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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Safety of School Buses and Trusting Your "Baby" To Others

This morning as I sat behind a school bus at a traffic light, I was reminded of its irony. Look inside any mini-van with a kid between the ages of 5 and 8, and you'll see them buttoned-up tight. Car seats with harnesses and booster seats. We make sure we have extras for our children's friends. Our cars don't leave the garage or parking lot without making sure everyone is strapped in. Yet we put our tiny, five-year-old Kindergartener on a big, ole' school bus that doesn't have seat belts, much less a booster seat. We watch this hunky chunk of metal barrel down the road full of precious cargo. This is particularly scary if you chaperone a field trip. When my son was in Kindergarten, I sat in a bus full of 3 to 6-year-olds as we rambled 30-minutes away to a farm.

Sure, there have been studies on the safety of school buses and why none have seat belts. The Washington Post reported on a study asserting that not only were buses safe without seat belts, but because of their dimensions, were six to eight times safer than riding in cars. Consumer Reports backed up this claim. The American School Bus Council states on their website that buses are safe for the following reasons: the color and size of school buses make them easily visible and identifiable; their height provides good driver visibility and raises the bus passenger compartment above car impact height; and emergency vehicles are the only other vehicle on the road that can stop traffic like a school bus can. It compares school buses to egg cartons with padding, raised seat backs, and a reinforced shell for protection against impact.

The National Association for Student Transportation quoted tests showing that a bus lap belt could actually contribute to abdominal and spinal injuries in a crash. Safety studies also cite the difficulty in evacuating a bus full of kids with only one driver. I trust that our state and federal governments have researched this issue thoroughly in coming to the conclusion that buses are safe despite any child restraints. I put my own children on buses every day. But I wrestle with the contradiction of our little ones bouncing around, two or three to a seat, when we strap them down in our cars.

Sometimes, things that seem intuitively or culturally wrong might not be. They might test our sense of normalcy or what is appropriate and result in conclusions that make us uncomfortable. Conclusions that force us to trust that someone else has done the homework. Trust that their conclusions are true and sound. Even when they make us shudder with apprehension. We close our eyes and surrender our tiny five-year-olds to the open jaws of a big, yellow hunk of steel that promises with the hiss of its closing doors that the one we live for will be carried to school safely. And brought home at the end of the day.

For both of my novels, I had freelance editors take a peek. An objective eye on my heart's work. I wanted them to point out all the weaknesses, highlight the grammatical errors, and help me focus on making the work stronger. Now, as I face the task of trying to get The Beauty of Grace traditionally published, I'm reminded why I self-published my memoir, Abby. If a traditional publisher signs my book, I'm essentially handing it over to the big, yellow hunk of metal and hoping that it gets delivered to the public resembling something close to what it looked like when I turned it over. The traditional publishing process involves much editing and signing over of the decisions regarding cover art, the excision of pages of work, and how the book will be presented to the public.

I chose to self-publish Abby because I wanted to tell the story of my daughter's stillbirth with no interference. I wanted to put her tiny footprints on the cover in their actual size and not have someone tell me that the book would be published with something else on it. I didn't want anyone to require me to delete any of the pages of the story I so painfully told. But in the business of publishing, to do it yourself can mark you with a tattoo that is impossible to erase. You're no longer a "debut artist," but instead an artist that decided to put her work out there without the filter of the publishing community. It isn't impossible to land an agent when you have a "history," but it makes it more difficult.

So in this quickly-evolving era of eBooks and the rapidly changing face of publishing, I find myself glancing over my shoulder in a 360-degree move. I've worked hard over the past year or so to obtain an agent and be published traditionally. Because to land a publishing contract is akin to being signed to a professional sports team, minus the seven-figure paycheck. It means that you're the cream that's risen to the top. Worthy of advances and publicity tours. But it requires a surrender.

I realize now that sending my books to professional editors was like putting my kids in my best friend's mini-van with extra booster seats. To release your work to a publishing house is trusting your "baby" to a big, powerful school bus and hoping it will arrive resembling your "baby." But you trust because you can. You have to surrender the control you've had since infancy knowing that your "baby" will be better for it.

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