The following essay was originally published at Steve Salaita’s blog:
About halfway to the lot, a ribbon of cobalt rises on the horizon; when it’s cloudy, a common occurrence in the mid-Atlantic, the darkness stays pure. The spectrum of color will change with the seasons, but now it is winter and the sun comes slowly, if it appears at all.
Upon arrival, I exit my car, leaving it unlocked, and strap on my hazel backpack, which holds a bottle of tap water, a book (usually detective or spy fiction), lens cleaner, Imodium, a pen (I hate being anywhere without one), cough drops, hand sanitizer, two granola bars, and a banana. Garden mat and flashlight in hand, I begin my safety check, circling the vehicle for anything suspicious. Then I inspect rims, lug nuts, and tire tread before kneeling on the pavement to check the frame, slack adjusters, fuel tank, steering linkage, bushings, shock absorbers, brake lining, and a bunch of other doohickeys, a task that age and temperature make especially unpleasant. I open the door, examine the stairs and handrail, click the interior lights, unlock emergency hatches, and walk the aisle to make sure seats are properly bolted, exiting again into the cold morning, its cobalt replaced by the lucent bloom of dawn, where I check tire pressure, light covers, and compartments. After lifting the hood, I shine the flashlight on belts and engine parts and fluid tanks, finally removing the floppy dipstick to verify proper oil level. An elaborate brake test, three more walk-arounds, some additional prodding and dickering, and I’m done.
The lot is a colossal expanse of asphalt with yellow markings in diagonal patterns, circled by more spaces around the periphery. Despite regular bursts of sound and light, it’s a lonely place, filled with people but unconducive to conversation. Every now and again, I run into a colleague and exchange pleasantries. We rarely discuss management. It’s a largely contented workforce.
“Have a good run,” we say in closing. A good run can include any number of things, but mostly it means the delivery of uninjured children.
When I first climb aboard, the bus smells like an oncoming cold front. After the engine runs for a few minutes, it fills with the smoldering warmth of burning diesel. It will later reek of bubblegum and lunch meat.
I rev up and pull into rush hour, maneuvering through stoplights and turn lanes. The subdivisions I work are sortable by income: garden-style condos, townhouses, single-family homes, and McMansions. In my area—the portion of the county where I am assigned—most schools are mixed-income and ethnically diverse, though other districts are suburban as imagined by Hollywood. I pick up bushels of children, some smiling, others nervous. I make sure they’re seated before putting the transmission into drive. I’m still learning their names; they call me Mr. Steve.
Depending on the particulars of my route, I sometimes make it home for a smoke and a nap between shifts. Normally I’m close enough to sneak back, but traffic in the DC region is unpredictable, tending toward intolerable. If escape is unlikely, I skim a book and doze in the driver’s seat, nestled in a coat and hood when the exterior seeps through the capacious glass.
In the afternoon, I perform a shorter safety check and enjoy more small talk before pulling into a loading zone hectic with the dither of freedom. Now the children are more enthusiastic and thus more prone to mischief. Every minute or two, I deposit mini-hordes of cantankerous pupils into bustling subdivisions that will soon resume a quiet normalcy. I pull forward again. I stop a few blocks later. And on it goes until I’ve completed all three levels of secondary education.
That’s me inside the panoramic windshield, a vagrant mercenary living a post-professorial life of interrupted motion.
Becoming a school bus driver wasn’t random. I used to be a professor—I rushed my way into academe, in fact, landing on the tenure-track (at a public regional university) straight out of grad school. I put in a good effort to make it happen, but the career felt manifest. My father taught physics at an HBCU in southern West Virginia and my earliest memories involve following him to work, chalk dust and textbooks intoxicating my emergent senses.
“Prof,” he called me with booming approval, his breath warm with pistachio and nicotine. I earned the moniker by disappearing into my room for hours and validated it by becoming my father’s unqualified research assistant. At some point during my childhood, the nickname became a decree. I went to college at seventeen knowing I would never leave.
21 years later I got fired. Now I can’t return.
We mainly think of job loss in economic terms. It’s a reasonable focus; the suddenly unemployed must consider food and shelter in a society unempathetic to destitution. The destitute are terrific symbols of caution, which makes them a class to vehemently avoid. But we’re also conditioned by jobs. They organize social relations. They influence mobility. They are essential far beyond utilitarian qualities.
I loved teaching, and often loved writing, but I had a hard go of things in the academy. Three consecutive jobs ended in public controversy. I’m bothered by the (admittedly logical) inference that I courted drama or mistreated colleagues because of that controversy. In reality, I was only un-collegial in my reluctance to participate in the civic life of campus. That is, I vigorously minded my own business. My words weren’t so reticent, however.
There are lots of stories from Virginia Tech, the University of Illinois, and the American University of Beirut [AUB], but they all end with the same lesson: for all its self-congratulation, the academy’s loftiest mission is a fierce compulsion to eliminate any impediment to donations.
When I recall my hardest moments in academe, my thoughts invariably wander to AUB, perhaps because it was my last gig. As my contract wound down and the job market came up cold, every morning felt like the Friday of finals week. During this period, I finally understood the ugly possibilities of mendacity and alienation in spaces devoted to higher learning. A search committee had selected me for a directorship. Meanwhile, US Senators and AUB’s reactionary donor class pressured the university’s president to cancel the appointment. AUB has long been a site of soft power for the State Department. Platitudes about faculty governance and student leadership notwithstanding, universities inhibit democracy in ways that would please any thin-skinned despot. Despite vigorous protest from a small but spirited group of students and a smattering of bad press, AUB held firm. I left Beirut in August of 2017. The program I was hired to direct has since collapsed, though it maintains a five-million-dollar endowment.
The situation provided an occasion to confront the nagging trauma of infamy. Lots of people washed out of the news cycle can tell you that the upshot of recognition is disposability. Consumers want heroes, but heroism is contingent on the hero’s willingness or ability to emblematize an audience’s psychic and libidinal needs. In other words, adoration stipulates obedience, which produces a tenuous codependency. Conditions of support supersede the subject’s control (and sometimes the subject’s knowledge). The great paradox of public life is that leadership requires conformity.
Infamy never agreed with my disposition. I disliked the attention, which seemed to elicit vague expectations of reciprocity; I hated the rewards that come from reciting slogans and platitudes; I detested the tacit contract that I was supposed to be some kind of role-model to people who proclaim mistrust of authority. After a while I felt obliged to sabotage my fame. No media appearances. No networking. No phony relationships. No orchestrated controversies. No whiny monologues about being repressed. In short, none of the usual bullshit that goes into the making of a micro-celebrity. When a white liberal upbraided me for failing in my responsibilities as an “Arab American leader” (I had criticized one of Bernie Sanders’s terrible opinions about Palestine) a return to pseudo-anonymity seemed to be the only viable response.
You hear ex-professors say it all the time and I’ll add to the chorus: despite nagging precariousness, there’s something profoundly liberating about leaving academe, whereupon you are no longer obliged to give a shit about fashionable thinkers, network at the planet’s most boring parties, or quantify self-worth for scurrilous committees (and whereupon you are free to ignore the latest same-old controversy), for even when you know at the time that the place is toxic, only after you exit (spiritually, not physically) and write an essay or read a novel or complete some other task without considering its relevance to the fascist gods of assessment, or its irrelevance to a gang of cynical senior colleagues, do you realize exactly how insidious and pervasive is the industry’s culture of social control.
There are tragic elements to this adventure, sure. A political symbolism informs my academic career. After months without work, my family suffered financial hardship. And I didn’t matriculate through 22nd grade in order to land a job that requires no college. Then again, neither did I attend so many years of college in order to be disabused of the notion that education is noble.
School buses are probably the most iconic symbol of American transit. Nearly everybody who grew up in the United States rode the bus as a child, even private school kids. It’s rare to take a drive without seeing one. Itinerant yellow rectangles (though I always thought of them as orange) with black trim and amber lights, school buses are essential fauna in roadway ecology. Because of their ubiquity, few motorists notice them (as opposed to, say, the Oscar Meyer Wiener Mobile); when stuck behind one, it’s all a frustrated driver can see.
Most adults remember the school bus with mixed feelings. For some, it was a place of mischief and merriment, for others a site of anxiety. But everybody shares the experience of getting carted to boxy structures with brick exteriors and drab paint where they sat in sterile cinder rooms adorned ineffectually with cheery décor and pledged allegiance to their own dispossession. The school bus is our erstwhile conveyance into good citizenship, blazing along with the promise of economic mobility.
The life of a driver, then, is surprisingly complex. The main task is simple—transport kids safely to and from school—but it involves various forms of delivery. We’re supposed to facilitate access to education without considering its function in the systems that inform our wages. The roads we traverse are monuments to automobile culture, spread across endless acreage in seemingly random but brutally deliberate patterns. This infrastructure emerged from racism, extraction, and accumulation, the bellwethers of civic pride, patterned and imprinted on enervated, overburdened land. Every weekday morning, we spark the ignition, warm the engine, and put the spirit of colonialism into overdrive.
Yet the job induces primal expressions of love. School buses supersede their physical structure; they anchor a huge apparatus designed to guard the vulnerable. The machine is outfitted with lights and blinkers calculated to announce its presence. It is excessive on purpose. Nothing is more important than its cargo. SUVs, bicycles, eighteen-wheelers, ambulances, fire trucks—all abdicate their right of way when the stop sign and crossbar swing into the roadway. The school bus is one of the few institutions in the United States that protects the powerless from the depredations of commerce.
Reinvention is difficult in middle age, all the more so in relation to prestige and salary. Professing is more an avocation than a job and so departing campus can be disorienting. My departure was incomplete until I became serious about a nonacademic career. It became final when I traded the hue of my collar. Incrementalism is good for think tank fodder and bureaucratic culture because it’s a natural accoutrement to boredom. For people trying to overcome indifference or ennui, abruptness is a better approach.
People still call me “prof” but these days I dislike the title. I no longer see myself as an academic (and was always wary of pompous descriptors like “expert” or “public intellectual”). Forfeiting that title is more philosophical than practical. I no longer profess and therefore no longer assume the burden of professorial expectations. No more civility or nuance or dispassion or objectivity or whatever term they’re using these days to impel obedience. It’s as close to freedom as a prole can get in this self-deluded country, where the government legislates on behalf of the private sector and the private sector obliterates dissent on behalf of the government.
I wanted good work, honest work, the kind in mythologies of industriousness and humility, where humans with denim overalls deposit saline piety into the earth and die for rustic ideals of personal valor. I dreamed of coffee and tea and cassava raining down on the countryside. But I settled for health insurance. Like any person disavowed of reverence, I finally recognized the need to disappear into the system that destroyed me.
During the height of my infamy, I visited Toronto for a conference. I’d been traveling a lot and felt perpetually lightheaded. The line for passport control at Billy Bishop Airport was manageable. A couple dozen yards into the lake facing downtown, the airport is one of the few comfortable spots in North America for the economy class traveler. With about four parties between me and the window, I noticed that my pen was missing. My pockets and backpack came up empty.
“Pardon me,” I said to the woman in front of me. “May I borrow your pen, please?”
She herded her two kids back into line. “I’m so sorry,” she replied tartly, “I don’t have one, either.” I glanced at her freshly completed customs declaration card. “My children lost it,” she explained.
I turned around but nobody was behind me. After pivoting back, I noticed the woman assessing me with a quizzical expression whose meaning was by that point of my life unmistakable. Before I could turn away again, out it came.
I pursed my lips and nodded. She immediately launched into an indignant soliloquy about my plight that would have ended in pious assurance of support had the agent not called her to the window halfway through the performance.
I wasn’t listening. Had she loaned me a pen, I could have written the speech for her. Instead I seethed through a silent monologue: “No, I’m not fucking ‘Steve.’ I’m a careless son of a bitch who somewhere in or above this godforsaken continent, maybe at a stuffy boarding gate or in a cramped airline seat, lost a writing utensil I normally guard with spastic obsession. Because I’m human and humans do stupid shit. I’m not a disembodied mascot for public affectations of outrage. I’m just a crank who needs a goddamn pen.”
When I reached the window, the agent looked unimpressed. “Listen, sir,” I began, “I don’t seem to have a pen. Can I use yours real quick?” He handed over a clear Bic with a black cap and pointed to the back of the room.
“Go over there. Fill out your card. Get back in line.”
“Can I do it here? It’ll just take a second.”
“Go over there. Fill out your card. Get back in line.”
“I promise it’ll just be—”
“When you get back to the front of the line, be sure to return the pen.”
I walked to the table and opened my passport. It took about a minute to complete the task. In the meantime, two planeloads had filled the queue beyond the final barrier.
Academic jobs are notorious for long, convoluted hiring processes, but becoming a school bus driver, at least in the county where I work, isn’t much easier. For an academic position, applicants submit a dossier (often packed with repetitive material), survive a screening interview (with a committee larded by ulterior motives), and visit the prospective employer for at least a day, during which they’ll be tested and measured by dozens of gatekeepers, before negotiating a complex employment package and earning the governing board’s rubber stamp, all of which can take over a year. Aspiring drivers attend an orientation, watch dozens of online videos, solicit moral references, pass a physical (including a drug screening), get a commercial learner’s permit (a laborious process that requires extensive testing and hours at the DMV), finish classroom and road training (at least 200 hours), sit for various written exams (failure of a single exam can mean removal from the program), complete a half-day CDL test (which includes a daunting pre-trip bus check), and undertake at least two weeks of on-the-job training before showing up at the intake office to request a route that probably isn’t available. Trainees are paid once they reach the classroom. I finished everything in about six months.
Before showing up to the classroom, numerous emails instructed us to arrive before 6:00 AM and wait to be buzzed in. They were particular about where to park and how to dress. I began to feel like the protagonist in a campy spy novel. The address led to a brown brick office/warehouse combo in an industrial park filled with squat, rectangular buildings. The novel took a dystopian turn.
I parked my mom’s 2006 Buick Lacrosse, its dashboard covered with Central American swag, and walked around the building, passing unmarked doors. The lot was filled with small trucks sporting the county seal. In front of the building, a sign ten yards above one of the doors read “SCHOOL BUS DRIVER TRAINING PROGRAM.” I popped a lozenge into my mouth and pulled the handle. Inside were about two dozen people (nineteen, I would later find out) waiting in a stairwell leading to another unmarked door. The trainees lined up in two rows, leaning against cinder walls painted the color of uncooked biscuits. Nobody spoke, but we smiled and nodded heads.
Soon a tall, owlish woman opened the door, latched it against the wall, and invited us in, offering everyone a personalized “good morning.” Tired and wary, we wandered through dead-end corridors and finally found our classroom. The room was cheerier than the building, but still depressing. The heater worked and that was enough. Eight hexagonal desks were surrounded by disembodied bus parts: tires draped in snow chains, a simulated dashboard, fisheye mirrors, a sample fuel pump, exhaust pipes and drive shafts. It was like a mechanical stations of the cross for bright-eyed Sunday school pupils.
Our instructor was setting up PowerPoint on a projector. I had met her months earlier at orientation, when prospective drivers formally submit applications. She was in her mid-sixties, rail-thin with a shock of frizzled blond hair above her forehead. Her name was Brenda and she was serious about her responsibilities, with a style that combined den mother and drill sergeant.
She asked us to fill in the empty nameplates adorning each table. What should have been a simple exercise quickly developed into farce. My “Steve” was uncomplicated only because it’s my actual name. The guy across from me wrote “Tom.” I tried not to be presumptuous, but he didn’t look or sound like any Tom I’ve ever known. The guy at the next table didn’t look or sound like a “Charles,” either. One person wrote “J,” skipping the “a” and the “y.” Another wrote “E.J.”
These names in fact proved fake when Brenda took roll. Suddenly “E.J.” (Eusebio, it turns out) was incomprehensible. “Tom” (Bountham) became an Indochinese mystery. After Brenda failed to pronounce “JungSook” half a dozen times, the woman she tried to identify added “(call Esther)” to her nameplate. Those who opted not to Anglicize ended up with new names, anyway: Mehdi was rechristened “Matty”; Susheela became “Sss…uh…Soo?”
Out of 20 trainees, 17 were immigrants—and my parents are from other countries, so the room was brushing against 90 percent foreign. The all-American conveyance would be driven by surplus.
Brenda was game, though. She’d sent hundreds of people from borderlands to school buses and she intended to whip us into shape no matter how many sequential vowels or consonants she encountered. About an hour into the first day, she was reading from an HR document when she stopped short and glared at one of the tables. “Hong!” she bellowed. “What are you doing?” The guilty student looked up nervously from his smart phone. Everybody winced in sympathy at Hong’s mistake (real name Shi-Hong, by the way). “You’re on paid time. Cell phones aren’t allowed.”
“No, no,” he pleaded. “I was just getting my social security number.”
“You keep that thing on your phone?”
Hong looked confused, as if to politely ask, “Where else would it go?” He said, “Yes, on the phone, yes.”
Brenda feigned incredulity and continued the lesson. I was grateful for Shi-Hong’s blunder; bursts of excitement were the only thing keeping me awake. Although I was a professor for nearly fifteen years, I never did well in school settings. Teaching was different. Time passes smoothly when managing a classroom, even on the rough days. Sitting in the audience, whether it’s a seminar or training session or conference panel, has the effect of skin dripping down sallow cheekbones. Things that irritate the teacher are welcome from the student’s point of view.
Since college I’ve had a recurring nightmare about being forced through some absurd scenario into finishing high school. It’s vivid to the point of tactility. The dank ambience of the old building, with its tawny walls and ossified classrooms, stays with me for the next day or two. I’m an adult among teenagers, terrified because I’ve skipped a class all year and report cards are coming. Sometimes I realize that completing the degree is unnecessary and announce to mom and dad my intention to quit. Usually, though, the dream ends inside school, before the salvation of cap and gown.
Halfway through my first day in the training center I realized that the nightmare will no longer be necessary. My subconscious wasn’t processing the past, but preparing me for an unknown future, initiated by a departure from the constraints of education. Here was a different form of commencement. I suppose it’s a common realization. The professional world doesn’t offer escape from numbing consonance and enforced conformity; it rehearses those afflictions in more perilous environments. High school is forever. You have the chickenshits who talk big but never challenge authority; the alt-kids who jump at any chance to impress the cool crowd; the dickhead men (usually coaches) getting away with obvious abuse; the classmates prosecuting rules on behalf of administrators; the outcasts and losers everyone ridicules to enhance their own status, or avoids in order to preserve their spot in the social hierarchy. We don’t matriculate through discrete existential increments; we reproduce the same dispossession across the entire accursed economy. To hell with reading, writing, and arithmetic; school is real-time preparation for the indignities of capitalism.
Brenda evinced no mean-spiritedness, but she carried out the task of discipline with gusto. When we reached the section on appropriate handling of students, she launched into a diatribe about freaks and perverts, vowing to hunt down any among us and inflict corporeal harm. A man in the back of the room chuckled. Brenda stopped mid-sentence and put her right fist on her hip, pointing her left finger in the air. “Excuse me?” Everybody turned around to see the man, who was smiling. “Why are you laughing…what’s your name?…Oscar?”
“I’m not sure,” Oscar said in singsong English. “I just thought that was funny, you know?”
“What on God’s green earth is funny about abusing children?”
Oscar wasn’t ridiculing the abuse of children, but the person discussing abuse of children as if narrating a Steven Seagal production. He was too gracious to point out the distinction. “Nothing funny,” he shrugged.
Brenda wasn’t convinced. “Do you have children?” she demanded.
“I have a grandson in elementary school.”
“How would you like it if some pervert did something to him?”
“I’d be very upset.”
“Okay then,” Brenda declared triumphantly.
Oscar continued smiling, something, we soon learned, he does often. A few days into training, he began referring to me as “doc.” The first time, I was taken aback. Did he know something about me? I decided he was being jocular, possibly riffing on my native English or my habit of reading novels during break. He didn’t inquire about what brought me to the training center at middle age. None of us made such inquiries. Our group was friendly and supportive, but adhered to an unspoken embargo on nosiness. None of us grew up dreaming of becoming a school bus driver. It didn’t seem tactful to extract backstories. People drive for various reasons, but the profession is no stranger to hard luck. Everyone in my cohort was there either from boredom or deprivation: retirees looking for extra income, escapees from bureaucratic tedium, taxi/Uber subcontractors pursuing steadier employment, global drifters seeking relief in a brutal job market, inhabitants of a wealthy nation somehow in need of benefits.
The demographics of my cohort informed its restraint. We inquired about children, language, town of residence, and country of origin, but never about politics, religion, or ideology. Immigrants understand that social media algorithms and advertising categories are unstable. Plenty of Muslims support Trump; plenty of dreamers want strong borders. People come to the United States for hundreds of reasons. Any of us could have been an academic, dissident, grifter, politician, spy, prisoner, jailer, soldier, activist, peasant, or war criminal. The possibilities didn’t matter. The moment we converged upon the training center, class became our shared priority.
The provost was desperate. I had ignored his emails for two days. His assistant got through by phone and implored me to come in for a meeting. The provost was eager to see me. That afternoon. No, it couldn’t wait.
I climbed the hundred-plus stairs from my apartment to upper campus. I knew why I had been summoned: administration was pissy because a group of students had been agitating in response to its arbitrary cancellation of my appointment as director of American Studies. The group was small but effective. It had upset management by connecting my situation to AUB’s colonialist existence, a touchy subject at a lavish campus enclosed by barbed wire in an insolvent country suffering the hardship of U.S. and Israeli aggression.
The provost greeted me effusively. It wasn’t a gambit to put me at ease. Overwrought joviality was his thing. A tall, lanky man with the gravitas of a pogo stick, he had earned his job through the sort of obsequiousness senior faculty love to confuse with merit. His office was spacious and dignified, with stone and hardwood flourishes, affecting the air of a midcentury secretariat in the tropics. The surroundings were jarringly discordant with their boobish occupant.
“Stee-fen!” he exclaimed after asking about my family, “there are strange things afoot on campus.” It appeared that a few misguided students were yelling about some kind of injustice. I could see where the conversation was going long before he got to the point, which was surprisingly forthright. He wanted me to quash the rebellion. I told him it wasn’t mine to quash. You could quash it anyway, he noted (accurately). He made it clear that I would be rewarded if I named the troublemakers. The president, he declared, motioning toward the hallway, would put me “on his head,” an expression that sounds less stupid in Arabic. “Put you on his head, Stee-fen!” he repeated, pointing at me with one index finger and tapping the other against his cranium. The offer wasn’t especially appealing; the president stood at chin-level and I had serious doubts about his sense of balance.
The provost’s proposition is standard operating procedure in the corporate university, though rarely so explicit. Assist in maintaining order and enjoy the compensation; disrupt progress and suffer a cascade of indignity. Campus governance is a masterpiece of pusillanimity. Upper administrators are happy to step in and maintain discipline when self-policing goes awry. Dozens of mechanisms, some imperceptible, combine to send the message that looking after the well-being of the wretched is a bad idea. Here I had someone tossing away the pretense and informing me that cooperation might preserve my livelihood.
I told the provost I’d think it over. He looked pleased but unconvinced. I hurried down to my apartment and told my wife about the meeting.
“What’ll you do?” she asked.
“I ain’t no fucking rat,” I replied.
The students received no support from faculty, or from any demographic invested in the brand, eliminating the need for extortion. A few months later we packed up our home by the sea and moved into my brother-in-law’s spare bedroom in Northern Virginia.
I was rarely nervous speaking in public, even when infamy provided large audiences. During that period I was fighting for a cause, one indivisible from my career, and so I welcomed opportunities to lecture. Self-assurance gave way to nervousness after speaking became an occupation. Like any prestige economy, speechmaking is fraught with ego and betrayal. It requires self-promotion and networking and assertiveness and all kinds of other things I do poorly. People in the circuit are cognizant of the approaches and opinions that would limit their desirability and the size of their audiences. They also understand which demographics to ridicule and which to promote. Public discourse doesn’t exist in a free market.
Academics, writers, and activists covet nothing more than speaking invitations, especially keynotes. Eminence isn’t a neutral condition, but a commodity subject to intense competition. I can’t count the times I’ve seen someone crash a panel or presentation through artful politicking. A distinct subgenre exists of public intellectuals grousing about the horror of not being granted an audience. Repression as brand equity. It’s a sad scene and a headache for anybody less interested in performance than upheaval. For oppressed communities supposedly represented by prominent natives, the speaking gig economy is just another form of dispossession.
Within a year of returning to the United States, I began ignoring or rejecting invitations. When the inquiries dried up, I didn’t miss them. I no longer wanted to travel, especially by air. The worst elements of capitalism get crammed into pressurized fuselages: comfort is reserved for the high-end customer, who enjoys fast-track security screening, opulent lounges, and excessive legroom; everyone else is cargo. I always figured that an airplane is a good spot for revolution. It’s likely to happen during the boarding process, when tired, cranky travelers who have been nagged and cajoled for hours file through business class on the way to economy and see a bunch of assholes chilling in spacious recliners, cocktails in hand.
Or they could slink into 19-inch-wide middle seats and concede that discomfort is the way of the world, that money justifies inequality, and with harder work they’ll one day relax on the right side of the curtain. No amount of adoring audiences, no accumulation of awards and honoraria, will influence their decision. They took too many bus trips to school as children.
Every now and again while my family sleeps and I’m on the back porch enjoying a final cigarette I think about my days as a star speaker, memories that allow me to better appreciate the quiet of my surroundings, although in pronounced moments of loneliness I miss the company of the audience, the pleasure of applause and laughter and the cathartic thrill of raging against injustice, but the feeling is evanescent, for the sobering immediacy of cold air on my fingertips and pressure in my thorax reminds me of both material and psychological limitations that render me unfit for prominence, being that I’ve become the kind of person content with the humdrum thrill of stopping traffic.
I wasn’t nervous the first time I drove a school bus. I strapped the belt, adjusted my seat, and almost shifted into drive without pressing the brake. Nervousness would have been helpful.
I began on a transit bus, the goofy rectangular jalopies without a nose. They’re tricky to steer because the tires sit behind the driver and the enormous windshield can produce a sense of vertigo. My trainer barked a string of instructions, but in my mind I was already cruising down the interstate. I never dreamed that metal and rubber could feel so natural.
Over the course of two weeks I learned to make hairpin turns, merge onto highways, program a government gas pump, navigate country roads, cross railroad tracks, parallel park, avoid tree branches, and back into narrow spaces. Then I spent a few days on conventional buses, the ones with a hood in front and a huge overhang beyond the back tires. The final step was driving a supervised route, where I refined the art of deploying warning lights to impatient motorists. There were some dicey moments, but I kept the buses in one piece.
I thought of the training as a condensed university education. The diploma is a commercial driver’s license, the bus driver equivalent to a doctoral student’s comprehensive exams. This point isn’t completely hyperbolic. I studied many hours for a CDL; the test itself took many hours longer. Getting to that point wasn’t a certainty. By CDL time, my cohort had decreased from 20 to 11. It’s a terrible mistake to think of commercial drivers as unskilled.
Mostly I was content with a new sense of purpose. A common feature of depression is being unable to imagine a decent future, one reason why insightful thinkers connect the condition to the scarcities of modernity and increasing recognition of a coming ecological catastrophe. I don’t know that salvation can be found in labor, a notion that combines the most alienating elements of Christianity and capitalism, but I’m not disposed to anymore pretend that grace can be attained by discussing work in paid conversations.
My father isn’t much of a talker, but when I was young he occasionally spoke of honest work. It’s a common trope around the world. Honest work emphasizes pride over salary. It’s not measurable according to the value of labor, or the sale of labor to the overclass, but an abstract barometer of integrity. Movies and novels make heavy use of the motif: better to sling garbage or pick lettuce than join the mafia. The honest worker has no money, but enjoys plenty of moral satisfaction.
Little ethical difference exists between legitimate business and the underworld. One group performs legal violence, but both rely on deceit and aggression to maintain an atmosphere conducive to profit. If anything, corporations surpass the brutality of cartels and black marketeers, or exist in league with them. Governments serve at the behest of corporations.
But even to a cynic, honest work has appeal. In a system that so adeptly makes livelihood contingent on obedience, few people can afford to be champions of the downtrodden. There’s something comforting about the low stakes of an hourly wage, but there’s no such thing as a thoughtless vocation. What the bosses call mindless labor in fact requires terrific exertion. I no longer have the energy to struggle through contradiction. It’s easier to contemplate dispossession as an anonymous county employee.
Even as I complicate honest work, I’m aware of how indebted I am to the notion. It guided my exit from academe and my rejection of the pundit economy. I’ve always overvalued recalcitrance, a sensibility, as I understand it, that vigorously avoids situations that require ass-kissing, usually resulting in significant reputational harm. Since elementary school, I’ve searched for a space where I could conform to my surroundings without feeling unmoored from an inner sense of decency. That space, it turns out, is equivalent to the volume of a school bus.
I pitched honest living to my parents when I told them about the new job. Despite being aware of academe’s ruthless memory, they hoped that I’d one day be a professor again. They probably still do. In a better world, my redemption would happen in the United States. I wanted to quell that expectation. “Even if Harvard offered me a job I’d say no,” I proclaimed with earnest hyperbole.
They feigned support but didn’t believe me. I understand why. It’s hard to imagine coming of age in reverse. Hollywood doesn’t make inspirational movies about struggling to overcome material comfort. We don’t aspire to the working class. Personal fulfillment occurs through economic uplift. We go from the outdoors to the office, from the ghetto to the high-rise, from the bar rail to the capital. That’s the dream, to become a celebrity or a tycoon or, in humbler fantasies, a bureaucrat. But forward progress as material comfort is cultivated through the ubiquitous lie that upward mobility equals righteousness. Honest living is a nice story we tell ourselves to rationalize privation, but in the real world money procures all the honesty we need.
For immigrants, these myths can be acute. I could see my parents struggling between a filial instinct to nurture and an abrupt recognition of their failure. My mom, a retired high school teacher, seemed interested in the logistics of transporting students, but my dad, the original professor, clenched his hands and stared across the table. It’s the only time I’ve seen him avoid eye contact.
Parental despair is a well-worn theme, for good reason. The idea of a child’s suffering has tremendous pathological appeal. But discovering a parent’s grief is no less powerful. That sort of discovery is a critical feature of adulthood. Only after I witnessed my father’s pained expression, his furtive anger, his shivering confusion, all of it poorly concealed by hardboiled resolve, was I prepared to continue through an unknown world.
Brenda only ran the first day of training, replaced by a succession of former drivers who were (like Brenda) good teachers. They drilled us on the nuts and bolts of operating a bus, but also shared plenty of philosophical observations. Ours was a Socratic classroom.
More than anything I appreciated the trainers’ sense of proportion. They had to balance experiential wisdom with a rigid curriculum. They minimized certain lessons, surely aware that we’d find those lessons ridiculous.
I had read ahead in the two binders the county provided, which normally doubled my boredom. One unit filled me with simultaneous dread and excitement: communicating with students from different backgrounds. Three columns provided anthropological tidbits. For instance, Middle Easterners tend to be late, Hispanics (the manual’s word) tend to be reallylate, and Asians aren’t necessarily happy when they smile. Asians, however, are good at waiting in line, something to which Middle Easterners and Hispanics aren’t predisposed. None of the groups can be trusted to mean what they say , but they all revere elders. We weren’t privy to the nuances of African, European, Oceanic, or Indigenous cultures.
That lesson never came, though. The trainers didn’t even point it to our attention.
They did show a video about terrorism. Beginning with a slow-motion scene of a bus getting blown to smithereens, a voiceover giddily explained that the vehicles we drive are prime targets of evil. Its perpetrators come from any racial or religious group, the man (now onscreen) stressed. The disclaimer increased in importance with each new image of ominous brown men with unruly beards. Amid foreboding music, viewers were regularly urged to call some high-tech hotline. After a few minutes, I realized that the pasty narrator wasn’t a garden-variety expert; he was pitching a security company he founded, which compiles a database of suspicious activity based on anonymous tips. I suppose the film’s budget for sacrificial vehicles and incendiary devices should have tipped us off that it wasn’t the usual low-fi tutorial.
I glanced around the room, but nobody presented a visible reaction. We were more scared of the politics of terrorism than of political terror. Common wisdom is that terrorism exists in part to create paranoia, but I don’t think anyone feared a suicide bomber. More frightful was the possibility of being implicated in the government’s security apparatus, which has transformed all residents into potential cops. Terrorism hasn’t impeded our freedom; it illuminated all the reasons we are unfree. After the video ended, we waited in tense silence for the accompanying lesson, but the teacher walked into the room, flipped on the lights, and started discussing special-needs children.
The most consistent message throughout training was the importance of students’ well-being: greet them, provide some entertainment, watch for signs of trouble, bid them farewell. Driving isn’t our only duty. We’re part of the children’s educational experience. Otherwise the training would have been much shorter.
Well-being is predicated on functional machinery. Pre-trip inspection of the bus was by far the hardest part of the process. It requires a lot of memorization and practice. We spent many a dark morning splayed on tattered yoga mats looking at the underside of a bus, sliding around on damp, freezing ground. I came home sore and cranky, my range of neck motion reduced by half, but proud that my old bones could still handle a bit of honest work. I tried to imagine some colleagues from the past contorting beneath torsion bars and U bolts, but it wasn’t a satisfying exercise; I didn’t want to think about those people in any position. Learning a new trade involves mastery of the exotic; leaving academe requires the craft of forgetting.
We can’t put consciousness into formulas because we’re too small for metonymy and too great for imitation. While it’s able, the world produces incessant cycles of comfort and torment, affirmation and disappointment, reward and recrimination. I’m transported into the boundless ambition of childhood every time my first-grade son begs to join me at work. I dissuade the requests, but he’s persistent. In the end I never say no. He knows a lot about how the bus operates and where it’s supposed to stop. He even peeks underneath during pre-trip to make sure nothing is leaking. I’ve begun referring to him as my little professor.
Photo: H. Michael Miley/Flickr