There are many things we cannot teach our children. They need to be around and learn from strangers. It’s one of those it-takes-a-village-to-raise-child kind of things. And so I am glad we rely on the bus. It's very educational.
Public transit is relatively cheap and my kids love it because they get to meet and talk with a variety of people. Well okay, not the very rich, but pretty much everyone else. I can't think of any other public space where they have such liberty with strangers and I have no anxiety about it. They talk to anyone: seniors, radicals, sleepyheads, lovers, business people and teenagers. Earlier on in their lives they had trouble understanding that everyone had different destinations. With wide eyes they would ask, "Are you going to visit Aunt Elaina. too?" Imagine the wonder in learning; she is going shopping, he's off to work and another is coming home from work. And here we are, all together on the same bus!
It's natural for a child to become animated around such wonders, but I have been constantly surprised at how people perk up in response. Certainly it is the silver-haired women
who are most attentive, but older men are a surprise second. These are the five- or ten-minute grandparents of varying race and culture who have all the time in the world to chat.
Talking seems to keep my kids from staring. (Staring, after all, is just a wasted opportunity when your mind is full of questions.) They talk to everyone, having learned that, on a bus, I am not likely to answer their questions about fellow passengers. "Ask them yourself", I say, "start with hello, be respectful, and listen for the answer before you ask another."
So they do. And by and large they have a captive audience.
"Why do you sit in a wheelchair?"
"Why is your hair green?"
"What is that bead doing in your nose?"
"What's on your head?"
"Why don't you have a baby?"
I listen to everything, ready to intercept or make amends. Yet despite their skill at infuriating each other, they have never been rude to strangers on the bus. We've met university students who went through great pains to explain their course of study in simple English. Drunken men have made funny faces to get them laughing out loud. The kids have touched pink hair, something they've never had the opportunity to do at home. They once barked and meowed in chorus with a bus driver for 15 blocks on the 99 Beeline, and to their great delight were greeted with a meow on the bus home. "It's the same driver! It's the same driver!" my daughter screamed. Meow, woof, all the way back again.
Some people seem to need only a small nudge to break from the stoic commuter-shell. We've met irritable people: impatient to retrieve their car from the mechanic, huffy at having to even be on the bus. Young guys, early twenties, out to impress a couple of pre-schoolers, say "Once I get my car back, I won't be taking the bus again." My kids are shocked. "Cars do big damage," my daughter will say. And somehow I believe she can recall the balloon that got run down on West 12th back in '96.
My son claimed to have learned to read at age three: whenever the bell rang, he'd point to the front of the bus, slide his finger from left to right and proudly read "NEXT STOP!" My daughter, despite our bidding, prefers to stand and is the first to get up and offer her seat to anyone older. They know that the #15 becomes a #17 when it gets downtown. They know that the #100 goes to the airport and they beg us to take a trip so we can board that bus.
I have learned, too. I used to hush their questions to strangers until it became clear how inoffensive it was and how much they got out of it.
But I hadn't even noticed what public transit was doing to my children until an elderly woman, getting out at our stop, grabbed hold of my elbow. She told me how charmed and impressed she was with my then three-year-old daughter's conversation skills. Without thinking, I replied, "It's because we don’t have a car. We take the bus a lot." It takes a busload to raise a child.
* This article - a personal favourite - is reprinted after several conversations with the perceived advantages of taking young children on transit. It was appeared in various magazines when it was first written in 1999.