The bus ride back to Forestville was silent, a stark contrast to the noisy, excitement filled ride down to San Francisco. Now past dark, there was little to see outside the windows, and a lot of kids slept. Mr. Flynn was in the front of the bus. He alternated between sitting and standing up, scanning the rows of students behind him. There was nothing to see, no talkers to hush, no note-passers to intercept. But he still stood up occasionally, his worried eyes touching all of us.
He’d offered me a clean shirt before we got on the bus. I have no idea where he got it. Maybe his City Hall friend. I refused. Sitting there on the bus, I didn’t yet have the words to describe the way it felt, but the blood streaking my shirt and soaked into my pants had a weight to it that I didn’t think I could shed just by changing clothes. Mr. Flynn reluctantly settled for sending me to the bathroom so I could wash my hands and face before he let me on the bus.
No one sat next to me on the ride home. I didn’t blame them, I wouldn’t have sat next to me either. And though it wasn’t a conscious decision, I had put the bag I’d picked up on the seat next to me rather than setting it on my blood stained lap or on the floor at my feet.
I was glad for the empty seat. If someone was sitting there, then I’d need to make conversation. I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t want to think.
Mr. Flynn left the safety of his front seat and began a slow walk toward the back of the bus. He stopped every couple seats, maybe thinking he’d be able to start a conversation with one of the students, but each stop ended in an awkward pause where Mr. Flynn could only look around again like he’d done from his seat and then eventually give up and move on.
I was sitting about halfway back and couldn’t help but watch Mr. Flynn’s stuttering progress, hoping he’d give up before he got close enough to me that I’d be forced on ignore him, but I eventually found myself staring at the braided hair of the girl in front of me, and hoping that the blurred Mr. Flynn in my peripheral vision would move down the aisle and leave me alone.
Unable to take it any longer, I turned to look up at him, and his eyes held mine for a second before shifting down to the seat beside me for the briefest moment and then returning to my own.
I knew what his glance meant, but stared ahead, ignoring him as long as I could, before I reached over and tugged the patch covered bag out of the seat beside me and onto my lap. Still Mr. Flynn remained standing in the aisle, uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other, as if the now empty seat wasn’t enough of an invitation. I turned again to make eye contact and mumbled an almost silent, “Sit.”
He sighed and slumped into the seat, remaining silent long enough for me to hope that he was only looking for a change of scenery and his uncomfortable walk down the bus aisle was just about finding a new place to sit. He opened his mouth more than once but was unable to push any words out and finally resorted to tracing lopsided shapes on the textured vinyl of the seatback in front of us until he could find something to say.
“I… City Hall… the girl…” Even with the silence broken, Mr. Flynn seemed to be choosing words small enough to fit into the cramped air between us. “I’m sorry.”
I let the dark landscape outside my window roll by while I mulled over the apology. What did Mr. Flynn have to apologize for, really? He’d set up the trip to San Francisco as a way to expose a bunch of high school kids to some opinions that were likely quite different from the ones they got at home. He’d ended up walking us into the middle of a riot scene that could have very easily gotten his students injured or killed. But I could forgive him for that. Mr. Flynn had spent most of the school year putting ideas in our heads that weren’t there in September, and he had no way of knowing that the little protest outside City Hall was going to turn into something that would end up on the TV news that night. In fact, after staring at a couple miles of darkness outside, I realized I wasn’t really angry at Mr. Flynn at all.
I was angry at myself. Angry for listening to the shouted slogans that stuck in my brain and made me doubt whether the war we were in was really something we should be fighting at all. At the same time, I was embarrassed for being naïve enough to think that something like a war could be so black and white, that there could be a clear right and wrong to it all, and that our country would always be on the right side.
The police had shown me how foolish I was to think that. The newspaper headlines would likely tell a slanted story of law breaking hippies, and a police force that protected everyone in City Hall. And the newspaper would be partly right. The crowds outside shouldn't have stormed into the building, and the police were right to stop them when they did. But that was the black and white version. I knew a different story, and couldn't help but question all I had blindly believed about our role in Vietnam. It was those two voices that had been arguing with each other during the long bus ride back home, filling the space around me while I sat silently alone in my seat. I finally broke my silence.
“My father’s over there.” The words came out of my mouth quickly.
Mr. Flynn didn’t say anything. He let out a long breath, sat back far enough that his head rested against the seat, and closed his eyes. My short explanation was enough. I wasn’t mad at him, wasn’t angry about the danger he’d put us in. He’d done what he’d set out to do on our field trip. He’d opened my eyes. He’d shown me the reality we were in, and now the conflict of right and wrong was stuck inside me the same way it was stuck in him. But Mr. Flynn’s conflict came from newspaper headlines and the nightly news, mine came from a place a little closer to home.
We sat in silence for the rest of the bus ride. During that last, long hour of the trip, we stopped being teacher and student sitting beside each other on the bus. Mr. Flynn had taught me something about the world, and at the same time, I’d shown him that our great big world for some people often boils down to a single person who is far, far away. If I’d had the chance to talk to Mr. Flynn again, I think we both would have made pretty good teachers for each other.
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