I was looking for a new adventure when my sister sent me the ad. A large multinational transportation corporation was looking for a school-bus driver for a tiny pacific island off Canada’s West Coast in an area called Howe Sound. As remote and exotic as the location read, in fact, it was only a 20-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver.
I applied expecting nothing but a polite “no thank you” because nothing in my background (radio DJ or advertising agency owner) qualified me for the job.
Much to my astonishment, the company said, “You are hired.”
“But I have never driven a 42-foot Freightliner diesel school bus before,” I replied.
A response came quickly: “We will train you.”
So, with my newly minted Class 2 British Columbia commercial driver’s license in hand, I began my career as a school-bus driver on Bowen Island.
Three thousand people live and work and play and have babies, who will grow up and need a ride to the island’s only school. This is where I come in.
I wake up at 3:50 a.m. in West Vancouver and catch the 5:50 a.m. ferry to Bowen Island every weekday.
I would love to report that my driving career has been blemish-free in this island paradise; unfortunately, I would be making all that up.
It’s pitch black when I arrive and the roads are rough and narrow. Huge potholes serve as a stimulant to stay alert in the early hours. In the first week alone I backed my bus into a small but malevolent little ditch requiring a $900 tow. Even with no children on board, the company was not amused.
Then I followed up in the second week by removing a street sign from a major intersection with my wide back end. There was a loud noise amplified many times by an empty all-metal bus. Since the bus was unscathed, I left the scene to pick up the elementary kids. After I dropped them at their homes, I hastily returned to the scene of the sign crime.
Well, my faith in humanity was reaffirmed that day because the sign was back in place. Local elves had fixed it and thoughtfully smoothed out my double axel tire tracks to erase all traces of the mishap. The island had risen up to protect me.
I knew right then I was going to like it here.
My first pick up is at 6:53 a.m. with a busload of sleepy high-school students who will, if prompted, return a pallid “good morning” with a quick mumble but nothing more. They’re headed for the ferry to attend classes on the mainland. High-school kids capture my heart because they look and want to be treated as adults and are long past, if not embarrassed by, any show of affection such as an early morning send-off from family committees of mothers, fathers or baby brothers and sisters waving and wishing them well as they depart for their day.
There is one cheerful fellow in Grade 9 who receives a big send-off every morning and it’s heartwarming how his family unabashedly waves their encouragement as he boards the bus. The rest of the teenagers onboard take note of this daily event. These teens have their adult faces on, even though they are still very much kids inside. And those faces are wistful at times like these.
One fellow who graduates elementary school in June is champing at the bit to get into high school. He spends every day telling the little kids on the bus stories of what to expect when they grow up like him. He is 12 and a man of the world now who knows all the teachers and their various habits and behaviours, likes and dislikes. He is an oracle who holds the young ones spellbound on the morning magic carpet ride to Bowen Island Community School.
I also witness the poignant and exquisite exchanges between eager little girls and boys excited to leave their anguished mothers and fathers. There is one mother who causes me to pause as she stands in the early morning light with this little dot of a boy waiting for the bus to arrive. He is no more than three-feet tall with his backpack and lunch kit, all set to leave his mom and make his way in the big bad old world of kindergarten. He takes his time hugging her and kissing her and reassuring her that he will be just fine.
She, on the other hand, wears the weight of her world on her face and the look she gives him as he turns his back to climb the stairs on the bus captures the whole spectrum of a mother’s love. She is so achingly proud of her son who bravely boards the bus, she wants him to grow up and be brave, but she wants to hold him back for just a day so she doesn’t lose the child in him or her. She looks empty as we close the doors. She wants to hold on to protect him from those that will bruise him, and yet she wants to let him fly in his excitement and wonder at the world that awaits him. She’s happy and sad, lonely and fulfilled all at the same time.
The little boy rushes to his bus window and yells “Mommy I am okay! I love you Mommy!” and although there are older, wiser, more toughened children on the bus, it grows silent as this little one calls out his everlasting love for his mom. No one dares to intrude on this sacred moment.
I slowly drive away and I beep the horn twice to remind her that it’s all good, Mom. It’s all safe and we are all watching over your baby until he is grown. And that happens all too quickly.
I will keep driving through fierce weather on these rocky rural paths, with no streetlights or sidewalks, grateful that I have a window into the little lives that put their trust in me to take them home.
Michael Morgan lives in West Vancouver.