Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus begins as Richard, a sixteen-year-old African American boy from Oakland High School, and Sasha, a genderqueer senior from a private school in Berkley, board the number 57 bus in Oakland, California. Richard and Sasha don’t know each other, but they both ride the 57 bus home from school every day. Sasha is agender, which means they don’t identify as either male or female, and their skirt draws the attention of Richard and his friends. As a prank, Richard holds a lit cigarette lighter to Sasha’s skirt, “but wait,” Slater interrupts. Something awful is about to happen. “There must be something you can do,” she says. Then, Slater begins to tell Sasha and Richard’s stories.
Sasha is the only child of Karl and Debbie, a couple from the “middle-class foothills” of Oakland, and when Sasha is just seven years old, they are diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The doctor tells Karl and Debbie not to get their hopes up—Autistic kids don’t have “normal” lives—and Sasha is indeed different. Sasha is deeply interested in language, in the way it looks and sounds, and the way it divides people into two different genders of male and female. Sasha’s own gender identity doesn’t fit into either category, and they begin to create their own, more inclusive, languages. At school, Sasha is just one of a handful of kids who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, and they are comfortable with their identity. Since Sasha has questions about their gender, they wear a skirt every day to add some femininity to their otherwise masculine clothes, and few comments are ever made about their eclectic choice of clothing. Sasha has a close group of friends that supports them in every way, and they even have Nemo, a gender fluid “soul mate, but not in the romantic sense.” Sasha is a happy and quirky kid who is obsessed with Russians and bus transit, and they don’t even mind their hour-long commute when they climb on the bus that day.
Richard comes from the “flatlands of East Oakland.” He lives with his mom and step-dad, along with his little brother and his two cousins (their own mother was killed in a drive-by shooting, and Jasmine, Richard’s mother, is now their guardian.) Richard is “goofy” and likes to joke around. Sometimes, his jokes can go too far, but they are always in good humor. Richard has a kind and comforting side as well, and friends who are anxious or upset find him calming and reassuring. Richard has had some trouble, though. His grades aren’t great, and he likes to skip class. He even had to spend a year away at a youth home for fighting, but Richard is committed to turning his life around. His friend Skeet was recently murdered, and Richard wants to make something of his life. He wants to get out of Oakland and make his mother proud. Richard joins a program at school with Kaprice Wilson, the truancy specialist, and begins to buckle down.
When Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt that day on the 57 bus, he doesn’t intend for it to actually happen. The fabric is supposed to smoke and smolder as a joke, but everything happens so fast. Sasha is badly burned and requires several surgeries and nearly a month in a burn unit, and Richard is charged with two hate crimes. He is being charged as an adult, and he stands to spend the rest of his life in prison. Richard barely understands what is happening to him after he is taken into police custody, and he isn’t allowed to see his mother for nearly a week. His name is all over the news, and everybody thinks he hates gay people. Richard is deeply sorry for what he is done, but his lawyer withholds his heartfelt letters of apology to Sasha, claiming they “contain an admission of guilt.” In the meantime, Richard is portrayed by the media and the court as a hardened criminal, and his black skin means that he is vulnerable to the systemic and institutionalized racism that plagues California’s criminal justice system. Richard goes through multiple hearings before he is even sentenced, and then the district attorney’s office offers him five years with no hate-crimes if he pleads guilty to assault. Before Richard can answer, the offer is quickly taken back, and he is forced to sign a guilty plea for seven years in state prison. He will have the chance to reduce some of his time with good behavior, but Richard will be spending at least the next five years locked up.
As Sasha heals physically, the surgeries they must endure are horrific. Besides the unthinkable pain, they risk major infection, and even death, and it takes them months to fully recover. Still, during that time, their friends and the community respond with such an outpouring of love and support that Sasha sometimes finds it hard to believe they have been a victim of a hate crime. Sasha isn’t sure how to feel about Richard or what his punishment should be. Their agender identity means that they don’t see things quite as black and white as others do, and Sasha appreciates that Richard didn’t mean for any of this to happen.
Life quickly goes on for Sasha after the fire, and they are soon accepted at MIT. Sasha has dreamed of going to MIT forever, and they can’t wait to start their new life. Sasha finds a home at Epsilon Theta, MIT’s “anti-fraternity,” and by the time Richard is finally sentenced, Sasha has largely moved on from the fire. They aren’t even in court that final day when the judge recommends that Richard stay within the juvenile system, but Richard’s punishment continues. Sasha and their family accept his letters and words of apology (wishing they had access to the letters much earlier, as the letters would have given them an important insight into Richard’s thoughts and emotions), and as Slater’s book ends, Richard still has two more years left on his sentence. Throughout the course of Richard’s case, Slater explores “restorative justice,” an alternative form of juvenile punishment that focuses on communication, redemption, and forgiveness instead of a “punitive” approach. California’s justice system recognizes the program’s merits, and even uses it in some cases, but ultimately, they don’t believe Richard’s case is appropriate. Unlike Sasha, the state of California only sees Richard in terms of guilt and innocence. Richard is guilty and he must go to jail.