John and I ditch the school bus and learn non-conformity

John and I ditch the school bus and learn non-conformity

So the first thing you have to understand is that the junior high school bus was like a playground for bullies, and the bullies, in those days, liked to pick on nerds. And my friend John and I were about as nerdy as they came. Riding in the school bus was loud and often involved people sitting behind you shoving the top of your head for no clear reason. There was a lot of shoving and insulting, and it isn’t like we couldn’t handle all that. We were used to it. It wasn’t really that big of a deal. But a bus ride to school was never a positive experience and seldom neutral.

But then, one day in science class, a kid behind me asked me a question and I turned around to help him with it and it must have been that this was a day that the teacher was looking to make an example of somebody and suddenly I had a detention. I panicked. I had never had a detention before. Of course not. I mean, come on, I was a nerd. I followed the rules. I did the homework. I didn’t mouth off to the teacher. And now I had a detention. Honestly, I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know where I was supposed to go. I didn’t know when or for how long. I didn’t know if I was allowed to use the phone in the school office, and, if not, how my parents were supposed to know where I was. Worst of all, as far as I knew there was no detention bus. How was I supposed to get home?

I was still freaking out at break time and my friend John talked me down off the wall.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll stay after, too. We’ll walk.”

I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before. I lived probably eight to 10 blocks from school, and John lived two blocks beyond my house. We rode the bus because that was what we had always done. There was nothing in our understanding of the universe that permitted any other way of getting from our houses to school. Getting on the bus every morning was what one did. And now, suddenly, there was this other option. I remember being hesitant—not scared exactly, but hesitant because I wasn’t sure this thing was going to work.

John was (and is) a good friend. He waited. I remember nothing of detention, but I have a clear memory, even though it was 35 years ago, that as we were walking and talking with each other, we had an epiphany. It was kind of nice to walk home. No one was throwing crumpled pieces of paper at us. We didn’t have to hold onto our backpacks for fear that someone would try to grab our stuff. No one was yelling rude things at us. In fact, the fresh air was nice, and it was kind of cool to be able to walk past houses that had always been a blur. More than that, though, I think we started to understand that there was real freedom in the world from doing what everybody else always did, that you could take a right turn from conventional behavior and choose not to conform. And as it turned out, non-conformity was fun without being illegal or illicit.

And as we walked, we could talk: about books and music and food and fellow students and school and all the things that were wrong with the universe and how to fix them and girls and all sorts of other topics. We didn’t have to worry about anyone listening in or mocking us or interrupting or anything.

Now I don’t mean to say that we suddenly believed that walking was the only good way to get around. Later we tried riding our bikes to school and found that riding a bike gives you the chance to be with someone else while thinking your own thoughts. And we still had time to talk. I would usually ride with John to his house, then we would talk in his driveway. And later in my life, when I married and moved to Chicago, my wife Amy taught me to love traveling by commuter train and city bus—and I discovered that was a great way to feel connected to the community I live in and to be able to read at the same time.

We have an excellent bike shop near us. It is owned and run by one of my former students. The shop is called Goodspeed Cycles. The name comes from something my former student’s dad said. He was an avid cyclist and often remarked that the great thing about biking was that it was a good speed. It got you somewhere reasonably quickly, but also let you interact with your community while you were doing so. I think he was absolutely right. But I also think there are other good speeds, too.

We tend to think, in North America, that the only good speed is the very fastest. We feel the need to drive everywhere because it is the quickest way to get from point A to point B. We think it is vital that we weave in and out of lanes of traffic in hopes of arriving at our destination a second or two sooner. We seem to believe that honking and yelling and getting fed up with people whose cars are not moving as fast as we wish is a good and noble pursuit.

Walking to and from school for what ended up being all of junior high and almost all of high school was certainly not the fastest way. But it allowed me to think, to form a priceless friendship, to escape oppression, and to breathe deeply the air of my community. Most of all, it helped me discover the value of non-conformity. All of those are lessons were worth getting a detention 50 times over.