Rachel wasn’t very old yet. She was very cute, but not very old. In fact, it was the first year she got to ride the school bus with her big sister Sarah and Sarah wasn’t very old either. She may have been in third grade. If I were to find out it was the fourth grade I’d be very surprised. Mrs. Sullivan was the bus driver for school bus number 64 that year and all the kids liked her. She always talked to the kids and teased with the older ones. She looked after the little ones too, making sure they looked happy, healthy and found a seat without any problem. None of the kids on Mrs. Sullivan’s bus ever caused any real problems for her; not even the boys, which was an enviable state of affairs among school bus drivers. No one ever cried on Mrs. Sullivan’s bus and no one had puked either. At least up to this point in the school year. The kids all felt safe with Mrs. Sullivan and that, of course, meant that thoughts about safety and safe school bus behavior never entered their little minds at all. They were as comfortable around Mrs. Sullivan as they would have been if their own mothers had been driving; but without the embarrassment older kids usually experience when one of their parents shows up at one of the places where kids get to be the kind of kids they most enjoy being when their mothers or fathers aren’t around. You remember, it was always fun showing off a bit like you couldn’t or wouldn’t dare do at home. So as long as Mrs. Sullivan drove bus number 64 to school every morning and back every afternoon, life was good and the world was the just the way it was supposed to be. It would have stayed that way too if Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a substitute driver, hadn’t shown up driving school bus number 64 on the Monday morning right after the Thanksgiving holiday.
That morning every kid who rode number 64 got on the bus looking at the strange woman sitting where Mrs. Sullivan was supposed to be. Because of their surprise at seeing that the world was not exactly as it supposed to be this morning, none of them said anything until after they got to a seat. Then, they immediately asked the kid they were sitting next to, in front of, behind and across from just what was going on and where in the world was Mrs. Sullivan this morning! No one actually had a clue; but everyone who was asked and even some of those who weren’t were willing to venture a guess.
“I don’t know,” said one boy. “Maybe she’s out sick.” That was the sensible, simple and most frequent response. Others were a little more imaginative.
“Maybe she’s still on Thanksgiving vacation,” offered another child. That idea held some real possibilities because every kid on that bus was wishing right now that they could have extended their Thanksgiving vacation; indefinitely.
“She could have had to do something, you know, like be somewhere for some kind of reason. I don’t know.” The discussion repeated itself at every stop. Many of the same kids offered the same guesses for the benefit of the newcomers but a few tried out different ideas, like Gordon Wheatley who tried to see if anyone would bite on his theory that Mrs. Sullivan had been abducted by space aliens and taken to a secret laboratory under the ocean. Nobody gave that theory too much credence at all. Roanoke was not even close to the Virginia coast so the idea of a secret laboratory under the sea just didn’t resonate very readily in anyone’s imagination. He did get a few condescending looks from some of the older girls, but that was about it. By the time the bus stopped in front of the school no one knew anything for sure, but there were a lot of interesting possibilities yet to be considered. This thing wasn’t even close to being over yet.
The rest of the day was a typically long and arduous first day back at school after a holiday vacation. There were lessons in spelling, reading, arithmetic and for some of the older kids, a little Virginia history and science had to be covered and homework assigned before it finally got to be three O’clock. The children all ran out to get on their respective buses and there, on bus number 64, was the sinister, suspicious, not to be trusted and oh so wrong looking Mrs. Fitzpatrick. Again! The situation was elevated to a higher level of reality, and not one single person had done anything about it. No sign anywhere of Mrs. Sullivan. This meant that there were still a lot of unanswered questions in a lot of fertile, imaginative young minds.
On the ride back home a few more possibilities were kicked around and Gordon Wheatley made an almost convincing argument for revisiting his alien abduction theory. Apparently he convinced one or two first graders that his idea had merit, but he still had no support among the bigger kids which is what really mattered any time a new theory about anything was being introduced on the school bus. There was one report, however, that started getting some attention. The only explanation that sounded at all like it might have come from someone who actually knew something about why the possibly evil Mrs. Fitzpatrick was driving number 64 instead of Mrs. Sullivan was the one little Rachel happened to hear. And she heard it from a third grader who claimed he heard two sixth grade girls talking about it in front of the principal’s office. Now in elementary school sixth grade was as high up the ladder as you could get before being graduated to middle school so whatever two sixth graders were talking about was probably true and had to be respected. Every kid knows that. And anything that took place in, around, or in front of the principal’s office was serious business and absolutely carried the full weight and authority of truth. Rachel also heard these two sixth grade girls had said something about Mrs. Sullivan getting a “history” and being put in the hospital. Although as a first grader Rachel hadn’t been introduced to historical studies yet, something like that sounded very serious indeed, particularly if Mrs. Sullivan got it and then had to be put in the hospital after she was already an grown up old lady! This was really getting really, really big.
For Rachel and Sarah, though, the conundrum almost ceased to exist the moment the bus came to their stop. They hardly even noticed the evil Mrs. Fitzpatrick as they jumped out of the bus and started for home. As soon as they got there, they were up the stairs to their rooms dumping their coats and back packs in the closet and heading back downstairs for the traditional after school snack. This was always a good time to forget about the cares of the day for a while and relax with crackers and peanut butter and milk. Even better, right after a holiday like Thanksgiving there were always some special delights leftover that could be turned into a wonderful snack. Cookies, maybe some pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce or banana pudding were all posibilities. They knew today’s snack would be great so they waited, quietly and happily at the table while Mom went to the refrigerator.
While they were waiting Rachel suddenly broke the silence and blurted out to Sarah that she knew why Mrs. Sullivan wasn’t driving the school bus today and why she probably wouldn’t be back for a long, long time until maybe even after Christmas and New Years. Well that was information Sarah hadn’t heard anything about yet and she wondered how her little sister could find out a thing like that before she did. After all, Sarah was a lot higher up the ladder than the first grade babies.
“Where did you find that out,” Sarah demanded, knowing full well that the credibility of the information depended entirely upon the source.
“I heard Gordon Wheatley telling Bobby McAdam.” This was the same Gordon Wheatley with the space alien theory but that didn’t matter so much now that they were off the bus. At least Sarah wasn’t saying anything about it.
“Well they don’t know anything,” interrupted Sarah. “They’re only second graders!”
“Nuh uh,” Rachel shot back without hesitation, “Gordon Wheatley’s in the third grade.”
“But Bobby McAdam’s only in second grade,” Sarah was quick to point out, again missing her chance to question the credibility of Gordon Wheatley, the dubious abduction theorist.
“But Gordon’s in third and besides he told Bobby he heard it from Melissa Phipps and Susie Harris talking outside the principal’s office. And they’re both sixth graders!”
Bingo! That made things a little more difficult for Sarah to argue against. Two sixth grade girls, who everyone knows are the smartest kids in the school. And right in front of the principal’s office; the holy of holies in every school where no kid in any grade would dare to get caught running, making faces, giggling or saying anything that wasn’t the absolute god’s honest truth. Sarah knew that any information that came through channels like that had to be taken seriously. But, as a third grader herself, she had to make it clear to her little sister that it was her right as an upperclassman to make the final judgment on anything being reported by a first grader. “Well,” she said with attitude in her voice and uncertainty in her eyes as she looked across the table at Rachel. “What did he say then?”
Rachel stood her ground, took a deep breath, pursed her little lips then blurted out: “Mrs. Sullivan went to the hospital to have her testicles removed!” She had seen Gordon Wheatley pointing down around that general area when he was telling Bobby McAdam about that history problem thing and she could put two and two together by herself. It was almost the end of her first semester already and besides, some first graders were smarter than some third graders thought.
Sarah didn’t see it that way at all. In fact, she was going to teach her baby sister a lesson about knowing what you’re talking about before you open your mouth and start telling people. “That just shows how much you know,” she snapped. Her voice and body language expressed the kind of arrogance that only an eight year old girl can convey. “Because,” she said, ready for the coup de gras, “ladies don’t have testicles.” She was right and poor little Rachel hadn’t known that particular piece of anatomical fact She stood silent, not sure what to make of the apparent conflict in the information she had just heard from Gordon Wheatley and what her big sister was saying now. It was her first real conundrum. Sarah, of course, saw the conflict and doubt in Rachel’s eyes concerning the anatomy lesson she had just been given and decided to go the extra mile by adding one more fact that would demonstrate her superior intellect. “Everybody knows ladies don’t have testicles,” she said in brief review. “Only octopuses have testicles.”
Mrs. Sullivan returned to bus number 64 immediately following the Christmas through New Year’s holiday. Some of the kids thought her voice was maybe an octave or two higher than it had been before she had surgery, but no matter, she was back on the bus. The world was the way it was supposed to be again and everyone on the bus believed it would stay that way from now on.
Time passed as it always does. Sarah is now a student at Virginia Tech. She’s majoring in communications which comes as no surprise to anyone. As for little Rachel, whose interest in anatomy and physiology was apparently aroused by the strange case of Mrs. Sullivan’s testicles, Rachel is also a student at Virginia Tech and is giving serious consideration to becoming a laparoscopic surgeon. I hope I live long enough to see how it all turns out.
Reprinted from The Brown Duck at thebrownduck.blogspot.com by the author.