First Day of School

It’s the first day of school
and my classroom is the bus
where I’m learning to be a bus driver.
I sit behind my trainer, or teacher,
and across the aisle from a first grader
whose smile could stop traffic as handily as
the red flashers if he stuck his head
out the window. His backpack,
he tells me, is heavy, very very heavy.
My teacher, a plump 66-year-old woman
who’s been navigating these yellow ships
down the highways for 35 of those 66,
grips the wheel with her fleshy brown-spotted hands
and tells me she and her two sisters
all dropped out of school and got married
when they were 17 as the little boy
explains in my other ear how
he caught a salamander this summer
and still has it. I want to ask him
where he caught it and what he feeds it
but my teacher is telling me now how
she and her two sisters all had kids
by the time they were 18 and how
her daughter is “no good” so she’s pretty much
raised the granddaughter whom
her daughter had when she was 17.
I wish she would stop talking so I could learn more
about the little boy’s salamander
—I don’t know much about salamanders—
but she’s my teacher and I’m thinking
I’m here to learn and must remain attentive.
The little boy is holding up
his two index fingers to let me know, I presume,
because I’m having difficulty hearing him,
how long his salamander is
just as my teacher laughs and says
I’ll probably learn to hate kids.
The little boy is talking and I’m glad
he doesn’t hear this dirty joke from the mouth
of my teacher, who now tells me
she has to go to the funeral this Friday
of her son’s ex-wife, who, believe it or not,
was 61 years old, just five years younger than she,
and used to be her best friend
until she divorced her husband and married her son,
who now lives in Florida with another wife
and her grandson, who is coming up this weekend
for his mother’s funeral. The little boy’s
mouth is moving, but my teacher’s story,
whose basic message is
life is not fair
and you have to be tough
and keep your eyes in the rearview mirror
so you know when to yell
“you kids sit down back there,”
which she does,
is drowning him out.
The little boy is trying to teach me something
about sala…no, it’s dinosaurs now,
the ones that lived in water, I believe,
leaning into the aisle (against the rules)
to dip below the field of her vision
and range of her voice receding
now into the melodic hum of tires, engine noise,
contrapuntal squeals of laughter rising
above her ring-strangled fingers gripping
that wheel at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock
spinning the devolutionary wheel
of her story.

—Robert Nordstrom, Mukwonago, WI