Traveling in a student's shoes (Teacher Journal)

by Kris Sieloff

After school on Friday afternoon, I rode the bus home with one of my students -  to her home. Sienna is in my last period 9th grade English class, and she is also in my Advisory. I chose her because we have already developed a close relationship, and I can count on her to be honest with me; she has some moments of deep insight as well. I was curious about my students’ experiences riding the bus to school. Because we are a Baltimore City public charter school, we have a lottery based system; our students come from a wide range of neighborhoods across the city, and the vast majority rely on the Maryland Transit System to get to school.

Sienna and I left the school building and walked in the cold about two blocks over to catch the #44. I asked Sienna if she always rode the bus alone, and she told me that she usually has a partner, Keyonna, another freshman in my third period class whom we met at the #44 stop. Both sides of the street were filled with students waiting for buses heading east and west. Sienna and I were catching the westbound bus toward The Alameda, where we would then catch the #36 southbound. I knew most of the students waiting on the westbound side; the group included some seniors I had taught two years ago. I admonished them to get out of the street and to find parts of the sidewalk that were not ice covered, and they good naturedly complied.  I watched one eastbound bus stop a few houses before the stop across the street and then pass by the waiting students. To be fair to that driver, the bus was pretty crowded. An altercation developed between two girls on the other side of the street, and another female student separated the two girls and brought one to my side of the street. The two girls engaged in the conflict continued to shout insults about each other’s supposed sexual habits. I tried to quiet the girl on my side of the street, but she was not interested in my intervention. Her friend was having more success with calming her down and managed to pull her away.

This episode caused me some anxiety about the lack of supervision on these corners and the idea of young people left to their own devices. Last year, some of our students did some serious grassroots work, going door to door and asking neighborhood residents to sign a petition to get a #19 bus stop on our campus to that students would not have to walk all the way to and from Harford Road. Now we have school staff who often escort and supervise students boarding that bus. A few weeks before last winter break, on the one day that no staff were available for this task, there was an incident in which some students got into an altercation with the bus driver; they were kicked off the bus, one student fell in front of the bus as it pulled off, and his foot was run over. A group of students then attacked and vandalized the bus, busting out windows and damaging the door. It was a horrific mess that ended with students being arrested and us nearly losing our bus stop altogether, which would have added some hardship to students who would have to walk half a mile to the next bus stop.

When Sienna’s bus arrived, I boarded with her. Fortunately, Sienna had told me the proper amount of money to bring for a day pass. Keyonna was worried because she had lost her S Pass and wasn’t sure if the driver would charge her for the ride. I told her I had enough quarters to cover her fare, but the bus driver let her board without comment. When I boarded, I received stares from other riders; I think there was only one other white person on the bus. It was standing room only for a little while, but people were generally polite to each other. Sienna spent some of the ride interacting with a toddler who was sitting on his mother’s lap. The #44 ride was relatively quick. When I checked my watch right before we got off, it was 20 minutes since we had left the school building. At The Alameda, Sienna, Keyonna, and another student of mine, Kevon, disembarked, and Kevon and Keyonna headed together toward Northern Parkway. I realized that students are very good at protecting each other by grouping together. However, it was at this point in her journey that Sienna was typically on her own, at the #36 bus stop. She pointed out where there were drug deals, in front of the strip mall Dollar Store. She said, “Why they gotta do that here? Why not in your own neighborhood?” I asked her if she was harassed as a young woman alone, and she said she gets unwanted attention all the time. Grown men come up to her and ask her how old she is. Sometimes they literally badger her with questions, about where she goes to school and so on. She refuses to acknowledge them, usually, and she said once she was getting ready to answer back but stopped herself just in time. She expressed her frustration to me, “I’m just a child - leave me alone!”

The group of people waiting for the bus was mixed age, but all African American. Sienna told me that this bus typically took forever to get there. The icy wind was more persistent at this bus stop, and I was getting physically tired. An older man in a blue parka with a fur lined hood slowly walked past and blatantly looked Sienna up and down. I stiffened and moved closer to her. When the bus arrived and we started moving together to board, the man who had been eyeing Sienna looked straight into her face, and when she refused to make eye contact, his eyes slid over to me. I stared back at him, and he looked away. Some of the older gentlemen waiting politely told us to get on ahead of them. Sienna sat next to the window toward the front, and I took the aisle seat next to her. There was a strong smell from someone smoking pot in the back of the bus, and the bus driver yelled, “Close that back window!” It seemed the majority of the people riding the bus at this time were working people coming home for the evening. Sienna and I got off at Winston and walked about half a mile in to Alhambra, to her house. She lives close to the border between Old and New Govans. There were two burned out, crumbling houses a couple doors away from Sienna’s house. It was cold, the sidewalks and streets were ice covered, and it was getting dark. This was a trip she would normally be taking alone.