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Relationships Precious Cargo: How driving special needs kids to school changed author Craig Davidson's life

Author Craig Davidson wrote the book Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.

Kevin Kelly

When best-selling author Craig Davidson was down and out, he took a year-long job driving special needs kids to school in Calgary. They welcomed him into their world and changed his life in the process. Here, an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Precious Cargo

It was July of 2008, and I had arrived for my interview with the school principal lathered in sweat. The sweat was one part broken radiator and two parts desperation. I needed this job.

I'd applied for the position of Lunch Supervisor. I was 32 years old. I had prior experience with both lunch, as a consumer of it, and supervision, from an amusement park job where someone had slapped a badge on my chest and paid me an extra quarter an hour, but I had no specific experience in Lunch Supervision per se.

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What was my background? A variety of odd jobs: tree planter, whale watcher, ESL teacher, house painter, librarian. Prone to wanderlust, I had never worked any job for long. I'd cobbled together one of those whimsical CVs you often read in writers' biographies: Before taking up writing full-time, Writer X toiled as an itinerant shepherd, a cook at a nudist camp, an apprentice embalmer, an (insert bizarre short-term gig). Those bios were fun to read on the back flap of a book, but when one of them crossed the desk of a fellow such as this principal …you couldn't blame him for suspecting he was dealing with a flake. A sweaty flake. The principal flipped my application face down on his desk and pinned it under his thumb. "I want to thank you for coming in."

I exited the school doors under a metallic sky.

At home, a sheet of Xeroxed paper was poking out of the mailbox.

Immediate openings for School Bus Drivers! it read.

No experience necessary!

Interesting, interesting.

Will provide quality training!

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Well, assumedly.

Must pass background check and drug screening.

No skeletons of that sort rattling around in my closet.

It was your textbook case of mutual desperation: A company eager enough to solicit applicants through leaflet bombing meets a man in dire enough straits to make life-altering decisions based on random papers shoved into his mailbox. There was a number. I called it. When nobody picked up I left a message. Before long a female recruiter called back.

"You left a message?"

"I did."

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"You did!"

She seemed somehow relieved to hear it. An interview was scheduled for the very next day. …

Training began in early August. On the final afternoon, we clustered around a busette in the yard while our instructor tried to teach us how to use a wheelchair ramp.

"Be sensitive to these kids' needs," he counselled. "Help only as much as he or she asks. Don't over help."

None of us asked questions. We figured we'd drive big buses, the same as our instructor. The trials we anticipated involved boisterous children and a madhouse atmosphere. Small buses weren't our bag.

The week following training, the company called me in to discuss the route assignment. The co-ordinator thumbed through her call sheets and began to fire off possibilities.

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"We've got Canyon Meadows. Bonavista … Grimhaven …"

"Grimhaven's near me."

She pulled up the information. "Route 412. Special needs."

A beat.

"I'll take it."

The fifth student on the bus was Jake.

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He was 16 the year I drove him. That would make him what, 22 today, as I write this. Hard to imagine. An adult. Old enough to vote, smoke, drink – though I'm pretty sure he doesn't drink, not now, likely not ever.

Jake has cerebral palsy. The medical designation for his classification of CP is called spastic quadriplegia, the result of an upper motor neuron lesion that prevented the spinal cord receptors from receiving a key amino acid. Symptoms included hypertonia (involuntary spasms), muscular rigidity and abnormal muscle tone. "Quadriplegia" means all four of his limbs are affected. It's progressive, which is to say that it gets worse over time. The year prior to us meeting, Jake had started to use an electric wheelchair. Until then he had been mobile enough to get around on his own.

Calvin, Jake's father, was the last parent I had spoken to during those introductory phone calls. They had moved to Calgary from Cornwall, England, drawn by the prospect of improved health care for their son. He said his family had recently been in the local paper. Then he told me why.

"Four months ago, my son Jake and my wife were struck by a drunk driver not far from where we live," Calvin said. "They were out for a walk. My wife was killed. Jake's injuries were extensive. One of his lungs collapsed. The other had a hole in it. There were lacerations to the liver, bruising to the heart and kidneys. He suffered damage to his pancreas and lost two-thirds of his spleen. Two pelvic fractures. Broken nose. Cuts and bruises all over. If it were you or me? We'd be dead."

I first met Jake on the second day of the school year; his father had driven him on the first. The accident that took the life of Jake's mother had occurred four months ago. I pulled up beside the house in a new subdivision, the sort where every tree was a sapling and some of the lawns had been laid down so recently that the sod hadn't knit together yet.

I angled the bus's front tires into the curb, as was mandatory on any downhill park. Flicked on the hazards, set the parking brake. Then I swung the doors open – I loved cranking the mechanism to swing those double doors wide, the ultimate bus-driver move – hopped out and dropped wooden blocks under the back wheels as a final precaution.

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The garage door rattled up. Calvin – athletic, handsome, with the sharkish face of a career criminal from a Guy Ritchie film – came down the wooden ramp connecting the garage's elevated inner door to the floor. He waved and said: "He'll be out in a minute."

I lowered the wheelchair ramp. Jake was still getting ready inside the house. His father held the door open, making an Arriba, arriba! Andale! gesture. A young girl – Jake's sister, surely – was hurriedly brushing his hair.

Soon Jake was rolling down the ramp. He piloted (that's the only word to describe Jake's driving style: he worked that joystick like a fighter pilot banking his jet into a tactical turn, desperately fighting the wind shear) a sleek electric wheelchair with heavy-duty springs. Satchels carrying books and binders hung off the back. He accelerated at breakneck speed and took a corner poorly, one tire clipping the wall.

Jake was a teenager with dark hair, expressive eyebrows, brown eyes and a face that seemed too threadbare for our country's winters. He was slender – as he will likely be his whole life, not because he watches his weight, but because for him eating can be a chore. His face hinted at future handsomeness: It was there in the prominent cheekbones and aquiline nose. But his eyebrows were too wild and his hair still possessed that baffling teenage tendency to stick up in unruly cowlicks. He wore a T-shirt, loosely tied sneakers and tear-away athletic pants. A neoprene-padded splint was fastened around his right arm.

I cannot say what I expected. A teenager so worn down by an accumulation of losses that he was glass-like? Broken-hearted and defeated and shell-shocked? Writing this now, I can say that, yeah, some days Jake was glass-like. Other days he raged. And into any conversation, no matter how innocuous, there would seep traces of a soul-deep broken-heartedness. But in the hundreds of hours we eventually spent together that year, on the bus and off, Jake never once seemed defeated. No, not once.

"This is your new bus driver. His name is Craig," said Calvin by way of introduction.

"Good morning, Jake."

Jake smiled. "Well, good morning, Craig."

Have you ever met someone and immediately thought: the two of us, we're gonna get along like bandits? That's how it happened when I met Jake. I felt an instant, almost audible click.

"He'd like to be at the front of the bus," Calvin told me. "His last driver went over railroad crossings and rattled him all to hell."

I'd already installed the wheelchair straps to the right of my own seat. Once Jake's chair was secure, Calvin crouched beside his son. He slipped his hand round the back of Jake's neck and pressed their foreheads together.

"Stay positive, Jake. Positive, positive, positive."

After Calvin left, I pulled onto the street. Dispatch radioed for my whereabouts.

"Running a few minutes behind," I radioed back.

"Sorry," Jake said in his lilting British accent. I came to love the Briticisms he'd work into our conversations: His cellphone wasn't hung on a strap, for example, but rather a "lanyard." When his wheelchair broke, he didn't need to get it fixed, but rather "seen to." He also used the word "lovely" – a word that my grandfather, an expat Brit himself, had been fond of.

"What are you sorry for?" I said. "I ought to know how to strap your chair in. It's my fault we're running late."

He smiled gratefully. I noted the bump on Jake's nose where the broken bone had healed, but otherwise, I thought, he looked good. A lot better than I would have.

We retraced our route from the day before. I had thought that would be the most terrible part of the job: the same route, every day. I used to watch bus drivers or subway conductors and think: Lord, what misery! Tracing one paved loop every damn day, or shunting a big metal worm full of commuters through dark tunnels under the city. What I found was that, yes, the monotony of the roads was deadening. But what happened on board the bus kept the boredom at bay.

The second day, Vincent, a Grade 12 student who would have made a decent football linebacker if he'd had the aptitude, brought a Simpsons comic book on board. This led to a rousing debate, everyone chiming in on their favourite episodes.

"The Cape Fear one," Jake said eagerly. "The one where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on rakes."

"Oh I liiiiike that one," said Vincent.

"Did you guys ever see the one where, uuuhhh, where uhhh …." Oliver's face morphed into a frown. Oliver, 13, had Fragile X Syndrome, an anomaly in the X chromosome that can lead to delayed physical, intellectual and emotional development – Oliver's signifiers seemed to draw a little from columns A, B and C. "The one time where, uuhhh, when, when, that one show where Peter Griffin gets into a fight with a chicken?"

"That's Faaaamily Guy," Vincent corrected him.

Oliver laughed. "Oh yeah. Ha! That was great!"

The Simpsons and Family Guy were beloved by everyone except for Nadja, who wore pink every day, had a slight speech impediment and a certain repetitiveness in regard to her word choices, and whose default setting was happy, easy-going, nice. She much preferred Hannah Montana and (archaically) West Side Story. Oliver was a video game nut. Jake was an obsessive fan of Homestar Runner and a British show called Red Dwarf. Vincent was hooked on The Transformers, Japanese anime, Monty Python and anything to do with the First and Second World Wars – plus the conceivable outcomes of world wars III, IV, V and beyond, which Vincent assured us would be fought by technomancers, cyborgs and flesh-eating robots who would enslave however many hapless humans were still shambling around.

The realization dawned on me. I was driving a bus full of … nerds.

I could say this with utter conviction because I am one of the biggest nerds you'll ever meet. We nerds can smell our own. I could chime in about every pop culture touchstone those kids brought up. If I'd been your stereotypical bus driver, the kids may as well have been speaking Sanskrit. But their conversations lay squarely in my wheelhouse. Rarely has a case of arrested development as profound as mine paid such handsome social dividends.

That second morning, I pulled into the high school and let Vincent and Nadja off. Then I unstrapped Jake's chair and let him guide it onto the lift. As I lowered it for him, my gaze drifted over to the football field. A quartet of goths were tossing a Frisbee around. There was something hilarious about guys with flowing hair and black trench coats engaged in athletics. They resembled pasty long-shanked bats with their unbuttoned coats flapping around their ankles.

"Oh, man. That right there," I said, angling my chin towards them, "is a YouTube sensation waiting to happen."

That was the first time I got a laugh out of Jake. He had the most wonderful, infectious laugh – it bubbled up from the soles of his feet, a total body event. From that moment on, Jake's laugh became the equivalent of auditory cocaine: I'd do just about anything for a fix. Jake, bless him, was the most generous dealer an addict could ask for. Sometimes when I really got on a roll, Jake would be clutching his sides, heaving, begging me: "Please, stop it. I can't … I can't breathe."

"Are they friends of yours?" I asked, nodding towards the goths.

"Everyone's my friend."

He didn't say this with pride; he was stating an obvious fact. Of course everyone was his friend. Duh. He was the kid in the wheelchair whose mother had died. Who except the most towering prick wouldn't be his friend?

From Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 by Craig Davidson, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. Copyright © Craig Davidson. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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