The school bus screeched to a halt a few feet past the stop. Benjamin looked around for incoming cars, and then warily crossed the street. Benjamin could almost feel his mother’s eyes burning a hole through his head. He had tried to convince her that he would be fine. After all, he was fifteen, not five. He could handle waiting alone at the bus stop, even in a new place.
“Good morning,” the bus driver called to Benjamin as he ascended the steps of the bus.
“Thank you, and good morning,” Benjamin responded courteously. He was surprised to receive strange, unfriendly stares as he walked through the bus in search of a seat.
“What is this,” a boy snickered, “a manners class?”
The bus lurched to life, and Benjamin was thrown into an empty seat. He settled down, and took his backpack off his shoulders. The seats around him were filled with silent students. Some rubbed their eyes; others sat hunched over, resting their heads on the seats, while a couple casually glanced out the windows.
Benjamin decided to follow other kids’ lead. The discolored flesh of the seat, already wounded with markers, tapes, and endless tears, didn’t seem like a clean spot to rest his head. So instead, he looked out through the tiny window at the rural landscape, so different from what he was used to. The sky was tinted a pale, gray hue and instead of the tall, endless skyscrapers, all Benjamin could see was grass and farmland all around him, dotted by the occasional house or ranch.
The dimly lit school bus hummed along the country roads, picking up a few more students. Soon pitter-patter of raindrops hit the bus’s roof. It began slowly at first, but then raged into a steady, continuous throb. Streaks of raindrops obscured Benjamin’s view.
“Can I sit next to you?” A voice interrupted Benjamin’s hyper focus on the raindrops. He sat up, alert.
Another teen, who looked around his age, looked at him hopefully.
“Sit down, please,” the bus driver called. “Come on now, we got to keep going.”
Benjamin looked around the bus, which had begun to slowly crawl and was beginning to fill up, and looked back to the pleading boy. He didn’t want to make the wrong type of friend; it could prove to be costly.
“Ok.” Benjamin moved his book bag onto the floor.
The boy swiftly slid into the seat. The bus driver looked back, nodded, and eased the bus into first gear.
As the bus rolled along, an edgy silence developed between Benjamin and his companion. Benjamin kept his gaze fixed out the window.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Tenth. I’m fifteen.”
“Oh, me too,” the other guy replied, awkwardly. Then, after a long pause, he added: “I’m Henry, by the way. I haven’t seen you on the bus before, have I?”
Benjamin finally turned around. It seemed like this kid actually wanted to talk to him, and he seemed pretty nice.
“I’m new here; this is my first day. I moved from New York.”
“Wow, New York City! I’ve only heard about that in the paper on and TV. How’s it like living there?
“It’s fine,” Benjamin responded, a bit irritated. He wasn’t interested in a big discussion about New York.
“Why’d you move?” Henry asked. “I thought everything was in The Big Apple. That’s what its called, right?”
Benjamin nodded. “Well, my dad, he’s with the Air Force, just got transferred here, so we didn’t really have a choice,” he said defensively. And my mom’s with The New York Times. It’s good for her too, ‘cause she can cover the school integration and stuff like that.
“Well then, welcome to town. It’s quite a difference, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t really know,” Benjamin confessed. “I’ve only been here a couple of days and life’s been pretty dull, no offense.”
“None taken, but you’ll see,” Henry assured. “Ever since they tried integrating the schools, life’s been like hell.”
Benjamin tried to discourage further conversation, turning away to stare out the window again.
But Henry kept on talking.
“I bet it’s different in New York. I heard all different kinds of people mix together up there, like the Melting Pot, huh?”
“Why wouldn’t they?” Benjamin snapped. “And how do you know so much about the city?”
“Well, I guess you could call me an enthusiast. It’s the biggest place I know of. Anyway, down here, blacks and whites don’t mix together,” the kid replied.
“Why not? What’s the difference? We’re all just people.”
“Is that right?” Henry replied in squirrely way.
Then he lowered his voice.
“I see what you’re saying, but people find it hard to adjust here. The parents of all these kids,” Henry glanced around the bus, “don’t like these new reforms. Just because the Supreme Court makes a law doesn’t mean that the public will accept it.”
“But they can try,” Benjamin raising his voice a little. “They can show a little human decency.”
“Shhh!” Henry hissed at him, but it was too late. Their conversation had already been overheard.
“What did that kid just say?” demanded a husky, gruff boy from the seat behind them. All eyes on the bus turned towards Benjamin and Henry.
“Great, thanks a lot,” Henry whispered to Benjamin.
“Nothing, Edward,” Henry replied casually. “He’s new, so I was just explaining how things worked around here.”
Benjamin noticed that this was the boy that snickered at him when Benjamin politely responded to the bus driver.
“Let me tell him something,” Edward said, rising. “Whites are superior to everybody else. That’s how things have run here since the beginning of time.”
“But that’s ra-”
“No!” Edward interrupted, yelling. “There is no other way!”
“Hey, you back there, quiet down!” the bus driver intervened.
Reluctantly, Edward sat down, but he immediately started kicking Benjamin’s seat to annoy the boys. Benjamin tried ignoring Edward, but the kicking didn’t let up. He was about to stand up and tell Edward to stop when he felt a hand grab his leg. Benjamin turned around.
“Don’t say anything,” Henry whispered to Benjamin. “He can make life miserable for you. Edward’s the captain of the football team, so he’s pretty much unstoppable.”
Benjamin sat back, silently fuming.
The school bus continued for a while, Benjamin wasn’t quite sure how long he had been on the bus. Maybe thirty-five minutes, possibly forty-five. He was glad when he viewed the school building, which would mean escape from Edward.
He lifted his backpack of the floor, grabbed the straps. Most other kids did the same. But to his surprise, bus passed the school and kept on going. The students, including Benjamin, were confused. Benjamin shot Henry a questioning look. Henry shook his head, shrugging.
“Hey mister, where are you going?” a girl called out.
“We just passed the school!” another student exclaimed.
“It’s okay, relax,” the bus driver called out. “We have some additions to the route, so it’ll take a few minutes longer. You’ll be fine, maybe a few minutes late, that’s all.”
The students were tense, and an unsettling mood echoed through the bus. Some clung to the seats, looking at their friends every few seconds. Others frantically looked out of the window as the bus traveled father and farther away from the school.
Even Edward got distracted, because he stopped kicking Benjamin’s seat. On a gloomy, depressing Monday morning, when only moments before the kids were wishing to be off in a distant land, ridden of all schoolwork and homework, all of them now wanted to go back to school more than ever.
The bus raced down the roads, which became more cracked and more in need of repair. Benjamin began wondering how far they had detoured. He hadn’t been to this part of town before, and he looked to Henry for some guidance.
“We must be picking up black children now,” Henry responded. Sensing Benjamin wanted a little more explanation, he said: “it’s that part of town.”
Benjamin nodded, and curiously observed his surroundings, which had started to become a little more like the city. Once again, he saw the similar townhomes and small apartment building found everywhere in New York City.
“Hey wait a minute, I know where we’re going!” Edward announced to the bus, standing up.
He was about to continue going, when suddenly, the driver slammed on his brakes, and there was a ubiquitous sound of backpacks hitting the floor all over the bus. Edward lost his balance, and fell back. Meanwhile, the driver unbuckled and turned around.
“As some of you might have guessed,” he called back, “we’re picking up some colored children now. Please, don’t cause any trouble and let them get on so we can get to school.”
But, the kids weren’t receptive to the driver’s calming words. Edward stood up immediately and tried to rile the bus: “Come on! We won’t tolerate this; we won’t ride with coloreds on this bus!”
Benjamin was surprised to see several students follow Edward towards the exit in the front.But before Edward and his followers could reach the exit, Benjamin heard the unmistakable sound of soles hitting the steps of the bus.
He saw the faces of the black children, looking down at the steps as entered the bus. These kids were dressed to look their Sunday best, hair combed perfectly and their shirts neatly tucked in. They stood still in the front. Benjamin could feel their fear.
“No, damn it, their already on! Retreat!” Edward screamed while scurrying towards the back.
As more got on, a wail waved through the seats of the bus, and the more the bus driver tried quelling the chaos, the louder the white students jeered.
Benjamin stood his ground, seated near the middle, while the rest of the bus scrambled to the back few seats in fear of mixing with the blacks.
The colored boy leading the line looked embarrassed, like he didn’t want to be at the center of all this noise and commotion. His eyes darted back and forth, as if he really wanted to turn around but was afraid of the consequences for doing so.
Benjamin couldn’t exactly see the faces of the children behind the boy leading the line, but he assumed that this wasn’t the reception that they expected.
“STOP IT!” the bus driver yelled, finally pacifying the uprising. “EVERYBODY SIT DOWN!”
Few could withstand booming voice like that. The students sat down, crammed in, with two or three in a seat. Benjamin shifted his attention from his hysterical classmates to the black students waiting patiently near the front of the bus.
He wanted to help them, support them. These kids might have been making history for their race, treading new ground. Benjamin felt that they deserved a chance. He looked once at Edward, and got ready to stand up.
But, the white students would neglect Benjamin if he spoke up. Benjamin would become an outcast. It would be hard to maintain good grades and enjoy high school with everyone turned against him. On top of that, he was new, so making friends would be hard in the first place. All of a sudden, Benjamin’s legs felt heavy, and his stomach churned, as if he’d just run a long race and wasn’t quite ready to stand. He stayed in his seat and tried to digest his sense of guilt for not helping the colored children.
The bus driver buckled up and settled himself into his chair. He nodded to the black parents who had accompanied their children, trying to reassure them.
Then, the bus rolled on. Benjamin looked into the parents’ faces, each so hopeful for a better future for their child, and felt even worse for succumbing to pressure. But they showed nothing in their faces, as if afraid to show any feeling, even fear.
The black students sat close-by, clustered near the front, as close to the driver’s protection they could get. It wasn’t long before a spitball hit a kid on the back of his head. As Edward realized that he couldn’t do anything to get the intruders of the bus, he rallied the white students to pelt spitballs at the black children.
“Come on, get them!”
They hollered nasty names and taunts until they received a pernicious eye from the driver.
The frightened black children huddled together, wiping off the spitballs but refusing to engage with their tormentors. Benjamin looked into the eyes of a boy who was itching to release a punch. He nodded, smiled a little, and tried to restrain him. The veins in the boy’s neck slowly fell back.
“I said, enough!” the driver called.
It was an awkward bus ride to the school. Benjamin had feared that racial tensions would flare on the bus, but instead, an eerie silence swallowed the students. The moaning of the bus’s engine, and the occasional sneeze or cough were the only sounds he could hear.
But the students were ferociously thinking, concerned about the sudden break in traditions and customs they had all held for so long. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s sense of guilt worsened.
“How many of you have actually met and talked to a black kid your age?” Benjamin asked in a shaky, quivering voice.
They all stared at him, their eyes in disbelief that the new kid, who should be the most scared and confused, would break the silence. Benjamin searched his classmates’ faces as they averted their eyes.
“Why’d we talk to a blackboard?” Edward retorted, drawing some hollow chuckles.
Benjamin brushed off Edward’s comment and persisted. “Seriously, how many of you?”
“I’ll take that as nobody. So why are you afraid? Talk to them; they’re all good, kind people.”
“But, they commit all those crimes,” a girl finally responded.
“Yeah, it’s always in the news,” Edward declared. “They’re liars and thieves.”
“You could say that about some white people too,” Benjamin said quietly.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Edward asked.
“I’m saying can’t judge an entire race by a few bad examples,” Benjamin tried explaining.
“It’s not fair!”
No one answered him. Benjamin felt frustrated, but he continued.
“Look, let’s not pretend there aren’t any white criminals. There are, but we don’t ever hear somebody say that he doesn’t want to mix with whites because of their crimes. So why should people be able to judge colored folks that way?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Edward shouted, drawing eyes from the black students in the front and a glance from the bus driver.
“Why not?” Benjamin asked.
“Who do you think you are, anyway? You’re not even from around here.” Edward responded furiously.
“You think that you, a new kid, can suddenly tell us what to do in our town? How dare you!” Edward yelled.
“I’ll teach you how we do things here–” Edward stood up and started advancing on Ben.
“Sit down,” the driver said, “or I’ll kick you off my bus and you can walk to school.”
Edward walked up to Benjamin and leaned in close. “This will have to wait. Don’t think I’ll forget you.”
Benjamin stared back at Edward, holding his gaze. Benjamin sighed disgustedly, thinking about how long it would take before these kids would ever accept their black counterparts.
The driver turned his flashing lights on, and Benjamin sensed that they were nearing the school. The interior of the bus tinted into a nice, pleasant orange tinge. Benjamin took it as a change in mood, and he tried to feel positive again. He sighed, shook his head, and put on a smile.
Guess the sun was finally making its way through the clouds, Benjamin thought. As the bus neared the school, which was situated only a corner away, the color inside became more intense and darker.
The orange hue flared at the bus, and the students all tried to see what the source of it could possibly be. Soon, they heard the wailing of sirens, and then, they saw flashes of red prevailing through the orange.
“Police?” Benjamin thought. “But what’s the orange?”
The bus obeyed a red light, and it grunted to a stop. The driver turned his left indicator on, stretched his hands, yawned, and waited for the light to turn green. But looking to left, he saw an unusual amount of traffic heading towards the road leading to the school.
The light turned green, and the driver steered the bus left through the intersection. The school was only a few blocks down. But the bus barely cleared the crosswalk; there was a long line of cars ahead of it.
“Sorry kids, looks like you’ll be a little later than I expected,” he informed the students.
Benjamin craned his neck squinted his eyes to try and get a glimpse of the confusion. A strange aroma filled his nostrils. Benjamin tried grabbing Henry’s attention.
“Don’t you smell it? Smoke.”
For a second, Benjamin saw an image of a school burning in his mind.
“No,” he thought shaking the image out of his head. “It can’t be.”
“No,” Benjamin whispered, trying to deny his mind. He slid over to the window, and pressed his head against it to see forward. He couldn’t, but he kept trying, almost bending his glasses.
Ah, the bus’ doors must lead to the school, Benjamin realized.He turned around; the school had to be to the right of the bus.
The driver hit the brakes.
“Oh no!” he said softly, in a soft voice that scared Benjamin more than any shouting would have.
The bus faced the burning school, glaring bright orange and sending a cloud of smoke up. The fireman, manning the hose, turned around and faced the bus. He saw the faces of children, huddled together, staring in horror as the raging flames reflected on their faces.