When bus driver Wally Williams is accused of inappropriate behaviour with the schoolchildren, dozens of parents travel to attend the hearing; by Nancy Lane.
"Mr. Pittman asked me to convene this hearing because he received a letter of complaint from the mother of one of our Deerwood Park Elementary school students," Mrs. Goode began. "The letter indicates inappropriate behavior by our school bus driver, Walter Williams."
Mrs. Goode turned to me. "Mrs. Rose, I see only teachers and one parent present. Are other parents coming?"
On Friday she had asked me to notify parents of the Tuesday night hearing in the school auditorium and told me potentially criminal activities involving Walter Williams had been reported.
Both Bruce Pittman and Walter Williams were new at the school this year. The teachers had become fond of Walter, or "Wally" as we called him. Wally lived at the end of the bus route in Eagle Creek, so he remained in the teachers' lounge each day, mostly reading while waiting to drive children back at day's end. The teachers, less fond of Pittman, considered the new principal more concerned with the politics of administration than with the concerns of teachers or students.
"Yes," I told Mrs. Goode. "The parents work. They'll have to come tonight along the same route Mr. Williams drives each day, west along Old School Road from Eagle Creek to Deerwood Park, sixty-one miles. Most don't have cars. So they are all coming on the school bus."
"Our school bus?" Pittman asked.
"Yes." I answered.
"Who's driving?" Mrs. Goode asked me, nodding toward Wally who was also seated onstage.
"Darrell Henderson. He owns the A-1 Garage in Eagle Creek. Mr. Williams drove Darrell's tow truck back after reaching Eagle Creek so he could be here on time," I replied.
"Oh yes, Henderson. He bills the district for bus repairs. I don't know that he is authorized to drive the district's bus," Pittman scowled.
"Mr. Pittman," I said, feeling irritated by his remark, "Darrell knows more about that bus than anyone. He's helped the district maintain it for many years."
"I'm getting text messages from Darrell at each stop," I told Mrs. Goode.
"We can't wait," she said and nodded to Pittman.
Bruce Pittman, bald headed and square jawed, glared down at Wally, who sat in a folding chair on stage. Pittman's large frame and booming voice would intimidate anyone. Wally, short and slim, looked childlike in the chair as he sat woodenly, waiting for Pittman's words.
Pittman pulled a letter from a folder he had placed on the lectern.
"Mr. Williams, I will read this letter, leaving out the name of the mother and daughter. Mrs. Goode and I agree the names should remain confidential. After I read it, you may respond to the charges."
Pittman cleared his throat and stepped behind the lectern. "'Dear Mr. Pittman, My daughter is a top student in the sixth grade at your school. She has told me disturbing information about the district bus driver. There are four concerns. First, the bus driver drove the children on an unauthorized, off-campus outing. Second, he has singled out three of the female students and given them the inappropriate nickname, Mermaids.'"
Wally sat expressionless. I hoped Wally was preparing his defense in his mind as Pittman read.
"'Third, the bus driver provided spray paint and encouraged a boy to deface the school bus. Fourth, and most disturbing, he downloaded pictures of scantily clad, under-aged children to his computer in the bedroom of his apartment while in the presence of a twelve year-old girl, one who rides on his bus.'"
As Pittman read, I heard someone seated behind me sniffling. A teacher beside me took a tissue packet from her purse and passed it back. I wanted to turn around, but didn't want to appear rude.
"'For our children's safety, please check into the bus driver's behavior. Sincerely...'"
Pittman stopped, looked at Wally and bellowed, "Can you explain?"
"Of course I can," Wally answered as his face turned red. "But first I want you to know that letter contains so much that is true it had to have come from someone who knows all about my bus and what we do on the bus. But it's all so wrong the way it's worded. It's as if somebody wants me to lose my job. You won't tell me who wrote that letter. But the only student on my bus who fits that description, top student in the sixth grade, is Althea Johnson. And I know Mrs. Johnson didn't write it." Normally mild-mannered Wally seethed anger.
I felt anger too, but also relief. I knew the truth behind each allegation. Wally just needed to explain. The sniffling behind me started to sound more like stifled sobbing.
Wally continued, "I didn't name the girls, 'Mermaids.' Naomi came up with the name for herself, Erika Diaz, and Althea. I think the name came from a movie the kids like. It became a convenient way to refer to the three girls."
I turned slightly. I could see a woman behind me, head bent down as she wept.
"I took the kids swimming at the pond we pass on Old School Road. The kids were getting out early on a Friday because of teacher training. Some on my bus are latch-key kids. I worried it wouldn't be safe for them to arrive home so early. The Mermaids checked everyone had swimsuits to bring. The boys stood outside the bus with me while the girls stayed on the bus to change into swimsuits. Then the girls stayed outside with me while the boys changed on the bus.
Althea wants to be a photojournalist. She took pictures at the pond with the new camera her mother gave her for her birthday. Her mother's computer is old, and her printer doesn't have the slot needed to download the camera's memory card. Mrs. Johnson phoned me and asked if she and Althea could come over to my apartment to download the swim outing pictures. I printed the pictures for Althea."
Mrs. Goode interrupted, "Mrs. Johnson is not here yet. Can we somehow verify your account?"
I raised my hand and stood. "Althea is in my class. She told me about going to Mr. Williams' apartment with her mother to download pictures. She showed me the pictures."
"Thank you, Mrs. Rose. Mr. Williams, what would you like to tell us about how the bus was defaced?" Mrs. Goode asked.
"Every morning we see one deer by the pond. The kids love that deer. It stood back in the tree line when the kids were swimming. Althea zoomed in and got a great picture, antlers and all. She gave a copy of the picture to Toby. Toby sketched it. Just beautiful, so life-like. So I bought three cans of spray paint, black, brown and white, and asked Toby to paint the deer on the hood of the school bus. If you haven't seen it yet, Mrs. Goode, you should take a look. The kids love it. It's like a logo for the school. You know, Deerwood Park Elementary - a deer on the bus."
Mrs. Goode looked stunned. "Do you mean Toby Ramirez?"
"Yes, Mrs. Goode. I don't understand how he does it, but I think maybe he's an autistic savant. I'm sure you know more about that than I do."
Mrs. Goode had been a teacher at the school before becoming district superintendent. Toby was in her second grade class three years ago. In each grade, Toby's teachers tried to get him to engage. No one had succeeded.
The parents arrived and quietly filed into the rows of chairs behind the teachers. Mrs. Goode seemed not to notice. "Mr. Williams, please tell me about Toby."
"My first week at school," Wally began, "Toby sat at the back of the bus with his head down. He didn't speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him. I took Toby's arm and guided him to a front seat. It took several times before he started sitting up front on his own. As I drove I told him about the day ahead, like an assembly in the auditorium or what would be served in the cafeteria."
"Did he start talking to you then?" Mrs. Goode asked.
"No. But one day Gilbert told me Toby is artistic. I said I already know he's autistic. He said, 'No, Mr. Williams. Toby can draw pictures. He has a pencil but no paper.' Sure enough, Toby had a pencil behind his ear. I found a sketchbook in the supply cabinet in the teachers' lounge. I put it on Toby's seat. He just held it on his lap. But after a few days, he started drawing. He wouldn't let anyone see what he was drawing.
One day Gilbert told me Toby needed a pencil sharpener. I got one, and when I handed it to Toby, he said, 'Thanks,' and sat down. The other kids started talking to him after that."
"Is he talking to them?" Mrs. Goode asked.
"Not consistently. He responds to situations, but he doesn't talk much."
"I'm amazed, Mr. Williams. It seems like a miracle." Mrs. Goode smiled. "Now, would you please tell me about the Mermaids?"
The tone of the hearing had turned one hundred eighty degrees. Without more accusations, Pittman had taken his seat. Mrs. Goode's questioning of Wally seemed a friendly conversation between colleagues.
"Mrs. Goode," Wally continued, "I felt discouraged the first week of school. Don't get me wrong. All my kids were well behaved. But they weren't motivated. They didn't do anything on the bus. Some talked with others, but most looked out the window or sat with their heads against the back of the seat in front of them.
Three kids were different. Sixth-grader Althea, fifth-grader Erika and fourth-grader Naomi were always reading, not just for school assignments, but fun subjects like photography, stamp collecting and origami. They were diving into the world through books instead of wasting our bus time. I thought about them as I stared at my bus through the window in the teachers' lounge. I read the lettering, 'School Bus.' Aha! I thought. 'School' comes before 'Bus.' I realized I was driving a learning environment on wheels.
I asked the three girls why the other kids weren't reading. Althea told me some of the first and second graders hadn't learned reading yet, and some of the older kids had trouble with some words. I asked the girls if they could help the other kids with reading. That's how it started.
I asked the school librarian for multiple copies of classic children's books for each grade. The three girls started reading with groups of kids."
"Why are you so passionate about reading?" Mrs. Goode asked.
"Well, Mrs. Goode," Wally replied, "I loved school when I was little. But by about the third grade, I started falling behind the other kids. Fact was, they could read and I couldn't. I tried hard to learn. I struggled. I did poorly in other subjects because I couldn't read my assignments. When I got to high school, I feared I would never be able to graduate.
My eleventh grade English teacher recognized my problem. 'Walter,' she said, 'you are the smartest boy in my class, but you are dyslexic.' She stayed each day after class teaching me to read. Now I'm a lifelong learner. I love reading about Astronomy and the Old West. But I read other subjects as well."
"Mr. Williams, any other thoughts?" Mrs. Goode asked.
Wally looked down while biting his lip. That looked to me like body language for worry about what he wanted to say. "I'd like to tell Mr. Pittman something," Wally answered.
Mr. Pittman stood up. "Yes?"
"Mr. Pittman, you know, or should know, on the most recent state reading tests, all Deerwood Park kids scored well, but my kids improved the most. I don't take credit for their scores. The teachers do a remarkable job with all of the kids. And the Mermaids have helped so much.
"My kids stay on the bus and read or study even when the bus breaks down and we have to wait for Darrell to get us started. My kids use their time well. That's what I wanted to tell you, Mr. Pittman."
The teachers exchanged concerned looks up and down our row of chairs. I worried how Pittman might react to Wally's push back and guessed the other teachers did as well.
Pittman looked downward for a long time before speaking. "Mr. Williams, the purpose of a hearing is to find the truth. You have provided much more truth than I think any of us expected. As for me, I learned a great deal from you tonight. I learned I misjudged you and underestimated your value to the district. I spoke to you in a tone that was condescending and accusatory. I was wrong. I apologize." Pittman returned to his seat.
Mrs. Goode turned toward the rows of parents. "I'm impressed to see so many parents. If you would like to say something, please stand. I'm interested to hear your inputs."
Mr. Tall Bear, Naomi's grandfather, sat at the end of a row of folding chairs, with a large, round basket on the floor beside him. I wondered what it was for.
The elder tribesman stood. "Mrs. Goode, the school bus holds forty passengers, not room enough for all who wanted to come. The tribal parents asked me to speak for them. This school year our children are alert and excited about school, more energetic than ever. They help their parents more and listen better to the stories of our traditions. We appreciate Mr. Williams."
As Mr. Tall Bear sat down, Mrs. Diaz stood up. "Mrs. Goode, those who came with me tonight are not so confident in English. So I speak for all. We are families of farm workers. The work is hard. Education is most important for better lives for our children. Mr. Williams helped them learn much. My daughter, Erika, is proud to be a Mermaid. Thank you."
Mrs. Johnson spoke last. "Mrs. Goode, the other parents in Eagle Creek have small children, so they could not come tonight. They asked me to tell you how grateful they are to Mr. Williams. I would like to address Mr. Williams directly."
"Yes, go ahead, Mrs. Johnson," Mrs. Goode replied.
Mrs. Johnson turned to Wally. "My father used to tell me that praise embarrasses humble men. Walter, I respect your humility, but you must suffer my praise. I credit you alone for the amazing change in my daughter. Althea has gone from a girl to a young woman this year. Of course she's been on a great trajectory as top student every year. This year that trajectory skyrocketed." Wally smiled as Mrs. Johnson made a sweeping upward gesture.
"Althea used to tell me she wants to be a photojournalist so she can travel and meet important people. Now she tells me she wants to be a photojournalist so she can help people see beautiful places through her lens and learn about important events throughout the world. Althea sees herself as a world citizen now. You gave her the opportunity and inspiration to help others with her talents. Inspiring others is your special talent, Walter. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Mrs. Johnson put her hands together and bowed toward Wally. Wally stood and bowed back.
Mr. Tall Bear stood up again, this time drawing up the basket. "Mrs. Goode, all of the parents would like to shake Mr. Williams' hand if that's okay."
Mrs. Goode nodded.
The parents formed a line behind Mr. Tall Bear, who placed the basket next to Wally's chair, shook Wally's hand, and then presented him with an apple. Each parent climbed the few steps to the stage while pulling an apple from a coat pocket or purse. By the time Wally had three apples to hold, he realized the purpose of the basket beside him.
After about a dozen parents had shaken Wally's hand, the sobbing woman behind me quietly left her seat. I glanced behind to see her disappear through the auditorium side door.
Juan Ramirez, Toby's grandfather, held apple thirty-nine out before him. Wally accepted it and reached out his hand. The tiny old man with bent shoulders thrust his arms around Wally, burying his head momentarily in Wally's chest. I knew Wally was a non-hugger, uncomfortable with the hugging response so natural to many of us. He stood motionless until Toby's grandfather released him. He looked relieved as Mrs. Johnson, at the end of the line, smiled and offered apple forty and a handshake.
It was past nine when Mrs. Goode closed the meeting. Mr. Tall Bear carried Wally's apple basket as the parents and Wally headed to the bus. I walked to my classroom to get my purse and keys. As I switched on the classroom light I heard footsteps behind me.
"Mrs. Rose, may I talk with you, please?"
I turned to see the sobbing woman. I ushered her to a chair by my desk. "How can I help you?" I asked.
"I'm Glenda Reynolds, Lucinda's mother. I wrote the letter Mr. Pittman read tonight," she said.
I knew Lucinda, a sixth-grader in Mr. Gray's class. She was Althea's best friend.
"Why did you write that letter? It was misleading. It could have caused problems for Mr. Williams. You live in town. Your daughter doesn't even ride on his bus." I was trying not to sound harsh.
"I'm so sorry. Lucinda never lied to me before. She told me awful things, and I believed her. When I heard at the meeting what a fine man Mr. Williams is, I went out in the hall and phoned Lucinda. She admitted everything. I feel so guilty about the letter." Mrs. Reynolds dabbed her swollen, red eyes with a limp tissue.
"Why did Lucinda lie?" I asked.
"Althea is top student every year, and Lucinda is always number two. The local Soroptimist Club honors the top two sixth grade girls each year. The last Monday of school they will take two girls for a university tour and luncheon on campus. Lucinda really wants to go with Althea. Two other sixth grade girls on Mr. Williams' bus have improved their grades so much one of them might get the number two spot. Lucinda thought if Mr. Williams got fired the other girls might fall back in their studies before the semester ends.
Mrs. Rose, my daughter and I are really close. I know she and I will work this out. But I've heard you are friends with Mr. Williams. Would you apologize to him for me?" she implored.
"No," I replied. "You must do that yourself."
"But he will be so mad at me," she said.
"No," I told her. "I know he'll accept your apology. His bus will arrive tomorrow at eight fifteen or so. Why don't you meet him then and apologize? The sooner the better."
As Wally's kids filed into class the next morning, I glanced out the window to the parking lot. Mrs. Reynolds stood face-to-face with Wally. She offered an apple she pulled from her coat pocket. He took the apple and they shook hands.
Six weeks later the entire student body sat in the auditorium, one giant fidget away from summer break. Pittman rapped on the lectern to get their attention for the last business item of the school year. Ten teachers and Mrs. Goode sat on stage with Pittman.
"Please everyone, come to order. You will be free as the wind momentarily. But now it's time to announce the Teacher of the Year Award. The teachers vote by secret ballot. This year we had a write-in candidate. You teachers," Pittman smiled at us, "have chosen unanimously Mr. Walter Williams as Teacher of the Year. Please come up, Mr. Williams."
The audience exploded as Pittman's eyes scanned to find Wally. Reaction started with the bus riders and spread to the in-town kids. All jumped up and down, girls shrieking, boys whistling and shouting. I worried Wally wasn't in the auditorium but outside on his bus, waiting for his kids to board for their last ride of the school year.
Gilbert popped up and scurried to the back of the auditorium. Wally emerged, and Gilbert coaxed him forward amid thunderous applause.
On stage, Pittman handed Wally a plaque and held onto his hand after a firm handshake. "Wait a minute, Walter, before you leave. You have done a magnificent job this year. We hope you will choose to stay with us for many school years to come. However, I must ask you to change in one respect. I have it on good authority you don't like to hug or be hugged." Pittman looked past Wally to wink at me. "But educators are huggers. It's in our DNA. This award confirms you are an educator. You will have to learn to give and receive hugs."
Pittman wrapped his arms around Wally, who held his award in one hand while he slapped three times on Pittman's back with his free hand, like a wrestler tapping out for release. Once freed, Wally looked ashen and deflated as if Pittman had actually squeezed the air from him. He gasped and thus regained his color and volume.
There was no holding back the children and no reason to. Chaos in the auditorium spilled outside as in-town kids ran to waiting parents in the parking lot and bus riders ran, skipped and danced their way to the school bus. We teachers hugged Wally ever so gently as we said goodbye. I watched as the school bus exited the parking lot and turned east on Old School Road.