The boy on the bus
There’s a famous painting by Manet called A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It depicts a young barmaid at the Parisian nightclub. Through the mirror over her shoulder you can see the buzzing audience, and also that she’s waiting on a customer.
Despite the tumult in the nightclub, it’s the barmaid’s expression that rivets your attention. Or rather her enigmatic lack of expression. Is she suffering from boredom? Sadness? Daydreaming of being somewhere where? Her expression is a blank canvas onto which the viewer can project anything he wants. The barmaid certainly doesn’t seem to be giving the customer, a gentleman in a top hat, the time of day.
I was reminded of the painting and especially the barmaid’s expression on a recent morning as I passed a school bus stopped at a traffic light. A young boy was looking out the bus window with a similarly ambiguous look in his eyes.
School happened to be on my mind because a few minutes earlier, before I’d peeled off to go running in Central Park, I’d briefly joined the early morning caravan of parents walking their children to school along Park Avenue.
I don’t know whether it’s just me or that the affliction of being a writer always has you mining your past. But you never feel far removed from any stage in your life. I was thrown, however briedly, into the cadences of a new school year. So what if my children – who I walked to school up that same avenue a generation earlier – are now old enough to make the march with children of their own.
What, then, might the boy on the school bus have been thinking? The answer was unknowable since I wasn’t about to board the vehicle to interview him. But the question transported me back to that moment in time. Chances are I wouldn’t have been thinking about much of anything. If my parents or teachers had shown a drop of compassion towards my biological clock I would still have been fast asleep; not rudely awaken, forced to get dressed, eat oatmeal, and then unceremoniously be shunted out the door.
The poor kid was probably in minor shock. He probably wondered where things had gone so wrong. A few weeks or even days earlier he was on summer vacation doing fun stuff. Now he was being forced to disrupt his sleep patterns, pay strict attention in class, take snap quizzes and do an avalanche of homework.
If you’re starting to get the impression that grammar school wasn’t my cup of tea you’d be right. I have the report cards to prove it. My mother kept them all. Here’s one from third grade: “Ralph is having trouble keeping up in arithmetic,” Miss Miller wrote, “and seems not to be spending enough time on words he has missed in spelling. His attention is often poor in other subjects.”
And this critique from 6th grade. “Fair in all phases,” my teacher wrote, awarding me a “C”. And that was in shop!
My math struggles constituted a recurring motif. “He works so hard and has so much good will, I hate to see him go to pieces in this one area,” my fifth grade teacher wrote. “I really believe he needs a complete check-up on his math from the ground up. Confidence must be regained now. Time is getting short.”
I was obviously no Einstein. But it bears mention that my homeroom teacher supplemented his salary by tutoring students. Once my parents enlisted his services my math grade, if not my math comprehension, rose from the depths of “C” despair into the fruited plain of a solid “B”.
I asked my wife whether school was as traumatic for her as it was for me. She told me she loved school, got glowing report cards, and was surprisingly good at math. Have there ever been any studies done of spouses, one of whom did well in school and was popular, while the other did poorly and was perpetually alienated? Would that fall into the category of opposites attract?
I fear I may be straying from the subject. So what, if anything, occupied the consciousness of that boy on the bus? It was probably too early in the school year to panic. He probably hadn’t yet been buried in homework; he wasn’t suffering under the Damocles sword of a math test.
Hopefully his experience was more like my wife’s than mine. Maybe he was thinking of new friends. Or lunch. My understanding is that the meal has improved since the days we were served Chicken a la King and Swiss burgers. His parents and siblings may have been on his mind since family is the cosmos in which one operates at that age.
There’s a current story in The Atlantic that poses the question, “Why Do Adults Still Dream of School?” One expert’s answer is that school serves as a metaphor for anxiety. The month I graduated from college, uncertain what to do with my life, I dreamt I was in graduate school. The only problem is that the program was located at my old grammar school and I was forced to sit at my second grade desk, my knees up to my chin.
If I could have a word with the boy on the bus I’d tell him that a disappointing math or English test isn’t the existential threat it appears at the moment – no matter what your parents or teachers tell you. If you love school, good for you. If you don’t you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to discover what you’re good at and what makes you happy. Occasionally, you may even get to sleep in.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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