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“Thanks for Nothing!”

Everyday heroes are not always unsung. On occasion they actually get the recognition they deserve. If they performed their heroism while on “company time” and their unselfish deed conflicted with company policy and compromised productivity and the “bottom line,” they might not get the approbation from the front office, but at least there usually remains some media attention, even on a slow news day, or a “key to the city” to write home about.

Credit must be given, you might think, to a person whose split-second reaction to sudden danger, saves the lives of strangers.

Such a reflex, as much spiritual and physical, reveals and defines that person’s true character. Virtuous acts, especially when spontaneous and dramatic, are not done for glory, promotion, or an “employee of the month” citation. Although their reward is self-validation, even heroes like to be thanked, I am told.

Here is a summary of how three school bus drivers, under similar circumstances, were celebrated.

Nicholas Frost was honored on Oct. 16 at Formen School in Litchfield, Connecticut, for keeping his bus, packed with a junior varsity soccer team, from swerving and careening off the road after his windshield was shattered by a tree branch that had been snapped off by a wind gust.

In late September on Highway 26, between Portland and Seaside, Oregon, school bus driver Terrie Miller, who was transporting a local cross-country team (what’s with these sports teams?), barely averted what would certainly have been a tragic accident caused by a queue of stopped vehicle. Terrie was feted by her community and called “a shining star” by District Transportation Supervisor L.C. Ellison.

Contrast those heroes’ receptions with the calculated, begrudged and strangely measured acknowledgment that a New York City public school bus driver got from the DOE’s pupil transportation office after a staffer, whose job was to write letters and memos, brought to their attention a newspaper story about how the decisive action of the driver had narrowly avoided what would have been a catastrophic accident caused by the negligence of others.

When I suggested that the bus driver be sent an official letter of commendation, my boss looked at me as though I had horns and asked why. He didn’t see it either as necessarily the right thing to do or even a justified public relations gesture, but he let me write it anyway as a personal favor.

He ordered three revisions of my brief letter and gutted the final version so that only two dull sentences remained before approving it to be sent. Normally my letters were hardly edited at all so I asked my boss why this letter was different. It wasn’t the quality of the work. It was the spin.

He said that it’s a bad idea for the DOE to be on record with a strong, unmitigated praise of the bus driver because in the event they wanted to take disciplinary action in the future against her for some future occurrence, that letter of praise could embarass the DOE. By the way, her work history was and probably still is spotless.

This tale is anecdotal, possibly anomolous and happened shortly before Klein became chancellor. Maybe the pupil transportation folks have become more charitable since then. They have a tough and complex job with many issues related to logistics, politics, and inter-Agency relations. The folks employed there are most likely decent and diligent. But in the wake of their monumental botch-up of pupil transportation operations a couple of years ago, under the scandalous orchestration of a DOE consultant, and especially their cold defensive posture when called to be answerable, it’s a fair bet that attitudinal adjustment is still in order.

Heroes will be heroes. But the DOE, not otherwise a shy Agency, should give them their due and stop feeling that they will lose face for being kind.