In sixth grade, I ended up having to go to “extra“ math classes after school, always having trouble with that subject. Unfortunately the remedial classes and detention kids were all lumped into one class. As a result, to my utter shame, I found myself in with the “bad kids”.
Yes, they separated Junior High classes back then. According to IQ, or grades, or who knows what. The kids took tests as we completed the fifth grade, ready to go to junior high. Ending up in the “middle” class, we didn’t go to detention.
After school it was a miserable shuffle down the hall to “that class” …while the regular classmates merrily got on their buses to go home. You could hear the noise down the hall from the room. One girl was flirting with the boys up and down the aisle while they slapped her butt on her skin tight dress. She just laughed and skittered away. Of course paper was being thrown as well as pencils and rulers and anything else not nailed down.
The teacher looked to be the soul of patience, he sat at the front of the desk with half closed eyes, not seeming to watch the ruckus. Hard to tell if he was going to do anything at all, then he slowly walked up to the chalkboard and spoke. “I’m going to give out some remedial work for some of you to do that are here for that purpose.“ He had an odd involuntary grunt, which was a little disconcerting… He gave out some study sheets that were far below even what a 6th graders’ impaired math skills would be. They had to be filled in amongst the din.
Class lasted an hour, then everyone busted out of there and piled onto the single detention bus, which wound throughout the entire school district. The hooting, shenanigans and noise was just as bad on the bus as it was in the class.
It was now time to take a good look at the back side of coal country.
King Coal, that’s what it was all about in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
(Check out the superb historical articles about all things Southwestern Pennsylvania on the SW PA Rural Explorations site)
Riding north of the town, rolling through many fields and farmland, the scenes looked pastoral from a distance, even in the middle of the Peidmont winter.
They dropped off one of the toughest acting kids. His little sister ran to him and he swung her up in the air, and took the milk bucket from her hand. His mom with a naked baby waves to him from the doorstep. They didn’t run to the old farmhouse, they ran to the barn. I could see the cattle filing in for their evening milking.
Okay, That’s why he smelled like a barn in class. Makes sense.
One after another, the kids get off the Bad Bus. The one girl went straight to the pump to take water in…no running water in that house, and lots of outhouses outside. We’re talking about the 60’s here, long past the times when a home didn’t have indoor plumbing.
Some entered darkened shacks. Pop was off in the mines, and mom working somewhere.
There was a different story for each kid, it was even possible that one older kid lives alone, with both parents dead, he wouldn’t say. Lots of babies without pants or diapers, even in the cold weather. We swung by the Monongehela river then back towards the school, Fairdale was the last stop of the bus.
It was nearly dark walking down Schroyers Lane, and the wind would drive ice into the exposed part of your legs between the skirt and the knee-hi’s everyone wore. It would be years before they did away with the dress code for girls in that town.
Sometimes when you’re lost in thought, you don’t feel the icy wind.
The greeting from Aunt Francie at the door was, “There’s cookies and fruit rolls after supper, why are you so late?” … The best answer was to say there’s extra classes for awhile. “Well, go clean out the furnace before it goes out”. She stroked my forehead and face, like she always did. Frans’ hands always smelled like one (or a combination) of four things, bleach, garlic, coffee or Luckys. Smelling those odors in the present can evoke strong emotions, as if it was yesterday. Unk would be home soon from Robena shaft, black and sooty as the coal he mined.
As the little shovel took out the gritty soot from the lower section of the furnace, and the fine ashes from above, the remaining coals made the furnace room feel warm, pleasant and homey.
Thoughts came to mind about the bus ride, about some of those shacks that didn’t look very airtight. The fresh coal went in, and next step was to go to get some tinder to stoke it, when Aunt Fran came in. “Want to see some magic?” …she threw her fingers suddenly out at the coals, and they blazed up in a sparkling pattern that was truly amazing. Fran left her little niece standing mouth agape as she merrily traipsed off to the kitchen. Was there no end to what she could do?
(Do you know how she did it?)
We had everything.
A plus was the new friendships made among those after school detention kids. Some did very well in life, some went into the mines and are now retired, some are gone.
It’s hard to finish this post, other than to say one never knows what a persons’ back story is, we shouldn’t judge by what is on the surface, and sometimes the way you think about folks is, very simply, incorrect.
It was time well spent, riding the Bad Bus. Not bad, not bad at all.