When I heard that Craig Davidson was coming out with a memoir about his year of driving a school bus, I was intrigued. Partly because I’ve been sending my own precious cargo to school on a school bus for the past 10 years, and partly because, from what I hear, his other books are dark, violent, and scary. I’ve read The Troop, a horror novel written under the name Nick Cutter.
Besides his books, I knew very little about the author himself before reading Precious Cargo. Now I know quite a lot about him, and he’s not violent or scary at all, unless you count the time he threatened to punch someone’s father in the face. He describes himself as a goofy kind of a guy; class clown material, and is able to make fun of his failings and his poor judgement (like the time he threatened to punch someone’s dad in the face).
Precious Cargo is about the year he drove a school bus out of pure desperation, but ends up loving it. It was the kids he loved, and everything they taught him.
Here’s the thing: everyday was the best day, even the crappiest ones. Every single day I spent with those kids. And I was grateful, so incredibly grateful, because I knew I’d done nothing to deserve it.
The bus Davidson ends up being assigned to is a special needs bus, adding a whole other dimension to his story. Davidson had no prior experience with children with special needs, so off he went to do his research on Autism, Fragile X syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy.
What I realized now, looking back, is that many of us became really uncomfortable around individuals with disabilities. Including me. Such encounters had felt like a door opening onto a vast realm where I had no foothold, no understanding. It had been best to simply avoid stepping through. This is what made me hesitate for a beat before agreeing to the special needs route. It is also what made me say yes.
The book takes us through the seasons of the school year on the day-to-day bus route. And, in the course of the year we get to know Craig, and we get to know the kids. Where this book really shines is in the interactions and conversations between the kids on the bus; they’re funny, sensitive, and unique. And, despite the fact that their special needs and personalities vary widely, they are kind and respectful to each other, which is beautiful to read.
In parts, this book is enlightening, entertaining, and touching. Much of it is written in a jokey kind of tone for which I’m not the right audience – it’s a lot easier to make me cry than to make me laugh. I’m thinking Davidson’s other books – the dark, violent ones – are probably more my thing. But, I think this book has a lot to offer; Craig is not the only one who has misguided perceptions or expectations about the way life should be for these kids (or any kids); he’s not the only one who would feel overly protective of them with mixed results.
… the problem was one of perspective. I wished for an inclusivity most of these kids didn’t necessarily crave… I fell into the trap of wanting to engineer their existence to match my own expectations…
Most importantly, though, the kids that rode on bus 3077 that year are well worth getting to know. In the end, I think what I liked most about this book is not that he’s telling his story, but that he’s telling their story.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Another, wiser writer said that. But after hearing these kids’ stories, I was left thinking: 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 glamour glimpsed in the fashion magazines she toted in her Hannah Montana backpack.
Or consider Oliver’s best friend Joey: erstwhile protector, he-man, namer of biceps. Not a boy with a condition typified by low muscle tone, a boy who crouched in the bus to avoid the attention of neighbourhood bullies.
Vincent’s heroes were blessed with superior intellects and chiselled musculatures. None were awkward hormonal teenagers with cumbersome physiques.
Jake’s hero – who could move objects with the power of his exceptional mind – was breathed into life by a boy trapped inside his own diminishing body.