Tiny Changes To Earth
I feel the need to start this story off with a lyric from one my favorite bands. The song is called “Head Rolls Off”. It’s written by Frightened Rabbit. It goes like this:
You can mark my words, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
Tiny changes to earth
Tiny changes to earth
Tiny changes can be enormous. And on November 15th, the day New Jersey broke due to a snow storm, a group of kids showed me just how true that is.
“I’d rather be out walking in the cold than sitting around waiting to die on that bus.” A 7-year-old said this to me. “At least we’re moving.” She pointed out, smiling toward the long line of cars stuck in the snow. This was coming from an innocent child, but the deeper meaning wasn’t lost on me.
Earlier that day, forecasters had been predicting 1-3 inches, but weather changes quickly and Nor’easters have a tendency to do just that. And fast. Where we live, the forecast had been changed from 2 inches all the way up to 6 to eight within a few hours.
By the time we had been warned of the change, our kids were already halfway through the school day. All those who had commuted into the city for work left that morning ready for one scenario. They’d return later to something much, much worse. My kids went to school in sneakers. They were woefully unprepared for what was to come. I would later learn that they were among the majority.
The snow was projected to start at 1 PM. And that it did. It was delicate, just a whisper. By 3:00 PM, as I ventured out to pick up my oldest son, Emory, from middle school, the snow was falling with a vengeance. Enormous flakes filled the sky. Accumulation was swift. By 3:15, we were experiencing blizzard-like conditions. We drove home slowly and enjoyed the serenity, knowing we would get to stay indoors and watch it from our window. I started a fire. We would have an impromptu family movie night, charge the iPhones and electronics should we lose power, and hunker down together. I love a good snow day.
The only family member left unaccounted for was Elliot, my middle son. His school bus was slated to arrive at 3:36 PM. So Emory and I stood on the porch, sheltered from the unrelenting snowfall, and we waited.
At 3:50 PM, there was still no bus. I went back inside to check my email. The principal had written letting us know what she could regarding the buses, which wasn’t much. Most hadn’t even arrived at the school to pick up the kids. White Bus had left a while ago and was in route. Green Bus left the school at 3:53 PM.
“Expect delays.” The email stated. “Conditions aren’t great.”
We waited some more.
At 4:26 I wrote a friend whose son gets off 3 stops prior ours. “Anything yet?”
She called the school. They knew nothing. She called the police. The police didn’t know its whereabouts either. The only thing the police would say was that no buses had been reported to have been in any accidents.
I started to get nervous. How could they misplace a bus full of school children? I decided to get in my car to go search for it myself. I couldn’t just sit there.
The moment I turned away from our street, I realized what had gone so wrong. Our town had turned into a parking lot. It looked as if every single person left home, work, school at the same time and since we have so few roads leading into and out of town, and nothing had been salted or plowed, every road away from town was backed up. NO ONE was moving. And the more cars that took to the streets, the worse it became. I circled back and headed home.
Another hour went by and still nothing about Green Bus. Texts between other parents became more and more frantic. Finally, at 5:34 PM I received a text from a friend letting me know that Green Bus was stuck and the kids were going to have to walk home. So, I strapped on my winter running gear and set out in the direction of the bus.
At 6:20 PM, nearly 3 hours after it was scheduled to arrive home, I found Green Bus. There were 9 children left. Some were weeping. One kindergartener was crying out for his older brother, who had gone to use the bathroom at a nearby apartment building. The doormen had welcomed the kids into the foyer in small groups to use the restroom and stretch their legs. But this younger brother was in a panic. He had seen dozens of kids get picked up and taken off the bus by grownups. And he believed he was being left behind by his brother as well. It was heartbreaking.
“What if he doesn’t come back? What if he doesn’t come back? Where’s my brother?” He was sobbing now. “What if he doesn’t come back?”
I reassured him that this wasn’t the case, that his brother was just using the bathroom. But he continued to cry until his brother returned, that was the longest few minutes ever for that little boy. (I would later learn that this boy’s older brother had promised him all of his remaining halloween candy in order to cheer him up.)
I can’t get their faces out of my head. It may not seem like much to us grownups, but to children? It was a terribly frightening situation. The bus was dark. A substitute driver had taken over that afternoon, standing in for our usual bus driver, who has been with that route for all five of the years we’ve lived here. The kids didn’t know him. He didn’t know any of the kids. He was nervous and worried about driving conditions. A cop was present, but he couldn’t do much. Even emergency vehicles were unable to get by the long lines of cars. Everything was at a standstill and we would later learn it would remain that way well into the night and this scenario was a common one played out through the New York tristate area.
I told my son to go and wait in the apartment building as I tried to figure out what other children I might be able to take with me.
“Does anyone here live on Willow Avenue?” I asked the remaining 8 kids.
“NO! But we live close enough! We’re close enough!” This was Nelly, a 7-year-old. She was desperate to get off the bus and to bring her brother with her. She knew her phone number so I called her mother. She was stuck in traffic in another town, and wasn’t sure when she’d make it home. I asked if I could take Nelly with me.
“Yes! Please take them! Our nanny is there. Please just walk them home.” She sounded both worried and exhausted. I told Nelly and her brother to go stand with Elliot.
But Nelly wasn’t done. She had only just gotten started.
Nelly asked “Can you take these three kids too? They live on the same street. They’re my neighbors. Can you take them with us? Please?” None of them knew their number. (I found out later from the mother of one child who ended up coming along with us, that he did actually know his mom’s number, but since it started with an faraway-out-of-state area code, grownups kept cutting him off insisting it wasn’t correct, that it wouldn’t work. By the time I had arrived, he stopped trying. We need to listen better to our kids.)
I looked at the bus driver and the cop and asked them if I could take the other three as well. They agreed that getting them off the bus was better than keeping them there. They had no idea when the traffic would clear or when the bus would be able to move. It was agreed that I would take three more.
Now, hold up: I suspect I know what some of you are thinking. How could anyone let a stranger take kids off a bus without the permission of their parents? It’s a valid concern. And I knew I was possibly making a choice that would backfire. I know that some parents would not have liked for me to take their kids off the bus without permission. I pictured a parent showing up after I had left with their child, and totally freaking out. (This actually did happen. Harrison’s mom ran to the bus from their house after her train arrived. When she reached it, the bus was empty. And since the driver was a sub, he didn’t know who took Harrison, just that he was safe with the others. Thankfully, she wasn’t upset with me.) I knew this could turn out terribly. But I couldn’t not do it. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Saying no to scared children is apparently not my strong suit even if it means getting into a world of trouble with an angry grownup. So, I made the call.
As soon as we started to walk, they informed me that they were thirsty—hungry too! But I explained that since I couldn’t get a hold of their parents, it was probably best that I not keep them out too long. So we’d have to skip a snack. But we did stop off at BRGR in South Orange for some water. The staff hooked them up with cups of water and looked the other way when three of them accidentally hit the lemonade lever.
I knew the walk would be difficult especially since the first mile was almost entirely uphill. And by that time the snow had turned to freezing rain and while most of the kids had on hats and winter coats, their faces were exposed, so the sleet hit their red cheeks like a thousand tiny needles.
But they didn’t complain.
All six kids were wearing sneakers. The sidewalks were covered in snow and their feet took the brunt of it. But other than one of them occasionally saying how cold their feet were, they still didn’t complain.
One child told me, “I didn’t cry on the bus. I wanted to. But I stopped myself.” And I told him it would have been understandable if he had because what they are going through is very scary. One of the boys told me he was scared because they were the last few kids to get “rescued.”
Someone yelled out, “Who here cried?” And 4 of us raised our hand.
Nelly kept up the morale. I’m not sure how things would have gone without her. Whenever a child started to get upset, especially her little brother, she would say something like how cool a story they would have to tell. She told me she couldn’t wait to write it in her journal and share it with the rest of her class. She started joking with the others about how they were refugees escaping “The Dark Bus.” She even wrote a little song about it. Others joined in.
Nelly became our leader.
Whenever Harrison brought up the fact that he could no longer feel his feet, Nelly said, “We’re so close! I remember this street from trick or treating!” And even though we were only halfway there, this seemed to help. The kids would daydream about candy and halloween for a couple of minutes. Nelly continually bought their worried minds a little comfort.
I gave my gloves to a child I nicknamed “Michigan” thanks to his Michigan State football hat. I had teased him at one point saying I was a Penn State fan. I would boo and he’d laugh and tell me how much Michigan rules. He told me that he loves watching football.
Martin really wanted his dad. And at one point, halfway to his house, he said to no one and anyone who might be listening, “Maybe my daddy will be at the playground he sometimes takes me to.” And before I could respond, Nelly told him that his dad was waiting for him at home so he could have some hot chocolate ready.
“If he were at the playground, he wouldn’t have hot chocolate ready for you at home. ”
Thanks, Nelly. I thought.
“Michigan” would later give my gloves to Harrison because Harrison’s hands were probably colder than his. The kids took turns with them, these amazing children I didn’t know.
Not one car in the long line of cars had moved since we began our journey. And the kids commented about how funny it was that we were moving faster than all the cars. One of them said something about being a superhero. And, I mean, who could argue with that?
It took us just over an hour to get to Delwood Way, which was exactly 1.6 miles from the bus. Parents and nannies came running down from porches. Nelly and her brother were met with an enormous hug. Martin’s dad introduced himself, thanked me and they headed inside for some treats. Everyone was safe.
Our journey had come to an end.
I won’t ever forget that night, not unless my memory fails me sometime in old age. And even then, I think the lasting impression those kids left on me will remain. While the situation was unpleasant and no one in their right mind would choose such a thing, since it did happen, I am eternally grateful I was able to spend it with those six kids. Watching all the grumpy grownups honk their horns in warm cars spinning their wheels, not moving, I felt lucky to be with this group, these kids. They gave me just the right amount of hope I needed to believe our society might be heading someplace wonderful.
Since that night, I have inadvertently adopted the phrase: “What would Nelly do?” I use it all the time. Even when I don’t want to, even during my grumpiest moments. For example, when I’m in my car and I’m in a hurry to get home after a long day of playing taxi, driving to and from seemingly endless playdates and practices, and I see someone waiting to make a left turn, I will stop myself.
“What would Nelly do?”
“Nelly would let that car turn in front of you.”
This week, I returned to where the bus got stuck and I delivered a dozen donuts (anonymously) to the doormen who allowed the kids to warm up and use the restroom. I left a note thanking them for taking care of our kids.
I think that’s what Nelly would do.
Nelly would choose to remain positive. Nelly would look out for people. She would choose kindness. She would opt for a joke. She would sprinkle little droplets of kindness all around her. She would stick up for her brother, even though they sometimes fight. She would demand you include her neighbors. She would mention hot chocolate in the freezing rain; promises of better times; warm memories of past ones. She would write it all down in her journal and share it with the rest of us, if we choose to listen. Nelly would do that as well—she’d listen.
Nelly will make thousands of tiny changes to earth.
Mark my words, she’ll make tiny changes to earth.
We should all be more like Nelly.
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