Our bus driver’s name was Mrs. Dodoo. Her son Stephen rode the bus as well and was in the same grade as me. Not only did poor Stephen have an unfortunate last name, he was, even by our backwoods standards, an odd-looking fellow. He had huge, brown, wide-set eyes and a nose and chin that looked like they had been malleable at one time and someone had pulled on these features, stretching them, resulting in a face that reminded people of a jack-o’-lantern.
I liked Stephen and his mom. They were both quick to laugh and they thought I was pretty funny, although at times I could get carried away acting a fool and Mrs. Dodoo would have to employ some of her trademark screaming in order to settle me down.
“For the love of Christ, John, stop jumping over the seats!”
“Be quiet, John, I can’t drive with all this noise!”
“John! For the love of God stop sitting on her! She can’t breathe!”
But no matter how mad she seemed, I’d give some ridiculous apology, and she always started to laugh.
Once, on a warm spring day, but with some snow still on the ground, I packed a tight snowball and, with a perfect toss, threw that ball of ice and snow right through the open window of the bus while it was driving away. I think someone had dared me, so of course I had to try. I was successful beyond my wildest dreams. It sounded like a small bomb had been detonated and I heard screams and then laughter.
Mrs. Dodoo slammed on the brakes and screamed bloody murder, so I ran for home as fast as I could, which was difficult because I was laughing so hard.
Stephen had a locker near mine. One morning a self-possessed, attractive, grade-nine girl approached Stephen as he was getting his books out to start the day and with a smile, flashing her braces like the teeth of a shark, said, “You’ll never have a girlfriend because you’re so ugly.” She giggled maniacally and scurried away. Jesus, what a thing to say. I think this may have been the first time my heart broke for a friend. He looked at me and I could see in his eyes all the pain that was to come in his life–the persecution for something he could not help, could not change, and the bits of him that would be diminished by the words of pretty girls who hate because they can.
“Well, she’s an ugly dog anyway,” he said. It was a feeble attempt to muster some dignity and I nodded in agreement, making the two of us complicit in this lie. To be so young, and vulnerable, and so without power, made for long days that were all the longer because not only were we unable to help ourselves, but we were helpless in the face of all that pain inflicted on the ones we cared about.
But the bus is what saved us. A bubble where ugly didn’t count. Clothes didn’t matter. Hair was just something that happened to be on your head. Laughter, music, and stories were the measure of quality. It was this state of grace that dried our tears and put us back together as the bus delivered us from evil and gave us a place to stretch our souls and become the children we were meant to be.