JASON ATEN | MICHIGAN PHOTOGRAPHER

"I FORGOT TO GET OFF THE BUS"

Is it possible to completely shocked, utterly terrified, and yet - not even a little bit surprised - all at the same time? I'd like to tell you a little story, because that's exactly what happened.

This morning, Beth asked me to take a trip up to Maddie's new school, to drop off some supplies for her class.  It apparently takes a small container ship's worth of supplies to succesfully run a kindergarten class, and it was my duty to perform the supply drop this morning.  

By the way, a kindergarten building - on the second day of school - is maybe the most organized chaos I've ever seen.  There are teachers, and aides, and crossing guards, and school buses, and parents, and little people, all running here and there with equal parts confusion, and purpose.  Amazingly, everyone gets where they're supposed to be, and everything is accounted for... except when they don't (which we'll get to in a minute).  

As I walked through the sea of little people - each only coming up to my knees - I couldn't help but think how amazing the whole thing was.  As I walked, I immediately had this sense of wonder - and even peace - amidst the chaos, that our daughter was in incredibly good hands.  As I watched the teachers, and the aides, and all of the "big" people that make a kindergarten building work, I thought about what heroes each of these people were.

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It also wasn't lost on me, that the role of a kindergarten teacher is as much about helping these little people discover that there's a world beyond just mom and dad, as it is about learning abc's and 123's.  Amazingly, I was suddenly okay about that - that she would be in really good hands, as she begins this part of her walk.  Yesterday, I thought she'd be walking alone.  Today I realized that nothing could be further from the truth.

And yet, at the same time, I couldn't help but think about her every moment of the day. I couldn't help but think about what she was doing, and whether she'd remember to eat all of her lunch, and whether she'd find friends to play with at recess, and whether she'd pee on the floor (come on, it happens).  I couldn't help but wonder if she was scared, or excited, or what she was learning.  Among all of that organized chaos, there was still a part of me that worried about whether she'd be alright.

Then it happened.  I was heading home, after running a few errands, when my phone rang.  It was Beth.  We've been married for almost 6 years, and - unless I'm traveling - Beth doesn't actually call me on the phone that often.  We text constantly, but when the phone rings, something is usually up.  Of course, usually that means she needs me to pick up something at the store, and it usually ends up being some combination of things that no one ever wants to explain to a cashier.. like Diapers, Salsa, Whip Cream and a feminine product.  That makes total sense right?

Since I was just leaving the store, for a second I almost didn't answer.  When I did, it was clear she didn't need salsa and whip cream.  I knew it was Beth (because that's what my phone said), and even though her voice was almost unintelligible through her tears, I knew instantly what she said. 

"Madison didn't get off the bus." 

This is the moment when it occurred to me.  It's the moment when you realize that the things you imagine could never happen to you, could actually happen.  It's the moment when you tell yourself that every impulse you've ever had to lock your kid in the basement with a little lo-jack on their ankle, was completely rational.  

Madison didn't get off the bus.

Instant panic attack.  By the way, when you're a dad, and your wife tells you that your 5 year old daughter, on her second day of school, didn't get off the bus, it's amazing how quickly you start thinking about what to do... It's also amazing how quickly you start driving.  It doesn't matter that you have no idea where to go, you start driving... fast.  I'm not proud of it, but no lie - I might have broken the land-speed record.  I couldn't run a mile, and the bike I got for my birthday a year ago (and I've never ridden) has a flat tire... but I could have made the NASCAR circuit today.  Did you know that there is no speed limit sign that can stop you from driving 70 miles an hour in pursuit of your kid?  It's simply good luck for me, that there were no stop signs, or stop lights, or police cars, or really anything.

"Find the bus" I said... yeah, that's a good idea.  And call Mrs. P (her teacher).  And call the school, and the bus garage.  Start driving.  Now.  (See, dad's can do organized chaos all by ourselves too). 

"Wait, there's the bus!" I'm sure there's a law about chasing down school buses, with a plan to climb on board and demand to know where your child is.  It's probably why they now have cameras on buses.  "Follow that bus!" Who cares about cameras and stupid "don't yell at bus driver" laws!  I promise you the next time that bus stopped, I was finding out why my daughter didn't get on the bus, and she didn't get off at our house. 

So I followed the bus.  I followed it as it turned towards our neighborhood.  I followed as it turned on to our street.  I followed it as it stopped at the bus stop across the street from our house.  I followed it... actually I stopped now, because the bus had stopped, but you understand.  I stopped and watched as our Madison climbed down off the bus.  

I stopped and watched as Beth, who had been standing on the side of the road waiting, ran across the street and picked up our little 5 year old.  I stopped and watched, wondering how it was possible that a bus had gone by, and Madison didn't get off, and now her bus was here and she was in Beth's arms.

"Madison, what happened?" we both asked.  "Your bus went by and you didn't get off? Are you okay?!"  

I don't know if it was because she saw how upset her mom and dad were, but through her little tears she told us "I was sitting on the bus, and when I looked out the window, I saw mommy standing there.  Then I saw our house.  But the bus was already moving."

"What did you do then?" Beth asked.

"Well, I just said 'Mr. Bus Driver, I forgot to get off the bus.'" 

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I forgot to get off the bus.  Just like that.  I can totally hear her saying that in her little Madison voice, just as matter of fact as can be.  I can totally imagine her sitting there, confused as to why she was still on the bus, as the bus started to move away from her mom, and her house, and her bus stop.  I can also totally imagine this sweet, super-smart, amazing little girl, totally forgetting to get off the bus.  It doesn't even surprise me at all that it would be my little Madison.  She's smarter than Beth and I combined, but it's not even remotely surprising that she might forget to get off the bus.  (She gets it from her mom, by the way, ask her sometime about the time the bus driver parked in front of her home as a kid because she had fallen asleep, forgotten to get off, and no one was home). 

Can I just say this... Thank you Mrs P (who, probably had her own panic attack after the message I left her when we weren't sure where Maddie was).  Thank you Mr. Bus Driver (who I'll thank personally tomorrow) for bringing our little girl back home after she forgot to get off the bus.  Thank you to all of the incredible people that make this fantastic chaos work.  Thanks to the incredible people at the Grand Ledge Schools that are helping our little Madison explore the world around her - even when that means exploring a little more than we expected.  

I once heard it said that our schools should be like palaces.  I actually think they are more like cathedrals, because after today, I'm convinced there surely are angels working there.