by Jim Bruce
Daniel Schmiedt is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading. He is Interim Executive Director of Network Services and Telecommunications at Clemson University and an Elementary School Bus Driver. Dan is also a 2014 alumnus of the MOR Leaders program. This essay first appeared a few months ago as note to participants in his leaders program cohort. [Dan may be reached at Daniel Schmiedt <email@example.com>.]
I left my job at Clemson in January of 2016. The university had offered a voluntary separation program, and it seemed to be a perfect opportunity to leave what was a stressful and apparently untenable situation. I decided I’d take some time to chase a couple of dreams.
In March of 2016, I rolled out of my driveway on my bicycle and pedaled across America. I had an experience of a lifetime and after 98 days and 5,508 miles, I finished my trip in Astoria, Oregon.
When I got back home, I worked for a while as a freelance flight instructor. It was hard to make ends meet, so I applied to become a school bus driver. I’d jokingly said in stressful moments at the university that one day I’d just go drive a bus, and for some reason, that thought echoed. I figured that I could teach flying lessons while the kids were in school.
I finished my training and was assigned a crowded bus route in a lower-income part of town. Most of my students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Mexico, and they were wonderful.
It took me a while, but I eventually learned how to lead my bus with just the right mix of kindness and firmness. I went from having no kids to having more than a hundred on two bus routes.
One day, a shyly smiling second-grader gave me a drawing of me at the wheel of the bus. I had on a flannel shirt as usual, and she had written, “Mr. Dan is the best bus driver” at the bottom of the drawing. My heart soared. Other students with other drawings followed, and by the end of the year, one quarter of the bus’s ceiling was covered with student drawings.
In what seemed like a flash, the school year was over, and I parked my old bus in a field behind the bus shop for the summer. I continued flight instructing, and I looked forward to seeing my bus kids in August.
The university called me at the end of June and asked if I would consider coming back into my old job, at least as an interim.
Emotions swirled through me. I felt proud and vindicated. I thought about the students on my bus and how I’d looked forward to seeing them grow up. I thought about the team I’d left behind at the university. I thought about my dwindling bank account.
I took a deep breath. Damn, how great and how awful it was to have such a decision in front of me. I reminded myself that I’d learned to at least look through doors that opened in front of me.
Did I want the job or not, they seemed to ask in so many words? I said I’d be glad to come in and talk to them. I was excited and hopeful, but a part of me also hoped that we wouldn’t like each other.
On a Wednesday, I walked into familiar old buildings that welcomed me with smells that hadn’t changed since I last walked out of their doors two and a half years ago.
I went into an office I’d been in before and shook old and new hands. We talked about why I’d left, and I told them the truth. They said that I’d done the right thing, and they listened to my stories from the bike ride and the school bus.
“You found yourself in a position where you couldn’t be effective, so you put yourself into places where you were,” said the new guy. He had heard me, and he understood.
I said I’d think about it and we shook hands. They said that they understood my dilemma.
Damn. My kids. Damn. An opportunity.
A week passed, and I thought about it. Like on the bike ride, no clear answer emerged. I’d be fine either way, something told me.
But this door would likely not appear again. And, I was pretty sure I could walk back through it if I found its hallways unbearable.
I took the job at the university. They said they’d be flexible if I wanted to drive the bus in the mornings.
I told my bus supervisor and offered to help in the mornings. He congratulated me and told me to turn in a letter of resignation. He didn’t need part-time help.
My first day back at the university was a whirlwind of things that I’d forgotten. It was like I’d whirled back into my past; I was back in the same meetings, talking about the same things with the same people.
Everyone was glad that I was back. We all smiled a lot. Days passed quickly. I wrote a letter of resignation for my bus job but couldn’t quite find the time to take it to the bus office.
It didn’t take long for familiar stresses to push down on my shoulders. Impossible problems abounded at all levels and it didn’t seem like I had the tools to fix them.
One day, I brought in a stack of student drawings I’d pulled from my bus before I left her in the field behind the bus shop last May. As I put them up on the wall behind my desk, the gravity of my choice became apparent. My eyes welled as I remembered the sweet little people who had given me those drawings. I shook my head and wondered what I had done.
The next morning, I woke up and sat at the edge of my bed, my heart filled with dread and fear. “What have I done?” I asked.
“You’ve taken on a challenge that you’ve been training for these last two and a half years.”
I took a deep breath and thought about those words.
“What part of this time was not training for the exact situation that you now face?”
I smiled and thought of a scene in a movie that had inspired me when I was younger. Mr. Miyagi had given his Karate student Daniel apparently unrelated, slave-like tasks, and Daniel had tried to walk out in protest after a long, hard day.
“Daniel-san, show me ‘sand-the-floor.’”
I’d pedaled off into apparent oblivion with no tools other than a bicycle, a tent, a sleeping bag, and some maps. Best friends that I didn’t know yet had pulled me through with their hands and their friendship. I’d pedaled up Hoosier Pass in very thin air and had coasted down the other side.
“Now show me ‘wax-on, wax-off’.”
I thought of challenges I’d faced in the right seat of an airplane. I had landed an airplane with only words from my mouth.
“Show me ‘paint-the-fence’.”
I thought of my bus supervisor, with whom I could not communicate, and who did not appreciate my hard work. I remembered my co-workers, who had helped me to concentrate on what was important: the kids on my bus.
“Show me ‘paint-the-house’.”
I thought of how I’d learned to lead a group of little people while turned away from them and while keeping them safe on dangerous roadways.
Indeed, I thought.
“Drive the bus, Daniel-san. It is your bus, and you know how to drive it. And, in any case: that yellow bus, those airplanes, and that bicycle are not going anywhere.”
Renewed, my smile came back, and I went to work at the university, happy again.
Later that day, my phone rang. It was my bus supervisor.
“Did you ever turn in that letter of resignation?” he asked.
I said that I had not but would do it today.
“Well hold on. You said you might could drive some in the AM?”
I said that I could.
He asked if I could drive AM elementary.
A friend who is a school psychologist had told me how important it was for young children to start their day on a bus like mine. It was my favorite route. I’d be done before I needed to be at the university.
“Well, we sure would appreciate it if you could do that for us. You could unload at the elementary and then head on to work at the university.”
On Monday, I got up early, and pulled into the bus lot, just as I’d done for the last year. Cliff flashed his bus headlights as I pulled into the lot. I started the old square-front transit and smiled as the Caterpillar diesel rumbled to life. It wasn’t my old bus, but it was one that I’d driven as a spare.
I finished my pre-trip inspection and walked over to Cliff’s bus.
“I hope I can remember how to do this,” I told him.
“You’ll never forget, my friend,” he said with a smile and a chuckle.
Cliff was right, and I whirled right back into my old life as a bus driver.
Happy faces exclaimed “Mr. Dan!” and I remembered their sweet names.
In an instant, the route was done, and I dropped them off at the elementary school, wishing each of them a great day.
I parked the bus, swept it out, and drove to work at the university with a smile on my face.
Wow! Dan listened to both his head and his heart. His words give us hope and inspiration. He found a path to be intentional by listening to the helpful voices he was hearing and by asking questions. And, he found a way to have deep meaning for himself and to influence others by the way he does what he does.
I think that Dan’s story is a parable (a succinct, didactic story that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles) for us to consider. How can we make the best use of the talents, skills, hope, personality, life, gratitude we’ve been given? Then, can we look carefully through the door that is open in front of us? I think these are questions that are worthy of consideration.
Make it a great week for yourself and those around you. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.