BONUS READ The Kids of Bus 3077

Writer Craig David­son spent a year driv­ing chil­dren with spe­cial needs to school. These are their sto­ries

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - FROM PRE­CIOUS CARGO IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY ADRIAN FORROW

I TRUDGED ACROSS THE FIELD, the late-Septem­ber wind flat­ten­ing my jacket against my chest. The moon was still vis­i­ble in the early-morn­ing sky. When I reached the bus, my key slid crisply into the lock. I took the torch from the cup holder and pulled on the bon­net re­lease. Out­side, I swept a beam through the en­gine com­part­ment. Ev­ery­thing looked tick­ety-boo.

I shut the bon­net and stepped in­side the ve­hi­cle, then keyed the ­ig­nit ion and waited for the glow plugs to warm. I f licked on the CB ra­dio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pump­ing. Pulled the se­cu­rity pin from the rear emer­gency door and slapped the seat backs to make sure they were se­cure.

After grab­bing the broom from up the front, I walked a cir­cuit around the bus, tak­ing a good swing at each tyre to check the in­fla­tion. I gave the muf­fler a stiff crack, too. Crouch­ing down, I couldn’t see any hoses or wires dan­gling from the un­der­car­riage. I opened the side door, low­ered the wheel­chair lift and raised it again. Checked the haz­ard lights, head­lights, high beams, sig­nal in­di­ca­tors, fire ­ex­tin­guisher, first aid kit, ther­mal blan­kets and traf­fic tri­an­gles. Eye­balled the seven-way mir­ror sys­tem. Tested the wind­screen wipers, horn, fan, emer­gency brake and the squelch but­ton on the CB ra­dio.

Rock and roll. I pulled onto the road.

TWO MONTHS EAR­LIER, IN JULY 2008, I’d ap­plied for the po­si­tion of lunch su­per­vi­sor at a lo­cal school

and blown the in­ter­view. I was 32 years old and lived in Calgary, Canada. My back­ground: a va­ri­ety of odd jobs, from tree planter and whale watcher to ESL teacher, house painter and li­brar­ian – and writer. After pub­lish­ing my first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries in 2005 (a suc­cess!), I re­leased my first novel (a f lop). A fleet­ing rise fol­lowed by a swift fall. I parted ways with my agent; the money, never sig­nif­i­cant, dried up. I re­ally needed a job.

Upon re­turn­ing home from the in­ter view, I not iced a sheet of pa­per pok­ing out of my let­ter­box. “Open­ings for school bus driv­ers!” it read. “No ex­pe­ri­ence nec­es­sary! Will pro­vide qual­ity train­ing! Must pass back­ground check and drug screen­ing.”

It was one of your text­book cases of mu­tual des­per­a­tion: a com­pany ea­ger enough to so­licit ap­pli­cants through leaf let bomb­ing meets a man in dire enough straits to make l i fe- al­ter­ing de­ci­sions based on ran­dom fly­ers left in my let­ter­box.

Be­fore the star t of the school year, the bus com­pany called me in to dis­cuss my route as­sign­ment.

The co­or­di­na­tor be­gan to thumb through her call sheets and fire off pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“Grimhaven’s near me,” I said. She pulled up the in­for­ma­tion. “Route 412. Spe­cial needs. A hand­ful of stu­dents. One is in a wheel­chair.” A beat.

“I’ll take it.” “You sure?” Another beat. “Yeah. Let’s give it a shot.” Like many de­ci­sions in my life, this one was seem­ingly made on a whim. Fate throws down its gaunt­let: Will you ac­cept? But I craved a change.

I headed over to the bus yard to pick up my school bus. Unit 3077. A yel low minibus. Mine was a split route. Some were high-school ­stu­dents, oth­ers in mid­dle school. Their con­dit ions: cere­bral palsy, autism, fra­gile X syn­drome.

I had little fa­mil­iar­ity with these terms; I’d never even heard of frag­ile X syn­drome, which, due to an anom­aly in the X chro­mo­some, could lead to de­layed phys­i­cal, in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional growth. I scanned the as­sign­ment sheet for each stu­dent’s pro­gramme of study. One read ‘Reg­u­lar Grade 11’. Oth­ers read ‘PLP: Present Level of Per­for­mance’. Two stu­dents were des­ig­nated ALP, for Adapted Learn­ing Pro­gramme. Ap­pended to one stu­dent’s pro­file was a note: “No sense of di­rec­tion; can­not be left alone. Will get lost.”

My ig­no­rance shamed me. I had long since re­alised that many peo­ple, my­self in­cluded, were un­com­fort­able around in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties. Such en­coun­ters felt like a door open­ing onto a vast realm where I had no foothold, no un­der­stand­ing. This is what made me hes­i­tate be­fore agree­ing to the spe­cial needs route. It’s also what made me say yes. SOME DRIV­ERS RAN THEIR BUSES the way feu­dal lords ruled their fief­doms, with an iron fist. The rules on 3077 were more lax. My ob­jec­tive was to treat those un­der my wing with re­spect; I’d al­low min­or in­frac­tions, hop­ing my charges would self-cor­rect with en­cour­age­ment. Some­times this back­fired, but I wanted them to feel free to en­gage with each other and with me.

As we be­gan to warm up to one ­another, the kids re­ally did talk – about movies, sports, friend­ship, fam­ily and a mil­lion other top­ics.

AS WE WARMED UP TO ONE ANOTHER, THE KIDS RE­ALLY DID TALK. THEIR TALES WERE WIN­DOWS INTO THEIR DREAMS

Mainly, though, they told sto­ries. Their imag­i­na­tions were un­bri­dled. Their tales were a win­dow into their worlds and dreams. Ev­ery so often, the gang – Jake, 16; Oliver, 13; Vin­cent, 17; Gavin, 13; and Nadja, 17 – broke my heart.

NADJA WAS THE GROUP’S so­cial but­ter­fly. Ev­ery day she would climb on board the bus and say to me, “Good morn­ing, Craig.”

“By the way,” she usu­ally asked, “how was your evening?” (‘By the way’ was one of her two pet ex­pres­sions.) “All right. How was yours?” “Ac­tu­ally, I had a din­ner party.” (‘Ac­tu­ally’ was the sec­ond of those pet ex­pres­sions.) “And ac­tu­ally, it was very nice.” Nadja was for­ever at­tend­ing din­ner par­ties hosted by var­i­ous aunts and un­cles – or so she said. Most of the kids pre­sented me with a pic­ture of their lives that was more, well, lively than the re­al­ity. Ac­cord­ing to Nadja, those same rel­a­tives had dis­as­ter-plagued ex­is­tences.

“My aun­tie? She had a nephew and he got sick. By the way, he died.”

Over the course of the year, Nadja would tell 40-plus sto­ries that ended in the same grisly man­ner. Med­i­cal mishaps, in-flight calami­ties or nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Her un­cles, aun­ties, neph­ews and nieces were dy­ing at a stag­ger­ing clip. I be­gan to sus­pect that “by the way, so-and-so died” was Nadja’s way of con­clud­ing a story for which she could find no sat­is­fac­tory end. Or per­haps she craved the out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy. But as the death toll shot up, I be­came less sym­pa­thetic.

“My un­cle had two daugh­ters, Craig? And they were f ly­ing in a plane over the moun­tains? And it was very nice ... by the way, they died.”

“All of them died?” “Yes.” “When did this hap­pen?” “Ac­tu­ally, it was last week. Isn’t it sad?” “Funny, I never heard about a plane crash. You’d think it would have made the pa­pers.” “It’s so sad, isn’t it?”

Nadja’s sto­ries often took off on fan­tas­ti­cal or­bits that de­fied the laws of na­ture – like the one about a lass of Nadja’s ac­quain­tance.

“She’s a little fat,” Nadja told me. “But that’s be­cause, ac­tu­ally, she’s preg­nant? She has a lot of chil­dren. Ten of them.”

NADJA’S STO­RIES ALL ENDED WITH MED­I­CAL MISHAPS, NAT­U­RAL DIS­AS­TERS OR IN-FLIGHT CALAMI­TIES

I said, “Ten kids? That is a lot.” Nadja amended this num­ber. “Ten thou­sand.” “Ten thou­sand chil­dren?” “Yes.”

“Holy s** t!” Oliver cried from the back of the bus. “Hey,” I warned him. “Lan­guage, buster.” “She has 10,000 kids,” Nadja went on primly. “All girls.” “Holy schizz!” Oliver and I had re­cently set­tled on ‘schizz’ as a sub­sti­tute for ‘s** t’. I was al­ready re­gret­ting it.

“And do you know how many hus­bands, Craig?” “I couldn’t even guess.” “Nine thou­sand.” “Holy hell’s ass!” Oliver cried. OH, OLIVER. HIS STO­RIES also of ten took the shape of real ity­de­fy­ing false­hoods. They weren’t so much lies as M.C. Escher- es­que mas­ter­pieces in which he­lixes of un­truths spi­ralled to­wards halfs­ketched van­ish­ing points. At first I won­dered whether it was wise to in­dulge these out­ra­geous de­ceits, but Oliver was such a good-hu­moured liar that it was hard to call him one.

One morn­ing Oliver showed me a photo on his mo­bile phone. In it, he lounged on the bon­net of a yel­low ­Porsche. He’d prob­a­bly snapped the shot in a shop­ping mall car park.

“Nice,” I said. “Is that your car?” I could see the gears wind­ing in his head. I’d in­ti­mated that I didn’t f ind the not ion of a pen­ni­less 13 year old own­ing a lux­ury road­ster in­con­ceiv­able. You could see him think­ing, Why not?

“Yeah,” he said with a ca­sual sniff, “I bought it this week­end.” “Oh. How much?” Oliver nar­rowed his eyes, judg­ing the depths of my credulity. “A hun­dred bucks.” “That’s a good deal.” “Well, I hag­gled him down.”

Usu­ally Oliver didn’t kick off the ride with such a whop­per. He pre- ferred to wade in, start­ing the morn­ing with a white lie, such as, “I drank a mug of java to get my day go­ing.”

If this fib squeaked past, he’d forge into bolder ter­ri­tory. “I’m go­ing to join a gym to­day, even though I’ve al­ready got a well-de­vel­oped up­per body.”

Oliver wasn’t go­ing to join a gym. His up­per body was un­der­de­vel­oped – partly as a re­sult of frag­ile X, but more be­cause boys his age weren’t renowned for their rip­pling tor­sos.

But Oliver’s most vivid cre­ation was his best friend. Joey ap­peared the way Bat­man does: when­ever Oliver felt marginalised, he would f lash the sig­nal into the sky and sum­mon his buddy.

“No­body bet­ter mess with me or I’ll tell Joey,” he’d say. “And when he finds out he’s gonna say, ‘If they’re mess­ing with Oliver, they will have to talk to my two friends.’” With stagy show­man­ship, Oliver kissed his right bi­cep. “‘Thun­der.’” Then he kissed his left bi­cep. “‘And Gus.’”

Noth­ing sums up the na­ture of ­Oliver’s comic ge­nius bet­ter than this: it wasn’t that Joey might name his arms. Nor was it that he’d call one of them ‘Thun­der’. It was the fact that he’d call the other one ‘Gus’.

THEN THERE WAS GAVIN. Our ini­tial hur­dle was eye con­tact: Gavin wasn’t a fan of it. But as autumn deep­ened, he got more com­fort­able and our eyes would meet fleet­ingly.

Gavin rarely spoke, and when he did, it was just the odd word. On Novem­ber 13 – I wrote down the date – the sky went grey over the Rock­ies, and snow be­gan to fall. It came down in airy balls that looked like fer­tiliser pel­lets. “Snow­storm,” Gavin said.

OLIVER’S MOST VIVID CRE­ATION WAS HIS BEST FRIEND. WHEN­EVER OLIVER FELT MARGINALISED, JOEY WOULD AP­PEAR

VIN­CENT SAT DI­RECTLY BE­HIND ME. HE SPUN TALES POP­U­LATED BY WAR­RIORS, SORCERERS, ROGUE COPS AND CYBORGS

Gavin liked his rout ines, the peo­ple who knew him best told me. So when I re­alised I’d done some­thing he en­joyed, I made sure to do it again, ev­ery day at the same time. For ex­am­ple, in the morn­ings, when we were at the high school and I was low­er­ing the wheelchai r li f t for Jake, I’d crouch un­der Gavin’s win­dow, then pop back up like a jack-in-the-box and yell, “Gavver!” Usu­ally Gavin would smile be­mus­edly and cover his eyes as if to say, Oh, brother. Other times he would stare right past me. But I sensed he en­joyed these mo­ments, and I kept them up all year.

THE OLD­EST STU­DENT on the bus, Vin­cent, sat di­rectly be­hind me. He spun tales pop­u­lated by war­riors, sorcerers, rogue cops and cyborgs. When he said he was work­ing on a story, I came to un­der­stand it was in much the same way Oliver worked on his lies – that is, he was ham­mer­ing it out on the fly.

“The main char­ac­ter’s name is Beeeeell ... Bi­i­i­i­i­il­laaaa ...” Vin­cent would say, stretch­ing his vow­els as he searched for a name to set­tle on. “Bill.”

“So his name is Bill?” I’d ask. “Yes. No, Hu­u­u­ugo. No, Claire. A girl.” “OK, got it. What’s her story?” “She’s ­im­moooor­tal. She’s been in ev­ery war from the Cru­u­u­sades to Iraq.” “What are her pow­ers?” I would ask him, be­cause Vin­cent’s char­ac­ters al­ways had su­per­pow­ers.

“Claire’s got su­per strength, su­per in­teeeel­li­gence. She owns a ma­chine that can make an in­fi­nite amount of money. And she’s a les­bian. Claire and her girl­friend vowed to be with oooone another unt i l the end of ­t ii­i­ime. They fight crime to­gether. Do you want to know what her cos­tume is?” “Of course.” “Claire wears a goalie mask that’s au­to­graphed by Terry Saaawchuk, and her old Naaazi uni­form. But she’s not a Nazi. She was just con­fused dur­ing that time of her life.”

Many writers could learn a les­son in con­cise­ness from Vin­cent. “I’m no good at emooootions,” Vin­cent freely ad­mit­ted, but his tales held a sweet­ness sim­i­lar to that of their teller.

Take The Im­mor­tal, which ended with Claire by her girl­friend’s deathbed.

“She’s saaaaaaad but she’s not sad, too,” Vin­cent said of Claire, “be­cause she knows her girl­friend lived a good life and died haaaappy.”

I said, “You don’t give your­self enough credit, Vin­cent. You can be very good at emo­tions.”

FI­NALLY, THERE WAS JAKE. The med­i­cal des­ig­na­tion for his clas­si­fi­ca­tion of cere­bral palsy is called spast ic quadriple­gia. Symp­toms ­i nclude in­vol­un­tary spasms, mus­cu­lar rigid­ity and ab­nor­mal mus­cle tone. All of his limbs are af­fected, and he uses an elec­tric wheel­chair.

Four months be­fore I met Jake, he and his mother, his sis­ter and a fam­ily friend were out for a walk. A drunk driver jumped the kerb in his large, pow­er­ful SUV and col­lided with them. Jake was struck and thrown from his chair; the fam­ily friend sus­tained se­ri­ous in­juries; Jake’s sis­ter was largely un­hurt; and his mother was hurt very badly. Jake was put into a med­i­cal coma and ­re­mained in that state for two weeks. By the time Jake woke up, his mother had died.

At the be­gin­ning of the year, Jake’s sto­ries were space op­eras: way­laid star­ship ex­plor­ers try­ing to find their way home or a rag­tag crew of help­mates star­ing down an in­ter­ga­lac­tic threat. Jake’s nar­ra­tives were sim­i­lar in two ways. One, they al­ways ended with the ex­plor­ers safely home or the threat van­quished. Two, they fea­tured a young male char­ac­ter with telekine­sis – the abil­ity to move ob­jects with his mind with­out any re­liance on his body. This char­ac­ter wasn’t the dash­ing com­man­der, but he was al­ways in­volved in the mis­sion’s suc­cess in some mi­nor yet ­es­sen­tial way.

In mid- autumn, Jake told me he was work­ing on a manuscript ten­ta­tively ti­tled Mys­tery Academy. By the end of the school year, it was 140 sin­gle-spaced pages long. Jake had writ­ten a book.

“You need to have drama and fear and high in­ci­dent,” he told me in Oc­to­ber. “And you’ve got to keep the ten­sion at a fever pitch be­fore lay­ing off. And – and, and! – you’ve got to have com­edy. Your comic foil. And ro­mance. But not drippy.”

Jake en­vi­sioned Mys­tery Academy as a se­ries, an epic on the scale of Lord of the Rings. In the morn­ings he’d give me the lat­est up­date.

“Ninety pages now!” “One hun­dred and two!” “Big night – 112!” “Good news and bad news, Craig. Bad news: way too much so­cial stud­ies home­work last night. Good news: I still wrote a page of my novel!”

His hero was once again a boy with tele­ki­netic pow­ers. Jake gave me hell when I mixed up telekine­sis and tele­pa­thy. Ob­vi­ously, I would take these op­por­tu­ni­ties to ir­ri­tate him fur­ther.

“Oh, so your main char­ac­ter has one of those ma­chines like in Star Trek, the one that zaps Cap­tain Kirk from the En­ter­prise down to the sur­face of a planet?”

“Arghh! No, that’s tele­por­ta­tion! It’s all dif­fer­ent! Cap­tain Kirk? You’re so old.”

The main char­ac­ters in Jake’s novel were bat­tling a dark force, some­thing huge and un­know­able that Jake dreamt one night. When I asked him to tell me about this bad­die, Jake couldn’t ar­tic­u­late any­thing be­yond a va­porous, seething hate: the ha­tred his vil­lain ex­uded, and the ha­tred Jake felt to­wards his own cre­ation.

JAKE’S PRO­TAG­O­NIST HAR­BOURED A SECRET: HE WAS RE­SPON­SI­BLE, IN SOME WAY, FOR HIS MOTHER’S DEATH

IN FIC­TION, WE CAN AT­TAIN NOBILITY. WE CAN BE OUR BEST SELVES: THE BEST FRIEND, BEST PART­NER, BEST PAR­ENT

I was never able to dis­cern if Jake kept his vil­lain vague on pur­pose – one of the rules of writ­ing is to leave the worst things in the shad­ows and let read­ers use their imag­i­na­tions – or if he did not want to ap­proach his vil­lain head- on, to give it a name, a face. If he had, Jake might have found that he recog­nised that mon­ster. It might have lived in the same sub­urb, a few blocks away. Its drive­way might have had a Rorschach stain where a large busted-up SUV had leaked a litre of oil.

Jake’s telekinet ic pro­tag­o­nist har­boured a secret – a past event un­known to even the hero him­self. Some­how, in some way, he was re­spon­si­ble for his mother’s death.

Jake rarely asked me for writ­ing ad­vice, but I re­mem­ber tel ling him this: “It’s OK to use your own l i fe in f ict ion. Your own life has value. The unique things you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. All you have to do is go back to those gal­vanis­ing mo­ments in your past and write from there. Take ev­ery­thing you’ve felt and thought and put it on the page.” But there was no need to tell Jake that. He al­ready knew.

OVER AND OVER, I’d hear the kids’ sto­ries. Re­peated, em­bel l ished, glossed, the same ter­rain cov­ered un­til a well-worn path had been carved out. I knew just when the mo­ments of high drama would ar­rive, and knew my own role – when to ­re­spond with an en­cour­ag­ing ‘oooh’ or ‘aaah’. But I never got bored of those tales. They were se­cu­rity blan­kets for the kids, and that’s what they be­came to me, too.

“We tel l our­selves stor ies in or­der to live.” Another, wiser writer said that. But af ter hear­ing these chi ldren’s chron­i­cles, I would think: Do we not also tell sto­ries to live vi­car­i­ously in ways we can­not?

Nadja’s tales of never- end­ing din­ner par­ties were those of a young girl who lived in a mod­est con­do­minium com­plex and yearned for a taste of the glam­our glimpsed in fash­ion mag­a­zines.

Con­sider Oliver’s pro­tec­tor, Joey: he- man, namer of bi­ceps. Not a boy with a con­dit ion typ­i­fied by low mus­cle tone who crouched in

his bus seat to avoid neigh­bour­hood bul­lies.

Vin­cent’s he­roes were blessed with su­pe­rior in­tel­lects and chis­elled mus­cu­la­tures. None were awk­ward teenage rs wi t h cumbe r some physiques.

Jake’s pro­tag­o­nist – who could move ob­jects with the power of his mind – was breathed into life by a boy trapped in­side his own body.

Were these fic­tional char­ac­ters or po­lar selves? I am no dif­fer­ent – I’ve never writ­ten my true self into one of my nov­els.

We all want big­ger lives, do we not? The in­abil­ity to find com­plete sat­is­fac­tion is wo­ven into the heart of the hu­man con­di­tion. In fic­tion, we can at­tain a height­ened nobility. We can be our best selves: the best friend, best part­ner, best par­ent. We can al­ways do the right thing, show the courage we can’t dis­play in life, kiss the boy or girl of our dreams, and live hap­pily ever after.

Jake and the other kids con­jured new lives into ex­is­tence ev­ery day. They had dis­cov­ered what it takes some writers half a life­time to fig­ure out: tell the sto­ries that lie near­est to your heart. That way, they’re not re­ally fab­ri­cat ions at all. They’re hope­ful truths. Cana­dian writer Craig David­son’s most re­cent novel, Cataract City, was short­listed for sev­eral lit­er­ary prizes, while his first book of sto­ries, Rust and Bone, was made into a Golden Globe-nom­i­nated film. He also writes thrillers and hor­ror sto­ries un­der pseu­do­nyms.

“I thought I would just drive a bus full of high-school stu­dents and be a face­less driver to them,” David­son says. “And it turned out to be com­pletely dif­fer­ent. I had no con­cep­tion at all that I was stum­bling into a life-chang­ing and trans­for­ma­tive year.”

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