Part of my retirement job occasionally involves driving a small school bus to the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. I don't know sign language (except for the kind people use in traffic) which makes it harder to talk with the deaf students, but I often have conversations with the blind kids. I've found them always eager for knowledge and companionship.
Rollie talks all the time and asks endless questions. Strapped down in his wheelchair in the back of the bus, he's hard to understand through the din of a noisy old bus, but I do my best. The fact that he wants his window open on all but the coldest days also does not help with the noise level on the bus. Rollie enjoys hearing traffic: "What was that?" -"A semi, Rollie," I reply. "What kind of semi? What was it hauling? Who is near us? What is in front of us? What do you see, Mr. Tom?" I describe the world to Rollie as best I can, as best I can to someone who has never seen a semi truck or anything else. He knows the trucks are big, loud and rumbly and that they do heavy work. He loves them, or the idea of them. Rollie also hates going to school, so other than being blind and in a wheelchair he's a typical nine-year-old boy.
From the back of the little bus I hear: "Do I smell Burger King?" I tell him: "Yes Rollie, yes you do." He asks: "Will it be windy at my house when we get there Mr. Tom?" Rollie likes the wind and in a way we are on equal footing with regard to the wind. Neither of us can see it. I tell him, no, it won't be windy at his house. "But it's windy on the bus Mr. Tom, how do you know it's not windy at my house?" I tell him that it's windy on the bus because his window is open and we're going fifty five miles per hour! And I know it's not windy outside because the trees are not moving. "Oh, okay," he says. And then: "What does 'miles per hour' mean?" And so we drive on, chatting. Later, pleased with himself he crows: "We just turned (it is a sharp turn) onto Highway 94!" I smile at his sensitive observational ability."Yes we sure did, buddy boy!"
Rollie wonders about color because he doesn't really know what it is. "What are the cars and trucks like all around us, Mr. Tom?" I describe the traffic and then say that the cars and trucks are all different colors. "What colors are they, Mr. Tom?" I tell Rollie that they're blue, red, green, white, gray, brown, purple… I realize that these words, other than being different from one another, have no real meaning for Rollie. He plays along politely, but really doesn't grasp color. Rollie, I think, plays along often, not wanting to annoy people with his questions within questions…
I have an idea. The next day I bring some things on the bus. Before we leave for school, when Rollie is in the wheelchair lift, I hand him a plastic bag with a few ice cubes in it. "This is blue, Rollie." Then I grab a fist-sized round stone I've placed on the bus dash where it has been warmed by the sun and the defrost blower. "This is red, Rollie." I crush some sage that I've brought and let him smell it: "Gray, Rollie." And crushed lush green grass is of course, "green." I watch his face. He doesn't know that he's giving me an "aha" expression of: "I get it!" He wants to hold the "blue." He wants to know what color everything is: His jacket, his wheelchair, the cup holder, his hair… I'm kinda choked up now, but I hide my feeling. "We must drive now, Rollie. You and the other kids mustn't be late for school."
I always respond to him if I can hear him way in the back over the roar of the bus rattles and the wind from his open window. Rollie is unusually polite for a nine year old. He knows he exasperates most people with his questions. But Rollie peppers me with questions constantly and politely because I respond with no exasperation, but with kindness. Rollie is so very tuned in to the gentle kindness in a person's voice. The tone of his voice tells me he's straining to balance and hold back his curiosity against the possibility I'll become annoyed and lose patience with him. He needn't worry; I'm there for the entire trip, after all, and I find myself immersed, enjoying being his binoculars to the world.
I have another idea and over a weekend I create a Tactile Box for Rollie. I fill the box with interesting shapes and textures for him to examine on his rides to and from school. He likes the pine cone best. "Pine cones have teeth, Mr. Tom! Why do pine cones have teeth?" Well, the rough 'teeth' prevent animals from eating the pine tree seeds nestled deep inside the cone, I tell him. "Oh…" and then: "What's a seed?"
Rollie asks to hold different things from the tactile box. I have him guess what they are, what they're made of. There are round washers, an old but cleaned disc brake pad. We talk about how things work. Rollie's busy mind has dreamed up imaginary friends, like "Cliff." (I can relate. In life I've had a few friends that turned out to be imaginary.)
"Oh no," Rollie exclaims—"Cliff broke the pine cone! Cliff crushed it!" Of course I smile, in the big mirror above the windshield I saw Rollie crush the pine cone with his hands. He can't see what he's doing and so he figures no one else can, either. "No worries Rollie," I tell him, we'll get you another pine cone. But if Cliff doesn't behave, he won't be allowed to ride the bus! Rollie becomes worried about the crushed pine cone. He doesn't realize that beautiful, elaborately and delicately shaped pine cones are common. His worry over the elaborately shaped and delicate pine cone has me reflecting on all the wonderfully complex things in nature that we sighted folks simply accept as a matter of course.
I smile and appreciate that Rollie's and my relationship on the bus has nothing to do with patience, with "putting up with him." Rollie, by simply being himself, allows me to be in the moment with him with no sense of time, just in the moment with an eager inquisitive mind.
We are all teachers and also learners in this life, even blind little boys and old school bus drivers. In his driveway, at home at last. There is a tiny bit of breeze. I wheel Rollie onto the deployed wheel chair lift. "You were wrong Mr. Tom, it is windy at my house!" Yes, I was wrong, I agree. The bus is parked and idling, I lower Rollie down on the wheel chair lift. His mom is there to meet us. "See you Monday Mr. Tom!" Rollie declares. Before I can speak, Rollie continues in a tumble of words: "Don't say 'bye' Mr. Tom, I don't like that. Please don't say 'good-bye'."
"Okay Rollie, I'll see you Monday."
"Have a good weekend Mr. Tom."
"I sure will, and thanks. You too, buddy boy. See you soon."
I wave to his mom, stow the lift and buckle myself back into the driver's seat. A twinge of sadness washes through me that Rollie is blind to so many miracles in life. But haven't I been as well? And through simply being and questioning has he not helped us both see better the world around us?
I thank you for today's lesson Rollie, for helping me see so many supposedly ordinary things in a new way and for encouraging me to be in the moment with you.
I'll see you Monday, buddy boy. For sure.
Tom Preble has been a professional writer of personal non-fiction essays for newspapers and magazines for the past ten years. For more information, or to contact him, visit his website.