True readers of books – people who take the time to sit in a quiet corner and ponder a writer’s carefully crafted words – appreciate a unique perspective on the human condition. They like a writer’s observations on how other humans interact, even if the situation seems mundane or desperate. Craig Davidson may have been in need of funds when he took the job as school-bus driver but that year he drove that bus gave him a ton of observations and insights. And he crafted that ton into his memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.
I trudged across a field against a late-September wind that flattened my jacket against my chest. The moon was still visible in the early morning sky. The odd vehicle wended down the road bordering the field, pickups mostly. The western foothills rode the earth’s curve like the backs of breaching whales. Weak ripples of sunlight washed over the hills touch blades of wet grass, and in that instant I felt as if I was walking through a field lit up in flame.
The wind died down by the time I reached my bus. My key slid crisply into the lock. I grabbed the Maglite from the cup holder and popped the hood release. Outside, I swept the flashlight beam through the engine compartment. Everything looked tickety-boo.
I shut the hood and stepped inside the bus. The motion-sensor alarm sounded, a staccato beep-beep-beep. I keyed the ignition and waited for the glow plugs to warm. The engine fired, coughed, coughed, then caught.
I silenced alarm. Flicked on the CB radio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pumping even though the engine was stone cold. Those small tasks accomplished. I walked between the bench seats with my head tucked so it didn’t hit the roof – I’d made the mistake of walking upright my first week on the job, only to have a loose rivet on the roof tear a nifty little groove in my scalp. I pulled the security pin from the rear emergency door and moved back up the aisle, slapping the seatbacks to make sure they were secure. My fingertips brushed against a hardened wad of Windex-coloured gum – the stuff Oliver had been chewing yesterday. We’d be having a little heart-to-heart about gum on the bus, young Master Oliver and I.
Davidson quickly realized the important responsibility he had in dealing with his passengers. Not only was he assigned the task of ferrying the kids from home to school and back again each day but he realized there was an emotional need that his passengers seemed to crave from him. He was more than a driver. He was a friend, a mentor, a defender, a comedian and a philosopher. In short of anything, he was a familiar face to those kids at the start and end of their days as they made through another long school year.
Some drivers ran their buses the way feudal lords ruled their fiefdoms, with an iron fist. Nothing made them happier than to glance at the riot mirror and see row upon row of tight-lipped students with their hands folded neatly in their laps. They relished tomb-like silence, as if they were delivering mannequins to a department store. I substituted on a few routes like that. It was eerie, that quiet. And the kids were ridiculously happy to get the slightest leeway.
“Wait,” one kid said, “You mean I can drink my juice box on the bus?”
“Sure, go ahead. Just throw it out when you’re done.”
The kid beamed. “You are so cool!”
You’re darn right I’m cool, kid! Drink that juice box, and hey – if you’re feeling peckish, eat a granola bar too!
The rules on my own bus were more lax. If Oliver were to let a curse word slip every so often? Eh. The odd gum wrapper not thrown into the trash box at the back of the bus? Let it slide. But I made it known I was granting privileges, not according rights. In my previous roles as camp counsellor, classroom aide, librarian – I’d worked with kids a lot over the years – my objective had always been to treat those under my wing with respect; I’d allow minor infractions, hoping my charges would self-correct with gentle encouragement. Sometimes this backfired, but it was the method that worked best for me. Of course, it also reflected my distaste for being in charge. I didn’t want to be the wet blanket. The scold. Better to be the laconic, laid-back, chill dude. Do what the rhythms of of the earth and sea tell you to do, dudes and dudettes. Consult the I Ching. Gather the karmic threads of the universe and don’t let me harsh mellow. All of this to say that I was a terrible boss – or the best boss in the whole world, depending on your outlook.
I also didn’t want to be driving a mausoleum; I wanted the kids to feel free to engage with each other and with me. And as they got used to me over time, those kids really did talk. About movies and sports and television and friendship and love and families and a million other topics. Mainly, though, the kids told stories. Their imaginations were astonishingly unbridled. And their stories were instructive – a window into their worlds and dreams. Every so often they broke my heart.
Davidson has done something here that is important in a good piece of literature but hard to do in our modern, technological, fast-paced world – to realize that we are all interdependent on each other and that our needs can only be filled from other human beings. He put heart into driving that bus every day and the stories that came out of that bus are endearing and enlightening not only for readers but for him as well. And that lesson he learned he has well-crafted into this book.
It was a great year. String together fifteen or twenty years like that and you could call it a pretty terrific life. At some point, driving you went from being a job to a joy. I would have done it for free. You became a needful constant in my life. If I was broken, the the bus fixed me. You guys fixed me. Deep inside I know that’s not fair – it’s a hell of a lot ask that anyone redeem you – and yet I feel it no less keenly. The physical truth is that I drove you. The deeper truth is that you drove me. Drove me to step out of my own sickened skin, to stop feeling sorry for myself and to see the world for its beauties more than its agonies. Ultimately you drove me back to my computer with a renewed sense of purpose. For most of that year I didn’t write a thing. I wasn’t creatively blocked – I simply didn’t think that I was any good. I could write things down, but why bother? Then, somewhere along the line, I began to feel better about myself. I was convinced I could write some of those ideas down and they wouldn’t be terrible. I gained confidence; but even then I could have stumbled – I was like a day-old foal trying to stand for the first time. I thought about the stories you told on the bus, each of you spinning your own tale. So I sat down and spun my own. I wrotea book about . . . well, us.
Craig Davidson’s memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 is a great piece of literature. It reminds us about the importance of the human interdependence in even the smallest and mundane situations. A great read and an endearing read.