October 9, 2018
When the Cheese Dip Fairy (CDF) comes to visit, uninvited, at 10:57 pm on a school night, it’s time to start writing.
The Notorious CDF typically only intrudes about once or twice per year, and those times are usually fairly predictable. This time, it was a straight-up home invasion – unexpected, aggressive, goal-oriented. And maybe even a little altruistic. She knew I needed her. It was the eve of the one-week mark following a tragic school bus accident in the school district where I am a counselor.
One week prior, on the afternoon route of MISD bus #96, a well-respected, safety-minded and experienced driver loaded up 42 middle school-aged souls, and they left the campus headed home. Not long afterward, according to witnesses and others who walked away, the rear wheels of the bus dipped off the pavement, and the driver corrected to return all wheels to the roadway. In doing so, according to reports, the bus swerved to the left enough to cross over the center line, and as we do, the driver turned the wheel to move it back into its own lane. That correction led to the bus toppling over onto its side, off the roadway, where it collided with a utility pole. The power line attached, gave way, broke and fell to make contact with the bus. Without the grounding effect of its rubber tires, electricity did what electricity does when it is not properly channeled or contained, and a school bus became a death trap. And a driver became a superhuman. Some otherwise typical kids became heroes. A sister became a survivor. And a vibrant little girl became a beacon.
I’ve been a certified school counselor for going on eight years, and for almost all of that time, I have been in some stage of the process of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor. I have a special interest in trauma, childhood traumatic stress and grief recovery. Over these 7+ years, I have had the opportunity to serve many adults and children in the aftermath of various kinds of crises – most often on my assigned campus, but occasionally (and sometimes, far too often, in the wake of violent deaths including automobile accidents and firearms-related homicides).
For reasons I am still exploring for myself, the death of this middle school student – Jazmine was her name – has been one of the most profoundly impactful for me as a care provider. When I reported to the district’s transportation department the morning after the accident, I knew I was there to provide information and support for a large group of people who have some very difficult and important roles in the lives of our students – the bus drivers, fleet managers and mechanics, departmental administration and all of their support staff. What I did not think to expect was how overwhelmingly invested and supportive all of these employees were for each other, up to and including the department leaders. Just being given the opportunity to have counselors on site and to receive factual information about their colleague was clearly very well-received and appreciated. I stood in awe of many people who allowed themselves to show vulnerability among their peers and their supervisors – many of whom spoke openly of their faith in God and offered support to others. I was given the opportunity to briefly talk to everyone about secondary/vicarious trauma and how it may be something with which they struggle as they move forward from this terrible loss. I was able to tell them that recovering from such a traumatic event is a process, quite far from a “one-and-done” kind of compartmentalizing. We were able to give them permission to feel whatever they needed to feel — whether it was comfortable for them or not. To share with them some of the tricky features of this kind of trauma – how it may lie dormant for a time and creep up on them in the near or very distant future; how it may re-emerge in the form of a sense-memory . . . or a state of anxiety or panic at an unexpected time or place. No one shushed us, and no one watched the clock. It was a hope-inducing experience.
I spent the remainder of that day and all of the next day with many other counselors listening to some of the students who were also passengers on the bus — some of whom found inside of themselves a sense of urgency and responsiveness that undoubtedly saved other students’ lives. Those students were given an opportunity to sit with others and find a common language about a terrifying experience that they had all walked through, endured, as they left the scene with their lives and were reunited with their families. Some of them were feeling a true sense of survivor’s guilt — believing themselves to have been less worthy of living through it than their classmate who did not.
A compelling common thread that ran through those days was how the accident had stirred up in so many — adults and children alike — a long-forgotten or disturbingly fresh memory of a prior event from their own lives. Conversations surrounding those emotional wellsprings took many by surprise and swept them a bit out of balance. Their voices found listening ears, too.
I was reminded of a time when I was in elementary school, around the same age as many of those TMS #96 passengers, and my school bus was running its usual route in reverse order, carrying home a busload of students of all ages due to an early release. The weather in our little East Texas town had taken a nasty typical-in-Texas turn where a light drizzle became freezing rain and was quickly becoming an ice storm. Out in the rural community where I was raised, there was a new project underway that involved building a man-made lake/reservoir and a hydroelectric power plant. What seemed like endless acres of forest had been razed, and new “roads” built up and carved out of the red clay native to our area so that heavy equipment operators and project employees could make their way to and from the job site. As our bus traveled one of those makeshift roads, the ice had begun to freeze on their surfaces, and it slid off the slick-as-glass road and tipped over onto its side. I truly do not remember much about what happened after the accident, just that I rounded up all of my younger siblings – there were seven of us total – and I herded them off of Bus #9 and marched us all to the home of fellow passengers Carolyn and Arthur Manning. Once there, I remember a small home warmed perfectly by a wood-burning fireplace, and feeling 100% welcome and safe until my great-uncle arrived to shuttle us all to our homes. I do not remember even once having thought that there may have existed the possibility that someone on our bus that day could have died or been gravely injured. But as I sat and listened to student after student detail for me their horrific experiences on Wednesday, October 3, 2018, I suddenly realized that it was a miracle that my own bus’ accident had not resulted in a similarly tragic ending. And that was unsettling. Almost 40 years after the fact.
Something I did not expect in the week or more after this crisis response was how much I would feel physically affected — I always expect for there to be some emotional fallout, but this time, I truly felt similar to when I had a concussion last year after an automobile accident. I was not resting well — I felt as though my responses when asked a question were delayed and often fairly half-hearted. I felt as though I was moving through molasses. I could not seem to find space in my mind to fit many of the usual activities of my daily life — quality time with my son, focused attention on my responsibilities at work, interest in some of my favorite things – gardening, music, my favorite podcast.
I feel a solid, true compassion and empathy for anyone who ever lives and moves through any event such as this accident, whatever their role in it. Each individual’s response can be achingly unique and difficult for another person to grasp, or it can be shockingly similar to many others’. Ultimately, what does happen is that a group of people, who perhaps before were acquaintances or even friendly with one another, will likely find themselves bonded in a way that they never fathomed possible. Certainly not likely. They will have emerged from the foxhole as a unit, a group of individual humans who will now have been changed in very much the same way. It may feel like a comfort or a burden . . . time will let them know.
About ten days after the accident, first responders, school staff and counselors were invited to participate in counseling/support groups facilitated by outside therapists, many of whom specialized in providing care for survivors of vicarious trauma and its often unruly outcomes. Being able to sit with so many others who allowed themselves to be vulnerable and honestly share with colleagues and supervisors the struggles that had been plaguing them for the previous week was immensely comforting and encouraging. I personally felt a burden lifted — not completely — but sufficiently enough to be able to live and feel a little more like the me I was before it all began.
There will continue to be counseling opportunities for all of those affected, directly or indirectly, by TMS #96 and all it took from so many in its wake as we go forward. And that is the most forward-thinking, supportive and life-giving response anyone could want. And for all of that, I am grateful.