers her "transportation of last resort."

"I like it because it gets me there, but I don't like it because it's slow," laments Amanda, a sophomore at Westminster High. "I want to get a car before the end of high school, but I have to wait until next year because there's only parking for juniors and seniors."

With the sun just beginning to settle into the early-morning sky, Owens stands alone for more than 20 minutes, watching the cars pass through her suburban neighborhood dotted with rows of townhouses and single-family residences.

With a few minutes to spare before the bus approaches, a group of bleary-eyed teens begins to descend upon the stop. Most agree: The bus is just a ride to school.

For a while, they chat about homework, boyfriends and lunch - nothing to write home about.

A straggler makes his way along Stacy Lee Drive just as the bus roars toward the corner stop. He's the last one on as the teens climb the stairs in quiet resignation to take their seats for the 10-minute ride to Westminster High.

But just around the corner - and a world away - freedom has sprung. For the children headed to Westminster Elementary, it's one of their first opportunities to make their way into the world all by themselves.

Just ask the youngsters waiting for Bus No. 399 at Johahn and Windsor drives.

With book bags half their size strapped to their backs, the giggles punctuating the air are those of boys and girls who have been dreaming of these days - if not riding off into the sunset, at least far enough away from Mom and Dad to feel like a grown-up.

"When I was in pre-K [last year], I couldn't wait to start kindergarten so I could ride the bus with my sister," said Sarah Sexton, 6, who attends Westminster Elementary with her sister Elizabeth, 8, a third-grader.

For Sarah and Elizabeth, life at the bus stop is a world filled with its own dramas and comedies.

"We've had four bus drivers since last year," Elizabeth recalls as Sarah chimes in with her own recollection of the upheaval. "Our first one got fired. Then we had a substitute. The third one just disappeared. I still wonder about what happened to her. Our fourth one is the new one we have now."

And, oh yes - the car accident. Who could forget that?

"It was our last day of school," according to Elizabeth. "Our bus was hit by a car. The [car's] driver was on a cell phone, not paying attention. And he ran into our bus. The driver said he slipped on a rabbit in the road. The car got smushed."

Eventually, another bus was sent for the children, she said.

For Jesse Bond, 10, a fifth-grader at Westminster Elementary, being able to ride the bus was what finally liberated him from the before- and after-school program at school.

"I'm free now that I can ride the bus," Jesse said as he waves and flashes a thumbs-up to passing motorists from his spot at the bus stop. "But what I'd really like to do is walk. That would give me more time to talk to my friends."

Since children at this intersection in The Greens of Westminster neighborhood stopped walking last year to the elementary school and started riding the bus, Jesse has grown familiar with the driving habits of his neighbors.

As drivers pull away, he can call out which street they will turn onto as they make their way along the winding streets of the development.

For these children, the bus stop is a beehive of activity. It's a part of their day they greet with a buzz of energy.

It's a time for chit-chat, a little of bit of horseplay and sometimes a chance to nibble on the snacks their parents have packed - all of which 10-year-old Isaiah Torres, a fifth-grader at Westminster Elementary, was doing on a recent morning.

As the bus approaches, they eagerly form a single-file line to board. It's hard to imagine that this vehicle of independence will someday feel more like a chokehold.

But in a few short years, these youngsters will become the teenagers shuddering at the thought of mounting what has assumed the decidedly disparaging label of "the Big Cheese" - so called for its unmistakably bright yellow-orange hue.

It always turns out that way.

"I'm 17, and I'm still riding the bus," said Ricky Samples, a senior at Westminster High, who hopes to have his license to drive in four months.

"As soon as I get my driver's license, I'm off the bus," he declares just moments before boarding Bus No. 57 at its first stop. "I get to see my friends here, but it's still the bus."

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