by Cherie Dargan
I’ve been driving school bus #5 for three years: I came home to help with my grandma the summer after my sophomore year of college, and I never went back. I moved in with Grandma Ruth, who had broken her arm, and then saw the ad for bus drivers. I took a class, got my CDL license and told myself that I would be back at the University next year. Driving the bus worked out well: I worked 2 hours in the early morning and another 2 hours in the late afternoon, and I could check on grandma, do errands, and drive her to appointments.
She’s better now: she moved into a condo this summer and lets me live rent-free in her house. I thought about going back to college, but I’m not interested in finishing my business degree: besides, I like the flexible hours, and I’m still trying to get over a bad breakup that left me feeling bruised and battered. I need time to heal—so, I keep driving the bus.
It was the first day back to school in our little Midwestern town, and I picked up two new kids: Tommy, maybe a sophomore, tried to act cool and put on a big smile as he got onboard. “Hey, how’s it going?” he asked. He was good looking and walked with the confident swagger of a cool kid.
His big sister followed: Hannah was a junior, and had been in some kind of accident that left her with several facial scars. She was a pretty girl, with long dark hair parted to the left side that formed a veil on one side of her face, covering part of her cheek. Her eyes were a startlingly blue, but she didn’t make eye contact.
I smile and say hello to each student and get to know their names that first week. Most kids greet me back: “Hey, Beth!” However, when I said hello to Hannah, she hesitated, nodded, and sat down in the seat behind me, and huddled over her iPhone. When we arrived at School, she waited for everyone to exit and then walked slowly towards the door. In the afternoon she made her way to the same seat, and ignored the others as they noisily boarded. Several days passed, and she briefly glanced at me one morning as she boarded and moved her bag to navigate the aisle. Her hair shifted and I saw her scars: several jagged marks on her cheek, the skin reddish and puckered.
No one knew the story behind her scars: the family had moved to town earlier in the summer. Her father was the new Methodist minister and her mother, a nurse, had just been hired at the Medical Clinic. Each day Hannah got on the bus, acknowledging my hello with a nod, sank into her seat and avoided contact with anyone as she scribbled in a small notebook or played on her phone. The other kids left her alone. Most of them knew I would not tolerate bullying on Bus #5: besides, there was now a video camera upfront. However, I wondered if kids teased her at school.
A few weeks later, we added a passenger to our route: Megan was our Assistant Principal’s daughter and a junior. She got her driver’s license in June, and then collected several speeding tickets, so her parents took away her keys in late August. Megan wasn’t happy to be riding my bus, but I knew her from church and tried to be kind when she got on, sighing, “Oh, Beth, this is so lame. That cop was just waiting for me to screw up.” By now, the bus was fairly full. She looked around and saw the seat next to Hannah and plopped down, still complaining about the unfairness of life. Hannah seemed to shrink even more into her own space but Megan didn’t notice. For the next two weeks I observed as the unlikely pair sat side by side each morning and afternoon. They didn’t really talk but spent their time on their phones, with Megan providing commentary on her social media feed.
In mid-October, one of the football players and his girlfriend were in a serious car accident after celebrating Friday night’s winning football game. Megan and her boyfriend Ethan stopped by the same party but didn’t drink. Ethan told Brandon he was too drunk to drive, but Brandon wouldn’t listen and insisted he felt fine. A few minutes later, Ethan and Megan left the party, hoping to find their friends hanging out at Maddy’s house: instead, they heard sirens and followed the ambulance to find Brandon’s truck, flipped over in the ditch.
Brandon had only minor injuries but faced DUI charges; his football career was over, since he had already been caught drinking and driving and the coach had warned him it was his last chance. Maddy wasn’t as lucky; she suffered a broken arm, possible internal injuries, and a concussion from being thrown around as the truck flipped. She also had injuries to her face from flying shards of glass and was taken to Covenant Hospital in Waterloo. Her best friend Megan was shaken to the core.
Monday, Megan got on the bus, sat by Hannah and turned to look at her as if for the first time. Megan said, “Hey, um…Hannah, can I ask you something?”
Hannah was startled, “Uh, okay…what?”
Megan hesitated and asked, “What happened? How did you get your scars?”
Hannah said, “It happened four years ago. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My dad’s a pastor and he was trying to help a guy who was freaked out on drugs, and the guy thought I was someone else and he cut me. My dad and brother tackled him and called the police. My mom’s a nurse and she applied pressure until we got to the ER.”
Megan winced. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about my friend, Maddy—did you hear about the car accident? Her face got cut by all of the broken glass—there was a lot of blood. They put her in the ambulance and she was crying, and I couldn’t look at her face without crying myself. How is she going to recover from this?”
“They’ll do surgery…I’ve had two already,” Hannah said softly.
“I don’t think she can handle it. She isn’t strong like you…” Megan said.
“I’m not strong. I know kids call me names like “scar face.” They’re stupid. I just keep to myself,” Hannah admitted.
Megan teared up, “I’m sorry. You’re right—kids are stupid, and cruel. What if they call Maddy names?”
Hannah replied, “They might, but it doesn’t matter if you stick up for her. “
Megan was quiet for a minute and then said, “Would you go see her with me? She’s up in Waterloo. She won’t talk to anyone. I’m worried.”
I’m the Bus Driver and I stay out of stuff, unless it’s bullying. But at the stop sign I turned to the girls and said, “Look, I can take you there after I finish the route.”
At the hospital, we found room 316 and Megan introduced us: most of Maddy’s face was covered in bandages, and her broken arm was in a cast. She started to cry when we entered, and turned away. Her mom said she would go get coffee and left the room so we couldn’t see her tears.
We stood there, awkwardly. Then, Hannah sat down and said, “Hey, Maddy, look at me,” and shifted her hair away from the left side of her face.
Maddy turned back to look at us, still crying. Unconsciously, she reached out towards Hannah’s face. I put an arm around Megan, and grabbed for some Kleenex. Now what?
Hannah grabbed Maddy’s hand and said nothing at first. Then she said “Scars…everybody has them. Some don’t show and some you can’t hide. Maybe you had bad zits, got bit by a dog, got hurt playing sports, or were in a car accident. You’re still YOU. Sure, there are jerks who will stare. But you will get better. I have.” It was the most I had ever heard her say.
Megan sniffed and watched Maddy calm down, soothed by Hannah’s soft voice. “We’ll wait outside.” When we left, we could hear them talking. In the waiting room, Megan hugged Maddy’s mother, who thanked us for coming, “I didn’t know what to do. She’s been so depressed. She kept saying I didn’t understand.”
Six weeks later, Megan and Hannah still ride the bus, sitting behind me, but now they talk. I notice other people talk to Hannah now, too, and she talks back. Maddy’s recovery is coming along, after her first surgery. I’ve been looking at taking classes online for Social Work or Education; maybe my scars have healed up enough to consider my future. For now, I drive the bus.