In two weeks the first chapter of Unspoken Sorrow: Whispers From a Broken Heart is slated to publish April 6th and April 13th in the Monticello Times as a full excerpt. The full manuscript will be published as an e-book on April 10th.
Publishing parts of the manuscript in this fashion allows for corrections to erroneous information and inclusion of omitted information. After a period of time for feedback, the edited manuscript will be fully published by LifeRich Publishing, an affiliate of Reader’s Digest Books, in hard cover, followed by soft cover.
A companion workbook is being written as well. The workbook will be used during speaking events to highlight ways our industry and our individual departments can grow and change.
The first chapter of the book is a retelling of the facts and circumstances of the crash and the subsequent events.
Here, today, is what precedes the first chapter:
|I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but halleluiah“Halleluiah” by Leonard Cohen[i]
There are moments that change a community’s collective consciousness. Franklin D. Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor a “day that will live in infamy.” Since that day in 1941, Americans have experienced other days of similar magnitude. As a nation, we all know where we were when JFK died, when the Challenger exploded, when Oklahoma burned, and when the Twin Towers fell. In my community, that moment occurred April 10th, 1997, shortly after 8:00 am. It was the day of the bus crash that killed three of our students and a truck driver – and plunged our entire community into deep grief.
At that time, my family owned the school transportation company in Monticello, Minnesota. Our family entered the school transportation industry in the spring of 1947. That year the superintendent had asked if my grandparents would be willing to bring kids to school between daily chores. In the years between that first route and when my grandparents left the business, the company grew. Not limited only to school transportation, the company also engaged in bus and truck sales, vehicle service and repairs, and over-the-road trucking. My grandparents’ business was successful locally, and they achieved recognition on regional and national levels as well. Though the business grew adjacent to their farmland, they did not continue farming.
Their eldest boys acquired the businesses from my grandparents in 1985, and split the sprawling organization into two parts. The sales and service side of the business was owned and operated by my aunt and uncle; the school contracting and trucking side was owned by my parents. I started doing data entry for them when I was in fifth grade. By the time I went to college, I was responsible for completing the payroll; in 1991 I remember calculating payroll from my hospital bed after delivering my first son, who was born an inconvenient six weeks early.
When I graduated from college in 1992, my son was only a year old. Wanting to maximize my time with him, I opted to take a break before continuing my education with law school. The timing worked well; our bookkeeper suddenly left about the time I was ready to work full time, so I went to work at our company. My plans changed drastically in those early months: I fell in love with my job and the people I served. Altogether, I officially worked at our company for thirty years.
In those early post-college years, I studied every facet of school transportation. For the first six years, I served in a dual capacity, acting as the Executive Secretary for the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association (MSBOA) while also working full time in our office. At first, the information in my monthly newsletters contained a letter from the association’s president and another from the association’s lobbyist. Those early newsletters were quite sparse.
In order to write a commanding newsletter that would educate and inform the membership, I began to scour industry publications and notices from a variety of safety and governing bodies. I relied heavily on people I respected in the industry to help me answer members’ questions. Through my work, I became an expert, and I formed – quickly – an opinion on every topic. Every topic! In the final three years of my work with the MSBOA, my newsletter was nationally recognized as an outstanding publication. It is a measure of its successful revamping that it remains largely unchanged today.
Other responsibilities resulted in me planning and managing our conferences, assisting our board and president, and supporting efforts to shape our industry. In the months just preceding our bus crash, we’d been effectively working to defeat that session’s seat belt legislation.
My focus in those early days was heavily on compliance – in both the public role and specifically for our company. I wanted to do everything right all the time. And we did. We had perfectly maintained vehicles, well-trained drivers, solidly educated student riders, and our files were in excellent shape.
Still, on April 10, 1997, a truck failed to yield for a stop sign, and our bus collided with it. Three students died that day, and my world – like so many others’ – flipped upside down.
This is my story – my tribute. I feel compelled to share my perspective.
I certainly hope my story will resonate with others who make decisions about student safety, as well as those who’ve experienced their own tragic events. It is disheartening to know that in all the intervening years school bus safety statistics have not changed substantially and that after every crash, the media writes the exact same headlines, while state and federal legislators author the exact same pieces of legislation.
Far more importantly, I hope this story resonates with the survivors and all the families involved in the tragic bus crash twenty years ago. To each family, I have this to say: your children have been in my thoughts and prayers every day since April 10, 1997. Every day. They matter. This is my tribute to them and to you all. You exhibited dignity and courage through the most horrific of times for your families. You offered grace to my family and me, to our employees, and to our community.
There was no place for my grief twenty years ago, I thought. It took me years to realize it wasn’t going to dissipate until I let it wash through me, until I truly grieved. “No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear,” says C. S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed.[ii] And I was so afraid. My fear manifested in my ever-increasing efforts to control the world around me, to impose order on what felt so frighteningly out of control after the crash, and to perfect the completely imperfect.
I know I made good and safe decisions for the students under my care, and I know I convinced others to make good and safe decisions. I saw people roll their eyes and heard them sigh in frustration when I would start my sentences with the words, “Having experienced a fatal crash, I believe it is in our students’ best interest to…” But I couldn’t stop; I advocated for our lost and injured students for the rest of my career despite being considered annoying, controlling, and bitchy. I was called many things, not many of them complimentary.
Some of the outcomes of my most unpopular decisions were positive: in one notable case, after I suspended her son from the bus for misbehavior, a mother brought me religious cards and told me she would pray a novena for me. I didn’t even know what that was. Her surprise visit was much more welcome than my interaction with the two moms who wished a piece of an asteroid would fall from the sky and land only on me. I worked hard to not be distracted by what people said or thought about me; other people’s opinions of me, after all, are not my business.
And then three years ago my life fell apart horrifically, and, recognizing my complete inability to control anything, I fell on my knees. In so doing, I found myself, and I found my mission and new career path.
I love the words of Vincent Van Gogh that grace my first blog: “In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”[iii] Resilience is one of my deeply-held values, and with the help of my tribe of friends – the people who held and treasured my truth for me until I could hold it myself – and a fantastic recovery program, I have risen again. I have taken up my pencil. And I have written this tribute. Henry Wordsworth says, “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.”[iv] I was quiet for many years. And now, I’m speaking. Thank you for listening.