I’ve been thinking about my childhood school bus driver, “Dot” or Dorothy Gelles. I lived in a house that was technically not too far from school to walk, but there weren’t enough sidewalks and there was one dangerous intersection. As a result, I rode Bus #302 and then, later, when #302 was retired, #562, with Mrs. Gelles. Ours was a relationship that lasted from kindergarten until Grade 12.
I started driving in Grade 10, lived in Israel on a kibbutz in Grade 11, and mostly drove my younger brother to school when I returned for Grade 12. Still, I rode the bus every day until those last few years. I sat at the front, chatting with Mrs. Gelles and enjoying the ride. Later, I read, did homework or talked to other kids. The bus wasn’t late. Mrs. Gelles rarely missed a day driving us. We trusted Mrs. Gelles. She was a dependable, reliable and kind part of our lives.
Though growing up in a different country, my kids are also eligible for the school bus through Grade 6. They go to a Hebrew-English bilingual school that requires a bus ride. I’ve always thought it was a wonderful gift to parents and good for the environment that they could take the school bus. Although there have been some years in which the bus has been dependable, with mostly the same drivers, I have never properly managed to figure out each driver’s name or been introduced. To me, this is the most precarious part of the school day during Winnipeg winters – I’ve always felt a little nervous about the ride, the drivers, and whether they’d make it to school or home.
This year, due to the pandemic, sick days, the labour shortages and lack of trained drivers, things are the worst they’ve ever been. When there was a bus drivers’ strike, we knew that the school bus wasn’t coming. We were responsible for getting our kids to school and home. When someone contacts us early in the morning and says, “This route is canceled,” we shuffle around our work days to get the kids to school. Sometimes, there’s no notice at all: scared kids and panicked parents result.
On the last day before winter break, our kids weren’t dropped off at the bus stop at 3:46 as per the schedule. They didn’t get home until after 4:35 p.m., more than an hour after the school day ends, at 3:30. The high that day was around -22°C. We were lucky: our kids are 11, old enough to cope, and we figured out what had happened. Their dad was working from home. He dropped everything, stayed at the bus stop in the cold while I phoned the bus transportation office and the school. We found out that there had been a late bus that didn’t get to the school until after 4 p.m., a substitute driver, and that driver got lost. Everything went wrong. The school secretary apologized – she should have called me sooner. I knew that not only would my kids be upset, but they’d missed their piano lessons, too.
This is part of a bigger disruption narrative. So far, this year, Grade 6, is my kids’ first school year since Grade 1 where we haven’t had a teacher change or disruption yet. It’s true that everyone feels jostled by the COVID pandemic but, starting six years ago, before this virus happened, every year something interrupted their learning. Everyone deserves maternity leave and, yes, teachers retire and principals shift schools, but theirs has not been world’s most stable learning environment. Everyone wants to blame COVID but the problems are much bigger than that. Yes, we’re lucky in many ways, but expecting a stable schooling environment shouldn’t be unreasonable with all our other privileges in Canada.
Being resilient in the face of change has been seen as an important skill to have as the world shifts to cope with pandemics, climate change, wars, supply chain issues, etc. There is much to be said for being flexible and able to roll with what happens. At the same time, most adults are resistant to change and don’t like it. For many, we want our coffee or tea with breakfast, our meals cooked in a certain way, our exercise routine or housecleaning to be orderly. Ritual and routine reassure everyone.
In many ways, Judaism reflects this. We’re still praying in ways our ancestors prayed thousands of years ago. Our holidays, sanctuaries and social halls look remarkably similar from one country to the next, even with culturally different norms. We relish the familiar, even as it slowly changes and adapts to fit modern sensibilities. No matter what Jewish movement you’re accustomed to, Orthodox, Chabad, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Renewal, or if you use terms like secular, traditional … we’ve all made adjustments reflecting our evolving understanding of Judaism and the world around us, or in reaction to those things.
What makes our traditions comforting, reassuring or even just functional is not the same for everybody. However, one thing remains the same. Aside from catastrophic events, it’s the way we react to and adjust to change that matters. Finding a positive way forward, moving towards solutions – these help us grow and learn. Jewish communities, forced through pogroms, expulsions and murders, have created art, literature, liturgy and rabbinic rulings to cope with terrible circumstances we could not control.
As everyone now knows, we cannot control everything. We can only hope to give the resources and resiliency to help everyone cope. In Winnipeg, making sure the kids wear warm sweaters and snow pants along with parkas and boots? That is one step. Another is offering contingency plans: an extra set of house keys, feeling comfortable with the neighbours, knowing there’s a safe place to go if they get locked out.
Many in North America, pre-pandemic, were used to stability. We made plans for weddings or trips a year in advance. It may be that our new “normal” brings us much closer to what our ancestors knew long ago. With increasing weather, climate and health emergencies, and political upheaval, we need to find resources and solutions when change happens. Cause change is going to happen.
Meanwhile, we can also all strive to be a bit more like Mrs. Gelles: caring, reliably on time and trustworthy. I can never see a driver open those school bus doors without smiling and thinking of her. And hoping for the best and wishing for that stability for my children, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.