A few years ago, I was on my way to work and stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts to get breakfast. When I approached the window, the attendant said, “You owe nothing. The car in front of you paid your bill.”
I was very moved by this. The person in front of me did not care who I was or what I looked like. They did not care if I was liberal or conservative, Jewish or Arabic, whether I was a Trump supporter or a vaccine denier. They simply did a good deed.
That good deed was worth more than just over $7.00 it cost them. It changed my day and would begin, with the help of the COVID epidemic, to change how I related to the world and those around me. I returned the favor and would often pay for the person behind me. I am a school bus driver. I am not rich, but I liked the idea of making someone else’s day. It felt good making other people feel good. That is a good kind of selfishness that I can live with.
Not long after this Dunkin’ Donuts event, I lost everything close to me. I left my job. My family was gone. I kissed my twins goodbye on June 12 as they would live out of the country. I would not know when I’d see them again. I no longer had a house, a yard, a relationship, or my kids. It was a total shock. The first time I lost everything was when my mother fell ill and her property was foreclosed. I lost every photo and memory of my childhood. There is not a single picture left. It is as if I simply vanished. It’s like waking up one day and you have to start life at 50. I had no past to look to.
At my age, we are supposed to be married and have gone through all the important events in our lives, so not only did I feel expired, but I realized that I cannot start again, have a family again, and do it better. I could have a relationship and do it better, but who would want a person that has nothing but debt? I fear that that kind of love is behind me. At my age, I should be ready to travel the world. Though I started to work at 9, I don’t have much now to show for it. It’s difficult to recover when everything, even social support, is gone.
I never experienced the depression that came upon me before. Yes, I got suicidal. But, thank goodness my social work training pushed me to get help. I remember thinking that I cannot kill myself because who would do my school bus runs? What would the kids think? Though the schools would likely tell them nothing, they would find out. Yes, I had moments where I said, “Who would care? I am easy to replace.” But the thought of disappointing people gnawed at my heart. Besides, even when suffering from such low self-esteem, I still kind of liked myself. After all, I’ve been all I’ve ever known.
When one finds oneself at the bottom of a well and there is nothing left behind them, no support, no person that cares about them, they have to be the one that initiates kindness. I have to start that domino effect. When I felt I had nothing left to give, I knew that I would have to try and give just a little more to other people.
I was scared about Christmas. It would be the first time since I was born that I’d be alone.
Regardless of how I felt, I made it a mission to treat my young people on the bus with kindness, patience, and consistency. True, I may have to hold back tears. I was pretty depressed, and sure I’d pray to God to give me the strength to get through another day. Despite my depression, I made it a mission to work out, and the results pushed me forward. Yes, it’s embarrassing because I am a “bro,” as my high school students say, but I did manage to do nearly 500 pushups, even if I was crying. I knew that giving up exercise would push me into severe depression. As depressed as I was, I could not stop under any circumstances. Even with COVID, I was exercising intensely.
What I found was that when I gave kindness, I did get it back. I would get an unforgettable smile, and the one that gave it had no idea that such would pull me through. I would get a thank you, and I would get cards of appreciation. A couple of girls even gave me a Christmas gift, a customized one with my name on it. It was those smiles and that gift, that kindness, that pulled me through Christmas. Three teenagers may have saved my life without ever knowing it. For less than seven dollars, you can save a life, too.
Some days, I feel that I am not a very good bus driver. I am almost always late, and I should discipline the little kids more, but when I see bliss on a child’s face when I see a moment of happiness, I’ve come to realize that maybe my opt-out for less control is an actual act of kindness. COVID didn’t let kids be kids much, and my one child responded to me with a card, and she wrote, “Thank you for giving us back all that we lost.”
Then a couple of weeks ago, I lost a close friend, a fellow bus driver, unexpectedly. I knew he needed a heart transplant but thought he’d pull through. He didn’t. He was my wingman. And I remember one thing he said to me the last time I spoke with him. He said, “You know I need to take care of myself. I need to take care of me. Sitting here, I get emotional now, you know.” He knew that the surgery was high risk, but he spent his life taking care of others. He spent five years taking care of other people’s kids and his own. On the day he died, another little girl gave me a card out of the blue. It was a rainbow pyramid. In the center, she has this message, “I Love You … To Mr. Earl.”
How much money does it cost to say, “I love you?” What does it cost when we don’t?
Every Friday, I clean the windows on the bus the way my late friend taught me to. There I am with the hood open, standing on the engine. You have to be a bit fit to do it, but the exercise helps. I remember him saying to me, “Only us skinny-assed dudes can clean a bus this way.” I do it now not to keep the bus clean.
I am doing better, but there is a long road ahead. I decided that I have to be just as kind to myself as I want to be to others. Both are important. That is very difficult for me to do, but I eat well, take care of myself, and decided that I am going to do what I love to do regardless of what others think of me. I may struggle to live, but I love where I live. I finally feel that I have a home.
I love driving school buses because I cannot think of a more important job to do. Because you cannot be a good school bus driver if you are mean and selfish. To supplement my driving income, I may be stuck being a serial college student for the rest of my life. At the very least, I can give my knowledge to others. That should be worth the debt I created.
How much should we charge for acts of kindness?
Though I am digging out of a very big mess of a life, I am trying. I am not going to stop trying, and you should not either. Even if it is only once a week, please do a kind thing for someone, just a random person. It does not matter how small you may think it is. No act of kindness is too small.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.