On a drizzly January day, with his backpack hanging over his blue raincoat, Tommy faced the open door of the small school bus and peered up at the driver.
If all went well, this would be his first time taking the bus home from school since nearly three years ago, when he stopped riding after enduring various issues on board.
Since then, my wife or I have picked up Tommy from school each day, which is a challenge because we both work and our other son attends a charter school that doesn’t have bus service.
If you read my November 2016 column, you may recall Tommy’s past troubles with the school bus. As I explained before, he struggles with extreme anxiety related to learning and developmental disabilities. He attends a special-education class at a school across town, so transportation is stipulated in his IEP.
When Tommy started riding the school bus (just in the afternoon) about three years ago, his driver, Mary, helped him overcome his fears and made the ride comfortable for him. Then Mary left for a different line of work with better pay, and suddenly the bus became the biggest stress in Tommy’s life.
Substitute drivers kept missing our house. Tommy would panic, worried that he would never make it home. Another student seized on his fear and teased him, compounding the problem. After a series of stressful days, my wife and I gave in and let him stop riding the bus.
Since then, there have been glimmers of hope. Tommy has been on several school bus rides — all for field trips. Afterward, I would ask him how it went, and he would typically answer with a brief but positive response: “It was good.”
This school year, we got to the point where we needed the convenience that the school bus provides, and we felt that Tommy, now 11, had matured enough and was better equipped to handle the ride (again, just in the afternoon). Another helpful factor: The boy who teased him in the past had moved on to middle school.
Remarkably, Tommy even devised his own strategy for how to handle any delays that come up on the ride home: “I’ll just remember that it won’t take longer than a movie.”
To seal the deal, I told Tommy that I would meet him after school to be there for his first time getting back on the bus. He liked that idea.
So on that January afternoon, as I stood at his side next to the school bus, Tommy looked up at the driver and asked an important question: “Do you know where I live?”
The driver, an older man who was covering as a substitute that day, scanned the route sheet and responded affirmatively with our address.
Reassured, Tommy stepped aboard the bus and found his seat. I lingered for a bit, asked the driver a few questions, and then called out, “See you at home, Tommy!”
I walked back to my car, watched the little yellow bus pull out of the parking lot, and then drove home.
About 40 minutes later, as a gentle rain dampened the neighborhood, the school bus rolled up to our house. My wife and I (both working from home that day) waited under an umbrella as Tommy unbuckled his seat belt and stepped off the bus. His face showed no clear emotion.
“How was the bus ride, Tommy?”
“It was good.”
As we pressed him for more details, he revealed one slight hitch from the trip. At one stop, a student’s parent didn’t come out to the bus right away, keeping them waiting for a time. But Tommy said he didn’t worry. He knew it wouldn’t last longer than Toy Story.
Inside the house, Tommy set down his backpack, took off his raincoat, and sat down by the fireplace (actually a space heater with a mesmerizing flame display).
He had ridden the bus again, and he had made it home. Now looking pleased, he shared a moment of introspection.
“I’m feeling proud of myself.”