Although that decision was a giant step in desegregating American schools, it did not change things immediately. It was over 11 years later when I had my first black classmate, a seventh grader named Diana White. She was well-spoken, well-dressed, friendly, smart, and pretty, and I liked her instantly. At that point, nothing about the Supreme Court ruling had affected me personally at all. I still walked across the street to school every morning.
The next year we moved from that small town where grades seven through twelve were all housed in a small school labeled “high school” to the biggest city I had ever lived in, a melting pot of cultures and beliefs that made me feel like I had moved to another country altogether. Schoolyard fights were common and the bathrooms billowed with cigarette and marijuana smoke.
I hated those first two years of what they called junior high, more than twice the number of students I had been with the year before in one-third the number of grades—8th and 9th. I had discovered that the school year consisted of 120 days and that first year I kept a small notebook in my desk in which every afternoon I marked off a day, from day one to day 120, four vertical lines and a crossbar every week.
That was also my first experience with busing, which was how that city handled the new laws, and it was not a kind experience. Instead of riding safely with a parent to the school near my house, I was hauled off five miles in the opposite direction.
Most of the upholstery on that old bus was dried out and cracked from the Florida heat, some of the foam padding spilling out, or torn out by bored students, the walls and seatbacks scratched with rusting graffiti, the floors scuffed and covered with gum wads and other sticky things I really didn’t want to contemplate. The windows stuck either up or down, depending upon who sat there last and how strong he was. I suppose the engine was in reasonable shape. It certainly spewed out enough fumes, which then wafted back around the bus and in through the windows. But that acted as a sort of buffer for the odors of adolescent sweat and far too much Brut and Tabu.
The first morning I stepped on that bus was like something out of a nightmare. Even though the county had tacked up a list of rules for all to see, rules that included, “No more than two people per seat,” and, “No standing on the bus,” most of the seats were crammed with three people and the unlucky few who had no friends to save them a seat, stood in the middle. (It was deemed better to break bus safety rules than to break the federal law that required the busing in the first place.) I was near the end of the pickup route and I knew no one else on board, so I stood.
What a ride that was. I always carried several thick textbooks stacked on the slanted top of a loose-leaf notebook—no backpacks back then. It was either hold onto the books or hold myself up as we swung around corners and bounced over railroad tracks. Somehow I managed to grab the metal back of a seat with my right hand while using my left arm to hold my notebook and books tightly up against me so they wouldn’t slide into the floor on the nearly thirty minute ride across town, made so much longer by the frequent stops for railroad crossings and the multitude of traffic lights and school zones we passed through.
Before a week was out, though, I had made a friend, another quiet girl as much a fish out of water as I. She got on the bus three stops before me, when there were still seats available, and she started saving one for me. That one little thing made the days bearable—I had a place, I belonged. It meant so much that on the mornings she was absent and I discovered it when I climbed aboard that reeking bus, I nearly cried.
God understands our longing for a place. He knows we want to belong, we want to matter to someone. Into a world where the best you could hope for from capricious, petty, spiteful gods was to go unnoticed, the apostles came preaching about a God who actually cared. Jesus came preaching about a God who knew you so intimately that he could number the hairs on your head, and who willingly provided you the necessities of life. The disciples spread the word about a God who sacrificed himself to save, who helped bear burdens, and who offered rest and refreshing from a world sometimes too difficult to bear alone.
God is saving you a seat on the bus. Sometimes the bus hits a bump in the road, just as it did for Job. Sometimes the driver takes a detour you never planned on, just as happened with Joseph. Sometimes the route is long and the day hot and stifling as you sit among people who reek of the stench of this world, just as has happened to so many who have taken the ride before you. But you are not alone. The Lord got on that bus before you. He will always be there saving you a seat, and after you count off that last day of “school,” he will give you a place where you can “belong” forever.
I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. Acts 26:18