I interrupted the saga of School Bus 13 with a couple of rants I needed to get off my chest. Now that’s done, we return to the kids of Bus 13 with just two more tales of life driving a school bus in a small Mid-West American town.
While mostly, the children provided lots of amusement – though often their antics didn’t seem funny at the time – there were moments of great sadness and pathos as well. The two stories that will end this brief interlude concern a little girl called Christina Holsapple. Christina was typical of so many children in America, those we don’t often hear about, the children of the poor and unemployed. Folk left to struggle with life’s cruelty in places like Hope Estates, and often failing miserably.
All the School Bus 13 stories are true. These last two, in particular, poignantly so.
There’s a trailer park on the outskirts of town. It’s just across a main highway past the ADM factory, and surrounded on three sides by railroad tracks. It’s called “Hope Estates”, after Ezra Hope, the man who owns it. As trailer parks go, it’s not very large – probably two dozen, mostly dilapidated, homes each with an adjoining tiny patch of ground, overgrown with weeds and detritus.
There are two narrow roads through the trailer park, each only accessible by crossing the railroad tracks. All through the night locos shunt trucks back and forth to feed the appetite of the Archer Daniels Midland factory. Ostensibly the place only produces high fructose corn syrup, but huge chimneys belch fumes and ash twenty-four hours a day and a nauseating smell drifts across most of the town.
The driver once asked an old man who lived on Hope Estates whether the fumes concerned him. “Na,” he replied, spitting expertly into the dust at the edge of his trailer, “they say it don’t do no ‘arm to us. Mind – you’ve got to be careful if you own a car – I’ve known the ash to take off paint.”
William Jordan lives on the trailer park, with his mom and “uncle”, and his younger brother, Rashon. William is ten; his brother, six. Just across the way, in another rundown trailer, Christina Holsapple lives with her mom and dad. The three children all attend the same school. They travel on school bus 13. School begins with breakfast at eight forty-five. The kids have lunch provided and can buy hot popcorn from the machine to take home with them. For some it is their only evening meal. The Jordan’s and Holsapple’s don’t get on well. Feuds are common on Hope Estates. Families live too close together; the one commodity they share is struggle.
Christina is nine. She’s a quiet child, always shabbily dressed, clothes in need of a wash and mend. She never speaks, and rides the bus for two months before the driver sees her smile. He bought candy bars for all the kids every Friday afternoon and dished them out as they alighted from the bus. He noted Christina liked one particular type of candy. She would never look at him as he held out the bag of goodies, just root around until she found the one she liked, then turn and run down the steps without a word, or backward glance.
One Friday, as she was about to leave the bus, the driver held out her favored bar and said, “Here, Christina, I saved this one back just for you.” She looked at him with astonishment, then, with the ghost of a smile, whispered, “Thank you,” before turning and running down the steps as though afraid the driver might change his mind and take it away from her.
It’s easy to spot when the Holsapples and Jordans are feuding again. The driver has to take care and separate Christina from the two brothers, or they’ll fight on the bus. Rashon was diagnosed with ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’, but the driver guesses it’s simply lack of love. Once, when Rashon was really naughty and refused to sit in his seat without crawling all over the bus, he gave him pencil and paper and asked the little boy to draw what he saw from the bus window. Rashon never moved from his seat for the whole journey, totally absorbed in his drawing.
The kids from Hope Estates always look tired. Bags hang under their eyes. Trailers don’t insulate well, and the nightly loco shunting is loud and chaotic. It makes the parents edgy, quick to snap at their kids for the slightest misdemeanor. The other day his “uncle” beat Rashon with a strap for playing in the mud. Rashon likes the weekends, when he stays with his dad. His dad lives down by the lake. There are no railroad tracks down by the lake.
Today, the Jordan’s and Holsapple’s are not feuding. All three children look pale and sleep-deprived. They sit quietly in their seats and Rashon is asleep before they’ve left the Estate.The driver carefully edges his vehicle over the railroad tracks and out of the trailer park, past the name sign that reads: “Hope Estates”.
After the word, “Hope,” someone had once scrawled, “less”; but the ash from the ADM factory has almost eaten it away.