Friday, February 13, 1998
A Valentine from the front
of the bus

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This old world needs more kind hearts like Patricia Baumeister and Nena Patterson. Both know the true meaning of Valentine's Day.

Patricia, or ''Miss Pat'' as she's known to her passengers, drives a yellow school bus.

Nena, a 9-year-old fourth grader, is one of her riders.

Miss Pat picks Nena up at her home in Woodlawn and drops her off at Robert E. Lucas Intermediate School in Sharonville.

Most days, it's a long, noisy ride.

''The bus is like a tin can and the kids are louder than any sound you can imagine,'' Patricia told me as we sat in her living room. She was unwinding between her morning and afternoon runs.

''Some days,'' she added with a weary sigh, ''it seems like the ride takes forever.''

Until Miss Pat stepped in, the ride took even longer for Nena.

''It's a pretty rough bunch that rides her bus. And they like to pick on Nena. She's a sensitive, quiet little girl,'' said Patricia, who's a mom and a grandmother. ''Some kids can take being picked on. Not Nena. She's a lady.''

The big kids would trip Nena as she walked down the aisle. They'd bump her in the head with their book bags and try to knock off her glasses. They'd pick up leaves from the floor and dump them on her hair.

Then they would threaten her: ''You tell on me and I'll pound you.''

One day, on the way home, Miss Pat looked into her rear vision mirror and saw a girl pushing Nena into a seat. Then she heard the girl calling Nena names.

''They do this,'' Patricia said, ''because Nena looks different.''

Nena's sweet features show her African-American and Native-American heritage.

Miss Pat had heard and seen enough. After the bully left the bus, she and Nena had a chat.

The bus driver told the little girl about her husband. ''Oran is a Lakota Sioux.'' Miss Pat also told her that she could sit in the front seat, across from the bus driver and away from the bullies.

Nena accepted her offer. Days passed and the bus rides became more peaceful for Nena.

One afternoon last week, Pat pulled up to Nena's bus stop as usual. The little girl got up to leave the big yellow bus and handed something to the driver. It was a homemade Valentine.

Drawn on lined school paper, the card was covered with hearts. Two figures stood on the front cover. The bus driver and Nena were holding hands under the word: ''Friendship.''

The card carried this hand-written message: ''Small things ... make a big difference.''

''I gave the bus driver a card because she is always nice and never yells at us too much,'' Nena told me. We were sitting in her living room and Nena was playing with Surrey, her kitten.

While her mom looked on, I asked Nena about the card's message. I wanted to know what it meant and why she gave the card to Miss Pat.

''A little friendship,'' she said, ''can give you a great big happy day. She made me happy. I wanted to make her happy. So, I gave her the card.''

As she spoke, she gave me a quizzical look. Her voice had a ''why-are-you-asking-me-this?'' tone. It was obvious to her that if someone is nice to you, you tell them how you feel. You return the happiness. And what better occasion than Valentine's Day?

Sitting with this little girl, having heard about Miss Pat's kindness to her, I felt like one of too many thick-headed grown-ups who often forget this child-like truth.

''Valentine's Day is the day when people are able to get together,'' she told me, to be sure I understood, ''and show that they love each other.''

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.