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A School Bus from Nowhere: Connecting with “at risk” kids requires crazy and crucial hope

Posted: 2009-03-24

Excerpted in the Utne Reader from Portland(Autumn 2008), a spiritual and civic-minded magazine published by the University of Portland, Oregon; .

I drive a bus filled with juvenile delinquents to a reform school. These kidsââat riskâ kids is the polite termâhave been so disruptive in their neighborhood schools that the district assigned them to a dreary set of medium-security classrooms out on Marine Drive. This is their last chance to attend school while theyâre living at home. Their next stop might be the Macâthe MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, in Woodburn, Oregon.

I chose this route because the hours are good and boredom is not a problem. My passengers are teenagers, old enough to have stories of their own and occasionally unmoody enough to spill them. Sad stories. Or, no, the beginnings of good stories, maybe. Stories that Iâd like to turn around and play backward, so dad comes home, mom kicks her meth habit, and the cops turn out to be good guys after all.

Youâd like to step in. Do something about this. Anybody would.

But I am 50 years older than they are. I donât like their music and I donât know an X-Station from a Play Box. Itâs hard to understand their language and they donât get mine. Itâs not just the words, but how an elder tries to use them to reach a youngster heâd like to help. They donât dislike me. We are curiosities to one another, failing to connect.

âI donât need to read.â

Yes you do. Everybody needs to read.

âIâm going to be a welder. My uncleâs a welder and he makes $32 an hour.â Welders need to read instructions. Work orders. The sports section.

âMy uncle canât read.â

Or youâd like to strangle them. Anybody would.

Take this knucklehead with a swagger and shades who imagines himself the bull seal of the bus. Iâll call him Dejarvis. He began rapping aloud one morning to vivid lyrics on his CD player about killing cops and screwing people. âRun, nigger, run. POW. POW.â

Others, laughingly, picked it up in chorus.

They paid no mind to my reasoned pleas. Give me a break. This is inappropriate language. Weak stuff like that.

At school I secured the bus and went chest to chest with Dejarvis to block his exit. We exchanged ill-chosen words and then stood there surprised, eyeing each other unbudginglyâperhaps comprehendinglyâacross the void.

They wouldnât be on this bus if they didnât have a tortured relationship with school. Most of them have a fractured home life. They live with a grandparent or an aunt or a step-someone.

A sullen pale teenager with zits and a bad haircut comes to the bus from a shabby house in a neighborhood known to bus drivers as Felony Flats. Reeking of cigarettes and resentment, he has been sentenced to this demeaning short bus that teens citywide call a âretard bus.â It kills him to be seen getting on or off it. Would you expect him to have a sunny disposition?

Or this. On a dry run to drop a time card for a new student, I arrive at a large, well-tended old house set back from Woodstock Boulevard behind two tall firs. A Foster Home. Two cheerful teenagers rush to answer my knock. No, Teresaâs not here. Yes, she lives here. They call for Tom, a bright young dadlike guy. Tom and I are on the veranda with paperwork. I will pick up Teresa at 7:58 each morning and bring her back by 3:40, starting Thursday. But here comes Teresa now, up the front steps. She sizes me upâa stranger with picture IDâand I see pure terror in her dark eyes. Teresa clings to Tomâs elbow, pleading, and says, âAre they going to take me away?â

Imagine. Itâs not a Mom and Dad and the kids home, but Teresa has found a home here. She has an adult elbow to cling to, yet her world is so fragile.

Theyâre kids. Theyâre unfinished human beings. You never know. It turns out Dejarvis can be civil and funny when he wants to be. Heâs a smart guy, older than the others, and on the bus we talk basketball. He plays. I doubt he truly believes that his bus driver has played and coached and refereed hoops. But we unwrap some language we both understand. The school has a team, he tells me. Yes, there are 12 of these alternative schools in the metro area. League play will begin in January.

Well, shoot. I wonder. Maybe Iâll shake out the old striped shirt and get on the court with these jokers.

Come January and basketball practice, Dejarvis didnât come to the bus for five days in a row. Hoping he was just sick, I asked at school. Whatâs up with Dejarvis?

The principal told me Dejarvis got sliced up in that melee at Lloyd Center Iâd read about in the paper. âHeâll be back when he gets out of the hospital.â

I didnât know Dejarvis was a gang member.

âYou didnât?!â said the principal.

They come and they go. Why should I care? I drive them to school on a gray woolly morning, windshield wipers batting at a persistent mist. They wear their despair like two-G gravity blankets, and thereâs a vacancy in my chest where concern should be. Just get them to school. But we were early this morning. The staff wonât open the school doors to this bunch until precisely 8:40, so I reroute the bus onto Bridgeton Road, along the Columbia River dike.

Drop the headphones, people. Weâre taking the scenic route.

These garage-looking structures on the water are where rich people keep their yachts. The ones with tall poles are sailboats. Hoist a sail up that pole when the wind is right and you can go without a motor. And these here are houseboats. People live here.

âNice places.â

I stopped the bus for a better look. This neighborhood is not exotic to me, but to them we were in Dubai or Lake Oswego.

âWhat if the water come up?â

These houses float. The sidewalks, too. When the river rises, everything floats up. A few years ago, rivers got really high and a string of houseboats broke away. A whole neighborhood went floating down the Willamette River. I saw it on Channel 2. It was pretty exciting.

âWhat happened?â

They floated away. The river goes out to the ocean, you know? Houseboat people could still be floating around out there, eating their dogs, their cell phones out of range.

They were all quiet. I saw their wide eyes in my overhead mirror. Uh-oh. Broken kids canât tell when Iâm putting them on. I once told Morris heâd better knock it off because he was sitting in the ejection seat. Poor kid, he believed me.

Now I pulled up to the school, but I didnât open the bus door. No, wait. I remember. What happened was tugboats came to the rescue. They lashed those houseboats to the bank. When the water went down, they put the houses back up the river where they belonged.

âAw, maaaan.â

Aw, man, was right. By telling them what really happened, I had ruined a believable-to-them story. These kids know in their bones that they have come unmoored, and no help is on the way.

But you never know. Help is there, if theyâll put in the work. Teachers and staff at this school are as brave as soldiers in Baqouba or Kabul, and more forbearing. Students get close attention and door-to-door transportation and breakfast.

This is a year-round school. Itâs expensive, but the school will rescue some kids. A tall, beaten-down girl who avoided eye contact on my bus found a teacher who encouraged her ability to draw. She got the idea she should work at it. She did. And then, boy, could she draw. After months of smart work and good behavior, she earned her way back to Madison High. On her last day with us she passed out Snickers bars to everyone on the bus.

You win some and you lose some. I lost Dejarvis. Basketball season had begun by the time he came back from the hospital. Dejarvis joined the team, but he was out of shape. He played for a couple of games, lost interest, and quit coming to school.

Dejarvis is gone, but I referee basketball anyway.

At a dimly lit, poorly ventilated cracker-box gym, athletically gifted and underloved street kids are hooping it up. Some have stars in their eyes imagining NBA careers, and all of them run as if their shorts were on fire. There are no cheerleaders, but the girls stomp rhythmically and they chant musically and they groan in unison and they scream in delight.

Itâs hot in here. Itâs break-your-ankles fast in here. I whistle a foul and have to pause three or four beats for breath to say the call.

We play 20-minute halves with running time except for the last 2 minutes of each half. There are no bleachers. A single row of chairs fills up early, and then itâs standing room only with deafeningâbut seldom rudeâfans. Rival gangs evidently have settled on a détente. Ballplayers, too, are surprisingly compliant.

Maybe thatâs not so surprising. They donât have dads, remember. A manâeven an old manâin a striped shirt gets their respect. Iâve taken more grief from the overindulged players and their parents at Lincoln High than from these unloved boys of the street.

Wondrous athletic ability and wildly chaotic basketball are on display here. One slender point guard dominated a game while taking no more than three shots, just with slashing drives and deft passes. On a break he tossed the ball hard off the backboard for a trailing teammate to jam it. This boy has a withered right arm like a thalidomide babyâs. He gets fouled a lot and makes nine of ten one-armed free throws. He understands the beauty of basketball played well, and it breaks your heart to see a kid so athletic and smart and to know heâs in trouble.

That boyâs team won the league championship. At the end of the game, we had a good 10 minutes of unrestrained joy before coaches could corral the players for a trophy presentation. Kids did cartwheels and back flips. They hung off the rims. Two of these bad boysâtoo heavy for standing back flipsâwent running at the wall and up it to launch their 360s.

I am emotionally disturbed. I have witnessed the abandoned young of our species at the acme, the very pinnacle, of their lives so far. I want them to know more of this teamwork business, of getting along. But you throw a shipwrecked kid a life rope and there has to be something more to haul him in to. Family. School. Church. A job, maybe? Basketball is not it, not in the long run.

On the morning after that final gameâs pure loopy joy, I learned about a robbery in the art room, where the winners had dressed. One of the boys claimed to have lost $300.

Wait. What!? This kid had $300 in his wallet?

The ups and the downs of caring for these kids will turn you inside out, they are so extreme. But hereâs upside news, that same morning: Dejarvis not only applied for but landed a job with Federal Express.

You never know.

Excerpted from Portland(Autumn 2008), a spiritual and civic-minded magazine published by the University of Portland, Oregon; www.up.edu/portland.

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