Monday, July 21, 2014

A big, yellow rite of passage


By Felix Carroll
I realize that in other cultures, coming of age requires far more demanding rites of passage than in ours -- whether it's spending a year alone in the wild, or being scarred with a branding iron or performing a wedgie on a water buffalo.
But coming of age is coming of age. And I wish to go on record as being completely against it.
In a week or two, countless parents across this great country will stand dazed and powerless as a big, yellow school bus lumbers up the street, stops, opens its big baleen mouth, and takes their children away.
This happened to me the first time a year ago. I was supposed to be OK with it all. I'm still not. This is my story:
Fatherhood has turned me into a pack animal. That strange noise you hear coming from my mouth from time to time is not some digestive-related ruckus. It's a growl -- sometimes a snarl -- to ward away all dangers to my pack. I never knew I had it in me.
I used to be blissfully and stupidly self-centered. I was a wanderer, a musician, a bum. Then I met her. Then we had him. And in the process, the line of thought that had so precariously underlain my endeavors to that point turned from zigzags to heart shapes.
And then one day, we were pushing the baby carriage along a crosswalk in our town, and I growled for the first time. It was unexpected and involuntary. A car had come speeding up and had made an abrupt stop at our shins, its bumper a mere 2 feet from this new being I had been entrusted to care for -- this fresh loaf of Wonder bread with the eyes that twinkled with madcap laughs and mischief. That's when this noise emerged -- a growl directed at the motorist. An angry, iron-fastened animal cry that said: Don't mess with my pack! It was startling even to me.
Where did it originate? I can only speculate. You go deep down the esophagus, about 20 miles past the larynx. You come to the gut and veer left along its industrial road, past a blinking red light by the bubbling tar pits of the spleen, past an all-night diner, out to where the land opens up. Take that road another 80 miles, through a box canyon, to the green and misty land known as the soul. There's a wooden gate with a latch. Inside, there's an endangered animal who, legend has it, was once rescued from wild game hunters by a jungle boy. The animal has felt indebted ever since. He's got hold of a bullhorn, and he's doing the color commentary of my child's life.
It just sounds like growl, but it's so much more.
Putting a child onto a school bus for the first time should not be a big deal. It's just that, for the first time, I felt like the pack was breaking up, albeit on an installment plan. We were surrendering our boy to the Outside World, handing him over for eight hours a day to strangers in a big, brick building obsessed with shapes, colors and walking in single file. I was so sad, I couldn't even growl. It all seemed too soon. It should be against the law to make a book bags small enough for a 5-year-old.
It was 8 a.m. when we first heard the low rumble. Then we saw it, the big-shouldered yellow whale on wheels, rounding the curve and heading our way. Our boy was nervous. We lifted him up to the first step.
Brenda, the bus driver, greeted him. He stopped, looked down the long aisle and then back at us with a strange smile. It wasn't happiness or even sadness.
I recognized that smile from back when he was about 8 months old. His older cousins were visiting. They had climbed into his playpen with him and had started jumping around. Nothing like that had ever happened in his peaceful world. He looked up at me with that smile, a broken sort of grin that dangled from unblinking eyes, as if he were
saying: What do you have in store for me in this world, old man?
The bus disappeared down the road, and all we could hope for was that when it deposited him back out eight hours later, he'd be wiser, like Jonah, and we'd be revived from our catatonic states, though that would probably require smelling salts.
Yes, of course, getting on the school bus for the first time is a rite of passage. It's binding. It's an act of courage just as in any other culture.
And whether I like it or not (and I don't), it's one of many to come -- including, perhaps, the discovery of his very own growl.



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