#vted Reads: The 57 Bus with Caitlin Classen

#vted Reads logoIn this episode of #vted Reads, we talk about the 57 Bus by Dashka Slater. Based on a real-life incident, this book chronicles the experiences of two young people before and after an act of violence.  We explore both perspectives of a specific crime: the victims and the perpetrators.  Along the way, we learn more about gender non-conformity, the challenging reality of living with neighborhood violence, the problems with the juvenile justice system, and how to construct an amazing non-fiction story.

So glad you are joining us for this episode of #vted Reads. Let’s get to the conversation.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators.

Today, I’m with Caitlin Classen, and we’ll be talking about The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater.

Thanks for joining me, Caitlin.

Caitlin: I’m thrilled to be joining you.

Host, Jeanie Phillips, left with Caitlin Classen, right and two copies of the book The 57 Bus.

Jeanie: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Caitlin: My name is Caitlin Classen. I am the librarian here at Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School in Essex Junction, meaning I work with about 365 sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders on a daily basis.

Jeanie: I just want to say we’re in a back room in Caitlin’s library, and it is one of the most charming middle-school libraries, or libraries in general, that I’ve ever been in. It’s really lovely here.

Caitlin: Thank you so much. It’s all kid artwork and kid-driven.

Jeanie: Yeah, it feels fantastic.

Caitlin: Thank you.

Jeanie: So The 57 Bus; we were just talking before we got started about how much we both adored this book. Usually, when I am doing a book, especially one written for young adolescents, I start with a summary. But this book is a little bit different, and so I’m going to ask you to just introduce us to the characters.

Would you start by introducing us to Sasha?

https://twitter.com/lincolnabesread/status/1090655907061555201

Caitlin: Yes. Both characters are super interesting and super compelling just as individual people. Sasha is very interesting to me as an educator because I learned a lot from this character.

Sasha is agender.

Basically, what that means is that Sasha does not identify as either male or female. They had originally started by identifying as genderqueer because they weren’t sure how they wanted to live their life. Sasha prefers the pronouns they or them.

It was a really interesting read because this kid is super smart and clever, and goes to these interesting schools for kids who are independent thinkers, and has these really supportive parents. I believe the dad’s a kindergarten teacher and the mom also works in education. It said as a bookkeeper at a private school. An only child.

What’s so cool about Sasha is that they dress in an interesting manner even for a big city like Oakland.

While Sasha wears a lot of bow ties and top hats and newsboy caps, they said at first it was a lot of steampunk influence. Sasha then adds the layer of putting on a skirt. The parents mentioned that they saw their child go from pretty reserved. They could blend in, pretty good at being invisible, and then made this decision, I want to say at like 15 or 16, to start dressing differently. The parents start worrying like, “What’s going to happen to our kid?” It’s a pretty progressive city, but there’s still that worry about how are people going to receive my child. I think that’s a big catalyst obviously of how we learn about the 57 Bus and the incident that occurred that afternoon.

Jeanie: You bring up so many interesting things for me, and I want to make sure our readers or our listeners know that this book is nonfiction which means even though I said the word “character,” Sasha is a real person.

Caitlin: Correct.

Jeanie: And Sasha’s parents are real people.

The introduction to Sasha in this book is such an empathy-building experience because you get to see Sasha’s journey as they figure out that they’re agender.

As they explore like, “Who am I really and what do labels mean?” Page 33 in this book, in particular, is just such a primer on the language of gender.

Caitlin: Correct it’s a whole different world. I think if you’re someone who is… I don’t want to say lucky enough to be born knowing how you identify, but in a way, it is a sense of luck that you don’t have to go through that battle of like, “Who am I, and what does this mean? How come there’s not a label for me? It’s not easy for me to fill out a census that says male, female, other.” I think that page 33 is just helpful for educators and adults everywhere, but especially if you’re working in a school because you never know what kind of kid is coming through your door.

Jeanie: I’m going to read a little bit of page 33. The title of the chapter is called, “Gender, Sex, Sexuality, Romance: Some Terms.”

Because language is evolving rapidly, and because different people have different preferences, always adopt the language individuals use about themselves even if it differs from what’s here.

That’s powerful.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: To me, that speaks of self-determination.

That as humans, we have the right to decide how we want to be referred, what we want to be called.

Caitlin: I agree. I think as educators, even though we work with children, people know who they are and how they want to be identified. It’s a very powerful page to read.

Jeanie: It continues on with terms for gender and sex, which is almost a full page. Agender is defined as:

doesn’t identify as any gender

and that’s how Sasha identifies. It continues on with terms for sexuality and terms for romantic inclination.

I really appreciate how it breaks these down to terms for gender, terms for sexuality which is different, and then terms around romantic inclination, which is also different.

It breaks them apart in ways that we don’t often do as a culture.

When we had… a couple years back, we had some transgendered students at my former school, Green Mountain Middle and High School, and it was a confusing time for faculty.

I feel like reading Sasha’s experience would have been really helpful.

The resource that was super helpful to us was Outright Vermont.

Caitlin: Yes, we love, we had Outright come last year and do a training with us. We love Outright Vermont.

Jeanie: Would you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Caitlin: Sure. I’m sorry I can’t remember who it was, but it was a wonderful woman who came and did this presentation for our faculty last year. We also have students who are transgender and who are questioning and we want to be as supportive as possible for our kids. They basically broke this down, right.

How you identify your gender is not necessarily how you’re going to identify with your sexuality, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with who your romantic interest will be in, and just gave us the language and the safe space to have those conversations because this is a new language for a lot of educators. 

I work with some people who have been in this building for almost 40 years. Things have changed a lot in the last 40 years.

Teaching yourself how to respect your students is how communities thrive.

I think we expect that respect back from them, but our kids are super open-minded. I think it’s where educators need to do a little more work to make sure that they feel like they are in a safe and inclusive space that understands who they are.

Jeanie: This is one area in particular where I feel like we can really learn from our students.

When I was at Green Mountain, it was Circle, the gay-straight alliance, that was really those kids knew so much more than I did. Having conversations with them was an education for me.

I’m thinking about What’s The Story? a couple of years ago. A group of students there created an incredible video, I think it’s called Breaking Binary, which I’ll put a link to in our transcript because that’s a really powerful student-created piece on gender and gender identity.

The other thing you touched upon that I think is really interesting is Sasha’s parents. This feels to me like a great book for parents of transgender youth or agender youth or genderqueer youth to read because Sasha’s parents really want to do the best thing.

They’re really supportive of Sasha; and yet they worry and they mess up. Later on in the book, when something happens, which we’ll get to, Sasha’s mom reverts to the old pronouns, forgets to use “they.” I just had such empathy for her.

Caitlin: I agree. She’s really trying, and I love that the mom says, “I’m trying and I still make mistakes, but I’m trying to be supportive.” I think that’s just so human. I think we want to say, “This is how you identify. Cool, you have my full support,” and you can and you are gonna make mistakes. I think it’s just owning that and being, like, catch yourself, fix it, acknowledge it, and then move on because that’s how you’re going to learn.

Jeanie: So we have Sasha. Super smart. I think Sasha is also not neurotypical.

Caitlin: Agreed.

Jeanie: I believe they’re on the spectrum.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: Sasha goes to a charter school across the city of Oakland and has this rich friend group. I mean, reading about those friends and the creative games they play and their like almost cosplay, they’re dressing up, is so fascinating. They’re such a quirky and interesting group of kids. Sasha’s got this really lovely home life and the kind of the kind of thing we want for all of our students.

Let’s now introduce Richard. Tell me a little bit about who Richard is.

Caitlin: Richard is pretty much the opposite of Sasha in most ways. Sasha came from a supportive, financially well-off area of Oakland, and Richard literally lives on the other side of the city. He comes from intense poverty and a lot of violence. This poor kid has had so much trauma in his young life; lost friends, had family members murdered, killed by gun violence in their neighborhood. Your heart breaks for this child.

Richard was born to a very young mom. I want to say she was like 15. The dad left the picture soon after, in and out of jail. This kid grew up in kind of an unstable environment.

When one of his aunts is murdered with the gunfire, the mom ends up taking in the two cousins. While his mom works, she’s working 12 or 14-hour days, they still don’t have a ton of money. This kid just kind of starts to get lost, not even in the system; just starts to get lost in general because Richard starts to skip school a lot.

I think it said Richard, when this event happened, was a junior in high school and had been to three different high schools. That’s already unsettling… and does not seem to be a bad child. I think that’s what we need to keep in mind is that they were both children.

Teenagers may seem big and scary, but they are still children.

Richard was a good kid. He took care of his little siblings and showed up when his mom needed him to show up. He even went to one of the guidance counselors at school and asked to be put in a program that helps with kids who have a lot of absences, like unexcused absences from school. Then– I can’t remember what her name was. I can look it up. It starts with a W. Basically said kids don’t really ask to be put in that program because it’s easier to put freshmen and sophomores back on the path towards being successful in high school, and Richard was already a junior when these events unfolded.

Jeanie: Is it Kaprice?

Caitlin: Yes. Kaprice Wilson? Yes. Kaprice Wilson.

Jeanie: Caprice loves him.

Caitlin: Yes.

Jeanie: Kaprice runs a special program for kids as you mentioned. She really gets these kids and what they’re what they’re up against.

To be fair, Richard’s mom is really trying hard and she adores Richard. He comes from a place of love. He’s well-loved, but resources are thin.

Caitlin: Time is one of those resources that she just doesn’t have that. If you’re working 12 and 14-hour days, you just don’t have that ability to be there with your kid as much as you would like to be.

Jeanie: He has a complicated relationship with his stepdad when she remarries. There’s a lot of children in the house, and the violence that he experienced isn’t just about those around him. He experiences violence from an early age when his aunt is killed, and then a friend is killed, another friend is killed, and he is in the juvenile justice system and has no one to confide in, no one to comfort him when his good friend is killed on the streets from gun violence.

Then there’s this scene where Richard is in a store and he’s robbed.

It says, I’m on page 98,

It was the end of October, two months into Richard’s junior year. He and his cousin Gerald were on their way to Cherie’s house to kick it with her brother and they stopped in at a liquor store to get something to drink. That’s when Richard ran into a boy he knew from around the way.

A few minutes later, two guns to his head.

Gerald was walking in front, so he didn’t see what happened. But suddenly Richard wasn’t wearing his pink Nike Foamposites anymore. Richard’s face was crimson, the way it always got when he was furious.

In Oakland, it’s called getting stripped. The kid took his wallet, money, phone, shoes, coat. Gerald wanted to go back, find the kids who did it, but Richard told him to keep walking.

He’d been caught without his people, that’s all there was to say. But at least he hadn’t been killed. Rumor was that the boy who robbed him had killed people.

Caitlin: Again, still just a kid.

Richard is just a kid. I can’t imagine having gone through something like that. That’s traumatizing enough, let alone having that heaped upon all of the loss and violence he’s already experienced.

I was, in this article that I was reading, The Fire on the 57 Bus in Oakland, which is from the New York Times Magazine; it’s written by Dashka Slater, the author of the book. There was also a line about that. He kept thinking about one of those robbers and Richard knew one and had thought that was a friend of his. So he also had this layer of deep betrayal because you think you’re safe but you’re not safe.

Jeanie: I think that that lack of trust permeates Richard’s life in school as well. He’s not sure who to trust. He gets in trouble at school. He ends up getting arrested at school later on for what happens next.

School doesn’t feel like a safe place, his neighborhood doesn’t feel like a safe place. It’s almost like Richard’s always living on edge.

Caitlin: Yes, because nothing is ever safe, and I can’t imagine how that stress must impact you as you’re growing. To just always be wary and to never feel like you have a place to land that you can trust.

From that same article, Richard is a kid who also was trying to advocate for himself, like he wanted to be in Kaprice’s program. He had said to her he was falling behind in school, which is when he started skipping school because he wasn’t understanding the content that was being taught. He himself wanted to be tested for learning disabilities. It wasn’t an educator saying, “I think we need to help this kid.” It was him saying, “There’s something wrong and I’m struggling, and I need help with that,” and that’s heartbreaking.

You feel for this kid, and he does commit a terrible crime. He hurt someone, but it’s still a child and a child’s way of thinking.

That’s what this book keeps bringing back, and I think this is really beautifully told story about how these were two people in the world and that right and wrong is not black and white. It’s that human condition that we forget when we look at these punishments in our justice system too.

Jeanie: One of the things that’s been coming out in the news a lot that I thought of as I was rereading this book was about the toll that racism takes on bodies, right? Thinking about African-American women are more likely to die or experience trauma when they give birth.

Caitlin: I just read that too.

Jeanie: Similarly, Richard lives in this environment, and you had some statistics earlier about incarceration rates for African-Americans in Oakland.

Caitlin: I do. For children in Oakland.

Jeanie: For children, yes.

Richard lives in this environment where the expectation is you might be shot or put in jail. You’re more likely to be shot or put in jail than probably finish high school.

Caitlin: Which is terrifying. That statistic said,

African-American boys make up less than 30% of Oakland’s underage population but account for nearly 75% of all juvenile arrests, and each year dozens of black men and boys are murdered within the city limits.

Jeanie: Even if he doesn’t know those numbers, that’s the daily fabric of his life, and the toll that must take.

Caitlin: I can’t even begin to imagine.

Being a librarian, I feel like I’m in a unique position also with my students to build empathy and understanding through literature because this is a life that I cannot imagine. But The 57 Bus put me in that position and makes you look at the situation from both Sasha’s point of view and Richard’s point of view and their families because what happens affects so many more people than just the two people on the bus.

Jeanie: Let’s get to what happens because from the beginning of this book, you know what happens. Sasha and Richard live in two very different sections of Oakland. What happens to make their worlds collide?

Caitlin: Sasha and Richard, like you said, come from two different parts of the city, but their paths cross on the 57 Bus. Sasha takes The 57 Bus everyday -it’s part of their commute to and from school – I believe for more than an hour, commutes for more than an hour, and is really comfortable taking the bus and has done it for a long time.

What Sasha is wearing on the bus is a key component of what happens. Sasha’s wearing like a shirt with a bow tie and happens to have a white tulle skirt on.

It’s a look, but Sasha’s never had any problems before and so had been reading a copy of Anna Karenina, which I love, and had fallen asleep on the 57 Bus and was sleeping in their seat.

Then Richard gets on the bus with, I want to say it’s two or three friends, two friends, and one is his cousin, Lloyd. Lloyd had been waiting for him after school also, so when Richard was dismissed, had been kind of egging him on and they were kind of in this heightened state. These three teenage boys get on the bus, and Lloyd’s trying to flirt with this girl in the front, and they’re just being really loud and rowdy, and then they notice Sasha.

They have a lighter, and goading each other on, they’re flicking the lighter, right? Like it’s a joke.

They light the lighter once and the skirt doesn’t catch on fire, so they’re laughing and then they flick it again. Then Richard’s getting egged on to light the lighter again, and I think it’s the fourth or fifth time that it catches.

What Richard expected was that it would be like a little flare up and Sasha would pat the flames out and it would be this funny incident, but what they weren’t expecting was that tulle is a fabric that lights like a candle.

In an instant Sasha, is surrounded by like white-hot flames and wakes up screaming, “I’m on fire I’m on fire,” and the bus stops. Sasha is on fire.

I can’t even imagine the terror you must feel. You were sleeping on the bus and you wake up in pain and… gets off the bus, and two passengers help Sasha put the fire out, knocked them to the ground and put the fire out, which is traumatizing for them as well. In this time, the boys get off the bus and they take off. Sasha is left on the ground in the cold November air with burns from thighs to calves, second and third-degree burns, and is walking on the sidewalk in shock and is calling their dad, Carl, talking to their dad on the phone.

People were just horrified and devastated.

I honestly don’t think that Richard knew what was really going to happen, and that’s that connection to the teenage brain and how teenagers think and how their minds work.

It’s a really horrible incident because the part of me that’s a teacher is like, “You know you’re not supposed to play with a lighter. That’s so ridiculous and so stupid. Why would you even risk it?”  But then when you hear Richard talk about the reasoning behind it, I believe him.

Jeanie: You described Sasha’s point of view really well.

One of the things I think that comes out is that Sasha’s friends are shocked because Oakland is such a queer-friendly place. This kind of thing doesn’t really happen.

Caitlin: In broad daylight. All right, so this is page 117 and it’s a chapter called Watching.

After he jumped off the bus, Richard strode away with his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual. Then he heard Sasha’s screams. He stopped, turned around, went back.

He stared at the bus, mouth open.

The bus had begun to move again. The driver, still unaware of the fire, was continuing along his route.

Richard ran after the bus. Suddenly, it lurched to the curb. Passengers spilled out, yelling and coughing. Another bus, the NL, had pulled up behind it, and after a moment, Richard turned around and climbed on. A few seconds later he got off again and walked back to where Sasha now paced the sidewalk on bare, charred legs.

He ambled past, snaking his head to stare at Sasha, then turned around and walked past Sasha again, still staring. Then Jamal and Lloyd got off the 57 and the three of them half walked, half ran to the other bus. That night, Jasmine noticed that Richard seemed sad.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He wouldn’t tell her.

Jeanie: Oh, that’s so powerful.

Richard has made this terrible mistake.

Caitlin: Terrible mistake.

Jeanie: He’s horrified. All the emotion of what happened, like his own guilt and his– he just doesn’t even know what to do.

Caitlin: And because I honestly don’t think he thought what happened was even a remote possibility.

Jeanie: I am a mother and I remember, when my son was young, talking to a mother whose kids were older, and she said, “Oh, you think it– it’s hard now,” like, “Mothering a toddler’s really hands on, but when they get older, it’s even harder because all this stuff is happening in their brain and you can’t access it.”

Right now, you know, “Okay, what you need is food, what you need is sleep,” but later you’re like… and so Richard, I feel for Jasmine, his mother. She can’t get in there to see what’s going on.

Caitlin: She clearly knew that something was bugging her child and he wouldn’t talk about it or didn’t have the language to talk about it.

Jeanie: Yes.

The emotional life of adolescence. We don’t give them enough credit for what they’re dealing with.

Caitlin: The world is big when you’re little.

I think people forget that teenagers are still just children, and the world is a big and scary place and it’s hard to talk about difficult subjects especially when you’re still trying to wrap your head around them.

Jeanie: I think this is a good place to talk about Dashka Slater’s way of writing this book. She’s a journalist and she’s read about this in the newspaper, this event that happened. this fire on the 57 bus, and she dug deeper. The section you were just talking about explaining what happens on the bus with the lighter, the reason that she knows all of that and is able to portray all of that is because she watches the surveillance videos that are on the bus.

Caitlin: Those videos have not only images but also sound, so she could hear what happened and how terrifying it was for not only for Sasha but for the other passengers as well.

Jeanie: Well, because she goes back and interviews passengers.

Her sources are so rich and varied. As librarians, we can totally appreciate this. She uses news reports, she goes to social media, she’s looking on Sasha’s Tumblr page, letters, all these different interviews, and then there are points at which she writes poems. She includes some really interesting perspectives as she’s writing this nonfiction book.

Caitlin: She’s an amazing writer and a beautiful researcher because this book feels complete in that sense. I feel like everyone was well-represented, and she really dives into how difficult a situation like this is because, again, things are not black and white and life is just shades of gray. But this is when, as we get further into the story and learn about the charges that Richard faces/

I think Dashka Slater did an amazing job weaving all of these different components together to give you this full story.

The chapters are so short that I think I got so carried away when I was reading it. All of a sudden, I look up and I’m like, “What time is it?” because the chapter is like, “Oh, I forgot about this person,” or, “Wait, how did this work out for this one?” and then all of a sudden you get these little two or three-page snippets of the story and it’s just fascinating.

Jeanie: Yes, I think this is a good place. We’re only halfway through the book at this point when the 57 bus fire happens because then she spent half her time before the fire really investigating who the two people are, Sasha and Richard. Then the second half of the book is what happens after, and there’s this… I didn’t think of it when I first read it, but when I was rereading, I felt like there was this foreshadowing. It’s on page 121. It feels to me now like such a foreshadowing of what’s to come. It says,

The ambulance took a long time to arrive. The police, on the other hand, came right away.

It feels like, as the story progresses, Sasha’s healing takes a long time, but boy does the justice system act fast.

Caitlin: We’re very quick to blame and assign punishments like that will fix the problem, and that’s not necessarily the case.

Jeanie: I’m not sure, we don’t want to give away the whole story to the reader, but there are some really important themes that happen through the rest of this book that I think are just rich, juicy questions to sort of dig into with teenagers or just ourselves, but especially with young people. Just thinking about a few: what makes something a hate crime? Because this is treated as a hate crime.

Caitlin: Correct, and that hate crime clause on the charges means that Richard doesn’t get to be anonymous, and the case is not kept confidential, and he could end up in an adult prison.

I think it’s so complicated and it’s so vicious in a sense, like the pursuit of justice is so bloodthirsty.

I’m of two minds on that because on the one hand, you hurt someone very severely. You caused someone, an innocent someone who was asleep on the bus, you caused severe harm to that person, but on the other hand, this is still a 16-year-old.

I think because we’re in education, we understand how the teenage mind works, and in a lot of cases, it doesn’t work the way you would hope it would.

Jeanie: It’s still developing.

Caitlin: It’s still developing and how do you–? Yes. Does Richard need to be punished? I agree. Yes, you do, but there are different ways to deal with finding justice for people. I think a key component… I don’t want to give away too much of the book because it’s so good and people should read it because it’s so good, but there’s so many levels to how Richard is treated, and how Sasha treats Richard, and how the families interact. It’s just a complicated situation, but it is a rich discussion book.

Jeanie: Well, it’s so easy.

I think Dashka Slater talks about how in the news reports the way justice is viewed is very binary. Sasha is a victim; Richard’s the perpetrator of the crime. He’s all bad; Sasha’s to be pitied. But Sasha doesn’t want pity, and Richard’s not all bad.

It’s so much more complicated, and Dashka Slater takes the time to, instead of glossing over and making it simple; bad, good, must be punished–

Caitlin: Must be pitied.

Jeanie: –must be pitied, because nobody does anything else for Sasha. Dashka Slater takes the time to really get in the tangle, get in the mess of it, and look at it from all these different lenses.

Caitlin: That’s what makes a good researcher and writer because she chooses to get in the thick of it and is objective, and this book doesn’t take sides, which I think is really so important because she’s looking at it from, “Here is what happened. Here are all the perspectives of what happened.”

Jeanie: I love that you use that word “objective.”

While she is objective, she’s also compassionate.

Caitlin: Absolutely.

Jeanie: She looks at it with this lens of compassion for everyone. Instead of objective like cold, there’s this real warmth of understanding that I think we can learn from.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: Some other questions that came up are about the juvenile justice system.

Richard has been in the juvenile justice system before, and now because he has that record and because this is called a ‘hate crime’, he’s suddenly charged as an adult even though I think he’s 15.

Caitlin: Yes, 15. I believe he’s 15 when the crime happens, the incident happens. It’s just… it’s horrifying. And the charges are huge. Like you said, the police are the first to arrive and it’s very… the justice system moves fast. He is charged with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury. Both of those are felonies, and each come with a hate crime clause that would add an additional one to three years in state prison to his sentence. If he was convicted, Richard faced a maximum sentence of life in prison at 15 or 16 years old.

Jeanie: The juvenile justice system has already failed him. It’s part of why he’s behind in school, his time there. It’s pulled him out of his family unit and isolated him. Because he ended up in that system with friends, they were separated, so he had no one.

Caitlin: There’s a scene where he finds out where his good friend got shot and killed. He’s in a juvenile hall when that happens. Jasmine, Richard’s mom, had said she called to tell him and that he just started crying and he didn’t even hang up the phone. He just put it down, and she heard him walk away. You can’t hold your child, you can’t be there as they go through this loss. It’s brutal.

Jeanie: The other thing that happens in this story is… and we think about this in the justice system that are often asked,

“Does the perpetrator have remorse?”

Richard has so much remorse for what he’s done.

Caitlin: Oh, heaps of remorse.

Jeanie: Dashka Slater really looks at what would be different, what would happen if it was a restorative justice system. There’s this powerful investigation of how this could be different, and not just for Richard but also for Sasha and Sasha’s family. Do you want to talk about that at all?

Caitlin: I do. I think– personally, I believe in restorative justice and I think that it’s a process that can really work.

When I look at these two kids in this book, this would have been a perfect case for restorative justice process.

Restorative justice is basically acknowledging that harm was done to the community and how do you repair the harm that was done. That can look different case by case because no two situations are the same. So how do how do you repair the harm that you caused?

I think, had these two children been able to communicate, and not necessarily right away because Sasha was in the hospital for a long time, healing. Then months and months of healing after because burns are no joke and they affected everything from how you shower to how hard it is to walk.

I mean there is some anger that comes with that. I think there is a little bit of, “Why me?” But Sasha does a really beautiful job of backing out of that mindset and looking at this as truly a mature individual.

I think restorative justice would have made a big difference.

I mean you can cut this if you need to, but I think the part about the letters that Richard wrote are hugely indicative of who Richard is as a person. Richard, on his own, four days after being arrested, wrote a letter to Sasha and basically was like,

“Dear victim, please know this wasn’t my intention and I cannot believe I harmed you the way I did. It was a mistake and I didn’t intend it,”

in this beautiful letter. Then writes a second letter, and the lawyer chooses to not share those letters. The family, Sasha and Sasha’s family, do not read those letters for 14 months, and I think that is a miscarriage of justice also.

Jeanie: Richard’s already faced so much injustice in his short life.

Caitlin: Correct, and it seems like such a genuine offer, these letters, this heartfelt apology, and that’s what they are. It says, “I did this horrible thing and I accept the punishment that comes along with this. I just need you to know that I’m sorry and that this was never the intention,” and those letters weren’t shared for 14 months. As the families mentioned later in the book too, what would have been different if they had been shared earlier? And the lawyer’s rationale was they have admissions of guilt and we can’t share them. I understand that as well.

I just look at these two people in the world whose paths crossed in this unfortunate way, and what would have been different if we had taken a restorative justice angle on this? Because Richard, at sentencing, is 16. That’s just a child.

Jeanie: Recently, I went with students from The Dorset School, sixth-graders who were doing a cooking class, and they had this series of meetings with the Dismas House. Now, Dismas House has this beautiful mission. Dismas House first came to Dorset School and talked to the sixth-graders about their work, and then the sixth-graders went and cooked and shared a meal with the residents at Dismas House.

This is lodged in my heart, the mission of Dismas House. The meals are about food …but they’re also about reconciliation. Terese, the executive director, said they’re meant to reconcile these former prisoners with society because they’ve done harm, right? And so they need to reconcile. But it’s also meant to reconcile society with former prisoners because society has done harm. A society that allows some people to live in poverty is a harmful society.

I just think about Richard. It’s all focused on the harm he’s done to someone else, and there’s never any point in which society has to reconcile with Richard for the harm it’s done to him.

Caitlin: Which is heartbreaking. It’s such a painful book. It’s such a painful book because I feel helpless? Reading this book. You know, I work with middle schoolers that are 11 to 14 years old.

My 14 -year-olds, they make so many mistakes and they make a lot of bad decisions, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

I think, “Where will they be in two years and what if one of my kids ends up facing life imprisonment in a federal prison?” I just cannot even comprehend what that would do to someone and the fear you must feel. This is a case where I do not think the punishment fit the crime.

Jeanie: Yes. I feel like there’s a long road we can go down, too, about once you have an offense, once you’ve been charged with something, it’s so much easier for you to get sucked into this system endlessly and end up incarcerated for life. Most, especially young men, when they’re most likely to trip up is until they’re in their early 20s, right? If we’re just slapping on punishments, what learning gets to happen, right?

Caitlin: There you go. That’s during the development of your brain, right?

Jeanie: Yes. Through your early 20s. Yes. Okay. Too bad we’re not in charge of the justice system, Caitlin.

Caitlin: Right, we’d make some changes.

Jeanie: We totally would.

By the way, listeners, readers, just because this book hurts a little doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. You really should. It’s so powerful.

Caitlin: I think because of the hurt you should read it. Like we were talking before, it’s that empathy. Being a reader means you get to live so many lives and go through so many situations, and I’m so grateful for The 57 Bus because it put me in a situation that I’m still having trouble coming to terms with, and that’s a good book.

It makes you look at the world differently, and I feel like I learned lessons.

The first time I read The 57 Bus, I talked at people about it for a long time because of just how I had to process it. It’s a rich discussion book.

Jeanie: Great. Let’s talk about that some more. How might you use it with students?

Caitlin: Right now, my kids, I do a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations with them with the readers advisory. We’re always looking for ways to get them engaged in narrative nonfiction because that’s something they tend to kind of push against.

Their assumption is that nonfiction is just information, and it’s boring, and I don’t want to read it. I’ve been promoting this book because of: one, the writing style is so gripping.

You are sucked in from the first page and those short chapters. It just means the story is coming together in these little bits and pieces as you’re reading it, and you cannot stop piecing together the puzzle and what happens. It’s compulsively readable.

For my kids, they’ve been sharing it with word of mouth. So one will finish and come with a friend at the library and say, “I just finished this, but so-and-so would like to check it out.” So we just do that.

It’s not been on the shelf because we’re just passing it from hand to hand, and I think that’s a sign of a great book, fiction or not.

For them to be this invested in nonfiction and to come to me with questions and say things like, “Do you have any other books like this book?” That’s a magical book.

Jeanie: Yeah, and what book’s like this book? Oh, there are so many different questions I could ask right now. What book is like this book? The book that I thought of, and I haven’t read it yet although I read the adult version of it, is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is a look at prisoners on death row and really about the injustices that they face. That’s one that I would recommend for a reader of this book is Just Mercy. Do you have any others?

Caitlin: Well, my first question is always,

“What about this book? What aspect of this book?” because this book has so many interesting topics and questions, and themes come up in it.  I have to kind of drill down with them and say, “What in particular? Was it the justice system? Was it the LGBTQ rights aspect of things? Or was it this kind of brutal treatment of this kid?”

Both kids, really. Sasha gets attacked and Richard is basically condemned to this prison sentence.

Based on whatever really piques their interest, you can go all sorts of ways, which is the joy of being a reader because there’s so many good choices out there.

For me, when it comes to nonfiction, it made me think of… we have two books that our kids are really into right now. One is The Borden Murders, just because they’re interested in that system and what happened with Lizzie Borden. Then the other one we’re very invested in right now is Getting Away With Murder, which is the Emmett Till story. And they’ll read them and they’ll come back to me like, “Do you have any other books like this one?”

That’s when you know that you’ve got them on this interesting path, and it’s really good to stoke the fires of their own inquiry and what they’re like drawn to read about.

What makes my job so great is I have to be like, “But what’s going to keep you reading? What about this book?” When it comes to fiction… we did a bunch of book clubs in December. We had like 19 different book clubs with one of our 90-kid teams, and they were obsessed with All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Jeanie: It’s a fabulous book.

Caitlin: Amazing book, an amazing book. I think it really correlates nicely with The 57 Bus, so that’s one that I’m like, “If you’re looking more for a story,” because this is nonfiction that reads like a story.

Jeanie: That really gets into the nuances too, Jason Reynolds. I think A Long Way Down.

Caitlin: A Long Way Down. The thing about All American Boys is, again, it’s told from two perspectives, so you have Quinn and you have Rashad, and you’re learning. I feel like that was very much like The 57 Bus.

Jeanie: It’s also two perspectives across difference like this book, where you have a white perspective and an African-American perspective. Yes, I would totally suggest The Hate You Give, Dear Martin, all of those books that are really about violence in a community are great.  

Caitlin: Have you read Ghost Boys?

Jeanie: No, I haven’t yet.

Caitlin: *gasps* It’s Jewel Parker Rhodes, Ghost Boys, and I would say it’s very much like a middle grade The Hate You Give.

Jeanie: Great, that’s a great recommendation.

Caitlin: We have The Hate You Give and All American Boys, but Ghost Boys has really exploded with the kids, and that’s a big… it’s the same, these big ideas, these big topics.

The world can be a scary place, and the more you read about it, the more you’re able to understand your position in the world.

Jeanie: I think there’s also a lot of books about non-gender-conforming students out there that could be another avenue to point kids who are interested in that element. One of my favorites is from the Green Mountain Book Awards from a couple of years ago, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, which is a fictional account of a transgendered young person. Or If I Was Your Girl, also a fictional account of transgender, and then George.

Caitlin: We love George.

Jeanie: Which is a little bit younger. I think George is fourth grade.

Caitlin: Yes. George, I believe, was 10, 10 years old.

Jeanie: Every Day is a great exploration.

Caitlin: That is a great book.

Jeanie: David Levithan, a great exploration of like… it’s not that the character is gender fluid. I don’t want to go into it too much because you’ll give it away!

Caitlin: But it’s such an interesting book!

Jeanie: It’s such an interesting look at gender through fiction.

Caitlin: It is because you’re a person before you’re a gender. I think that’s something that we have to teach, that comes up a lot when you’re working with kids, is like how someone identifies is not necessarily important. Who you are as a person is what’s important.

Every Day is an interesting look at that situation because if you wake up in a different body every day, which is what A, the main character does…

Jeanie: Ooh! Don’t give it away!

Caitlin: I won’t, but I just think that’s an interesting topic to discuss with kids.

Jeanie: Yes, I really loved that book and my students loved that book. The only book I’ve been able to find written for young people about being agender or sort of gender non-conforming or gender-fluid has been Symptoms of Being Human, and I didn’t love it. I had it on my shelves in my library and I think it was an important book to have. I think one of the reasons I didn’t like it is because it was written by a cisgendered person.

George is powerful in part because it’s written by somebody who’s had that experience.

For that reason, I think there are a lot of great memoirs that might be interesting; Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews, Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, or Girl Mans Up. Those are all great books told from the perspective of somebody who’s had that experience.

Caitlin: Yes, you need to be… I think it’s important to come from a place of authority when you are trying to teach a topic like this that is still relatively new in terms of YA and middle-grade books.

Jeanie: It’s sort of reminds me of that #OwnVoices movement.

Caitlin: Yes.

Jeanie: Yes. There’s also a book that I had in my library that I found really useful to have called This Book is Gay. It’s great because it just sort of walks you through like page 33 does about what are the different terms. It’s great primer on semantics and also gay culture, and I think that’s another great book to have on your shelf in a library. Any other books that came up for you?

Caitlin: I mean, not off the top of my head. I think your list is great, and the couple that we talked about like All American Boys, that looks amazing. And The 57 Bus. I just keep coming back to The 57 Bus was just so well done.

Dashka Slater gave us a gift when she published this book. As a middle grade educator, I’m so thankful that a book like this exists. I hope she writes more.

Jeanie: If I were still in a school, I would want to… I used to teach a unit with a colleague about the juvenile justice system, and we would read Monster. I feel like this book would be a great book to dig into with kids to help them better understand the justice system.

Caitlin: I agree. We’ve been talking about this book for like an hour, and I’m like, but I still have things I need to say. I still have themes and topics that I want to dive into, but I also think that people need to read this book.

Jeanie: And then I’m also– I think it could be used with a journalism class, anywhere where you’re doing that nonfiction writing to really explore the different ways you can tell the same story.

Caitlin: I think what we brought up before is this compassionate, objective viewpoint.

Dashka Slater did a beautiful job writing this book and bringing in all of those components like social media, and watching the footage of the actual incident, and reading the newspaper articles. That’s what learning about a topic is, it’s getting into it and looking at it from all points of view.

Jeanie: Right. Her sources are so varied. We love that as librarians.

Caitlin: I do love it.

Jeanie: I know we could keep talking about this book for days. I so appreciate you sitting down with me and sharing the story of Sasha and Richard and digging in with me.

Caitlin: Oh, thank you for having me. I could talk about this for 10 days.

Jeanie: Thanks for listening, everybody. I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this has been an episode of vted Reads, talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading. Thank you to Caitlin Classen for appearing on the show and talking with me about The 57 Bus. If you’re looking for a copy of The 57 Bus, check your local library. To find out more about vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests, and reads and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

Author

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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