Back to school. Three small words that spark a galaxy of emotions — in kids and in adults. But for those whose school days are long behind them, the evocative power of the phrase is even greater than for the little (and not-so-little) ones still attending elementary, middle or high school. Grown-ups, after all, have their store of memories — often fond, sometimes grim, always intense — of those days when summer was over and the school year was no longer a vague prospect but a hard, sudden reality.
While the trappings of school — the clothes, the technical gear — have changed almost beyond recognition through the decades, some aspects of the experience have survived largely intact. Case in point: the self-contained universe of the rural and the suburban school bus stop. For countless people, the image of children waiting by the side of the road or at the end of a driveway recalls mornings, thousands of them, from their own youth: mornings spent, in all weather, negotiating the charged atmosphere of childhood and adolescence.
Two recent photo galleries on LIFE.com and LightBox feature photographs made at school bus stops more than 40 years apart — pictures that illustrate what has changed and what still feels familiar in that fraught environment of the bus stop. Ralph Morse’s photos from northern New Jersey in 1971 have a cheerfully chaotic vibe that, for lack of a better term, feels innocent. Greg Miller’s recent pictures, meanwhile, have a more isolated feel. Not only are the photographs from a more rural place, but they are also part of Miller’s conscious attempt to come to grips with his own horror and sense of vulnerability after last year’s Sandy Hook elementary school shootings — a massacre that took place just an hour’s drive from Miller’s eastern Connecticut home.