I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I looked down at the somewhat less than stylish clothes I was able to pick up from T.J. Maxx with the small budget my parents had set us aside for “back to school”, knowing that whatever I had just wasn’t going to cut it. I had watched “Pretty in Pink.” I knew what I was in for.
It was the early nineties and it was my first day of school at Rutgers Prep, a stark departure from the public high school most of my friends would be attending. I had applied for an academic scholarship and after multiple rounds of tests and behavioral interviews – wonder of all wonders – I won a spot at the school. My parents wouldn’t have to pay any tuition for my time there, as long as I maintained my grades, but they would have to carry the burden of buying all my textbooks and buying me a whole new prep school ready wardrobe.
They kept their first half of the bargain, I’ll give them that. The wardrobe idea never really gelled with them. Let’s just say that I was not prepared for the J.Crew and Land’s End clad wardrobes of my classmates. This girl was no longer in Kansas.
I knew that one of the biggest changes for me was that I was going to get picked up every day at my house on a bus that would ultimately deliver me to school which was roughly an hour away. I waited for the bus to arrive at my house, wondering what kinds of new friends I would be making.
As the short bus made it’s way up my driveway, I waited eagerly with a bright smile for the door to open, ready to greet my new friends. The door swung open and I took my first step onto that bus, not knowing exactly what I was in for.
A bleached blonde with a heavy fake tan sat in the driver’s seat smacking her large wad of gum. She looked me over a few times, up and down, taking in my inventory of my not so classy skirt I got on the clearance rack at K-Mart. I bet she was wondering if she had one too.
I tried to maintain eye contact with her throughout her intense scrutiny of me, but it was a little discombobulating with all of her shiny layers of teal blue eyeliner and matching mascara.
She pulled out her pad, “Ok, so, which one are you?” Her accent bled Jersey. I don’t know what that means, but I imagined it involved spaghetti sauce.
“Kir-WHAT?!” She asked/yelled in what I would later learn was just her way.
“Kiran. Like the Japanese beer.” She looked at me blankly. Yeah she probably didn’t like too many international brews was my guess. But I tried anyway, “Oh, it’s Kirin, Kirin, Kirin, when you’re beerin’, beerin’, beerin’.”
She looked blankly at me and I felt a little deflated that she did not know this song, after all something about her blue eyeliner and the raspiness of that voice made me sure that she liked her beer.
I turned around to take my seat. Since the school went from K – 12, there were kids of all ages on the bus. I found a single two seater and was about to breathe a sigh of relief as if I had passed some test, when she turned back to me and said, “Honey, my name is Sheryl. And don’t you forget it.” With a flash of what smelled like Charlie perfume, she spun her head back to front position.
I was unsure why I would forget it, but I had a feeling that Sheryl had a whole lexicon of language that I would become familiar with.
There was a boy on the bus named Jeremy who had been going to Rutgers Prep for a long time. He was quite wealthy and came from a different social strata than I did which he liked to point out whenever he could. Jeremy was one of those guys who was just a natural asshole when he was younger. The kind of guy who always knew who felt weak and how to demoralize that person. I am sure (ish?) that he is a lovely person now. But back then he was kind of a douchebag.
Sheryl of the bleached blonde hair and Jeremy struck up a relationship almost immediately. They may have been separated by all sorts of socio-economic boundaries, but they had one thing in common. They were jackasses. They could smell and abuse fear in a way that only the most alpha bullies can.
I recall one day, Sheryl having a really loud conversation with Jeremy. She sounded drunk, but I don’t think she ever was. She just said such stupid shit sometimes that you just kinda hoped she might be drunk? At least for her own sake, if not for all the children she was driving all over Central Jersey.
“You know what I like about you Jeremy?” Sheryl asked. “Even though you’re Jewish…”
I cringed inwardly. In my limited experience, I knew that usually when one starts out a sentence this way, it does not end well.
“…well, you’re just different. I mean, you’re a Jew and all. But you’re not like a really, Jewy-Jew. I can’t freaking stand Jewey Jews. They’re almost bad as the Hindis and the Goddamn Islamicists.”
Since I was pretty sure from pictures that Sheryl had shown us of her husband, that he could have been a Skinhead, I kept my own thoughts to myself on that matter.
Sheryl could run hot. She could run cold. She could pick you up with the biggest smile on her face or she could pick you up and tell you to shut up, “because I’m on the rag and I’m hemorrhaging out a Cabbage Patch doll here.”
The younger kids tried not to look too scared.
One day, Sheryl was feeling nostalgic and wanted to play us some of her favorite songs on the long ride to Rutgers Prep. I think the playlist that day went something like this:
1. Stroke Me – Billy Squire
2. Stroke Me – Billy Squire
3. Stroke Me – Billy Squire
4. Hot for Teacher – Van Halen
5. Stroke Me – Billy Squire
6. Paradise by the Dashboard Lights – Meatloaf
The only reason we were even able to get a little Meatloaf was because one of us pointed out that it was really weird that one of the kindergarteners seemed to know all the words to “Stroke Me.”
Sheryl wasn’t always all bad. She’d smile so wide with her bubble gum pink glossed lips and remind you that there was warmth in her. Like the time when I was feeling bad about a recent haircut I got and Sheryl tried to cheer me up.
“Look, I mean, I ain’t gonna fuckin’ lie to ya. It looks like shit. But it will grow back. And besides! You’re pretty for an Indian. Most Indians I know are butt ugly! But, you got it going on girl!”
“I mean, look at you,” She expanded. “You don’t wear no dot on your head. And I mean, what is that? Is that dot surgically implanted on your mom’s head or something? Damn, fuck, I bet that hurts!”
One day she saw my older brother, who was temporarily living with us at the time, running. “Damn, Kiran. You’re brother is pretty cute. I don’t see many Indian guys I would do. But your brother – um hmm.”
I tried not to puke in my mouth as Jeremy, the not so Jew-ey Jew laughed along with Sheryl.
Meanwhile, back at home, my parents started wondering why I had started cursing like a sailor. The word “fuck” seemed to enter my language without any prompting, as in, “Would you pass me the fucking mayonnaise?” This seemed odd to them since this new behavior seemed to coincide exactly with when I started going to private school. After all, wasn’t private school supposed to create a safer environment for me?
Over the year, Sheryl would come up with some real gems on her thoughts on race in America.
Like, when the one hit wonder, Gerardo, came out with the song “Rico Suave.”
“He is so fucking hot. I mean, he’s a Puerto Rican but he’s not too, ‘Spick-y’ if you know what I mean.”
Like when she saw my mom wearing a sari.
“Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. I’m down with that shit. I could be down with wearing one of those rags wrapped around me as long as nobody made me tie a turban to my head.”
One might wonder why nobody complained to their parents or to the school. After all, we were late to school every day. Sheryl would sometimes drive around in circles if a song she liked came on as we got closer to school.
“You all are cool with this, right?” she would bark at us, giving us the blue eye-lined stink eye.
“Oh, we’re fine.” We would nod along.
The truth was, we were all scared shitless of Sheryl. Not only was she our chain smoking, shit talking, bullying, racist bus driver, but she knew where we all lived. The combination somehow seemed lethal.
I had started dreading the thought of going to school every day. My adjustment at Rutgers Prep was going a lot better than I thought it would. I stumbled every once in a while since Jeremy wasn’t the only entitled asshole in the place. But for the most part, I had started making friends and loved my teachers.
The school was fine. It was great, actually. It was sitting on that bus for two hours every day that scared the living daylights out of me.
And unbeknownst to me, the ride with Sheryl was only just beginning.
More on this adventure in my next blog post.