Episode 18: On The Bus
Ever since Nicholas was two years old I have walked him to school in the mornings. But had you been standing on a certain Upper East Side street corner a few weeks ago, you would have seen a grown man struggling to hold back his tears as he put his seven-year-old son on a school bus for the first time. (This being New York, the school bus is actually a six-seat Honda minivan operated by a private car service.)
"My heart and my hopes go with you," I said as I knelt down to make eye contact with him. Nicholas just scampered into the van in search of new friends. As I waved goodbye and took a photo of the vehicle's license plate, I was left to think about what my son is gaining and what his father is losing now that we no longer have our morning ritual. The simplest way to describe the trade-off is that Nicholas has gained independence, and I'm losing touch.
Nicholas is undoubtedly relieved to be free of this Old Gas Bag interrupting a crisp walk up Fifth Avenue to lecture him about how the Guggenheim's nautilus-like design was Frank Lloyd Wright's raising of the middle finger to the city's grid pattern. Never again will he have to stop and give me a kiss when we pass the Church of the Heavenly Rest - the church where his mother and I were married. (This is how we commemorate the spot where our little family began.)
He's mastering the art of making new friends - in particular a sweet little blonde girl whose fashion sense is as switched on as Nicholas'
I'll miss the touch of his cheek, but more importantly I'll miss the handle the walks gave me on what was happening in his life. Boys at Nicholas' age can confound any interrogator. If you ask one "How was your day at school?" you're lucky if you learn what was for lunch. On our walks, though, key pieces of information about the triumphs, hurts and fears of first grade would tumble effortlessly out of his mouth. I saw him interacting with his friends before the school doors opened. I had serendipitous moments of face time with his teachers. Bits of intel from the other parents at drop-off. Now all I have is a condescending car company owner offering me Zen koans. When I call to inquire why the driver took two hours to get my son home from school, the owner informs me, "Your attitude about the journey will become your child's attitude toward the journey."
When I look into the minivan that Nicholas boards every morning, I don't like what I see. No one is talking. Some are listening to music; others are playing hand-held video games and wearing giant noise-reduction headphones because if you are shooting Nazi-zombies, you apparently need really big headphones. "Hey, are you guys mixing an album in here?" I ask when I open the van door one morning. "Anyone know Rick Rubin?" My remarks are met with eye rolls. Another morning the van pulls up, and one of Nicholas' classmates is inexplicably crying his eyes out.
I've thought of trying to reassert some control over his early morning input by curating his drive time. I could always buy him an iPod Touch then load it up with great books, so he'd be forced to listen to selections of my choosing - say Sidney Poitier reading D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, or Roald Dahl relating the story of Charlie Bucket and his golden ticket. Perhaps learning diplomacy and people skills at 30mph trumps any book I could trick him into, though.
Like Dennis Hopper in Speed, the bus bully has a captive audience, and the added threat that he might open a window and toss his victim to the ground
He's mastering the art of making new friends - in particular a sweet little blonde girl whose fashion sense is as switched on as Nicholas'. On their first after-school play date, she arrived in a white peasant blouse and long braids. He was in electric blue cords, Chelsea boots and a blazer. They look great together. They could pass for a pint-sized Terry and Julie in "Waterloo Sunset".
Regrettably, he is also learning about cruelty. Sure, he's encountered the odd playground bully, but the bully on the bus is a different species. Like Dennis Hopper in Speed, the bus bully has a captive audience, and the added threat that he might open a window and toss his victim to the ground. Instead of learning about the bully from Nicholas directly (as I would have in our walking days), another mother called my wife to tip us off to the miscreant in the middle seat. When I finally found a quiet moment with Nicholas, I asked him how the bus was going.
"Jason is a kicker, he likes to kick people and he likes to pull people's hair," he tells me. "James is scared of Jason so he does what Jason says. That way Jason doesn't do anything to him."
"So what do you do when Jason kicks you?"
"I tell him to stop it."
What Nicholas didn't tell me is that when Jason started pulling the hair of his girlfriend, he told Jason to cut it out and hit him back.
When the girl's mother called to thank us for Nicholas' chivalrous behaviour, I was proud, relieved and realised the iPod could wait.
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here. Follow Mr Brodie on Twitter @jbrodieny