Livin’ On A Prayer…

“If adventures do not befall a lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”

~Jane Austen

There was a time in my life when I wanted to ride a school bus. It was the cool thing to do. I was in seventh grade and would rather be delivered to school by bus than dropped off as a car-rider by my parents. It gave me a little “street cred” to be one among the masses; to be a real “latch-key kid”; to be someone who could inspire After-School Specials. At the age of twelve, I was four feet, ten inches tall and weighed about eighty pounds with stringy brown hair and braces, so any credibility I could get on my own was welcome.

For me, the journey home on the bus was always the most exciting. After all, another day of school had been completed and I was a little smarter and therefore a little more daring. The idea of sitting in the back of the bus letting off steam with a group of like-minded individuals seemed especially appealing.

Not every day, but on most days, shenanigans ensued in the form of name calling, throwing objects both in and out of the bus, and in some instances, blatant disrespect. I was never a ring-leader in these events, just a passionate hanger on, cheering and laughing and embracing my membership in “the Bus 91 Gang.”

As the hierarchy of a mob or gang goes, you obviously have a leader, lieutenants, and then people like me, who just hang around to be a part of the group but will turn tail and run at the first sign of trouble. Whenever things really got out of hand, the bus stopped and we received lecture number 1,359 from Mr. White, the beleaguered bus driver who wore filthy overalls, and smelled of BO, menthol cigarettes and diesel fuel. During these talks, I would slink down into my seat and try to disappear, blending into the unimaginative vinyl upholstery, like a chameleon hiding from its enemy.

Mr. White was the perfect caricature of a villain from “Scooby Doo.” An angry curmudgeon in need of a shave who was dangerously close to the edge and we “pesky, meddlin’ kids” knew as junior high and high schoolers we had the power to be the ones to nudge him a little closer to that cliff. As soon as the rote speech about bus rules and etiquette started, the Bus 91 Gang, including me from my bunkered down position, would burst into song to the tune of “Peach Picking time in Georgia,” and blast out this chorus: “Oh, it’s lecture time in ‘Doches, apple picking time in Tennessee.”

It was all fun and games until Mr. White finally drew a line in the sand and scheduled “home visits” with all the parents about our misbehavior. When the appointment in hell was finally set and Judgment Day arrived, we were forced to sit with our parents and Mr. White and hear him drone on and on about his expectations for us as model bus riders. Ashamed and embarrassed, not only for ourselves, but for him as well, we agreed to adhere to the rules of the bus from here ever after. When he was finally gone, punishments were handed out, and parental lectures filled the air, along with his scent, which still lingered. The general feeling of my parents’ disappointment, however, outlasted the pungent smell of stale cigarettes, body odor, gasoline and regret.

Fast forward. The year is 1987, and I’m still on a school bus, although it’s not nearly as cool. In fact, it was downright hot, which was nothing new for a Friday night in the fall in Texas. Buses in those days were not air conditioned, didn’t have radios, and of course, had no seatbelts. The days of wanting to sit at the back of the bus were long gone so I proudly took my position as Drill Team sponsor in the first seat on the right, while my cheerleading counterpart was across the aisle on the left. Another Friday night. Another out of town game. Another bus ride.

This “yellow dog” was filled with twenty drill team members and eight cheerleaders. The bus reeked of Aqua Net as we bounced along the bumpy highway with a boom box blasting a tune from the Beastie Boys, who were apparently fighting for our right to party. The destination tonight was Deweyville, Texas, a small town close to the Louisiana border. The roads were winding and narrow; the hot, humid air was blowing in through the open windows, mixing the smell of exhaust with the already thick, sticky atmosphere of hairspray. This was not a bus filled with tree-hugging, ozone layer loving people, but rather teenage girls who truly believed that simply because of their existence, the world was a better place.

The sun had just about faded out of sight, and darkness loomed all around. I happily fell into my highway hypnosis mode, or maybe I was just slowly being asphyxiated from the noxious fumes on the bus; whatever the cause, I was in my own world, lost in deep thought and reflection, looking back on the past year and my short but lively stint in public education.

I was the freshmen English teacher in a small 3A school in southeast Texas. As a graduate of Texas A&M University, I found it quite paradoxical that the main school color was maroon but the mascot was a Longhorn. After I got past this small but not insignificant barrier, my expectations were great. I was there to change the world and spread intelligence and insight to students who yearned for it. These students would adore me and thank me daily for quenching their thirst for knowledge by exposing them to the genres of poetry and prose and of course, the great American novel.

Sadly, this dream of transforming my students into English scholars was short lived when I realized their simple challenge of just using proper grammar on a daily basis. And while we’re on the subject of exposure, the only thing that was truly ever exposed that year, was the bare-ass bottom of a ninth grade football player who “mooned me” from the door of the field house after school one day.

In addition to my lofty teaching goals biting the dust, my ego was further deflated when I received a rude, hateful and grammatically incorrect anonymous letter from a drill team member which outlined all the ways I had single-handedly led the Drill Team down the path of ruination, a point from which, according to the author, there was no return. Sobbing hysterically, (because I was still so young and tender and this assault on my character truly hurt my feelings), I took the letter to the principal, who thought he was making me feel better by stating this was not penned by a student, but rather a parent. Once verbalized, it became glaringly obvious who the mean mom was. When she met with me to discuss the issues, her defense was “but Drill Team is my life.” It was at that moment I replied, “Well, you need to get a new life.” I may have seemed brave and self-assured with this quick rebuttal, but secretly, inside, I was a scared little girl, ready once again to run like the wind.

To further validate my emotions, I should remind you that several years later, another mother in Texas was convicted of hiring a hit man to knock off a junior high girl who beat her daughter out for a spot on the cheerleading squad. This “stuff” just can’t be made up and one should always remember to never, ever underestimate the level of crazy of an irate parent.

Aside from getting engaged to the handsome coach who taught down the hall, highlights of my first year included accidentally showing the unedited Franco Zeffirelli version of “Romeo and Juliet” to my honors English class, whose members included the principal’s daughter, the Baptist preacher’s son, the daughter of a school board member, as well as a couple of fellow faculty members’ kids. Yes, this version included full frontal nudity (of Juliet). After we all joined hands and “pinky swore” that word of this would never hit the streets, the bell rang and students began changing classes and young men who never showed one iota of interest in English were skipping into my classroom, asking “When are we going to get to read about them Romeo and Juliet people?” I learned then and there the value of a pinky-swear in the minds and hearts of fifteen year old males who had witnessed the perky and ample young breasts of Olivia Hussey.

I’m not sure which I saw first, the time on my watch or the sign welcoming us to Louisiana, but I was soon awakened from my hypnotic state to the realization that we were lost. The lead bus, which was transporting the band, veered off the road into the parking lot of what looked like a “juke joint.” The portly band director, sprinted (well, it was sprinting for him) off the bus and into the “establishment” to get directions (at least that’s what we hoped he was doing). Thankfully, this was in a time before social media and we didn’t have to worry about all the things that could go so very wrong in this situation.

Upon his return to the outside world, the band director motioned to our female bus driver and we fell into the line of buses and rambled onward to our destination. As we rolled in the parking lot, we saw that the teams had already taken the field which meant “The National Anthem,” school songs and fight songs had already been played, or in our case, not played. The superintendent, Dr. Moore, was anxiously awaiting our arrival and as we were all piling off the buses with instruments, pom-poms and all the other regalia necessary for game time situations, he yelled ever so emphatically and authoritatively to the band, “Hurry and get in those stands and start playing ‘Comanche.’” We were already rattled from the trip, but this was especially humorous and confusing at the same time because our song wasn’t “Comanche”, but rather “Apache”. Forgetting all the normal protocol that is part of the Drill Team march in, we flew into our seats and the band started to play.

As I sat in the stands that Friday night and engaged in my own battle against the biggest, most blood thirsty mosquitoes known to man, I wondered to myself, “How in the world did I end up here?” Seriously, did I take a wrong turn or is this where I’m supposed to be? This was definitely not the version of the fairy tale existence I had envisioned. As I slapped my arm and ended the life of yet another pest, the announcer belted out, “And now for your half time pleasure, the Prairie Prancers will be performing a routine to “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Years have passed and I’m not sure why the escapades of that night serve as such a visible book marker, or maybe even an epiphany, when I analyzed the decisions, mistakes, and life lessons that determined who I was and who I would become. Memories have a way of changing over the years, sometimes making people kinder or making experiences grander, more exciting or even more or less traumatic. Past acquaintances lose their individual characteristics and are merged into people whose faces are more familiar or comfortable. I can’t, for the life of me, even remember the name of the lady bus driver who chauffeured us to all the out of town games on Friday nights, but in my mind, when I picture her, I see Dorothy Harris from “Forrest Gump,” sans the cigarette hanging off her bottom lip. Though not accurate, remembering things in a different, simpler, or more interesting way helps to erase some of the “not so good” times. I think our mind does this to protect us and to make even the saddest moments more bearable.

I often wonder about the roads I’ve taken. I haven’t led the “normal” life I always thought I would, but then again, what is normal? I hear it’s just a setting on the dryer. Working in public education and being married to a coach has meant a lifetime full of lessons, both taught and learned. I’ve met my fair share of interesting people and my life and heart have been touched in ways that would not have been possible if I hadn’t stayed on this path and followed the game plan. In many ways, my life has been more spectacular and remarkable than I could have ever imagined. Maybe this “normalcy” thing is over-rated, along with deep thinking and pondering the meaning of life.

When it’s all said and done, maybe the only truly profound question to ask is if Tommy ever got his job back at the dock, and if Gina’s still at the diner all day.

After all, we’re just livin’ on a prayer.

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