We’re in town this time to practice curbs: if you bump one on the driving skills test, you automatically fail—no bus driver license for you today. Better luck next week.
Easier said than done. Buses are three times longer than the little city cars I’m used to driving, and right hand turns are surprisingly claustrophobic when you’re 40 feet long and have to cross into oncoming lanes just to clear that curb with your back tires.
So we’re “in town” again, driving the only square, curbed block in Pine Ridge, South Dakota—the most populous, 3,308-person community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakȟóta oyáte. The city block that we repeat again and again includes the inimitable Big Bat’s restaurant/gas station, Sacred Heart parish, the town Subway, Pine Ridge’s tribal offices, fire station, courthouse, and one of the two traffic lights in the county.
Make no mistake: it’s midday in the middle of summer. Roads and sidewalks are filled with cars and people. And here we are, trying to weave this enormous yellow bus through dust and traffic.
On the way home, we practice studentless student pick-ups and studentless student drop-offs, railroad crossings at imaginary tracks, and emergency-less emergency highway stops. With each stop, the bus flashes absurdly with hazard lights or amber warnings lights followed by red warning lights. With each stop, my STOP arm halts traffic, my doors fling open and closed, my engine echoes in the quiet summer afternoons. Kids come to windows wide-eyed, horrified at (what seems to be) the doom of school’s somehow expedited arrival; parents come to the windows perplexed:
“No, no, we’re just – I’m sorry – no, no—” I mumble pathetically and inaudibly into my dashboard, quick-yanking the handle to shut the door and end the charade, “—we’re just practicing!”
But I feel more than awkward. I feel completely out-of-place. I feel like an intruder. I feel my whiteness as noticeably as the bright yellow bus. I imagine that everyone who sees me is thinking, what is he doing here?
“Practicing, we’re just practicing!”
Making the same circuit two years later, all these memories come back to me in vivid detail, popping up alongside the road as I hang over the grey rubbery front seat, coaching another right turn.
I’m no longer the driver trainee, the CDL hopeful. I am now a bonafide, de facto, no mistaking-it “bus driver.” In these last two years working at Red Cloud Indian School, I’ve easily tallied five-thousand plus miles of before-school, after-school, sporting and field trip bus driving—and I’m not alone. I’m joined by about twenty other twenty-something college grads (Red Cloud Volunteers), who each pick up a route or two alongside their volunteer day job as educators. I’m “training” one of the new ones today, and I can see on her face that she’s feeling all the same things I felt two years ago.
Today, I see things differently.
Eyes not darting dutifully from passenger mirror to concave to convex to crossover mirrors every 9 seconds, hands not white-knuckling the wheel, feet not tapdancing the brake and gas pedals trying not to Iurch this multi-ton beast—I can look around.
I see two of my former students—one looks up and waves back.
I glimpse a friend working under a truck at the fire station.
I notice the choir director’s car in the parking lot at Sacred Heart parish and try to guess which songs we’ll sing this Sunday.
I wonder about a friend who lives in a house we pass.
Pleasant moments aside, I still feel like an intruder here, as obvious and out-of-place as a blinking yellow bus in mid-summer.
What am I doing here? I imagined every confused face was asking on those practice days two years ago.
What am I doing here? I still sometimes ask myself, painfully aware of the colonial history I represent (and can unwittingly perpetuate) as a white man, a wašíču, a non-Lakȟóta on Lakȟóta land.
What am I doing here? I still ask myself, and often get an answer straight from my students and their parents and my friends here: I am an educator. I am a bus driver. I am learning what I can. I am giving what I can. All imperfectly, but all with as gentle of a heart as I can muster.
It will all make sense again, on Tuesday, when I hop onto the stuffy, number 13 bus at 3 o’clock in the hot sun. Unbuttoning my collar, turning the key and turning on the fans—all in one swoop—my first glance into the overhead passenger mirror catches the eyes of row after row after row of my favorite students. They somehow also happen to be looking at exactly that moment—and smile.
It will all make sense again, when a middle schooler breaks that beautiful moment by clomping up the bus’ steps to my right. When she looks at me, sighs and rolls her eyes, dragging out a “not youuuuu again” before breaking into a huge smile, saying, “Hi, Garrett! You’re back! You remember where I live, right?”
The featured image, from Flickr user Darron Birgenheier, can be found here.