NEXT STOP SCHOOL
My passengers may have been special needs but their hopes and dreams were without limit
My passengers may have been special needs, but their hopes and dreams were without limit.
ITRUDGED ACROSS THE FIELD, the late-September wind flattening my jacket against my chest. The moon was still visible in the early-morning Calgary, Canada sky. When I reached the bus, my key slid crisply into the lock. I took the flashlight from the cup holder and popped the hood release. Outside, I swept a beam through the engine compartment. Everything looked tickety-boo.
I shut the hood and stepped inside the vehicle, then keyed the ignition and waited for the glow plugs to warm. I flicked on the CB radio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pumping. Pulled the security pin from the rear emergency door and slapped the seatbacks to make sure they were secure.
After grabbing the broom from up front, I walked a circuit around the bus, taking a good swing at each tire 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 popped 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 windshield 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, I’d applied for the position of lunch supervisor at a local school and blown
the interview. I was 32 years old. 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 flop). 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 interview, I noticed a sheet of paper poking out of my mailbox. “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 leaflet bombing meets a man in dire enough straits to make life-altering decisions based on random flyers left at his front door.
BEFORE THE START 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 yard to pick up my school bus. Unit 3077. A yellow minibus. Mine was a split route. Some were high-school students, others in middle school. Their conditions: cerebral palsy, autism, fragile X syndrome.
I had little familiarity with these terms; I’d never even heard of fragile X, 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 program of study. One read “Regular Grade 11.” Others read “PLP: Present Level of Performance.” Two students were designated ALP, for Adapted Learning Program. 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 realized 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
AS WE WARMED UP TO ONE ANOTHER, THE KIDS REALLY DID TALK. THEIR TALES WERE WINDOWS INTO THEIR DREAMS.
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. 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 flying in a plane over the mountains? And it was very nice...by the way, they died.”
“All of them died?” “Yes.” “When
NADJA’S STORIES ALL ENDED WITH MEDICAL MISHAPS, NATURAL DISASTERS
OR IN-FLIGHT CALAMITIES.
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.”
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 often took the shape of reality-defying falsehoods. They weren’t so much lies as M.C. Escher–esque masterpieces in which helixes of untruths spiralled toward half-sketched vanishing points. At first I wondered whether it was wise to indulge these outrageous deceits, but Oliver was such a good-humored liar that it was hard to call him one.
One morning Oliver showed me a photo on his cellphone. In it, he lounged on the hood of a yellow Porsche. He’d probably snapped the shot in a mall parking lot.
“Nice,” I said. “Is that your car?” I could see the gears winding in his head. I’d intimated that I didn’t find the notion 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 preferred 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 marginalized, he would flash 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.’”
OLIVER’S MOST VIVID CREATION WAS HIS BEST FRIEND. WHENEVER OLIVER FELT
MARGINALIZED, JOEY WOULD APPEAR.
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 fertilizer pellets.
“Snowstorm,” Gavin said.
Gavin liked his routines, the people who knew him best told me. So when I realized 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 wheelchair lift for Jake, I’d crouch under Gavin’s window, then pop back up like a jack-in-thebox 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—i.e., he was hammering it out on the fly.
“The main character’s name is Beeeeell...Biiiiiillaaaa...,” he 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.” “Okay, 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
LIKE ALL OF VINCENT’S CHARACTERS, CLAIRE WAS IMMORTAL. SHE HAD SUPER
STRENGTH AND INTELLIGENCE.
infinite amount of money. And she’s a lesbian. Claire and her girlfriend vowed to be with oooone another until the end of tiiiime. They fight crime together. Do you want to know what her costume is?”
“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 spastic quadriplegia. Symptoms include 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 curb in his truck 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 he 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
JAKE’S PROTAGONIST HARBORED A SECRET: HE WAS RESPONSIBLE, IN SOME WAY, FOR HIS MOTHER’S DEATH.
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 recognized that monster. It might have lived in the same suburb, a few blocks away. Its driveway might have had a Rorschach stain where a busted-up truck had leaked a pint of oil.
Jake’s telekinetic protagonist harbored 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 telling him this: “It’s okay to use your own life in fiction. Your own life has value. The unique things you’ve experienced. All you have to do is go back to those galvanizing 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, embellished, glossed, the same terrain covered until a wellworn 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,
IN FICTION, WE CAN ATTAIN NOBILITY. WE CAN BE OUR BEST SELVES: THE BEST FRIEND, BEST PARTNER, BEST PARENT.
and that’s what they became to me, too.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Another, wiser writer said that. But after hearing these children’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 glamor glimpsed in fashion magazines.
Consider Oliver’s protector, Joey: he-man, namer of biceps. Not a boy
with a condition typified by low muscle tone who crouched in his bus seat to avoid neighborhood bullies.
Vincent’s heroes were blessed with superior intellects and chiselled musculatures. None were awkward teenagers with cumbersome 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 fabrications at all. They’re hopeful truths.