My three year old came home from preschool yesterday and said “Mama, Miss Tara twisted my arm today at naptime and it hurt me”. These are words that scaffold every parent’s nightmares. My failure to have protected my child from pain/harm does battle with my immediate blinding rage. What is the due process in this case: should I dialogue with the school or should I ask for a public square and some rocks? What could possibly make the 45-year-old Ms. Tara hurt my child? As my sleepless night abdicates for a resigned morning there is another drama unfolding across my small town. 43-year-old Bethany Warner is fired from her job as a school bus driver by the local school board. She fell asleep at the wheel while driving the children back from school. Eight students were sent to the hospital with minor injuries.
Everyday the Bethanys and the Ms. Taras fill the front pages of our newspapers. Everyday the tale of negligent teachers and caregivers are repeated across this country fuelling our worst fears. How can we protect our children? How can we best punish the culprits?
There is no defense for Ms. Tara and Bethany. But there is an explanation. There is no excuse for failing to uphold the trust, but their failure to do so have deeper roots than individual pathologies. This is indeed a more frightening proposition. Firing Ms. Tara and Bethany will not ensure that our children will never more be shaken by a teacher or driven off the road by a school-bus driver.
So what do these two events have in common? And where should we start telling the stories of Ms. Tara and Bethany?
Ms. Tara’s story starts every morning at 6:00 am when she begins her shift at a used car lot in her first job of the day. She has to have this job because even after nineteen years of working at my daughter’s prestigious preschool her salary cannot sustain a decent and dignified life. Most early childhood workers in America earn less than $27,000 annually. Childcare workers are also more likely to be uninsured. In Indiana, where Ms. Tara works, the salaries of preschool teachers are 12 per cent below the national average.
There is no shortage of underpaid jobs though. Between 1992 and 2005 the number of childcare jobs grew by 66 percent. The childcare workforce is projected to grow to another 38 percent between 2004 and 2014, a higher rate of growth than projected for the overall workforce-- which is only 14 percent.
Unsurprisingly the same backdrop of depressed wages and long days smear the canvas of Bethany Warner’s life. The average salary of a school bus driver in Indiana is less than $25,000. If this wasn’t low enough, more and more city officials, in Indiana and across the nation, are now forcing school districts to privatize their school bus service. Private contractors, to boost profit, then get a free hand in hiring people with the least training and lowest wages. And these people, the Bethany Warners and Ms. Taras of the world, struggle to stay awake, stay calm as they traverse the blind alleys of two or more low-paid jobs.
Liberal analysts miss the point when they wring their hands over school accidents. Their remedies are for the children to be quiet, the drivers to be focused and the aisles to be clear. The problem of the school bus does not lie in the bus itself. It lies outside the bus. The problem is not the careless driver who fell asleep, or the teacher who had been up since 6:00 am and had had enough of a challenging nap-time situation. The problem is the system that rewards the Goldman Sachs millionaire and forces my child’s caregivers to struggle with two jobs.
Bethany Warner, the school bus driver who fell asleep on the wheel was evicted from her low rent apartment a few years ago when the slumlord company raised her rent. Bethany got fired from her job. I raised hell for Ms. Tara for inappropriate physical contact with my child, but also made it clear to the administrators that I would raise similar hell if they tried to fire her. But the tiredness will stay. One day, when the day has been too long, and the bills too persistent, another Bethany or another Ms. Tara will undoubtedly slip. And for that to stop happening we need to demand that the people who perform some of the most valuable jobs in our society--caring for our children, driving them to school—are treated with respect, dignity, and fair wages.
I went to Bethany’s facebook page to find out what she thought of the world. And this is what this supposedly uncaring 43-year old busdriver had written:
Every day you hear people saying what they want and bought. Well, this is what I want, I want people who are sick to be healed. I want children with no families to be adopted. I want people to never have to worry about food and shelter and heat. Most of all, I would like to see our people start to care for one another.
A system that pays Bethany starvation wages ought to be fired.
[All names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved].