I learned the art of giving, and giving a damn from Barbara White.
To say that my childhood was unhappy is an understatement. As a kid I felt all adults were in collusion. No one stood up to my mom or addressed her bahaviour so I figured they must all be on her side. I would come to learn that the adults in my world at that time were as helpless as I was…
Enter Barbara White, Mrs White to me, a bus driver who picked me up and dropped me off nearly every day of 5th and 6th grade. I entered grade school early because I made the cut off.. so I was 8 and 9 around the time I knew Barbara White. She had gray hair, a gravely voice (smoker), a huge presence, and a smile that forced everyone to smile with her…that I never fully understood until now. To me she was ancient. Looking back I’m guessing she was in her late thirties, early forties, which clearly isn’t ancient since I’m about to be 50. I was put into special ed because of my diminished vision and I rode the special bus to a school in an affluent area that was not in my zip-code. I grew up lower to middle class and on top of being abused with special needs I now had to learn about class distinction in elementary school. All the kids were well dressed in the latest fashion trends and perfectly coiffed, while I showed up most days in my polyester paisley print pants from Kmart. I had a different color for each day of the week, and they were so sporty with their elastic waste-bands and roomy fit. It’s not hard to understand now why Mrs White took pity on me then.
But at the time I didn’t understand her interest in me. She questioned me incessantly about the stupidest stuff in my opinion. I now know that she was just trying to make conversation, and get to know me. When you have something to hide, you don’t want to talk, and every conversation with an adult is stressful because if you say the wrong thing and it gets back to your abuser life gets a lot unhappier very fast. As bad as things were I was constantly reminded that they could be worse, and I believed that so I didn’t rock the boat. Not only would I be unwanted, emotionally and verbally abused like at home, but in foster care I was likely to be raped and beaten as well and my mom made sure I knew she could dump me off if she got tired of dealing with me.
Mrs. White was relentless, she may have been bound by the law but she was determined to make a difference in my little life, and make a difference she would, unbeknownst to me. My bus ride was 45 mins and I always wanted to sleep. It was my safe place.. however sad that is. At home I had nightmares, and at school I was always less than adequate. On that 45 minute bus ride I could slumber in the warmth under the watchful hawk-eyes of Mrs White, safe, and wanted.
Sometimes she let me sleep, but most of the time she made me sit up and talk. I don’t remember what we talked about…just that we talked a lot. It was exhausting, but over time what I realized was this lady really cared about me. She asked me all the things a parent should ask a child.. how was your day, what homework do you have, do you like your teachers, what did you learn today and so on and so on. If something happened at school she would instantly know and somehow drag it out of me. I am sure looking back that she gleaned quite a lot about me through her seemingly innocent questions, and I will always be grateful. I know things about her too… she was married, she had a daughter that was grown, she loved fresh baked bread in the morning and we often stopped en-route to pick up hot baked goods from a local bakery.
My time with Mrs. White was coming to an end… I was going to graduate. As my ceremony approached among all the usual banter between Mrs. White and myself were questions about graduation. Did I have a dress, would my mom be attending, was I excited? I said I wasn’t excited, my mom wasn’t attending, and I didn’t have a dress. Mrs. White was infuriated. To me, that was all pretty normal. My mom had zero involvement as much a humanly possible. Mrs. White didn’t say much… she just fumed, which I thought was odd, and she made a plan. Time passed… the day of graduation came…Mrs White had more than her usual excitement when she picked me up. When we arrived at school and I went to exit the bus she stopped me… she said I have something for you. She pulled out this full length baby blue formal dress and held it up to me checking the fit. She said I made this for you, for your special day. Hurry..go and put it on and come back and show me. So I did. It was beautiful. Mrs. White was my first fairy godmother. The pride and happiness in her face at my appearance in the dress was something I hadn’t experienced before. It was wonderful and perplexing at the same time and it took me some time to process. I had a happy graduation, I felt pretty and somewhat normal. My last day of school was bittersweet and was the last time I would ever see Mrs. White. I think of her often now, that I have raised my own children. I think of what the gift of her time and a handmade dress has meant to me and taught me. I wore that dress till I absolutely couldn’t fit into it anymore. I met my best friend a few years later in that dress at a dance. I think about how special Barbara White was and how we need more people in the world like her. But most importantly, I pay it forward, and whenever I can.. I choose to make a difference.