If you want to see nature, red in tooth and claw, you need only peer into the Big Yellow School Bus.

I used to consider the school bus a microcosm of life. You could affect a lilting prose that celebrates the random mix of ages and profiles tootling along a journey, friends and compatriots with nothing more in common than a route home. When they were younger, I’d lovingly place my children into this portal to their Other Lives. When the day was done, I’d cross the road and my children would be returned to me, the remaining children waving madly at us through the clear rectangle of the back window as it diminished into the distance. Bucolic.

But I knew nothing! I eavesdropped on my daughters engaging in a quiet, controlled belligerence a few weeks ago.

“You ARE really helping!”

“You ARE welcome.”

“I AM loving tidying up your stuff.”

“Yeah, I DID this for you.”

“You ARE a beaut.”

There was a weird staccato to the sentences culled seemingly from Sarcasm For Dummies. Over the next few days, I realised this tone and peculiar manner of expression was common only to the kids on their route to school. Had Bus # 14 acquired its own patois? The eldest confirmed it. “S and I sort of came up with it, and now the whole bus talks like that.”

Peas in a pod

Between the rigours of school and the Excel-sheet schedules of home, the bus is a glorious no-man’s land on wheels. It is one of the few places bereft of an agenda or rules of decorum. As long as you don’t endanger yourself or your fellow bus-tribe, you can choose your seat and the person you want to sit with, you can finish your lunch in peace, you can stare out of the window and dream… or, you can raise hell.

For a while, the school roped (some shamefully reluctant) parents into volunteering to sit on the bus. Some parents were grim about it, some had the bus in peals of laughter. There were singalongs, road trip games, simultaneous conversations that all began with a drawn out “Arrrrnteeeeh…” We were one feisty nun and a handsome widower short of a scene from The Sound of Music, but I got the sense the kids were faking it. And they were, the little, high-functioning sociopaths. Once parents were replaced by efficient (but kindly) bus marshals, they returned to the natural order of things.

From what I have gathered, this means each bus forms smaller pods that bounce off each other. Though the eldest kids on the bus, in their last year of school, tend to keep to themselves, now and then an inquisitive 10-year-old will eavesdrop long enough to be able to relay who has the sassiest mouth or a (“really disgusting”) boyfriend. The very youngest are usually firmly jammed up some wannabe mother hen’s wing, willy-nilly and taken care of, whether they need it or not.

Traits of the tribe

If you ask leading questions while pretending to be on your phone, the kids can be tricked into revealing a Seuss-ish Game of Thrones, complete with intrigue, small battles, side skirmishes and arch-nemeses.

“Zara told Kiara she’s now best friends with Sara. Kiara punched Zara. Myrah and Kyra tried to stop her until Anaya said Shanaya saw Kiara telling the teacher that Zara hadn’t done her homework but Kiara said she doesn’t care because she is Satan’s girlfriend.”

I look up from Twitter. “She’s what?”

“A Satanist. Yes. Got the black nail polish and everything.”

I nod, “I remember her mum in school. She must get it from her dad.”

While you must disabuse yourself of any notion that children are all born with strong instincts about fair play and justice for the underdog, you can rely on the fact that the instincts of the tribe are greater than any other force. There are days when they will all be laughing like one hysterical Hydra because they’ve done something slightly naughty – calling out to random people and waving like they know them or throwing shade ensemble at a rival school bus.

Open space

The instincts of the tribe are also self-regulating. You’d be forgiven for worrying a lynch mob will alight, holding the Queen Satanist aloft, but I’d stand back and let it all play out. There are parts of our children’s lives best left to them to manage, and the forging of languages, codes of conduct, and incredible rivalries and alliances – all in verse, no less – is one of them.

Two weeks ago, I bumped into a woman I know, whose little girl is on the bus with my kids. “You know,” she began, “we’ve had a rough couple of years,” alluding to a complicated divorce, a new marriage and a brand new baby. “But T looks forward to that bus ride. Your girl has been teaching her how to be a big sister,” she said, referencing our in-house troublemaker, “and I think she’s more confident now. She’s made a lot of friends on the bus.”

“You’ve been very nice to T on the bus, I hear,” I tell my daughter later. She doesn’t look up.

“I HAVE not been nice.”

“Yes, you HAVE,” I say.

“That’s not how you do it,” both girls exclaim simultaneously.

I respectfully acquiesce to the autonomy of Bus # 14.

*Names, bus numbers and situations all tweaked to protect identity.

This article first appeared on The Swaddle.