August 18, 2018 10:02:46 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Editor's note: The last name of the student in this story is not used for privacy reasons.
"Looky there, there's Sparky!" said Debby Lawrence, carefully piloting a Lowndes County School District bus, just as she has almost every school day for the past four years. She points ahead, to the top of a utility pole in the rural west Lowndes countryside, where she's spotted a hawk. Sparky, with his white chest, is practically an old friend to the driver and her few passengers on the special needs bus. They gave the little red-tailed hawk his name because his territory is near a power substation.
And then, there are Preacher and Preacher's Kid, who hunt close to a country church. Hollywood's territory is near a convenience store with bright lights at night. Bossy's habitat is near a farm with plenty of cows. Cousteau's range encompasses a large lake. The list goes on, with Hobo and Hemingway and about 40 more hawks Lawrence and the students have imaginatively named along the bus route. It's an educational, entertaining strategy the experienced driver uses during the twice-daily rides that take up to 20 minutes each, mostly past open farmland with little to see.
"The drive can be long and mundane, so I began engaging them in conversation as a way for everyone to stay alert," Lawrence said. "When conversation lagged, I began making up games and challenges to pass the time."
An eager partner in these challenges is a student named Zach. The 11-year-old with autism has been riding with Lawrence since she began driving for the district, when he was 7. In the earliest days, he kept to himself, as many children do when faced with a new experience. But Lawrence is outgoing and caring. Every day she asked questions: "What did you have for supper last night?" "Did you sleep good?" "What did you watch on TV?"
She talked about any sights along the route and began pointing out the different vehicles they saw.
Zach's mother, Kaundra, said, "At first, he didn't want to ride the bus, and then slowly but surely he became excited to ride it."
Lawrence's daily interest won Zach over. He eventually made a pact with the bus driver to learn something new every week. Before the hawks, he became a whiz at identifying trucks and equipment on the road.
"He can tell you if it's a flatbed, tanker, container, chip hauler, log truck or lowboy -- and what it's used for. He knows backhoes and bulldozers and can name every machine that passes us.
"I told him we're going to learn the states and their capitals; the first week, the states were Florida, Georgia and Tennessee," Lawrence recalled. "Now he can tell you the capitals of all 50 states."
Next came the presidents.
"How many 11-year-olds do you know who can tell you the U.S. presidents, in order, and an interesting fact about each one?" Lawrence said. "He's so smart, super smart."
Then, the hawks.
On a recent bus ride during the first week of school, Zach peered out the windows, eyes peeled for one of the birds. On this day, he was the only student on the bus.
"Bossy's my favorite," he said brightly, checking utility poles and fence posts.
"Animals have been a huge part of our talks over the years," said Lawrence who began noticing a pair of hawks in her first year of driving the west Lowndes County route. They were the first she'd seen in years, she said.
"The agricultural use of pesticides had almost wiped them out in our area," she remarked. "Many harmful chemicals have since been banned, and the hawks are coming back.
"I always saw these two hawks sitting close to each other and that told me it was a male and female. ... Slowly, over the next three years, two became eight, eight became 14, 14 became 22, and now there's more than 40 hawks we've seen."
Lawrence keeps a running list of all the birds and their names. She's studied up in order to share more information with Zach and her small band of passengers, which includes Frances Whitfield, a monitor who rides the bus every day. They've learned about territories, habits and markings. Most of the birds are red-tailed hawks or Cooper's hawks, the driver said. Many have become recognizable over time. Beach Boy, for instance, is red, "like he has a sunburn." Frosty is almost completely white. Reaper is very dark, very small.
"It's August, and the babies have hatched," said Lawrence. "The parents have got them out teaching them to hunt. We love the population explosion."
As for Zach, Lawrence's interest in exploring everything from trucks and capitals to presidents and hawks has helped him blossom.
"When a person shows they care, it helps a child grow," said the student's mother. "The bus rides have been an important part of his life."
Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright was amazed, he said, to hear about the hawks and how Lawrence uses them to engage the minds and imaginations of those she spends time with every weekday.
"It's so heartwarming to see a bus driver take up the time with students and recognize their potential," Wright said. "Debby Lawrence has a big heart for the job. ... We're grateful to have Debby employed by the district. We have a lot of employees with big hearts like hers, but she's a shining example of what someone can do that's willing to take up the time to go the extra mile."
Back on the school bus, hawk watch continues. Every sighting generates excitement.
"We saw a new one yesterday and named him Zorro," Lawrence said on Thursday. "He's really dark, like he's wearing a cape and black hood, but with a jet white belly and chest. I think we're at 48 hawks, and I've got to add Zorro -- and that'll be 49!"
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.