Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1330
The 57 Bus, by Dashka Slater, tells the story of then eighteen-year-old Sasha Fleischman's life-changing encounter riding the bus home from school in Oakland, California, in October 2013. Sasha, a senior in high school at the time, was on the bus on the way home from Maybeck High (a private school) and nodded off to sleep. Although the distance between Berkeley and Oakland is minimal, Sasha spent nearly an hour on the bus each way, as their commute involved several transfers.
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Sasha was dressed in a T-shirt, jacket, and long skirt. Sasha, who was assigned male at birth, identifies as agender, meaning that they identify as neither male nor female. As Sasha slept, several boys about Sasha's age were also on the bus, and one of them—playing around with a lighter—set Sasha's skirt on fire. As Sasha's skirt burst into flames, Sasha awoke immediately, howling in pain. Luckily, two bystanders helped snuff out the flames, but by this time, Sasha's legs were already badly burned. It was later discovered that Sasha had sustained second- and third-degree burns, which required extensive surgery.
In the confusion that ensued, the bus came to a halt, and Sasha—dazed and in pain—stumbled off the bus. One of the men who helped Sasha put out the flames insisted that Sasha needed medical treatment. 911 was called and an ambulance dispatched to the scene; upon arrival, the driver sped Sasha to a burn unit at a hospital in San Francisco. Sasha spent nearly a month in the unit, being treated for the burns that ran the entire length of their legs.
Sasha returned home from the hospital after the attack and was surprised by letters of support and donations from as far away as Canada that had poured in. In an interview, Sasha, who was still in a great deal of pain, explained how performing daily tasks such as showering and dressing was very difficult. At the same time, Sasha was glad that the agender community was finally being represented in such a public fashion. Sasha's parents, Karl and Debbie, have been supportive of Sasha's identity while at the same time acknowledging their initial difficulty in understanding Sasha's wish to be identified as agender. When Sasha decided to start wearing skirts, however, they admitted that "Sasha seem[ed] more comfortable in the world."
The young man who set the fire, Richard Thomas, was sixteen years old at the time and a student at Oakland High School. Richard was arrested and taken into custody the following day and, due to the brutal nature of the offense, was charged as an adult. In fact, Richard was charged with two felonies—each of them a hate crime—and faced possible life imprisonment. Had Richard been charged as a juvenile, such a sentence would not have been possible. A couple of years prior to his encounter with Sasha, Richard had been involved in an altercation with some children who were skateboarding; this quarrel landed Richard in a group home in Redding, some 200 miles north of the Bay Area. Since then, Richard had lived in East Oakland with his single mother, his young brother, and his mother's fiancé. Richard's cousin also lived with the family, having been taken in by his mother, Jasmine, after Jasmine's sister Savannah was murdered in 2006.
Although Jasmine did what she could to protect her family, Richard had already witnessed a great deal of violence in his young life, including the murder of several childhood friends. Richard also endured the loss of his beloved aunt Tish after she was killed by her boyfriend. Jasmine desperately wanted Richard to attend college after high school, but Richard had difficulty keeping up with his classwork. Both he and his mother suspected he might have learning disabilities, but he was never tested. However, Richard had recently met Kaprice Wilson, an attendance officer at Oakland High who took an interest in him and his future; with her support, Richard promised both Ms. Wilson and his mother that he would work hard so that he might graduate from high school and continue on to college. In fact, when Richard was arrested at Oakland High, he was actually in Ms. Wilson's office waiting to speak with her. Before he could do so, however, Richard was taken away in handcuffs.Despite his age, Richard was interviewed at the police station alone. He confessed to the police that he had been having trouble in school and that he had been traumatized by the violence in his life. After some leading questions, Richard admitted that he was homophobic, while at the same time saying, "I don’t have no problem with somebody if they like men." When the police pressed for clarification, Richard explained that he thought that perhaps Sasha had taken things too far by wearing a skirt and viewed it as almost a provocation. However, while Richard admitted his involvement in the crime, he didn't seem to have a solid answer as to why it occurred. He claimed he was "being stupid" and didn't realize that Sasha's skirt would burn so quickly. In fact, Richard seemed to believe that, if anything, there would be a small flicker that could be easily extinguished. Richard's mother agreed that his actions were wrong but argued that they were mostly due to his immaturity. Two letters that Richard wrote to Sasha shortly after the crime seem to confirm this notion. In the letters, Richard acknowledges his guilt, writing that he is taking responsibility for his actions. He claimed that he was "deeply sorry" and asked for Sasha's forgiveness while at the same time maintaining that he was "not a monster." He wrote,
I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. I'm a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.
The letters were not sent to Sasha until after Richard was sentenced, which was over a year later. Before Richard's trial, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center asked the District Attorney not to charge Richard as an adult, citing Richard's youth. Several months later, while Richard sat in court for his for evidentiary hearing, Jasmine defended her son, saying, "We're not hateful people." Jasmine, deeply apologetic, embraced Sasha and Sasha's parents during the hearing, later stating that Sasha didn't deserve the treatment her son had shown her. In the next hearing, a few months later, Richard was offered a plea deal, which he accepted. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Richard would serve his time and be released before the age of twenty-one, sparing him from having to serve time in an adult facility. Unfortunately, the terms of the plea deal were suddenly changed to a seven-year sentence instead of a five-year sentence. Both Richard's lawyers and Jasmine were furious, but they still encouraged Richard to accept the deal. It is still possible that Richard may be released in five years, but the likelihood that he may be transferred to a federal prison after he turns eighteen is still strong.
Sasha's parents, Debbie and Karl, spoke at Richard's sentencing a month later. While they still don't understand why he attacked Sasha, they advocated for a shorter sentence for Richard, telling him, "we also think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want you to come out of prison full of hate." Even Sasha themself was ambivalent about Richard's punishment. In spite of the pain Richard's action caused them, Sasha, who is now a college student, acknowledges that Richard was young and simply made a bad choice. In Sasha's words,
He did something that's really dangerous and stupid. But then again, he's a 16-year-old kid, and 16-year-old kids are kind of dumb. It's really hard to know what I want for him.
Sasha is continuing to recover, and the prognosis for their long-term health is excellent. Richard, however, remains in prison, hoping that he will be released before he turns twenty-one.