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

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image by Paul McCreery

I drive a bus filled with juvenile delinquents to a reform school. These kids–“at risk” kids is the polite term–have 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 they’re living at home. Their next stop might be the Mac–the 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 I’d 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.

You’d like to step in. Do something about this. Anybody would.

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

“I don’t need to read.”

Yes you do. Everybody needs to read.

“I’m going to be a welder. My uncle’s a welder and he makes $32 an hour.” Welders need to read instructions. Work orders. The sports section.

“My uncle can’t read.”

Or you’d like to strangle them. Anybody would.

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

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 unbudgingly–perhaps comprehendingly–across the void.

They wouldn’t be on this bus if they didn’t 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 “retard bus.” 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, Teresa’s 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 up–a stranger with picture ID–and I see pure terror in her dark eyes. Teresa clings to Tom’s elbow, pleading, and says, “Are they going to take me away?”

Imagine. It’s 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.

They’re kids. They’re unfinished human beings. You never know. It turns out Dejarvis can be civil and funny when he wants to be. He’s 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 I’ll shake out the old striped shirt and get on the court with these jokers.

Come January and basketball practice, Dejarvis didn’t come to the bus for five days in a row. Hoping he was just sick, I asked at school. What’s up with Dejarvis?

The principal told me Dejarvis got sliced up in that melee at Lloyd Center I’d read about in the paper. “He’ll be back when he gets out of the hospital.”

I didn’t know Dejarvis was a gang member.

“You didn’t?!” 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 there’s a vacancy in my chest where concern should be. Just get them to school. But we were early this morning. The staff won’t 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. We’re 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.

“Nice places.”

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.

“What if the water come up?”

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.

“What happened?”

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 can’t tell when I’m putting them on. I once told Morris he’d 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 didn’t 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.

“Aw, maaaan.”

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 they’ll 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. It’s 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.

It’s hot in here. It’s 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 it’s standing room only with deafening–but seldom rude–fans. Rival gangs evidently have settled on a détente. Ballplayers, too, are surprisingly compliant.

Maybe that’s not so surprising. They don’t have dads, remember. A man–even an old man–in a striped shirt gets their respect. I’ve 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 baby’s. 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 he’s in trouble.

That boy’s 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 boys–too heavy for standing back flips–went 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 game’s 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 here’s 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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