Roads Scholar Stephen James Quits Life in the Bus Lane to Shoot for a Harvard Ph.d.

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Monday morning rush hour finds Stephen James right where he's been every weekday for the past eight years, expertly threading a jam-packed commuter bus through New York City's crowded streets. He may be stuck behind the wheel for the moment, but the 34-year-old Bronx bus driver is definitely going places—and in high gear. Though a high school dropout, James has managed to become a scholar of formidable potential. He recently graduated summa cum laude (grade point average: 3.99) from Lehman College in the Bronx, and his next stop is graduate school at Harvard University, which has awarded him a full six-year, $57,500 fellowship to its Ph.D. program in American literature.

"I've managed to use every single second I have toward the acquisition of knowledge," says James, and that's no exaggeration. He even managed to study each morning and evening while driving the express route from the north Bronx to midtown Manhattan (earning some $400 a week). On the less crowded return runs he would listen to taped lectures through headphones or dictate his papers into a recorder. Then he would attend classes between rush hours. After knocking off work at 8 p.m., he would go home and study until 1 a.m. He usually got about five hours of sleep each night. As if that weren't enough, he also found nonclassroom time to study everything from Chinese martial arts to Egyptology, living out his conviction that, as he says, "every person can improve physically, intellectually or spiritually every day."

James was "the classic diamond in the rough" when he first knocked on Lehman College's door in 1979, says Michael Paull, associate dean of individualized and continuing education. "How many times in your life do you sit at your desk and have someone who's a part-time bus driver and part-time carpenter walk into your office and say, 'I want to study fiber optics.' " Actually fiber optics proved to be a passing fancy: James's appetite for learning eventually led him into literature, a planned career as a teacher and a commitment to the ideals of education. Says associate professor Gary Schwartz, director of the Lehman Scholars' program that gave James his academic boost: "I hope he'll become Secretary of Education."

A tall, lanky and splendidly articulate man, James has a mind that just won't stop. His conversation switches lanes from an explanation of the Egyptian calendar to the relationship between the Greek god Dionysus and the Egyptian god Osiris, takes a screeching turn into the parallels between the Isis regeneration myth and the story of Christ, then flies off an exit into the Founding Fathers, mystery religions and the Washington Monument.

Such acrobatic intellectual leaps match his remarkable jump from the economically depressed Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx, where he was raised in an apartment above a grocery store by his grandparents and mother, Josephine Dance, who's now a registered nurse. He says he hardly knew his father, who was largely absent. Determined to see him educated, his mother gave him a copy of Webster's Dictionary the day he was born (he still has it). Because they could never afford to repair the broken TV set, James found himself reading all the books his mother could bring home. He also learned to play the cello, organ, piano and guitar. Seeing Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet inspired him to take up the martial arts, and he played on a hotshot basketball team in the Bronx and raced in amateur cycling competitions.

At DeWitt Clinton High School "you were either at the mercy of the bureaucracy or of the gangs," he recalls. Since no one seemed to appreciate his yen for knowledge, James decided he could learn just as much out as in. He left at 16. But he kept reading. Married at 19, he ran a community group, then started working as a carpenter in construction after his first child was born. When he and his wife separated, he turned to bus driving to make the child-support payments. Then the express run opened up, giving him the chance to work and go back to school part-time. "I never had low esteem or a sense of not being worth anything," he says. "I went back to show myself I could do it, to show other people I wasn't a dummy."

Today James lives on the upper floor of a two-story house with his second wife, Laurie, a gospel singer who was in the hit musical Mama, I Want To Sing, and their 4-year-old son, Elliot. Every spare nook is packed with books, from Chapman's Homer to Bruce Lee's kung fu manuals. His first wife and their two children, Joy, 12, and Robbie, 9, live nearby, and he visits them regularly on weekends. Laurie calls Elliot, who's in a school for gifted children, "genius two." His latest assignment, the names of all the African countries correctly spelled in his own scrawl, hangs on the wall, along with a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, which James has carefully pasted up at child's-eye level.

James hopes eventually to bring his talents back to Lehman as a professor, but wherever he ends up, he won't look back on his years as a bus driver with regret. For this Emerson of the Manhattan express, driving a bus has been part Zen meditation, part psychology course—and a daily test of his ethical philosophy. Just after pulling away from a stop on one recent run, he spotted a woman with a cane hobbling toward the bus. Stopping halfway down the block, he waited for her to board. "You've made my day," she said.

"When you meet people on the bus," says James, "you have the choice to treat them as means or ends, whether you're going to see them as objects or as human beings." Such views are especially appreciated by the scholar-driver's passengers: For them, Harvard's gain will clearly be the Manhattan express' loss.

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