When students came to my classes on the first day of the semester, they were not assigned seats, and over the years, I had ample opportunity to observe them as they filtered into the room looking for familiar faces and sat with other students they knew. Some sat apart from the others until they latched on to someone with whom they shared something in common. For the first week they tended to sit in those same seats they sat in on the first day, tacitly claiming them as “theirs.” Pretty much all the students followed suit in that same implicit way.
By week two, it was less likely that anyone was going to move into ”someone else’s” seat, even when that person didn’t show up for class.
By week three, you couldn’t pry students from their unassigned seats with a crowbar.
I was reminded of my former students three years ago when Bill and I went overseas with our good friends, Joe and Mary Jane. We traveled part of the time on a bus going from place to place, and it occurred to me that bus riders behaved the same way. Even when they were stuck in seats they didn’t particularly like, they were loathe to encroach on what they perceived as another person’s territory.
Most of the time, but not always.
To ensure you’d get your proper seat back upon returning to the bus, individuals used water bottles, sweaters, town maps, anything they had handy to mark their territory – unlike other creatures of the natural world that use urine for that same purpose.
If you’ve ever watched sheep in the fields, you know they take their cue from the sheep in the lead. The first one to turn in any direction is followed by one, then another, until the whole flock is moving in the same direction. Cartoons depict actions like this as groups of animated characters blindly following their leader across a cliff, but this happens in real life, too. Remember Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Hitler, any number of leaders of religious cults?
Students coming to class the first week or two.
Our last stop of the day before returning to the riverboat was an ancient village some distance from the river where we were docked. After our tour, we had free time to roam around on our own, then wend our way back to the bus on the edge of town for our return. Bill and I arrived before Joe and Mary Jane and attempted to save the seats they’d sat in all day and which were across the aisle from ours. As there were no assigned seats, seats were technically up for grabs any time we disembarked and returned, though our guide said we could leave our things on the seats because the bus would be locked. Like the students in my class, everyone tended to return to the same seats each time they got back on the bus. If there was a mistake made regarding possession, the person who’d had the seat previously got it back.
It was going to be a long return trip to the riverboat, and we tried to save our friends’ seats, putting our jackets on them. When a couple of interlopers tried to sit in the seats we laid claim to, Bill said in a friendly way that they were taken, as the woman had never even asked. Responding to Bill’s attempt to save the seats with a venomous tone Bill generally does not take well from anyone, the wife became demanding, insistent, and rude. Her docile husband never opened his mouth. We’d seen these people off and on all week long; they were always on their own and seemed not to have made friends with anyone. Frankly, it was not difficult to imagine why.
I was amazed Bill didn’t tell her off – or rather, shove her off the bus. Bill’s request to save those seats for our friends, who would have to move several seats away, was met with pure disdain. However, Bill proved to be a model of self-restraint, the likes of which are rarely seen. When we told our traveling companions what happened, Mary Jane’s only comment was “Just another bitch on the bus.”
Classic Mary Jane: honest and direct. Funny, too – she’s knows how to lighten up a moment and deaden a fuse.
Like Nathaniel Benchley once said, most people are sheep. They do what everyone else does and they are not amenable to, or perhaps leery of, change of any kind. But occasionally you’ll run across that “bitch on the bus” and best to tread with care when you do.