Good buddies share the road

Long-haul truckers and Hopewell Elementary School students correspond via postcards weekly throughout the school year.

By: John Tredrea
   Late each summer, as long-haul truckers "Cadillac" and "Sparkle" maneuver the interstates of the country’s heartland, they receive copies of the kindergarten and fifth-grade curriculum at the Hopewell Elementary School.
   For nine years, Terry Burdette and Clarence Davis, the duo behind the CD handles, have worked with Hopewell students in the Trucker Buddy program. The truckers and students correspond via postcards weekly throughout the school year, with messages tailored to the curriculum.
   "We try to coordinate our messages with what the students are doing in school at the time," said Ms. Burdette during the trucker team’s annual daylong visit to Hopewell Elementary on Friday. "Having the yearlong lesson plan helps us do that."
   The veteran tractor-trailer drivers work as a team hauling dry goods (anything not requiring refrigeration) from coast to coast. They brought their shiny black rig with the "Cadillac & Sparkle" plate on the front bumper along with them to the school.
   "Having trucker buddies helps us in the classroom in a lot of ways," said kindergarten teacher Judy Faherty. "Terry and Clarence pass through states and towns all over the country. Whenever we get a card from them — there’s usually at least one card a week — one thing we always do right away is pull down our wall map of the United States and locate where the card came from. It dovetails very well with geography study. The students have had a personal experience — the card from their trucker buddies — involved with the place we’re looking at on the map. So their interest and desire to learn is just naturally increased." Fifth-grade teacher Sue McDonald’s class also participates in the program.
   Having trucker buddies also helps students develop their writing skills, Ms. Faherty said. Because the students are excited about having truck drivers for friends, they have an incentive to write as well as they can when composing messages for their pals on the road.
   "At the beginning of the school year, my kindergartners and I collaborate on the messages we send to truckers," Ms. Faherty said. "By the end of the school year, the children are composing their own messages. They’re quite proud of that and happy about it. We also use the messages from the truckers as a regular component of our reading lessons."
   It can work with math, too. Numbers are a big part of the truckers’ lives — number of miles traveled, number of pounds of cargo, number of hours one can drive before turning the wheel over to one’s partner, number of gallons of fuel, numbers involved with traveling through four time zones in less than three days — the possibilities seem infinite.
   Ms. Burdette says the program gives a boost to her and Mr. Davis as well as the students. "It’s really been good for us," she said. "It kind of rejuvenates you. Our job can get a little boring. Getting a message from a friend just naturally picks you up. We’ve made a lot of friends here at Hopewell over the years."
   It’s always a big day at the school when Ms. Burdette and Mr. Davis bring their truck — minus the huge trailer — for a visit. Groups of students get a chance to check out the truck up close, sitting in it and saying hello to Winnie, the pet cocker spaniel who accompanies Ms. Burdette and Mr. Davis on all their runs.
   "This isn’t a brand-new truck, but we did our best to make it look like one," said Ms. Burdette, in her 22nd year in the trade. "We spent all day yesterday washing and polishing it inside and out."
   They did a good job. "That’s a pretty truck!" one of the students called out as he approached the rig with his classmates early Friday afternoon.
   Another student wanted to know why some tractor-trailers have only 14 wheels, instead of 18.
   "That’s actually a good question," Mr. Davis said. "The 14-wheelers are used on local runs. Eighteen-wheelers are for long-haul work, like Terry and I do."
   During the visit, students get a chance to see what life can be like for their constantly traveling pen pals. The inside of the truck cab has a small television and, in the rear, a bed.
   "Terry sleeps while I drive and I sleep while she drives," Mr. Davis said. "That way we can keep going all the time and get our freight to its destination as fast as possible. And there’s no need to spend money on motels or hotels for a place to sleep."
   Almost every week, they go from Pennsylvania to California and back again. "It takes us 60 hours to go from coast to coast," Mr. Davis said. "We go nonstop. I drive at night while Terry sleeps. She drives during the day while I sleep."
   For the truckers, it’s a demanding job replete with repetition. But for the students, the idea of driving nonstop all the way across the country in a huge vehicle is a fascinating idea, charged with adventure and excitement, like something out of a movie about modern cowboys. This fascination can easily be translated into motivation when lessons in school are connected to what the trucker buddies are doing, Ms. Faherty said.
   "In their messages, the kids ask us all kinds of questions about the places we go and what we’re hauling," Ms. Burdette said. "We’re glad to answer them and to try to help the teachers accomplish what needs to be done. You know, like a lot of people, many truckers want to volunteer to do something that’s good and useful. But it can be hard when you’re on the road all the time. Most volunteer opportunities require you to be in the same place most of the time. This program gives us a chance to do something for others, too."
   The program is run under the auspices of Trucker Buddy International, Inc., PO Box 527, Waupaca, WI 54981. The organization can also be contacted by phone at 1-800-MY-BUDDY or online at