Hazel Hicks was the first “None” to graduate Crossley State College as a religion major. Hazel herself thought it nothing special. She thought it an obvious choice for someone like her. Which is to say, a person who took every form of life seriously but who found all creation stories implausible—even the most entertaining and compelling.
With the exception of science, of course. Hazel accepted science not as the truth, but as the most likely truth. Even science, bless its earnest heart, could not explain giraffes. Or beetles, hummingbirds, whales, or monarch butterflies. In her opinion, Genesis and evolution were both struggling to tell the same impossible story.
Hazel respected evolution, but it made her smile and shake her head. Which was her response as a little girl to the Bible’s account of the great flood, Noah’s ark, the animals two by two, the dove, and the rainbow. Ten-year-old Hazel couldn’t get enough of that story. She also liked the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the apple, and the serpent.
Those stories commanded the child Hazel’s attention, though she never “believed” them for a second. She didn’t say so at the time, but she thought believing them wasn’t the point and it was stupid to take them that way. Which was the kind of a child Hazel was. Which made grown-ups wary of her. Even her parents often found her hard to take.
Science had nothing like those old stories, which nineteen-year-old Hazel thought was sad. Her smiling and shaking her head was her rueful acknowledgement that what science had to say about the extraordinary and incessant panorama of life on the planet Earth could not replace the childish pleasure she had taken from the old biblical narratives.
It was the gap between science and what she supposed she had to call faith that “required”—her word for it—Hazel to declare religion as her major and “None” as her religious preference. But when she graduated she couldn’t find a job. One interviewer chuckled at her and said, “Well, Ms. Hicks, you’re kind of a misfit, aren’t you?”
When she couldn’t get a real job after she graduated, she worked a summer for the city of Burlington as a parking lot attendant. She kept applying for jobs, but she had no luck and felt humiliated. Remembering she ’d graduated magna cum laude from Crossley made tears spring to her eyes. At the end of August, Ms. Hicks became a school bus driver.
It helped that they took pity on her and assigned her one of the new buses. It had automatic transmission and a nice smell. On her first day of training she thought they might fire her because she drove so cautiously. The size of the thing intimidated her. But her instructor was patient, and by the last training day, she ’d gotten her confidence.
Pete Hoofnagle had driven school buses for the city for thirty years. He knew all the routes. He sat shotgun—front seat to the driver’s right—for her practice run. Pete had gone to grade school with her mom. The last thing he said to Ms. Hicks was, “Your mother couldn’t drive a bus if her life depended on it. Don’t tell her I said so.”
Pete’s words made her blush with pleasure at the time, and she knew she ’d remember them in the months to come. Truth was, Ms. Hicks was a little ashamed of her job. She ’d have liked working for a newspaper, a tv station, a magazine, a social services department, even a church. After she had the bus to herself that day, she sat in it a long while.
Dr. Norsworthy, who ’d taught her Philosophic Questions and Religious Response seminar, had been her favorite professor at Crossley. He was generally gruff, but his tone changed in his answers to her questions in class. When she challenged him over Bonhoeffer’s concept of obedience, he ’d answered her for ten minutes and with passion ringing in his voice.
Alone in her assigned school bus, Ms. Hicks composed a letter she knew she would never write or send to Dr. Norsworthy. It would tell him that she was ashamed of being ashamed of her new job. It would tell him that if she could stand it for ten months, it would be because of his answer to her question about Bonhoeffer and obedience.
Rachel and Nick King were her first passengers. Their mother was out there with them when Hazel stopped, but she didn’t step up to the bus door to introduce the children. She gave Hazel a quick smile before turning back to their house. The Kings didn’t send their children to college, but people in the Five Sisters neighborhood respected them.
Rachel’s dress and sweater were new. Nick’s shirt was freshly ironed, and his jeans had that new stiff-as-boards look to them. Hazel wasn’t used to seeing children so early in the morning. These King kids were still sleepy. Hazel’s roster told her Rachel was eleven and Nick nine. Rachel sat right up front, Nick walked three rows back.
Hazel hadn’t thought about how she would get along with the children who rode her bus, and she was surprised at how interested she was in Rachel and Nick King. It happened with the Hester twins, too. Unlike the King children, Phil and Pete Hester were wide awake, and their sly faces suggested not serious trouble but definitely mischief.
Dear Dr. Norsworthy, “Obedience” may not be just a personal issue. I may have to decide how to apply or not apply it to the elementary-school children who ride my bus. I know you consider my secular version of obedience to be just a homegrown form of “cheap grace.” But how might you and Bonhoeffer advise me to deal with ten-year-old heathens?
When the three Dunford children and Buntsy Williams boarded her bus, Hazel realized she was inordinately attentive to her passengers. She found herself trying to “read” these children as she had learned to read texts in her Crossan seminar. Their faces were so astonishingly forthcoming and compelling they seemed to command her to study them.
As more children boarded, Hazel found herself overwhelmed by their personal data—their clothes, their voices, their shoes, their teeth, how they smelled, their likelihood of failure or success. Nothing in Hazel’s upbringing or education had prepared her for having her mind and her heart stuffed with her impressions of these children.
They became “her children.” But only in a very limited sense. It was easy enough to speak of them to her family as “her passengers”—that was the public truth. But “her children” was how Hazel thought of them when she was alone. Her private truth. When she was carrying out what Dr. Norsworthy would have called “her spiritual reckoning.”
Brunhilde Copenhaver, a.k.a. Pruney, an overweight third grader, was clearly in crisis mode that first morning as she climbed the steps up into the bus. Hazel would have discerned that much even if Pruney hadn’t shown her a panic-filled face. She was a child passing through the gates of hell. A child who knew torture was her fate.
Pruney had a history, of course, and Hazel couldn’t do anything about that. But she could—and did—stop Tim Lewis and Bobby Joe Branscomb from pulling Pruney’s hair, pinching her, and calling her Jiggles and Jello Butt. She pulled the bus over slightly, stopped and walked back to where Tim and Bobby Joe sat, grinning, waiting for her.
She put her face very close to theirs. “I will tell your parents.” She spoke quietly. “If you touch her or say anything else to her.” She looked each boy in the eyes until he turned away. Hazel had older brothers, nicer boys than these two, but of the same species. Hazel wasn’t afraid of them. She knew how to make a boy afraid of her.
Pete Hoofnagle heard what she ’d done and waited for her at school a couple of mornings later. “You’re not supposed to stop the bus like that,” he told her. Hazel was reading his face and his voice. She knew he ’d say more. “But when you do, I advise you to put on your blinkers.” He winked at her and turned away. “Thank you,” she called to his back.
Kate and Joanne Delby, Wilmer Pope, James Shinault, and Betty Tomlinson, all of them decent kids, quietly did their homework in the mornings, then on the bus going home jabbered and hollered like baboons. Hazel liked those children though she often had to ask them to quiet down. They ’d do what she asked, at least for a little while.
Dr. Norsworthy, I’m reading Merton. Did you know that he polished floors and scrubbed dishes while he was waiting to find out if they would let him into the monastery? I can’t help thinking my school bus driving days are a test for something I’m suited for. I don’t know what. Yes, my answer to the religious preference question is still None.
At the beginning of October, Hazel realized she had become friends with Rachel King. Rachel sat in that shotgun seat from her first day on Hazel’s bus, and she ’d invited Pruney Copenhaver to sit with her regularly. But Pruney was quiet and morose, whereas Rachel was such a chatterbox that every day she spilled out hundreds of details about her life.
Hazel would have never chosen Rachel as her friend, and she was sure Rachel wasn’t even aware of how close she and Hazel were. Hazel shook her head when she thought about how intimate they ’d become without either of them meaning to do so. For one thing, Rachel was smart only in a scatterbrained kind of way, but Hazel respected her anyway.
And Rachel was truly and completely just a kid. Hazel knew Rachel had breasts but she hadn’t had a period, she said she hated boys, she still slept with her Teddy bear, and Little House on the Prairie was the only grown-up book she ’d read. Also, even though she constantly asked Hazel questions, she only half listened to what Hazel told her.
Ms. Hicks worried that she “ingested” too much information about the kids on her bus in general and about Rachel in particular. She couldn’t help what she learned from simply being their witness for a couple of hours each day. But why did she have to lose sleep over Rachel’s mother letting the child eat Pringles instead of vegetables or fruit?
One day Rachel rushed up beside Hazel walking through the school parking lot, hugged her awkwardly and fiercely; proclaimed, “I just love you, Ms. Hicks!” then skipped away to catch up with her friends. Hazel understood the act as spontaneous, but that didn’t help her process the sensation of that girl’s body flying without warning into her arms.
It startled Hazel to think that maybe Rachel felt about her as she felt about Dr. Norsworthy. She could think of many ways in which it wasn’t the same. It made her cringe to imagine giving her professor a hug of the sort that Rachel had given her. But he ’d made it clear to her that he took her seriously. Wasn’t that what she ’d done with Rachel?
Benny Sutphin, the new boy, began riding Ms. Hicks’s bus in mid-October. He got on with Franklin Hoback, though both boys seemed to want it known they weren’t friends. Ms. Hicks stopped Benny from heading down the aisle—she actually extended her arm to prevent it—and insisted that he tell her his name before she let him take a seat.
Benny was twelve, which made him one of the oldest children at Fork Mountain Elementary. He slouched, he had zits and facial hair, and he had a smell Ms. Hicks was pretty sure was cologne. He wouldn’t look directly at her, he didn’t like her sticking her arm out to stop him, didn’t like her making him tell her both his first and last names.
When Benny muttered that first morning, Ms. Hicks had to ask him to repeat himself, and he definitely didn’t like that. When the boy glanced at her and noticed her smiling at him, his jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed into slits. What she thought she saw—grown-up rage—was real enough to send a shiver through her. No more smiles for him, she decided.
Before Benny, Hazel hadn’t realized how much she used the big mirror over her windshield to read the children’s faces and body language. Now when Benny stepped up into the bus, she watched the kids responding to him as he walked toward the back. Nobody looked straight at him or spoke to him. They all went quiet. The girls lowered their eyes.
Ms. Hicks hoped Benny would find his place among the children on her bus. He was skinny and small for a boy of twelve, and he was mildly hostile, but he wasn’t a bully. The kids would eventually have taken him in if he ’d allowed it. Somebody would have befriended him. But they seemed to understand he wanted nothing to do with any of them.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving Hazel and her mother made a list of the groceries they needed. Then Hazel took the family car to do the shopping while her mother prepared the house for her brothers’ homecoming. They ’d arrive Thursday afternoon and stay through Sunday. This was Hazel’s first grown-up Thanksgiving. She was no longer a student.
In the two and a half months she ’d been a driver, she ’d begun to enjoy doing her job well. She liked the details of carrying out the maintenance on the bus, cleaning it up in the evenings, and sticking to her schedule so that the kids and their parents could depend on her being on time. She had proved to herself that she was a capable person.
She wished she felt better about helping her mother with Thanksgiving this year. It wasn’t much different from the previous ones. From sixth or seventh grade she ’d enjoyed helping and talking with her mother while they prepared the food. By her senior year in high school the two of them behaved like sisters when they were in the kitchen.
But this year Hazel couldn’t shake off her awareness that she still lived at home. After college her brothers had moved away and found their own places to live. Throughout the fall her mother had said things like “Honey, I’m just glad you have a job” and “Your father and I love having you here.” But her whole family knew she was—well, what?
Underachieving was what they ’d call it if she were in high school or college. And they ’d call her overqualified for being a school bus driver when she ’d been a magna cum laude college graduate. She helped her mother pick up the turkey and set it down in the big cooler full of brining mixture. Something about the naked turkey carcass made Hazel weepy.
Her mother noticed but said nothing. If she understood what was wrong with Hazel, Hazel wished she ’d let her in on the secret. Her mother plopped herself down at the kitchen table, announced that she was exhausted, and asked Hazel if she ’d mind fixing the cornbread. “I’ll tell you how,” she said. Hazel nodded. Moving her hands made her feel okay.
Ms. Hicks ordinarily said good morning to each of her children as they stepped up onto her bus, and they wished her good morning as well. Some returned her greeting with enthusiasm, some murmured shyly, and a few grunted and moved past her with their minds on other matters. Benny Sutphin made no reply and pretended she didn’t exist.
Hazel had stopped composing letters she wouldn’t send to Dr. Norsworthy, but she couldn’t stop wishing he could know about her job as a school bus driver. She wished she could talk with him about Rachel and Benny—a silly notion, she thought, because even though he ’d been her academic advisor, she ’d never discussed her personal life with him.
Benny’s ignoring her and her good mornings brought her to the revelation that she knew nothing whatsoever about Dr. Norsworthy’s life beyond his office and his classroom. He never invited that kind of interest, her mind instantly reminded her. He was a professional. He ‘d have been embarrassed if I ‘d asked about his wife. If he had one.
It was like her, she thought, to get herself worked up over something that existed only in her mind. Maybe Rachel had a thought about her every now and then, and Benny couldn’t help hearing her pleasant greeting every school morning, but Dr. Norsworthy probably wouldn’t remember her if she stood right in front of him and reminded him of her name.
But her mind, her relentlessly yammering, hand-wringing brain, wouldn’t allow her to throw herself in a ditch of self-pity. You greet each of these children every morning—even the hostile one—and you dispatch a generous thought to every one of them. For some of them yours are very likely the only pleasant looks they will receive all day.
Dr. Norsworthy was of less and less help in her thinking. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was too heroic and too lofty to advise her on how to deal with ten-year-old heathens. Thomas Merton had washed dishes and scrubbed floors, but he ’d had a goal in mind, a vocation to which he aspired. What did Hazel Hicks have beyond a job driving a school bus?
One particular December morning Ms. Hicks noticed change all around her. A light snow had fallen, the chill in the air was more of winter than it was fall, and even the trees had a hunkered-down look to them. Her bus had to make an extra chug before the engine started, and Hazel herself felt unusually alert for no reason she could figure out.
Rachel and Nick were rosy-cheeked and full of chatter about the puppy they hoped to get as a Christmas present. The Dunford kids were quarreling among themselves, and Buntsy Williams was whistling the first three bars of “Rudolph” over and over, so that Hazel had to ask him to stop. Pruney Copenhaver gave Hazel a look of desperate sadness.
Frank Hoback’s face seemed to want to convey something to Hazel, but when Benny Sutphin climbed the steps staring straight at her, she wasn’t ready for what she saw. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and the flesh around it was visibly bruised. She thought she knew exactly what his outraged face meant to tell her. Look what happened to me!
“Oh, Benny,” she murmured—and knew instantly that her pitying tone was wrong. He made a sound that was the human version of a wolf snarling and turned away. In the mirror she watched him heading for the back of the bus. She was pretty sure he was looking straight at each kid in turn as he passed by them, just daring them to say a word to him.
Something in her wanted to turn the bus around and deliver all the children back to their homes. But she started the bus moving and thought hard about Benny. She moaned softly. Then she almost laughed aloud imagining her trio of great minds, Norsworthy, Bonhoeffer, and Merton, trying to advise her on what she should do about the boy.
The children spoke so quietly among themselves the bus seemed to be sounding a minor chord. When she parked it and opened the door, the kids were eager to be free of it. Benny was the last to walk up the aisle. She raised her hand to let him know she wanted to speak to him. When she said his name, he slashed her arm with a pocketknife.
Hazel hadn’t decided what she was going to say to Benny, and Benny probably hadn’t decided what he was going to do until the instant he did it. The boy moved past her quickly, and when his feet hit the asphalt surface of the parking lot, he started running—in the opposite direction of school. Hazel watched him and held her arm tightly.
When she couldn’t see him anymore, she looked down to see how seriously he ’d injured her. Blood was showing on her jacket, which meant it had seeped through her blouse and sweater. Her arm ached, so she knew the cut was deep and she ’d have to go for stitches. She looked up and saw Rachel and Pruney staring up at her through the open door.
“Are you okay?” Rachel’s face was pale. “Not so much,” Hazel told her. “Will you girls step back up here a minute and help me?” As they moved up the steps, Ms. Hicks asked Pruney if she might use her scarf. “I’ll buy you a new one,” she said. Of the two girls, Pruney seemed calmer, and so Hazel asked her to wind the scarf around her arm.
While Pruney did the winding—with surprising steadiness—Rachel averted her eyes. “What happened?” she asked. Hazel wanted to pat her friend on the shoulder and tell her everything was going to be fine. What she did say was, “You don’t want to know, sweetheart.” She asked the girls not to tell anyone what they had seen or that she was hurt.
“I want you to go to Mr. Hoofnagle’s office and tell him to meet me at the emergency room,” she told them. They nodded with such trusting faces that Hazel thought she might start weeping. “Only Mr. Hoofnagle. Don’t tell anybody else anything,” she said. “Cross your hearts and hope to die?” All three crossed their hearts, Hazel with her left hand.
Driving the empty bus to the hospital, Hazel pondered the heart-crossing ritual. Didn’t the vow require an obvious lie? Who would ever hope to die and mean it? She drove with her left hand on the steering wheel and her right hand in her lap. She was grateful for the bus’s automatic transmission because she couldn’t have changed gears with her right hand.
Hazel thought she got off easy—twenty stitches, a tetanus shot, and a couple of hours in the emergency room. Best of all was the young doctor who didn’t press her for details. He asked her what had happened, of course, and when she told him she didn’t want to say, he nodded. “Boyfriend, huh?” he said. Hazel shrugged and tried to look ashamed.
When Pete Hoofnagle stepped through the curtain and sat down beside her, she had to stifle her weeping impulse. He touched the hand of her injured arm, but he kept quiet. They had almost no privacy in the little curtained-off area. It took Hazel a while to speak, and she didn’t even try to tell him how grateful she was that he ’d arrived.
To tell him the story, she had to whisper with him leaning close. He made soft noises in his chest and visibly flinched when she told him how hard Benny’s knife had struck her arm. “You’re the only person beside Benny and me who knows what happened,” she said. “I need you to promise you won’t tell anybody else.” He blinked at her.
They were interrupted by the nurse giving Hazel her prescriptions, the instructions for caring for the wound, and the card with her follow-up appointment. On the way out to her bus, Pete walked closely beside her, and he followed her up the steps. She took the driver’s seat, and he sat shotgun, as he had during her training runs.
He cleared his throat. “I think you should report the incident and press charges,” he said. These were the first words he ’d spoken to her. Hazel told him she knew that’s what he ’d think. Pete gave her what he probably intended to be a grin and said, “I know you’re not likely to take my advice.” She watched him doing his best to read her face.
It came to Hazel that it was peculiar she knew Pete as well as she did. He ’d probably spoken no more than a hundred words to her altogether. Then she realized that when they were sitting on this bus, each of them understood the other very well. She knew he felt duty bound to try to persuade her to do what he very well knew she was not going to do.
“It’ll be hard for you to keep it to yourself,” Pete said. “I have to tell you the kid’s likely to hurt somebody else if you let him get by with this.” Hazel’s mind brought up Benny’s face the instant after he ’d struck her. His black eye was nearly swollen shut, but his good eye was wildly open. That boy needed to see that I realized he ‘d hurt me.
Pete wouldn’t say any more until she responded. But something in her wouldn’t let go of how Benny’s body had looked when he grabbed the post and swiveled down out of the bus—like he ’d learned to fly. And she ’d had to watch him running across the parking lot and down Fork Mountain Road. She ’d watched until she couldn’t see him any more.
“But maybe not,” she said softly. Until she said it, she hadn’t put it into words. “Maybe he won’t want to do anything like this ever again.” Pete’s face told her he thought she might be an idiot. She had a little burst of knowing he could be right. Dr. Norsworthy, Merton, Bonhoeffer, and even her mom might think so, too.
“The decision he made to do that to you”—Pete raised his hand in the direction of her bandaged arm—“will make it all the easier for him next time he gets mad.” He waited. Hazel knew better than to argue. So he went on. “If he does hurt another person, you’ll hate yourself.” His voice was quiet. He ’d come to the end of what he had to say.
Exhaustion descended on Hazel so hard and so suddenly she thought she ’d have to pass out or start crying. She opened her mouth to tell Pete she couldn’t think about any of it any more, she was too woozy. In the seats behind them she felt the Dunford kids, Buntsy Williams, the Hester twins, Franklin Hoback, Rachel and Nick King, Pruney Copenhaver and her torturers Tim Lewis and Bobby Joe Branscomb, Kate and Joanne Delby, Wilmer Pope, James Shinault, and Betty Tomlinson, all those decent kids staring out their windows, in the trance of riding to school or riding back home.
They ’d all been there this morning, and they ’d be there tomorrow morning, too. But right now Pete was waiting for her. “You’ll help me, won’t you?” Hazel could barely make herself say the words. Pete blinked. “If Benny hurts somebody else. If I start to hate myself?” Pete flinched and kept quiet, but his face gave her the answer anyway.