With summer slowly coming to an end, my social media pages are filling up with photos of parents escorting their children onto buses as they start their first day of school. Unlike their teenage brethren, the little ones invariably have huge smiles on their faces while the parents try to hide their anxiety as they usher their offspring into a whole new world. When I look at all those pics online, I can’t help but be brought back to my son’s first bus ride and how such an innocuous event created what would be both the highest and lowest point possible for any parent – and how I luckily managed to miss them both.
My first-grade son Jack was pretty pumped about riding the bus home after his first day at Lomitas Elementary School in Victorville, California. He had always been fascinated by school buses, even as a toddler. Every time I took him down to the school where my wife taught, he insisted on playing on the buses parked in the lot nearby. He never pretended to drive; he just liked trying out all of the seats and looking out the windows. Also, for whatever reason, he would take the time to gravely examine every tire and commit to memory all of the information located on the sidewalls. When it finally came time for him to take his place as a real live passenger, you can bet he was excited. Turned out he would get a lot more excitement than any of us bargained for.
The morning started out fairly normally. My wife dropped Jack off at school directly, and I was tasked with picking him up at the babysitters afterwards. My normal work day as a drama teacher passed by without incident, as did the short meeting which started immediately hence to organize auditions for my upcoming play. I be-bopped over to Miss Carol’s, who ran a daycare out of her house, looking forward to hearing how my boy’s first day of public education went. There was nothing to prepare me for what would happen within minutes of my arrival, but to this day I cannot recall those events without feeling very queasy in my stomach and getting a little faint. With no trace of ominous feelings, I parked along the curb, hopped out of my car, walked up the driveway and, when I let myself in to the backyard, the first thing that struck my eye was… Jack. He was playing with some other kids and seemed perfectly fine. And that, my friends, was the result of a miracle. Or two.
To her credit, Miss Carol did not hesitate to relate to me the tale behind Jack’s very interesting ride to her house. Or should I say, ‘rides’ to her house because he took a very circuitous route to get there. It all started with a miscommunication. One of our close friends inadvertently told Miss Carol my wife was picking up Jack after school as well as dropping him off in the morning. So when Miss Carol went to the bus stop to gather up all the kids she watched over, she didn’t think it strange that Jack was nowhere in sight. In reality though, the reason he couldn’t be found wasn’t because his mother had given him a ride home. The reason Jack was missing was because he had gotten on the wrong bus. And now no one knows it. This mistake then sets into motion what could have easily ended up in the worst situation any parent could possibly find themselves.
Combining the information Miss Carol could provide, and what I was able to glean from my child, this is what happened that fateful day. Instead of going on the bus to his daycare, Jack went on his assigned bus as if he’s going straight home. After a few stops and seeing other kids exit, Jack decided to leave the bus when he thinks it’s near our house. Normally, school policy states that any first-time bus riders must be met by an adult; however, this rule only applies to kindergarteners. As luck would have it, my son started off at Lomitas as a first grader because he attended a combination kindergarten/daycare the year before. Thus, he is allowed to leave the bus by himself. Unfortunately, it isn’t until the bus has pulled away that Jack realizes he has absolutely no idea where he is or where he’s supposed to go. Fifteen years have come and gone and I still cannot imagine how he must of felt at that moment without tears coming to my eyes. Just to imagine how lonely and afraid he must have been out there on the side of the road puts a vice grip on my heart. I can’t blame him for what he does next. Not really. He responded as any six-year-old would have done. He started crying. And things really get frightening from this point on.
Within a few minutes, a passing car notices this unescorted child standing by himself on a deserted side street. This boy is obviously upset and weeping and very vulnerable. The driver rolls past, stops, slowly U-turns, pulls up alongside and rolls down a window. An unknown voice, full of concern, inquires as to what is the matter. An offer is made for a ride home. Through his tears, Jack accepts and willingly gets into a complete stranger’s automobile, unwitnessed by anyone. The doors shut locked. The transmission shifts into drive. The car silently pulls away, slides around a corner, and slowly disappears out of sight. Only a fellow parent knows the relief I feel at not having to type the words, “And I never saw my son again.” Instead, the story just gets stranger.
This strange person driving my son around is not an opportunistic pedophile. Instead the person behind the wheel is actually only trying to help. Jack, having been trained at a young age to memorize where he lives, is able to give our address to the driver who then drops him off in front of our house. Jack, feeling very relieved now I’m sure, hops out and runs up to the front door only to find it locked since there’s no one home. Unable to open the gate to the backyard, he finds himself left with only one option. He quietly walks back to the end of the driveway and resumes crying. Again, an utter stranger driving by notices him standing alone and offers to give him a ride. And again he gets into the car which cruises away unnoticed. No one notes the license plate, the color, make or model of the vehicle. This time, instead of our giving our address as a destination, Jack explains to the driver that he is supposed to be at Miss Carol’s and that’s all he knows about where it’s located. Since he now beyond any doubt the luckiest six-year-old in the world, it turns out the second anonymous driver he meets used to send her kids there for daycare. A short time later and Jack is being dropped off and is met by a very confused Miss Carol. Shortly after that, I show up.
As I stated in the beginning, I managed to miss both the lowest and highest possible points in parenting. If I had shown up a half-hour earlier, it would be to discover that no one had any idea where my son was. What greater nightmare for a parent could there possible be? To know your child is out there, somewhere, unprotected from all the vulgarity and pain the dark forces of the world can muster must rip out your heart and leave it to bake on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t have known what to do besides call the police. I probably would have gotten into an accident driving around crazily looking for him. On the other hand, what kind of elation would I have felt to see Jack dropped off, intact and unharmed, by a kindly stranger? What greater feeling could a father ever know besides hugging his son who was thought to be missing, maybe forever? In the end, I feel greatly relieved that I am blessed enough to still only imagine what those emotions feel like.
In the end, Jack and I did have a very intense, loud and one-sided conversation about the choices he made that day. The fear poured out of me as I explained how much he meant to me, how he was the absolute focus of my life and I never wanted anything bad to happen to him. We had this talk as I drove over to his school where I proceeded to lambast some poor undeserving administrator who in retrospect was clearly not to blame for any of this. I’ll admit it; I did feel better afterward. There was just one loose end left.
How do I explain to my wife that she just missed the best and worst day of her life?