I feel the need to start this story off with a lyric from one my favorite songs called “Head Rolls Off” by Frightened Rabbit. It goes like this:
You can mark my words, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
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, 2018, the day New Jersey broke due to a crippling snow storm, those words became unbelievably obvious.
“I’d rather be out walking in the cold than sitting around waiting to die on that bus.” Nelly said this to me right after we met. Nelly is 7-years-old. “At least we’re moving.” She continued, smiling at the long line of cars stuck in the snow. She said this half-jokingly, but the deeper meaning behind what she said wasn’t lost on me.
Weather forecasters had been predicting 1-4 inches, but weather can change quickly and Nor’easter’s have a tendency to do just that. And fast. Where we live, weather forecasters upped our predicted snowfall from 2 inches all the way up to 6 to eight within hours. I left for the grocery store, by the time I returned home, the forecast had completely changed.
By the time we were warned of treacherous conditions, our kids had already been sent to school. All those who had commuted into the city for work left that morning believing one thing but would later return home to something much, much worse. My kids went to school in sneakers. I had no idea. No one did.
The snow was projected to start at 1 PM. And it did. It was very delicate, like a whisper. By 3:00 PM, as I ventured 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. Once home, I started a fire. We would have an impromptu family movie night, charge the iPhones and electronics should we lose power, and hunker down. I brought out some candles. The only family member unaccounted for was Elliot, my middle son. whose bus was slated to arrive at 3:36 PM. So Emory and I stood on the porch, shelter 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 busses, 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 to 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 p0lice would say was that no busses had been reported to have been in any accidents.
I started to get nervous. How could an entire town misplace a bus full of school children? I got in my car to go search for it myself. My husband called me crazy. He said there is no way the bus driver would allow me to take Elliot off the bus in route home. But I couldn’t just sit there.
The moment I turned off our street, I realized the problem. Our town had turned into one enormous parking lot. It appears everyone left home, work, school at the same time and since we have few roads leading into and out of town, it backed up. NO ONE was moving. The more cars that left home or the train station, the worse it became. I made one big circle and headed back home. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck as well.
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 the bus was stuck and the kids were going to have to walk home. The bus was 1.25 miles from our home. So, I strapped on my winter running gear and set out to find them. Running.
At 6:20 PM, I found the bus. There were 9 children left. Some were weeping. One boy was crying out for his older brother, who had gone to use the bathroom at a nearby apartment building, There, the doormen opened up the foyer to give the children a break from the bus. The younger brother was becoming increasingly more upset. He had seen dozens of kids picked up and taken off the bus by grownups. And he was panicked believing his brother was leaving him behind as well.
“What if he doesn’t come back? What if he doesn’t come back? Where’s my brother?” He’d let out a deep whimper. It was heartbreaking. “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, which probably 2 minutes, the longest two minutes ever especially for the little boy. (I later learned that his older brother promised him all of his remaining halloween candy just 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. The bus driver was nervous and worried about driving conditions. Plus, he was dealing with a lot of very upset children. A cop was present, but he too was stuck and unable to help other than to simply be there. But I imagine his presence reassured the kids a bit.
I told my son to go to and wait in the apartment building as I tried to figure out what other children I could take with me.
“Does anyone here live on Walton?” I asked the remaining 8 children.
“NO! But we live close enough! We’re close enough!” It was Nelly, a 7-year-old. She seemed determined to get off the bus and bring her brother with her. She knew her phone number so I called her mother. She was stuck in traffic in another town, hours away from reaching their 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 exhausted and helpless.
I told Nelly and her brother to go stand with Elliot.
But Nelly wasn’t done. She was ready to negotiate. “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. (Side note: I found out later from one of the mother’s of one child who did end up coming along with us, that he did actually know his mom’s number, but since it started with an Ohio area code, grownups cut him off insisting it wasn’t correct, that it wouldn’t work. We need to listen better to our children.)
I looked at the bus driver and the cop and asked them if I could take the other three with us. They agreed that getting them off the bus was better than keeping them there. They had no idea when the traffic would clear for the bus to move. So, three more piled off the bus.
(NEEDED?)Now, hold up: 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. 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. Plus, saying no to Nelly—a true companion, friend, and neighbor—Nelly of she can be anything fame? A person would have to be dead inside.
So I took six kids off the bus.
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 dinner wasn’t an option. But we did stop off at BRGR in South Orange for some water. There, the staff gave them each a cup and looked the other way whenever two children accidentally bumped the lemonade button.
Inside, I assigned them each a buddy and told them to hold hand. That’s when we began our journey.
I knew the walk would be difficult especially since the first mile would be uphill. And by then the snow had turned to freezing rain and while most of the kids had on hats and winter coats, they’re faces were exposed, so the sleet hit their tiny cheeks like tiny daggers. 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 of the kindergartners told me, “I didn’t cry on the bus. I wanted to. But I stopped myself.” And I told him it’s ok if he had because what they are going through is scary. An older boy told me they were more scared because they were the last few kids to get “rescued”.
Nelly kept up the moral. 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 fugitives escaping The Dark Bus, heading home. She even wrote a little song about it.
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 the kids would think about candy and halloween for a couple of minutes. Nelly continually bought their troubled minds a little time.
I gave my gloves to a first grader I nicknamed “Michigan” thanks to his Michigan State football hat. He really wanted his dad. At one point he said, “Maybe my daddy will be standing up there at the playground we sometimes go to.” I felt the urge to cry, because I knew his dad wouldn’t be there. But Nelly held it together. She told him that his dad was waiting for him at home so he could have some hot chocolate ready for him.
“If he’s at the playground, you won’t have a treat ready for you when you get home.”
More eased time, thanks to Nelly.
“Michigan” would later give my gloves to Harrison because he decided Harrison’s hand were probably colder than his. They took turns doing this, 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. Someone said something about being a superhero. Who could disagree with that?
It took us just over an hour to get to their street. When we arrived several of the parents came running out to hug them. Nelly’s nanny swept her and her brother up with an enormous hug. “Michigan’s” dad introduce himself, thanked me and they went inside for some hot chocolate. And that was it. Our journey had come to an end.
I won’t ever forget that night, not unless my memory fails me in my old age. While the situation wasn’t pleasant, and at any moment something terrible could have happened, I am so grateful I was able to spend it with those kids. Watching all the grumpy grownups honk their horns in their warm cars spinning their wheels, not moving, I felt lucky to be with children. They give me great hope for our future.
Since that night, I have inadvertently adopted the phrase: “What would Nelly do?” And I use it all the time. Even when I don’t want to. Even at my grumpiest. So, 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 another car wishing to make a turn in front of me, I stop myself.
“What would Nelly do?”
“Nelly would let that car turn in front of you.”
Nelly would choose to remain positive. Nelly would look out for her neighbors and her friends. She would choose kindness. She would opt for the 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, 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. Because Nelly would do that as well.
Nelly will make thousands of tiny changes to earth.
Mark my words, she’ll make tiny changes to earth.
We should be more like Nelly.