First few days, no problems. My child does indeed love riding the bus; she hops right on alongside her neighbors, waving and smiling at me.
Then one day the bus pulled up right as we did at 7:04 AM. One of the mothers and her two kids hadn’t arrived yet. “You’re early!” the other mother said to the driver.
“I’ve got a new routine,” the driver told us. “So this is my new time.”
Learning that your new bus is going to come ten minutes early by having it come ten minutes early with no advance notice? Naturally. So sad for those other kids who didn’t arrive ten minutes early.
Then, of course, this week we were back to the 7:14 schedule. Again, no notice or explanation. Because that’s how we roll.
So then we get to this morning. We’ve all been arriving early, because who knows. The kids are a little punchy because it’s Friday. The ground is wet from a storm last night, so no one can sit. We wait for the bus.
It’s getting late. 7:20, no bus. “It’s not usually this late,” says one of the moms.
“Should we call someone?” I ask.
“It will be here,” the other mom reassures.
“What if we’re tardy?” a first grader asks.
“You’re not marked tardy if the bus is late,” his mom explains. “But if we take you and drop you off and you’re late, then they will mark you tardy. So we’ll wait for the bus.”
7:30, no bus. “We should probably call someone,” a mom concedes.
I pull out my phone. “Who do I call?”
“Call the school.”
No one at the school answers. I leave a message: “The bus is fifteen minutes late. We were wondering what was going on, please call me back.”
“You had to leave a message?” the other mom asks. “I guess Ms. Sheila stepped away for a minute.”
7:40, no bus. I call again. No answer, I leave another message.
7:50, no bus. We’re ten minutes from the bell. One of the moms declares that she can take everyone to school in her Suburban. All five kids and both moms pile into the car and I blow a kiss to my child. “Thank you,” I say. “I’ll call again and see what’s going on.”
I call the school again. No answer, so I leave my third message. I can feel and hear the anger in my voice.
I call my boss to tell him I’m going to be late because the bus never came. Then the school calls me back.
“I have three different messages from you,” Ms. Sheila observes.
I confirm that I am also aware of this.
“You’re new to our school, aren’t you?” she says with a slick undertone of condescension. “You need to call the Transportation Department. We don’t know anything about the bus schedule.”
“Really? Because yesterday I got three texts from your parent info line telling me that one of the buses would be five minutes late leaving the school.”
“Well, we know what their schedule is in the afternoon. But in the morning, we don’t know what their progress is. You’ll have to call Transportation.” In an attempt to be helpful, Ms. Sheila gives me Transportation’s phone number.
I call Transportation and another woman answers. “I’m calling because the bus never came to pick up my child.”
With what sounds like a carefully practiced disinterest, the woman asks, “What bus number?”
“Number?” I say. “I don’t know the number. It’s Bus A for our Elementary School.”
“That’s the Southeast District.”
Pause. “Uh, okay…” I finally say.
She sighs. “I’ll transfer you.”
Let me just pause this story for a moment and check in. At this point, my mood is definitely not improving. I’m late to work; I’m driving through Charlotte morning commute traffic, which is decidedly more congested thirty minutes later than I’m used to. I’m getting transferred to the third person in an attempt to find out why my child has been forgotten. This is perhaps what amazes me more than the endless Möbius strip of bureaucracy: that the system would silently abdicate its responsibility of five children, leaving them standing on a street corner.
Another woman answers. I repeat our situation. I am told to hold.
For the few minutes I am on hold, I hear this message: “Thank you for holding. This is Ann Clark, the Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. We are committed to seeing that every child in Charlotte has the same opportunities to learn and grow. Thank you for joining us in making the 2015-2016 school year an excellent year! Thank you for holding. This is Ann Clark, the superintendent of…”
Presently, a woman picks up the phone. It is clear she has been crying. Her voice is raspy and cracks, and she sniffles loudly. “Can I help you?” she half weeps.
“Uh, yes,” I hesitate. “The bus never arrived to pick up my child.”
“What’s the bus number?”
“I don’t know the number, but it’s Bus A for our Elementary School.”
I hear her typing into a computer; she lets out a sob and immediately excuses herself. It is all I can do to not say, “Are you okay?” But I remind myself that it is not my job to care for this woman; my job in this moment is to be a parent, a concerned and upset parent who is trying to get to the bottom of why his child has been forgotten. I am doing my job, I remind myself, because someone else somewhere isn’t.
“That bus is leaving to start its route right now,” the woman tells me.
I look at the clock; it is five minutes until 8:00, when the bell rings. “School starts in five minutes,” I nearly exclaim. “Why is the bus running so late?”
“We’re just so understaffed!” the woman whines. “We had to wait until a driver got back to run this route, we didn’t have anyone else to drive it, that’s how understaffed we are.”
What I want to say is, That’s not my problem! Except, of course, that it is my problem. It’s everyone’s problem. Teachers fleeing North Carolina because the State Assembly eliminated tenure and cut teacher pay is everyone’s problem. Students in Charlotte being redistricted into 1950’s segregation is everyone’s problem. State representatives refusing to pass a budget for months on end is everyone’s problem.
I guess we all just want to do our jobs; this poor woman on the other end of the phone was trying to do her job just like I was trying to do mine as a parent. And due to political forces outside both our control, we were equally frustrated in our abilities to do so. Sitting in my car in Charlotte traffic, wondering how many children on our bus route were being left behind at their stops, I felt like crying, too.