My mother’s childhood stories often touch upon the 8 km walk to the upper primary school, a walk which she and her elder sister used to thoroughly enjoy. Both the girls, each blessed with a majestic mane, had plenty of admirers on the way. One day, their mother decided to shave their hair off citing ease of maintenance as the reason. Despite their pleading tears, my grandmother did just what she had planned and left their shining heads as testimony to her decisiveness. In the span of just an evening, they were transformed from the Rapunzels of the village to the butt of a joke for the very people who had admired them. For both, the journey to school next day was indeed ‘a walk to remember’. (Their beautiful hair was later used to make four dazzling wigs for their baldness-stricken grandmother.)
Cut to the last decade of the 20th century when I was of school-going age. Kottayam Medical College had a convenient arrangement for their staff whereby their children, who studied across a spectrum of schools in the town, would be dropped (and picked up) at their respective institutions. ‘Medical college bus’, as we used to refer to our transporter, was a true melting pot because of the mix of students with respect to age and the schools that we went to. Unlike all other educational institution buses which had yellow on the outside and just one set of boring uniform colours inside, our bus (along with the yellow on the outside) had a plurality of colours inside. On account of the coeducation/girls only/boys only brackets or the arch rivals in youth festivals labels or the CBSE versus state syllabus differentiation, the six or so schools that we represented formed the most eclectic mix. Most importantly, students from six schools meant stories from those many fiefdoms!
2017 has sprinted through its first quarter and the babies who were born with the new millennium have written their board exams already. But school journeys are still about stories that are shared; it’s just the content of those tales that may have changed a bit.
School bus – the safety mesh
Most children still get their education by commuting in school buses, thanks to the high security and convenience quotients. Aadi Krishnan, a class V student of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram, says: “I have been using the school bus from my nursery days. I have made great friends in the bus and it is very convenient. I don’t want to go to school in any other vehicle.”
Rhithika M. Pradeep did her school commute in a privately arranged van for six years. When she was 12, she moved to St. Francis High School, near Chavakkad in Thrissur district, and now studies in class VIII. At this school, she has been using the school bus service and is the oldest of the lot. She says: “The convenience of being dropped right inside the school is definitely a positive. Sometimes, when there is an extra class in the evening, I have to rely on private buses. The walk from school to bus stop, especially when the roads are deserted, isn’t fun at all.” Additionally, school bus commuters get the obvious advantage in the scenario of getting late. While the school bus is a part of the establishment and gets ‘excused’, other students may be penalized for lack of punctuality.
Let’s save some time
The number one reason why parents look for an option outside school bus service is to save their wards the trouble of commuting on long winding routes. For children who live some distance from the school, this means waking up at unearthly hours and wasting a lot of precious time in the bus. Needless to say, parents have to match up to those timings as well.
Siddarth S. Nair, a class IV student of Christ Nagar Higher Secondary School, Thiruvananthapuram, is quite happy with his private van commute. He dismisses the suggestion of using the school bus with a valid point: “School bus is way too crowded. Older students will make us give up our seats for them.” Clearly, our kids learn lessons of ‘survival of the fittest’ quite early in life and they find alternatives too!
Aravind S. Nair (class VI student at Bhavan’s Varuna Vidyalaya, Thrikkakkara) goes to school in a privately arranged van because his school bus does not come through the area he lives in. It is a small vehicle which can accommodate about 10 students – all from places close to where Aravind lives. They are a close knit group now (although his best friends are still from his class in school).
Sreya Sreejith, a class IV student at Arya Central School, Thiruvananthapuram, stays too close to her school to use the school bus. She gets dropped in a car from home and gets picked up the same way too. “I hope that day comes fast when I will be allowed by Amma to just use the school bus, even if it means starting early from home. I can play so much if I am with everyone,” she gushes.
Talk, play, repeat
In both the organized forms of commute – whether it is a school bus or a privately arranged van/auto rickshaw, what the children do while they commute is very similar. When asked about what the topics of conversations are like, Siddarth says that they are mostly about school, lessons and the like. When further probed on talking about things like cinema, he quips: “Who is bothered about films? We have a lot of other things to discuss.” Adult perceptions can go totally awry sometimes, you see!
While Aravind and his gang play games like ‘Rock, Paper, Scissor’ and ‘Hand Cricket’, Nirmayi D. Pillai (class VI, Amrita Vidyalaya, Kochi) explained a completely different set of games. ‘Pazham, Poo, Pachakkari’ (translates to fruit, flower, vegetable) is a game where the catcher says one of these categories and the other person has to say a name that fits the category. If one gives the name of a flower when asked for a fruit, they get out. They also play a memory game wherein every person has to connect a word to the train of words that came from the previous person and say it at a stretch, without mistakes. ‘Name Place Thing Animal’ and ‘Dumb Charades’ are still in vogue. Nirmayi was also cautious to add that “we include only younger boys while playing, not chettanmaar (older boys)”. One can only wonder how gender starts to play out this early, even in a seemingly neutral space like a school bus.
Growing up with peer pressure
It is the craving to be independent that makes children ambitious about the day they will be saved from ‘being taken to school’. A class VII student at Placid Vidya Vihar, Changanacherry, Karthik K. cannot wait to be allowed to travel by private buses. “A lot of my friends have started using it, so I am tempted too,” he says. Niranjan D. Pillai, is starting class X after this summer vacation and he almost breaks down while saying that he is fed up of making this request to his parents. “There isn’t a single boy of my age who goes by the school bus. I waste such a lot of time in the bus, I just hate it,” he says. The longing is slightly less intense in Bhavana Thampi, a class IX student again, at SDV Central School, Alappuzha. She says: “Right now, I commute with my best friends, who are also my classmates, in a private auto rickshaw. I am sure it will be exciting to meet more people and make more observations while travelling in private buses; but I would want that only if my friends also come along.” Clearly, friends mean and make the world for teenagers.
But Vishnu S. vouches that private bus journeys aren’t all that fun. He is a class X student at SDV Boys High School, Alappuzha, and has been commuting a distance of 8 km, one way, by private bus for the last three years. “Sometimes it can be really crowded with all the students and office-going people. Then there is an unwritten rule that students who avail a ticket concession aren’t supposed to sit through the journey if there are other ‘full ticket people’ standing. Sometimes, it can be very exhausting.”
The thrill of a ride
Alappuzha, referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’, boasts of the largest number of bicycle users in the state. It is common to see bicycle riders occupying a considerable quantum of space on the roads, especially in comparison with other districts where they are a minority or almost nonexistent. People of Alappuzha take to this habit quite early in life and thus riding cycles to schools is almost as common a practice as taking the school bus.
Rameeza Noushad and Ananthu S. Kumar are classmates at SDV Higher Secondary School, Alappuzha. Both are class XII students who ride to school; but the cycling experience, as described by them, is quite different. Rameeza is a lone rider who thinks about a variety of things while going to school. At one moment, she may be recollecting the lessons based on which a teacher may ask questions in school, and in the next she may be thinking about her future. Humming favourite songs and chatting with regular faces on the road (while they ride along for a bit) is a given. Ananthu, on the other hand, enjoys group riding a lot. It is common practice for his gang of friends to meet at a point and then proceed together. Evenings are more suitable for this and they often have post-tuition bike races through the narrow by-lanes of Alappuzha town. Minor accidents are common and they aren’t bothered by the small scratches and dents, here and there. Aiming for the raw mangoes on random trees they see on the way is a favourite pastime that gives lovely rewards.
Rameeza and Ananthu share the opinion that the consideration they get on the road, as students in school uniform, varies. “There are people who give way to us and let us cross roads safely. There are also people who are in a hurry and fail to even notice us. They just zoom past us often terrifying us,” says Ananthu. Rameeza recalls an incident where she rode into a woman on a two wheeler while taking a swift turn. “She was extremely patient with me and just asked me to get to class on time. She did not get upset at all.”
But it isn’t just in Alappuzha that this mode of transport is preferred by children. Every child I spoke to was ready to give up his/her current mode of commuting to be able to ride to school. The freedom that comes with wielding your own handle, levering your own pedal, and in general, ‘being in control’, is a definite perk for kids across age and gender slabs. “I would shift from my van only if I am going to be allowed to ride. But my school is 7 km away from home; unlikely that Amma will let me do that!” says Siddarth in a sulking tone. Virat Soumya, all of six years, cannot wait to grow up and be able to ride to his school – St. Thomas, Thiruvananthapuram. For now, he is happy with his school bus journeys.
Whether it is the school bus or the private bus, the van or the auto rickshaw, the cycle or paidal, finally, it is the conversations that matter. Sometimes, these conversations happen within a child, sometimes between two people. Sometimes it may even be an energetic exchange in the form of a game between two students. It could very well be a love story. It could also be a micro revenge saga. As long as they make friends, fight and make up, forge new bonds; as long as they play and talk, their learning goes on even outside classrooms!
The author is a freelance media professional based in Kochi. A post graduate in Mass Communication from the University of Hyderabad and an M.Phil. in Gender Studies, she writes on topics ranging from gender and education to food and entertainment. She can be reached at [email protected].