GANADO, Ariz. — Freddie Yazzie’s job is to transport kids from kindergarten through high school, but he also encourages his passengers to go further in their education.
Yazzie, a 24-year school bus driver on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, is using the interior of his bus to showcase the successes of past riders. He puts up laminated posters with photos of those go-getters and descriptions of their academic, athletic, and professional pursuits.
“It’s hard for Native American kids to get off of the reservation here and succeed somewhere,” said Yazzie, who shuttles about 65 pupils for Ganado Unified School District. “As a bus driver, I’m trying to inspire kids.”
To that end, Yazzie launched the motivational display on his bus about three years ago, starting with a photo of a student who went off to college.
“One day, a kid comes up and says, ‘Who’s that girl?’” Yazzie recalled. “I started talking about her: ‘She went to Northern Arizona University. She’s graduating this year, getting her bachelor’s degree.’ Then there were about 10 kids standing there [listening].”
The youngsters’ interest led Yazzie to highlight other former passengers and their endeavors. Now, the ceiling on both sides of his bus is lined with posters promoting Ganado graduates’ feats.
Yazzie’s vehicle, a Blue Bird 81-passenger Type D, has been dubbed the “Legacy of Excellence Bus.” Along with the posters, he displays motivational messages, one of which is a sort of mission statement that begins, “To leave a legacy of excellence, strive to be your best every day.” One of the featured achievers is Alvina Begay, a standout cross-country runner who competed at Arizona State University, qualified for the Olympic Trials several times, and finished 10th in the New York City Marathon in 2007.
Another of Yazzie’s past passengers in the school bus display is Kevin Nelson, who earned a full ride to play football at Missouri State University, graduated with a business degree, competed in an arena football league, and now owns an auto and residential glass business.
Others have earned doctoral degrees, and some have returned to the reservation to serve as a teacher or coach. Yazzie said that he finds fulfillment in hearing about his former passengers’ successes — and in knowing that he contributed in a meaningful way.
“I like to be able to say, ‘I hauled that kid around. I’ve helped him or her along the way. … I was part of their education, too.’”
Yazzie’s school bus route covers about 32 miles twice a day, mostly along a highway that traverses the reservation’s sagebrush- and sandstone-dotted landscape. His riders, whom he described as “like my own kids,” often inquire about the “Legacy of Excellence” display.
“A lot of them ask, ‘How do I get up there?’” Yazzie said. “I tell them, ‘It takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication.’”