He loved to hear the sounds of the buses as they pulled away from the school. His face lit up when he heard the roaring engines and the squeaky brakes. He smiled, shrieked, and ran back and forth in the yard on the corner (thank God it was a rental property and the renters were seldom there) while he surveyed the scene. I waved to the bus drivers who drove down our street, but Isaac seldom did unless I grabbed his hand and waved for him, hand over hand. The drivers waved because they wanted Isaac to respond.
We were at the corner every day, rain or shine. When it was so cold we couldn't feel our faces and the meteorologist warned that exposed skin would be frostbitten, we stood outside wrapped in an extra layer of winter gear. He never deviated from the schedule. Once the last bus had left, he ran back home, with an extra spring in his step and a smile on his face. Buses run on a schedule, so it's the same every day --the same pattern, the same sounds, the same routine. For a boy with autism, the scene was a constant in an unpredictable world.
Several years ago I tried to pick up Isaac after school for an appointment. I tried a time or two. Results were the same each time. The plan was for him to leave the school with me because he wouldn't be riding the bus home. (Sounds easy, right?) Because it was a change in routine, he was irked, anxious, and heartbroken. He wouldn't leave the building until all the buses had been filled with students and had driven off. I sat with him in the school lobby and watched every bus arrive, load, and depart. Teachers were surprised he was so upset. When I finally got him outside, he screamed, "Bus! Bus!" at the top of his lungs while the tears ran down his face. He sounded like a wounded animal in pain.
It was painful; it was pure torture for him mentally and emotionally. I've never tried to pick him up from school again for an appointment at the end of the day. It's not worth it. I already have enough gray hair. It's much easier to do it another time, as long as he can go to and from school via the bus. Some of us need water and food to survive. Others need a daily dose of weekday bus watching and riding.
Several buses come to Isaac's school at the end of the day to pick up students. The buses come in waves: wave one, wave two, wave three, etc. There are four waves in all. A staff member announces the waves. The students know which wave is theirs and when to go outside to meet their bus. Isaac watches the scene intently and knows when everything should unfold. Students stand or sit in the lobby and wave by wave, they go outside and get on the buses. Some students are in wheelchairs and use a lift. This is particularly fascinating for Isaac to watch, I guess because it's somewhat like an elevator. Open doors, up, down, close doors.
Last school year when Isaac saw the buses approach, he signaled to the secretary that she needed to announce the next wave. He held up fingers (two fingers for wave two, for instance) and looked at her. After a while he began to say, "Carole, wave two" when he saw that group of buses arrive. Eventually she waited to hear from him before she announced the wave of buses. Teachers noticed and encouraged him. The principal noticed.
"Isaac would like to take over Carole's job," the principal said to me one day, smiling, when I came to the school for a meeting.
"That would be a dream come true," I told him.
One day during summer school in mid-July, Isaac's teacher shared that he was announcing the waves ON THE INTERCOM by using a switch! I don't believe Carole was working at the school during this summer session. (A switch is a low-tech device that can record a voice. Isaac presses the button, and the switch plays the recorded voice. The recorded voice is more intelligible than Isaac's words.)
That same day the school psychologist, Jim, emailed me a photo of Isaac. The email said: "Attached is a photo of our new staff hard at work, on bus call duty."
The next day Jim sent me this video of Isaac doing his job. If you listen carefully you can hear Isaac say, "Wave two is loading." He says it after he has used the switch. Doesn't he look official?
Yesterday I emailed Jim to ask if Isaac was still doing the bus job. I had asked Isaac, but he gave me conflicting information. He said yes and no. When I asked later, he answered by saying something about a restaurant, a swimming pool, or a grocery store -- all places he wished to go. I hadn't heard anything from his teacher. I needed to go straight to my source.
"Yes, he is still our announcer. He was apprehensive about stepping in, so we had to prompt him a bit to take a seat and go ahead. Now he is a little more self-assured that it is his job, even while Carole is here," Jim wrote. He also explained that Isaac's new bus arrives in wave three, so Carole announces wave four. (To read the blog about the new bus the first day of school, click here.)
I told Jim I was grateful Isaac was able to keep his summer job. I'm glad he initially didn't want to step on Carole's toes. (Maybe he didn't want to get into trouble? Maybe he didn't want to take Carole's job away from her and hurt her feelings? If so, I like his thought process.)
"It was logical. He has been obsessed with the bus time (i.e. interested), so giving him a job to do made sense. Cool kid, by the way," Jim said.
Obsessed is the right word. Isaac loves buses and the predictability of the routine and schedule. I appreciate the school personnel who consider him to be "cool" and capable, and who see Isaac as a teenager with strengths and gifts. Isaac can watch the buses now from behind a desk, front and center inside the school building. I'm grateful we no longer stand at the end of the block in all sorts of weather. He announces the waves, he sees action, and he moves forward. In some ways he is directing traffic now, no longer simply watching it.
It is a dream come true.