Nothing warms the heart quite like the sound of children telling each other to shut the F up in the morning.
No matter how many times I hear it, it’s always jarring to listen to a grade schooler drop the F Bomb like a seasoned dock worker. The forbidden novelty of the word and others like it is catnip to kids, and the peer pressure to swear is high, particularly in middle school where proving how tough you are is part of life.
(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)
I may be a fossil but I still remember the thrill of cursing and getting a rise out of adults when I was a kid. My memories aren’t of doing it on the school bus, though. I vividly recall sitting in my neighbor’s bushes with friends and slinging some hair-raising language. We were under an open window and easily heard inside. Mr. Kohart came out and sternly told us to stifle ourselves as there were ladies in the house.
Now, even though I occasionally drop a choice oath when I’m angry away from the job, I’m the one trying to make kids clean up their verbal act.
Complaints about F Bombs and MF Bombs in the back reach me at the wheel. Sixth-grader Sassafrass has a mouth on her that could make the saltiest sailor blush but I’ve heard third graders using the P word and racial or sexual slurs. No matter how many times I scold them or remind them that everything they say and do is being recorded, they are often surprised to find themselves in the principal’s office after they’ve been caught in the video review of another crime.
During one memorable trip, seventh-graders Coggins and Ethel were unleashing a blue barrage of F Bombs, S Bombs and B Bombs. So I got on the PA and said, “Can’t you please watch your language? You sound like you’re possessed. Should I call for an exorcist?”
That stopped ’em, at least for a while. But cursing seems to be a contractual obligation for middle schoolers. When Lucifer, my prime purveyor of obscenity, went on vacation, fellow seventh-grader Butch stepped up to fill the void.
Sometimes I’m just not sure I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing. The engine is roaring, the two-way radio is blaring, and I’m pretty far away from the action. For all I know, my precious cargo could simply be talking about trucking and floral sets and I don’t want to look like my mind is in the gutter if I wrongly accuse them of smutty utterances.
And they like to keep me guessing.
One day on my Helga Poppin Intermediate run, Jehosaphat and Robespierre kept shouting words that sounded like curses: “Duck!” and “Ship!” in particular. The whole crew also took to shrieking the popular song “Old Town Road.” I looked up the lyrics and found a few dicey words like, “Cheated on my baby/You can go and ask her/My life is a movie/Bull riding and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty.”
It’s just unsettling to hear that stuff coming from tender voices, and sometimes I’d rather not know what is being said, like when a smirking Coggins passed me while getting off the bus. When I told him to have a good day, I could have sworn I heard him mutter, “Up yours.”
Of course it was possible that he was merely talking to his friend Jethro, who was right behind him. I’ve just been conditioned to expect the worst.
And if they can’t rise to your level, they can always drag you down to theirs.
It is with much shame that I confess I’ve let a D Bomb slip on occasion. The first time, while quelling an intermediate school riot during an especially aggravating week, I quickly added “Pardon me” over the PA but no one seemed to notice. They certainly did the time time I blurted “Stop sticking your damn arms out the windows!” a few days later.
The bus suddenly grew silent and I heard one kid say in a stage whisper, “The bus driver said the D Word!”
In a Can-You-Believe-It? tone, another said “Damn!” … as my head slumped onto the wheel.
So much for the moral high ground. It certainly doesn’t help to lose it when you need to have your trip video reviewed because of a disciplinary incident.
My least shining moment occurred (of course) on the treacherous stretch of road where my riders always come unglued. It had been one of those weeks and my patience was gone. When the ever-challenging Robespierre spilled Esmerelda’s makeup all over the aisle and began wrestling with his frenemy Beetlebomb, I eventually pulled over and marched back.
After letting them have it with both barrels (“What part of sit down don’t you understand?”) they gave me a few smirks and a giggle or two.
“It’s not funny!” I barked. “Behave!”
And with that I marched back to the wheel only to have Robespierre chime in with “I’m not laughing.”
Without thinking, I turned and snapped, “Don’t be a smart ass!”
Then came the Dark Night of the Soul: wrestling with the temptation to deal with this incident by myself and hope the video gets lost unseen in the mists of time. But someone had to tame Robespierre, who’d been up to no good all year. So I gritted my teeth and wrote him up, expecting a “See me” note from my boss after Principal Diesel had viewed the video.
I was sure Robespierre and his cronies would see to it that I was hung out to dry for cursing. Amazingly, I heard nothing.
My first thought was, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
I wisely kept it to myself.