NEXT STOP SCHOOL

My pas­sen­gers may have been spe­cial needs but their hopes and dreams were with­out limit

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY CRAIG DAVID­SON FROM THE BOOK PRE­CIOUS CARGO

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?”

“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 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.

cre­ation.

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.

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