For the past nine years, 49-year-old Gary Trembly, a sports writer for The Lincoln Leader weekly newspaper, has doubled as school bus driver. Dressed in Wranglers, a plaid shirt, and green shades, Mr. Trembly faithfully stands beside bus No. 8 as children laden with books and band instruments tumble in.
"I'm the only bus driver most of these kids ever had," Mr. Trembly says proudly, pointing to a cluster of school photos posted beside the rearview mirror. Other than a plastic rose stuck conspicuously above Jesse's usual seat, all seems normal as children's laughter rises above the rattle-tattle of bus No. 8.
The 30-mile bus ride offers a glimpse into rural Arkansas, Jesse's world. As children exit the bus in groups of three and four onto dusty roads lined by chicken huts and cow pastures, Mr. Trembly describes their social structure as one divided between "the preppies and the skanks."
"The preppies are the teachers' kids who always get selected to play in ball games and wear bows in their heads," says Mr. Trembly. "Whereas some of the others you might check for head lice."
Jesse fell somewhere in the middle, he says-well liked by most but also avoided by some. "I think he really would have liked to be a good kid," says Mr. Trembly, his eyes watering just a little as he looks straight ahead. "But he just kind of got involved with the wrong bunch, maybe because they accepted him more."
Halfway along the 60-mile drive from Lincoln to Rogers, Mr. Trembly enters Prairie Grove and pulls off onto a gravel road known as "Greasy Valley Road." Barbed wire, rusty car parts, and sad-looking squashed pumpkins decorate the front lawn of the metal trailer that Mr. Trembly identifies as Jesse's.
During the 30-minute ride back to school, Mr. Trembly muses for a moment on the effects of a growing drug problem and teenage pregnancy rate on community youth-and the tendency of some adults to ignore that reality.
"Communities in this area sometimes color sin. They shade it so that it's not quite black," he said. "Unless something horrendous like this happens, and then they don't want to shade it at all."