This lady has put in the hard work of finding her place in the world. That sh*t isn’t always easy, but she carries herself with the kind of strength and resilience and confidence that says, “I’ve earned this. I’ve got this. I belong.”
To show her in her role as stage manager, we climbed 40 feet of straight vertical ladders to explore a 100-year-old pitch dark catwalk at the historic Al. Ringling Theatre.
I don’t love heights, but I do really like Ally, and plus it was her birthday, and everyone deserves to feel boss on their birthday.
When that trumpet is in his hands, magic happens.
He lights up.
He has swagger and rhythm.
The music that he makes is heartfelt and somehow like a throwback to another era and completely innovative and new. Kind of like him.
It seemed like a good time to use light to help me tell that story.
It’s not yet dawn when Desiree Hansley is circling school bus 442 with her clipboard, checking the tail lights, the tires, the stop arm.
She’s driven a bus for New Hanover County Schools for 30 years. This part is mechanics. This part is easy.
It’s what she does with the young people who ride her bus that makes her part conductor, part mother figure, part magician. It’s what makes her, in a word, exceptional.
“Nobody causes trouble for Ms. Hansley,” she says, shifting into gear. “You’ll see.”
Imagine a school bus full of elementary students. Imagine the decibel level.
That’s not Ms. Hansley’s bus.
The kids board quietly, and they ride to school in silence.
“They have not proved they know how to talk to each other with respect,” she says of her no-talking rule. But more than that, she says, it’s a way to press reset on a morning that may have begun in chaos at home.
On her bus, you “just relax. Get your mind ready for the day.”
Get ready to learn.
Ms. Hansley started driving bus when her daughter was just four and could ride along while mom worked. Three decades later she is still behind the wheel, bringing students to and from Edwin A. Alderman Elementary School, D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy and John T. Hoggard High School every morning and afternoon.
In a way she’s still like the mom driving the bus.
“One kid told me the other day, ‘You sound like my grandma,’ and I said, ‘Well, thank you.’”
She pauses, looking ahead at a boy alone at the bus stop, hood up, head low.
She adds, “We need more grandmas.”
Ms. Hansley asks for the same route every year, and she has forged relationships with every group of people at the school.
She knows the kids’ parents. Some of them were her passengers a quarter century ago.
She knows their teachers, who often call on her to try to reach a child who’s struggling.
“There was one kid who every day at the same time started getting out of character. Her teacher asked me, ‘Will you talk to her?’” she said. “I told her, ‘Your classroom is not the place for you to be cutting up.’ Sometimes I can say it in a way they’ll receive it.”
And she knows the children so well she can read their faces and their body language as they climb her steps.
She greets them in a ballet of pulling down hoods, reminding kids to tie loose laces, laying a gentle hand on a shoulder, granting approving nods, and studying them for signs of frustration or pain.
It’s one child after another, single file, each getting exactly the touchstone moment they need from their bus driver Ms. Hansley.
“If they come up here after school and they have a frown on because they had a tough day, I tell them, ‘You need to go back to your seat, process it, think about what you’re gonna tell your mama.’”
And in her quiet bus, they do.
“Some days,” she says, “I feel like a therapist.”
She’s tender and watchful and cares deeply for the kids she shepherds to school and home every day. But like any good grandma, there’s little question where she stands, and the kids respond to that.
“I ain’t gonna tolerate no foolishness,” she says. “I didn’t do it yesterday, I ain’t gonna do it tomorrow. If you come with it, you gotta take it somewhere else.”
After three decades behind the wheel, including the last 18 for Alderman, Ms. Hansley says she’ll work a few more years before retirement.
In the meantime, though, “One thing the kids can count on with me is I’ll be there every day.”
For her that means a current eight-year streak of perfect attendance.
“We’ve got to see each other,” she says. “They don’t see me, they might go off to the left.”
And it’s clear the only one deciding the direction things will go is their driver.
And so she shows up every morning in the dark, cranks the engine, and deftly maneuvers the bus and its passengers from her perch high above the road.
The trip is a meditation — little foreheads leaning against foggy windows, silently rolling through the morning streets, with Ms. Hansley at the wheel, steady.
Last summer I studied with photographer Peter Turnley for the second time, spending a week in New York documenting the people I met in the city. I never really shared the photos I made that week.
It was a combination of things — my ambivalence about social media, my own anxiety, my fear of putting out into the world these photos that I had worked so incredibly hard to make and that I felt in my heart were some of my best work.
That shit is scary, friends.
This coming year I want to turn my lens and my attention to my own community of Wilmington, and to document here the kind of humanity I tried to reflect in my work from New York — joy, connection, weariness, hope, all of it. I’m telling you this so I can stop hiding, and to keep myself accountable.
Thank you for letting me share.