Back to School Photos and Other Traditions

It always seemed unlikely the yellow school bus would appear.

I’d stare through the mist, hands firmly in pockets. The shuffling feet and murmurs from the kids around me — my brother and cousins, all older — barely made a dent in the early morning silence.

When the bus finally rounded the corner at the edge of Reiner’s field it looked like a yellow caterpillar crawling through the green pastures on either side of the dirt road.

The noise from the bus was absorbed by the morning until it squealed to a stop in front of us. It loomed large, sputtering diesel fumes. When the door folded open it seemed unlikely the morning had ever been still.

We caught the bus early. It made a special detour for us — up Sigalet Road to the end of Deuling Road, six extra kilometres up and down the mountain, before heading into the Shuswap River flood plains to pick up the Huwers.

The Allens would already be on the bus. Phil was in my grade; he’d always say they caught the bus in the pitch dark; I had a hard time imagining that. It was dark when we woke up, but the sky was light by the time we boarded Mr. Bell’s Bluebird bus.

Us Deulings, the Huwers and the Allens were the bulk of the 14 kids who made up Sacred Heart Catholic School on Mabel Lake Road. Jack was another one; he was in my grade, too.

Then there was Adam Barker.

Jack and Adam’s parents drove them to school. It wasn’t far, and that was the point. Our parents didn’t want to send us to public school in town — it was an hour bus ride each way, and in the winter we’d be home in the dark.

Back in the early ‘90s there was a strong community in the Mabel Lake Valley. I don’t know all the details, but I do know I started school in Grade 1 at a one-room schoolhouse.

Sister Gertrude was the teacher, a nun from PEI. We called her “Sister”. She cackled when she laughed and, counter-intuitively, it was from her that I learned my first swear words.

There was a correspondence arrangement; Sister would guide us through our lessons, but she sent our work by mail to be graded, like some sort of group home school situation.

Our work was returned in manila envelopes and was marred with red ink and fancy stickers. Inevitably, sticker collections were a big part of my formative years. We’d gather them in photo albums, and we’d covet the smelly stickers, and the fuzzy ones. 

Our early-education situation was unusual, but typical school traditions informed our experience. Back-to-school shopping, for instance.

I’m a thrift shop maven because my mom taught me to be like that, but back-to-school excursions were exceptions to the rule; we’d go to the mall.

It was an hour drive to Vernon. My mom couldn’t help leaving for town early; she somehow ended up with farmer’s blood. The summer morning would be dew-chilly when we left, but we dressed in shorts and tank tops because Vernon simmers in the summer heat.

Back-to school shopping trips were special because it was just my mom and I and we’d pick out special outfits. She’d buy clothes for my brother, too, but he wasn’t there. We probably also bought practical things like pencils and duotangs, but all I remember is the smell of the mall and deliberations over pant-and-shirt combinations.

It was the only brand new outfit I’d get all year, and it always stayed special.

These trips were also the only time we’d buy lunch from the food court; usually when we went to Vernon we’d have a packed lunch, or stay hungry until we got home, but back-to-school meant root beer and Taco Time.

When we were primary-grade kids we’d never play chicken with the school bus arrival time, especially in the first few days of school. With backpacks strapped over new clothes and lunches packed in bread bags, we’d have time to pose for the back-to-school picture.

This is a tradition as common as the back-to-school shop, and my mom took it seriously. We’d stand outside, in front of the end-of-summer splendor of her flower garden. She’d pull out the Canon, which, although regularly used, still signified an occasion of note.

It marked a beginning, and a passage of time.

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