Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
One route of Salmon Bay’s “Walking School Bus” with Frances Dugan ready to lead.

At Large in Ballard: The Walking School Bus

I was planning to write this week’s column about trudging around Ballard. Between participating in Metro’s Ballard InMotion program to reduce car trips and canvassing door to door to encourage folks to mail in their ballots, I’ve been logging a lot of pedestrian hours lately, on streets that I’ve never even walked before. On Thursday, I saw a handwritten sign on the door of The Scoop at Walter’s on 32nd NW. It said, “Meet here for Salmon Bay Walking School Bus. Friday @ 7:45 a.m.”

It seemed like it would make a good photograph for the column. The plan was simple: pull on clothes, walk to The Scoop to photograph this “walking school bus” and then return home to formally start my day.

But the moment that Jay Sasnett, allegedly retired Salmon Bay Middle School teacher, appeared in his signature white hat and a glowing traffic safety officer vest, I knew my day wasn’t going to go as planned. That was even before he helped me stand on top of the Seattle Times distribution box to take a photo from a better vantage point.

At 7:44 a.m. a small flock of teachers, parents, dogs and actual students appeared, none more bright-eyed than Frances Dugan, age three, with a very curly blond ponytail, sporting a flashing reflector and ready to lead with an orange safety flag. Jay began introducing me, to the brand new principal, Jen Benkovitz; her therapy-dog-in-training, Hobbs; Markos, the new counselor; and Karen Dugan, parent and lead organizer for this walking day.

The group split into upper and lower routes; one heading to school on NW 67th and the other on NW 64th. When Frances got too far behind the group, in pink raincoat with matching pink mittens and ruby red slippers, she would catch up by skipping. Frances seemed very taken with Jay, perhaps drawn to the orange vest. “The skipping bus,” Jay said, whenever she bounced ahead.

I’ve heard of the walking school bus movement before. West Woodland Elementary promoted it before, as have many other schools throughout the United States, taking their cues from Europe. During a brief moment beside Karen Dugan -- an already committed, longtime “bicycle bus” with her three children -- she explained how she’d recruited volunteers to lead different “buses” and then created routes using the school’s transit maps. The goal is to encourage a healthy lifestyle and build community.

The NW 64th St bus grew larger with each block, picking up students and adults. Meanwhile Jay Sasnett and I reminisced about the Mount St. Helens 7th/8th grade camping trip eight years ago. “Best one ever,” he declared. He just returned from this year’s trip in true retirement fashion, after also serving as temporary principal in the fall. We caught up on students and neighbors, and he expressed his delight with the new principal. He loves that she’s cool enough to always wear a signature hat.

Closer to school, other groups with orange flags began waving. Then everyone got close enough to plunge down the sloping ramps that separate the back doors from the playground above, in a frenzy of donuts and apples, reflectors and “I Walked to School Today” stickers. Two boys were very sad to have missed all but the apples. “Do you want me to get you some Red Vines later today?” Jay said. The boys nodded solemnly. “Whose room are you in?”

That’s how it’s always been at Salmon Bay. Not a number or color, but a teacher’s name. “Dorothy’s room,” they replied. Then both got pulled into the school, sucked back into the wonderful womb that is the Salmon Bay cafeteria and stage. It was Friday “Sing for K-5.” I was sent back in time, to the days when I belonged there as a parent.

Mary Kay McNeill of the intergenerational Children of Peace Choir was leading “This Land is Your Land,” flanked by guitars being played by former teacher Judy Bierman, Jen from The Kegels and Dave the teacher. Their next song about gardens led into a thank you to the driving forces behind the brand new playground, which has special features for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder: Robin Lofstrom and Lance Adams.

I looked around at the parents and teachers singing along the outer edges of the students massed on the floor, feeling like I had returned to my own childhood. There were the teachers who shepherded our children from Kindergarten through 8th: Sally, Dorothy and Brian. Last year was the first year that I didn’t work the book fair, even though my daughter graduated from Salmon Bay eight years ago. (I was asked too late).

A lesson to be learned, over and over, is that we don’t realize what we are missing until we do. How lovely to be among all those eager children, who next week will have done their own trudging and canvassing, although most likely for candy, in and out of the participating Ballard merchants and to houses with lit pumpkins. Sometimes I forget how much joy is still out there on the sidewalks with children skipping to school, petting the principal’s dog, grabbing a big apple.

It was hours before I made it back to The Scoop. Jay had walked me all the way home. The rain that held off for the walking school bus had started to fall. I was feeling better about every step taken in the last few weeks, and those not yet taken.

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