After 20 years as a full-time wife and mother, I decided now that my kids were grown, I needed a part-time job to keep me busy. The question was: What exactly could I do?
Secretarial work was out-I couldn't take shorthand, and I typed at a snail's pace. I cooked for a husband and children, but that wasn't enough to prepare me for a job in any of the restaurants near my home in Kansas City, Mo. What was I qualified for?
The answer came one day as I drove past a lot full of school buses. I pulled over to the side of the road. That's it! I thought. I loved kids, plus I'd put plenty of miles on our family Chevy.
First I had to pass a written test for my chauffeur's license. Then I began driving practice. The bus was enormous. I could turn, shift, brake, accelerate, but I could not get the huge thing into reverse. When my husband asked how my training was going, I told him, "Fine, as long as no kid lives on a dead-end street."
Please, Lord, I prayed, help me drive the bus.
By the time school started that year I'd gotten the hang of it. I was happy in my new work. I became a combination chauffeur, nurse and friend. And if the kids needed it, I'd put on my "Tough Big Sister" act. It was a lot like my previous job-being a mom.
When I think about my years of bus driving, I remember the snowstorms that seemed to start on Thanksgiving and last through March. I remember Christmases when I was presented with hundreds of "I love you, Polly" cards. I remember hearing "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" sung over and over until I heard it in my sleep. Mostly, though, I remember Charlie.
The stolen tin heart...
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From that day on, Charlie was a trial. If a fight broke out I didn't have to turn my head to know who had started it. If someone was throwing spitballs I could guess the culprit's name. If a girl was crying, chances were Charlie had pulled her hair. No matter how I spoke to him, gently or firmly, he wouldn't say a word. He'd just stare at me with those big gray eyes of his.
I asked around some, and found out Charlie's father was dead and he didn't live with his mother. He deserves my patience, I thought. So I practiced every bit of patience I could muster. To my cheery "Good morning," he was silent. When I wished him a happy Halloween, he sneered. Many, many times I asked God how I could reach Charlie. "I'm at my wit's end," I'd say. Still I was sure that this child needed to feel some warmth from me. So, when he'd pass by, I'd ruffle his hair or pat him on the arm.
Toward the end of that year, the kids on my bus gave me a small trophy inscribed "To the Best Bus Driver Ever." I propped it up on the dashboard. On top I hung a small tin heart that a little girl had given me. In red paint she had written, "I love Polly and Polly loves me."
On the next-to-last day of school I was delayed a few minutes talking to the principal. When I got on the bus I realized that the tin heart was gone. "Does anyone know what happened to the little heart that was up here?" I asked. For once with 39 children, there was silence.
One boy piped up, "Charlie was the first one on the bus. I bet he took it."
Other children joined the chorus, "Yeah! Charlie did it! Search him!"
I asked Charlie, "Have you seen the heart?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he protested. Standing up, he took a few pennies and a small ball out of his pockets. "See, I don't have it."
"I bet he does!" insisted the girl who had given me the heart. "Check his pockets."
"You were the only one who kept trying"
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"It must have fallen off before I got here," I said to the kids. "I'll probably find it back at the bus depot." Without a word, Charlie returned to his seat. When he got off at his stop, he didn't so much as glance at me.
That summer Charlie moved away. The next school year, and every one thereafter, my bus was filled with new kids, some difficult, some delightful, all of them engaging. I remember the six-year-old girl who'd wet her pants with maddening regularity every Friday afternoon. I remember my horror when one of my riders was struck by a car whose driver had ignored the flashing bus lights. I knelt by the dazed child, holding him still so as to prevent further damage to his broken leg. And every spring there was a tornado warning, when I'd promise the kids I'd get them home safely.
Later, my husband and I bought our own small fleet of school buses, and I had more children under my care. Maybe because of my failure with Charlie, I worked extra hard to reach out to each one.
Eventually I retired. And there my story as a school bus driver ends, except for one more incident. A dozen years after retirement I was in a department store in Kansas City, when someone said tentatively, "Polly?"
I turned to see a balding man who was approaching middle age. "Yes?"
His face didn't look familiar until I noticed his big gray eyes. There was no doubt. It was Charlie.
He told me he was living in Montana and doing well. Then, to my surprise, he hugged me. After he let go, he pulled something from his pocket and held it up for me to see. An old key chain . . . bent out of shape, the lettering faded. You can probably guess what it was-the little tin heart that said, "I love Polly and Polly loves me."
"You were the only one who kept trying," he explained. We hugged again, and went our separate ways. That night I thought over his words. You were the only one who kept trying. Of course, someone else kept trying too-and not just with Charlie. Before I fell asleep I thanked the Lord for the reassurance that I'd done a good job and for all the qualifications he'd given me to do it with.