How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

The horn alarm is blaring in repeated honks. Twenty-five kids are in a panicked uproar. The stench of tracked-in dog doo fills the bus as it sits outside … let’s call it Helga Poppin Intermediate School.

So how did I get here?

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

“Here” is behind the wheel of that unfortunate vehicle, in a state of frazzled despair. For three decades I’d been a writer, editor and website producer at Time Inc. Much of that time was spent at Sports Illustrated For Kids, but catering to urchins has never been one of my ambitions, though I am the father of three and stepfather of one. 

After I was downsized in late 2016, my wife told me that an acquaintance — a driver for a school district near our home in New York’s Hudson Valley — had said her employer needed intrepid souls to man the wheel and would train as well as pay me a modest sum for my suffering.  It seemed like a sensible, practical idea and quite possibly a lot of fun … at the time.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to be a bus driver,” a principal later told a gathering of my new colleagues. 

People, especially teachers and school administrators, often express admiration and amazement at the job we do on a daily basis. I never dreamed I’d end up doing it.

This gig requires you to be part parent, teacher, medic, psychologist, referee, chauffeur, and janitor. Our responsibility for the safety of the children we transport is enormous. Our daily challenges are potentially catastrophic, and we are routinely subjected to the most jarring mayhem and insults that little hellions can dish out while we try to concentrate on not driving into trees, ditches, pedestrians or other vehicles.

Ironically, you couldn’t pay us much less: In the neighborhood of 20 bucks an hour before taxes. Some benefits, such as overtime, health insurance and retirement savings plans, can come with the gig after enough time served.

Then again, we get to enjoy the arts (children shrieking “Baby Shark” and “Old Town Road” off-key) and nature (urchins making loud animal noises) for free. 

In order to gain these privileges, we must get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for school buses, and pass background checks, random drug tests and yearly physicals. We are fingerprinted and required to get testimonials to our good character from reputable people. We must take physical performance tests and specialized safety courses and train for months in order to pass a road test that enables us to pilot a 40-foot-long, 29,800-pound madhouse. Refresher courses and tests are mandatory.

See: Bus Driving 101 (Training Wheels)

“If you don’t like being around kids, you’re in the wrong business,” we trainees were told. “Some people quit as soon as they find out what’s really involved.”

Small wonder there’s a national shortage of school bus drivers.

So why do we do it?

I must admit I had my doubts about what I was getting into. Despite being a dad with a background in writing for kids, I’ve never really felt comfortable with children other than my own. Driving a bunch of middle schoolers weirdly forced me to revisit one of my earliest terrors.

I was relentlessly picked on in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to confront the kinds of bullies who made my life miserable. Would they listen to me or laugh in my face?

Then again, when had my own kids ever listened to me?

Surprisingly, after only a few months I found I actually liked the job despite the best efforts to persuade me otherwise by some of the rascals on my bus.

See: Meet the Hellions

I now have enormous respect for my colleagues in school districts all over the land, many of whom have been driving for years and somehow managed to preserve their sanity as well as their sense of humor.

It was no small task. Here’s to them!

Chomping at the Wheel to Get Going

At this time of year I’m usually back at the helm of Tarkus, my trusty school bus. After a summer of dragging a wet vac around a school as I (theoretically) help the custodial staff prep it for the coming year, I’m shaking mental cobwebs off my daily procedures and routines, and regaining the feel of a big yellow building full of squalling urchins.

There is anticipation in seeing the kids again — the old favorites, even the ones who drive me crackers, and the new additions. Getting your run sheet at the staff orientation meeting can feel like Christmas. What wondrous surprises await this year? Last September, I received Sassafrass, an alarmingly potty-mouthed sixth-grader who kept my middle school run bubbling over until school was shut down in March by the pandemic.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

There’s also a sweet melancholy in realizing that some kids have moved on to other schools. It brings a dewy tear to my eye to know I will no longer have Robespierre stirring the pot. That rapscallion was a classic agitator, for sure, a constant challenge who actually made me threaten to assign him a seat in the luggage compartment. But he had a good — if often misguided — heart and could be contrite on occasion, as the document below shows.

Fortunately, Brutus will be back with his charmingly insolent salutes (when I lecture him and his misbehaving fellow travelers) and the glacial pace at which he moves from his front door to the bus when I’m trying to be on time.

Unfortunately, this year will be a matter of hurry up and wait … until October as the COVID-19 pandemic has led my district to go with a mostly remote learning approach. Some schools will host a few classes, but only the most senior drivers will be given routes. With only two years on my ledger, I’ll be off the road a while.

Fortunately (very!), I will be paid for my downtime, a blessing that resulted from my qualifying as a part-time salaried employee a few weeks before the March shutdown. If I were still a per-diem (hourly) driver, I would be looking for work. So I sympathize with the plight of laid-off or furloughed drivers, many of whom work for private companies that are going under in the pandemic. It’s a national problem and a serious one.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

When I finally return, I’ll be required to keep the little dears two rows apart (more do-able when you have 18 middle schoolers and 12 rows separated by an aisle; a tad problematic when 51 intermediate schoolers come aboard and the district forbids lashing them to the roof) and make sure they keep masks on their sweet faces. Based on my efforts to make them stay in their seats, I’m willing to bet it’s easier to get ferrets to perform precision marching drills.

I’ll also have to figure out a way to keep my eyes on the road and on the overhead rearview mirror that is called the most dangerous piece of equipment on the bus for a very good reason.

And I’ll be asked to give frequent talks on how to properly wear a mask, maintain social distance and spot the symptoms of COVID-19. Given the hardly rousing success of my roadside lecture series on how it’s really not in the best interests of safety to run around the bus and distract me (particularly by nailing me in the back of the head with a football), I expect yawns, blank stares and salutes.

With COVID-19 now on the bug menu, we drivers will have one more malady to worry about catching. If we start dropping in even modest numbers, the district will be in tough to replace us. As it is, there’s a national shortage of drivers (for obvious reasons) and qualified mechanics and office staff are often pressed into service as fill-ins during the best of times.

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

The smart money says schools will probably open and close again in a week or so after teachers and kids start testing positive or causing alarm with high temperatures caused by colds or flu. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Fasten your seat belt, as the old saying goes. I just wish that is what I was doing in good ol’ Tarkus right now.

I’m a Sucker for This Gig

It’s summer time and I’m driving a wet vac instead of a bus.

Fishmeal Falls Central School District employs a select number of us bus jockeys to assist custodial staffs as they prepare their institutions of alleged learning for the coming year. Monday through Friday from early July to the end of August I’m cleaning, painting and moving furniture.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

The messes and stuff you find in and under desks are pretty much the same as what you scrape out of your bus at the end of the year: candy wrappers, gum wads, pens, bits of pencil or crayon, paper snoops, broken toys, crumpled notes and other flotsam. I’m always amazed to find there are actually school buildings under all the trash and grime.

It’s fun to see how our dear little passengers live after they leave our buses — the books they read, the murals they paint, the inspirational messages their teachers post on the walls of their classrooms. Here’s a great one: “Life is all about mistakes and learning from them.”

Ain’t that the gospel truth?

During my first summer gig at a school, I made the mistake of fighting a floor-scrubbing machine and learned it can turn into a mechanical bull. I was doing a classroom floor when the scrubber suddenly spun. I reacted by trying to control it instead of letting go so it would shut off. I ended up on my back in a puddle of suds, fortunately bruising only my pride, but I now treat the contraption with great wariness.

One more: “Only focus on what you can control.”

That usually ain’t the floor scrubber or the kids on my bus, but I have a better chance with the bus if I tune out the yowling and resist the temptation to keep looking in the overhead mirror.

See: School Bus Life Lesssons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

This year I’ve been assigned to Runnynose Elementary, the scene of one of the highlights of my young driving career.

Shortly after I passed my road test, I was assigned a small bus and a handful of kids. Morning drop-off was behind Runnynose, but no one told me afternoon pick-up was in front. So I found myself trapped in a traffic jam of parents with very little room to turn around. Bubs, the head custodian, happened to be outside. Amused to see me and my predicament, he tried to wave me back and out, but I rolled too close to a basketball hoop.

Besides being an immediate attraction for gawkers and the principal, my little scrape required an accident report, though the damage was limited to the roof of the bus and could not be seen unless one stood on the roof of the school or went up in a helicopter or hot air balloon. Nevertheless, Bubs enjoys reminding me of that fine day while I toil under his direction in a hall or classroom.

The process of cleaning floors involves scrubbing, sucking up the suds with the wet vac, and mopping with clean water. “OK, Clem will scrub. Gus will mop. John’s the sucker,” Bubs declared to much mirth from my co-workers. Like my bus mishap, his words are now legendary and will likely end up on my headstone.

Getting a building ready for a new school year is no small job. Besides scrubbing and waxing the floors, we must wipe down all the desks, chairs and tables, empty all furniture from the classrooms, wash the windows, and paint any walls and doors that need it. The gym, cafeteria, bathrooms, nurse’s office and staff room also get the royal treatment. We’re often hopping from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the knowledge that the student body will reduce it all to a grimy mess in short order when it returns.

See: Coronavirus Shut Down: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

This year’s prep work is clouded by uncertainty due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Each district in my state (New York) must come up with a plan to open safely, either fully or partly, in September. Runnynose wants desks separated by six feet, a physical impossibility unless some classroom walls are knocked down. New York State wants us drivers to make sure kids keep their masks on, a physical impossibility unless I can figure out how to be in two places at once.

Ah, well. Life is all about learning and focusing on what you can control, right? Hopefully the ride will be a little smoother than it was on that damned floor scrubber. At least I’ve learned to watch out for basketball hoops.

The School Bus Swag Pile Always Grows and Grows

If you ever need a pencil, just ask a school bus driver. We got a million of ’em.

Bet you didn’t know that pencils, pens, crayons and markers grow on school buses. Yep. They’re planted there every day by the passengers. As a driver I also harvest a robust daily crop of sweaters, hoodies, jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, jewelry, toys, trading cards, books, musical instruments, backpacks, lunch boxes, keys, phones, footwear and ear buds. You’ll find them all in the front of my bus along with the world’s foremost collection of water bottles.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

I often feel like I’m driving a department store.

Though kids occasionally grab things before I turn them in to their school’s Lost & Found, I’m always amazed by how long stuff can remain on my bus unclaimed while kids walk by it four times a day every day. They don’t seem to miss it and I wonder if their parents ever ask them, “Hey, where’s your coat?” when they arrive home on a day when it’s 10 degrees or raining so heavily that an ark looks like a good thing to have handy.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am: Ready for Anything

Lost phones are a cause for immediate concern, but that’s only natural. It’s been scientifically proven that humans of all ages can not survive long without ’em. It usually takes only minutes before a kid notices it is missing and our dispatcher notifies us that a search party is needed.

Sometimes kids will ask if I’ve seen something they’ve lost — usually a tiny gewgaw like a unicorn earring that requires me to crawl around on the floor with a magnifying glass. It almost never turns up.

As for musical instruments, I could start an orchestra with the variety that is left behind, but they don’t stay there more than a day or two before their owners or, most often, their parents come calling. Some urchins do seem determined to get rid of theirs. Jehosaphat, one of my standout (he won’t sit down) fourth-graders and Esmerelda, a fifth-grader, never fail to exit the bus without theirs. I’ve probably now spent more time with a violin or clarinet in my hands than they have.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

All of this valuable merchandise does attract enterprising souls who place dibs on it in case its owners never take it back. Ocarina, a charming third grader who sat directly behind me, had an eye for a couple of necklaces and a bracelet that kept hanging around.

After leaving them on display for months until the end of the school year and repeatedly asking every kid on my bus if the bling was theirs, I finally gave in and gave them to Ocarina with the stipulation that she’d have to return them to me if anyone asked about them. No one did. She’s probably fenced them by now.

It has occurred to me that this stuff could help offset the low pay that comes with the gig. I reckon that since my dear riders ask me for a pencil every day, I should start renting them out. At five cents a pop, I could soon end up retired and reclining on a beach in the Cayman Islands, cackling like a loon while I light pricey cigars with $100 bills.

Though it can be aggravating to keep accumulating so much stuff you have to ship out (sometimes I feel like a worker in an Amazon warehouse), there is a sweet sorrow in cleaning out the bus at the end of the year. Along with the final traces of kids you won’t see again, there are also unexpected goodies.

See: Coronavirus Shutdown: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

For instance, after not driving since mid-March due to the pandemic lockdown, I returned in June for my annual tidying of Tarkus and found a bird’s nest, though I’m not sure if one of the kids left it. I felt melancholy when I pulled a science project lunch box from the swag carton I keep in front and pondered what to do with a baggie of Pokemon cards that was lying under a seat.

It’s possible that I won’t be back behind the wheel until January. At least I have enough pencils to tide me over until then.

School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

When I started piloting a big yellow madhouse in the fall of 2018, a fellow driver gave me a piece of advice: “Always empathize with the child.”

He didn’t mean, “Give the little vipers a pass when they misbehave because life can be tough for them.” He meant keep in mind that even though they are making you want to pull your hair out in tufts it doesn’t mean they are unredeemable monsters.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

Young, developing brains are sieves when it comes to remembering rules. Kids see the school bus as a playpen. They’ve got a herd mentality (what one does, all will do). Some simply haven’t been taught discipline and respect. Something bad and maybe even very serious may be going on their lives. All of the above can be factors in their behavior.

Challenging authority to prove they’re cool is what kids are legally obligated to do and, like it or not, you’re just another scowling old fart in their lives.

See: Government’s Greasy Fingerprints

Of course, you have to make it clear who is in charge. I’m somewhat mellower than your average houseplant but I have my limits and the kids on my bus know it. Sometimes all I have to do is give them the evil eye and I’ll get an “Oh, sorry” and an end to the mischief. Until the next time … but there’s only so much you can do about young no-stick brains.

What you don’t want to do is make bad matters worse. Had a scuffle with the boss, your spouse or a fellow driver? Don’t take it out on the kids. Don’t take challenges to your authority personally. Don’t get into a sarcastic battle of wits and belittle them. Don’t project your own baggage.

Speaking of baggage, I came in with an American Tourister full of expectations: mainly the worst from my middle schoolers because “junior high” was a nightmare for me when I was a kid. I was picked on and put down for three years. I dreaded every day I had to get on the bus and go to that school.

I can’t help noticing that some of my sixth-graders belong to the classic middle school culture of cruelty and harsh judgment, the kinds of kids who tormented me. They constantly put others down and smell blood when they sense fear and hurt in someone.

The feeling that these are the punks who made my life miserable! can creep in and color my reactions to provocative behavior if I let it, but this is a whole new situation. I’m not 13 years old anymore, but I do naturally empathize with kids I know are being bullied.

Sometimes it takes real effort to stay emotionally disengaged, but these kids are, after all, 12-year-olds trying to prove they’re cool and tough. They’re brazen in a pack but much more polite and quiet on their own.

See: Meet the Hellions

I naturally wonder what the deal is with the worst-behaved kids on my bus. Sometimes they can be on medication for physical or emotional conditions. You never know.

It’s hard not to notice how many kids come from two homes. Divorce is sometimes for the best, but when you see kids from what appears to be a peaceful, relatively happy and functioning two-parent home, you realize how fortunate they are.

I overheard a discussion where one middle schooler said she remembers her mother throwing plates and that her parents got divorced so the kids wouldn’t see them fighting. “They hate each other now,” she said. That has to have an effect on a kid.

I found that once my passengers get to know and trust me, some open up and start confiding in me. What you hear can be heartbreaking. I’ve been told about neglectful parents, violent crimes (including murder/suicide) that left lasting trauma, close relatives in prison, money and housing troubles that include no heat in winter, and serious illnesses that cast a heavy cloud over kids’ lives. One girl told me how she dreads that her father will die.

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on. I had a fifth-grader who said alarming things like, “I think about killing people” and “What if you went to a boarding school where they made you forget your parents and when you graduated, they kill you?”

I once found a notebook on my bus open to a page expressing hatred for kids who put the notebook’s owner down. “My confusion won’t let me sleep,” he’d written. I reported it to the school so a guidance counselor could check in and make sure he was OK.

Usually, though, I’m dealing with garden variety shenanigans. Still, it’s aggravating when a piece of your precious cargo immediately starts doing something you just told them not to do, or keeps doing something you’ve told them a million times not to do. Your first thought is, “How dare they disrespect me!”

Brutus, one of my more challenging fourth graders, stands and salutes me when I lecture him for breaking rules. I confess that I fight the urge to waggle my fingers in front of my nose and blow a raspberry at him. Instead, I take a deep breath and chill out. You have to take kids seriously but you can’t take them too seriously.

I’ve also learned to pick my battles (another great piece of advice I was given). If I have to, I quietly lower the boom by surprising bad actors with a write-up that brings school officials and parents into the mix. It usually works, especially when they don’t see it coming.

See: The School Bus Justice System

It also helps to keep your sense of humor, but that’s easier said than done. I’m lucky. Unlike many drivers across the land, I haven’t had to deal with really nasty or dangerous kids and situations. One driver I work with has been physically assaulted by a troubled student.

Another colleague made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. She told me of students she drove years ago who still remember her, greet her and talk to her whenever they see her in a store or restaurant.

One of my students, who came from a troubled foster home, used to pour his heart out to me. “If you’re driving to the high school next year, can I stop by your bus to talk?” he asked on our last day together.

I was deeply moved. That’s what makes this job so worthwhile. When the going gets tough, you just need to think about where a kid may be coming from.

Understanding Kids: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

What do they want?

That question continues to vex me. As the father of three, the stepfather of one, and the bus driver of 60, I’m still no closer to an answer than I was when I was a kid who thought he knew what he wanted.

What do they want?

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

I know why kids are on my bus, but not what they ultimately want.

I also know this much: Many want to sit in the back of the bus where they have a better chance of getting away with all kinds of ungodly mischief. Some want to stick their arms and heads out the windows and hoot at the people on the street. They all probably want me to stop at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. I get asked to do it quite often.

But there are other things that have me scratching my addled head:

Kids will drive you to the edge of apoplexy, then ask you for a favor.

One prime example: Brutus, a fourth-grader with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore, is constantly moving about the bus without asking and getting into scrapes with other kids, particularly his adversary, Rollo. Their school told me to separate their assigned seats by a minimum of three rows if three miles are not feasible.

No matter how many times I sternly tell Brutus to sit down or stop baiting Rollo or leave someone alone; no matter how many times I yell or write him up, he just keeps doing what he has seemingly been born to do.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Many more than once I’ve had to pull over, secure the bus, rebuke Brutus and order him up to the “Honored Student Seat” in the front row. I can set my clock by him pleasantly asking within five minutes, “Hey Mr. John, can I sit in the back? I’m being good.”

My standard reply: “You’re going to have to be good for longer than that … how about the rest of your life?”

Nevertheless, I can count on him doing it all again the next day. But Brutus is not the only one. Researchers say young, developing brains lack the circuit that connects a bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests they may be right.

Kids hate assigned seats but are very territorial about them.

Behold Beetlebomb, who always wanders from any seat you give him (I wrote “in theory” under his name above one), but God save anyone who sits there while he’s gone.

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlbomb and Brutus were feeling unusually mellow one morning when they told me they wanted to sit together. Silly me for letting them. They were at each other’s throats that afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

The next morning, I moved Beetlebomb, who was furious that I’d given his old seat with Hobbestweedle to Oswald after Oswald asked to sit there.

“Get out of my seat!” Beetlebomb kept demanding, getting in Oswald’s grill while refusing to heed my commands to take his new perch so we could all proceed to school and arrive before sundown.

“What difference does it make?” I kept asking. “You wouldn’t stay in that seat when you had it!”

“But it’s still mine!” he cried, tempting me to ask him to present the deed.

Alas, he’s not the only one who has felt that way.

“Hey, Mr. John! Satch (or Hogshead or Hortense Prunella or whoever) is in my seat!” is something I often hear from an assortment of kids after I’ve allowed them to move during a trip.

“That’s OK. You’re not in it and I said they could sit there” is clearly not an acceptable reply.

Kids won’t stop moving … until they should move.

Jehosaphat and Lucille are two of the most migratory creatures on my bus. Lucille, who is well-behaved, has earned permission to switch seats (just not while we’re in motion) whenever she likes. Jehosaphat has not, but he will defy even a court order to stay put.

Both can reliably be counted on to be heading somewhere … except when we reach their stops. Then they are frozen in place and need to be told over the P.A. that it might be a good idea to get up and leave.

“How come you’re always moving except when it’s time to get off?” I’ve asked many, many, many times while a long line of clearly aggravated traffic forms behind us as Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other accoutrements.

Two years on, I’m still waiting for an explanation.

Kids demand things they don’t want.

Sixth-grader Sassafrass constantly complains about having to sit in the front four rows while Ethel, whom she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders out of the middle four rows where the more sedate seventh-graders are deposited … by order of me for the sake of some semblance of peace.

Unfortunately for Sassafrass, she doesn’t grasp that whenever she and her minions — Wisenheimer, Lulubelle, and Zoothorn — get anywhere near Ethel, highly distracting unpleasantries ensue.

One day, to my surprise, they all said they wanted to switch seating areas … only to have Sassafrass and Co. return to the front near Ethel the next day.

The ensuing highly distracting unpleasantries forced me to call a summit meeting at their school and include a guidance counselor.

So, as near as I can reckon, kids want what they want when they want it … until they don’t want it no more. Which is usually a few minutes later.

Maybe you’ve got them figured out. If so, I salute you.

Coronavirus Shutdown: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

I came to this job two years ago with a lot of uncertainty.

The father of three and stepfather of one, I had a passing familiarity with kids but didn’t know if I’d like the pressure and responsibility of the gig or if I had what it takes to handle 30 or so rampaging urchins at 30 miles per hour.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

My wife delights in saying the daily aggravation I suffer is karmic payback for copping out as the Good Cop while we raised our brood. The tough discipline was left to her. Now I don’t have her to restore order on my bus. It’s DIY time, Buster. Enjoy!

For sure, driving a school bus has been a test of my resolve, better angels, and sanity. But I never thought I’d say this:

After the coronavirus crisis shut down schools across the land and left me parked at home until who knows when, I actually began to miss the little vipers. Even the ones who make me want to give them assigned seats in the luggage compartment.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Many of my fellow drivers feel this way, and now I know why.

I miss the things kids say.

One afternoon at his school, Oswald, a rather serious-minded third grader, came up the bus steps with a green cube in his hand. 

“I’m going to blow you up!” he solemnly informed me as he gestured with the cube.

“Oh yeah?” I replied. “If you blow me up, who will drive the bus?”

“My mom will just come and get me,” he replied as he sauntered to his seat.

All I could do was crack up.

I miss their gifts.

Notes like the one on the left from Robespierre, a fourth-grader who is one of my most rambunctious and, shall we say, challenging riders, warm my ol’ heart and make me want to go the extra miles for my young passengers.

I’ve been given drawings and a knitted necklace, but the sweetest moment was when Birdie came aboard one morning and handed me a shish-kebab made of chocolates and marshmallows all wrapped in cellophane and a ribbon.

“It’s her birthday,” Birdie’s mom explained. “She wanted you to have one.”

I never knew Birdie cared. A shy, quiet third-grader, she hadn’t said two words to me the whole school year. Her gift said a lot.

I miss their kindness.

One day, Bumpus, a sensitive third-grader, was crying because his friend Hobbestweedle didn’t get on the bus after school. When Guttersnipe and Snodgrass started making fun of him, Maude, a brassy fifth-grader who doesn’t suffer male fools gladly, got up, led Bumpus to her seat, and put her arm around him.

Then she told Guttersnipe and Snodgrass to leave Bumpus alone and consoled him the rest of the trip. At her stop, I told her what she did was wonderful. She just shrugged. Twarn’t nuthin’.

Kids like Maude can restore your faith in the human race.

I miss their performances of the fine arts.

Hobbestweedle was the only rider on my bus for a stretch one morning when he began reading poetry — “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe — at the top of his lungs. For some mysterious reason he kept dramatically repeating the lines, “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in bleak December. And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

It was a bizarre moment, but it was entertaining.

I miss their music.

Particularly the music they make themselves. The voices of 30 or so third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders raised in a zesty chorus of “Old Town Road” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” are a wonder to behold.

Forever seeking my permission to sit in the coveted last two rows of the bus (where they think can get away with their mischief), Brutus and Jehosaphat pleaded their case by singing — to the tune of “America the Beautiful” — “Oh, Mister John. Oh, Mister John. Can we please sit in back?”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Though I’ve had many days when I’ve said to anyone who would listen, “This gig would be pretty sweet if we didn’t have to let kids on board … maybe I’ll suggest it to the district,” I can truly say I miss the commotion, especially the happy commotion of kids just being kids.

The sooner I hear it again, the better.

Getting Down with the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Colds, flu, stomach virus, hoof and mouth disease…

If there’s an illness known to man or beast, we school bus drivers will get it thanks to our daily contact with runny-nosed, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, chundering urchins.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

I hadn’t had the sniffles in years until I started driving my big yellow sickroom. In an uncertain world, one of the few sure things is the kid who is a fountain of mucus (or worse) will be the one who sits directly behind you and sprays all kinds of germy goodies your way.

Being stuck on a packed bus while you wait for the signal to unload your patients at their school is not one of life’s more pleasant situations. On the plus side, when half of your passengers are out with whatever’s going around, your job tends to be blessedly calmer and easier.

The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. Until it happens, you wonder how you’ll respond. I found out during an afternoon run when several eighth-graders in the back notified me that their pal Coggins had blown grits.

Swallowing my panic, I radioed to base that I was changing my route to drop poor Coggins off first. I was told by our dispatcher that a janitor would be waiting for me upon my arrival at Helga Poppin Intermediate for my next run.

“Great! I don’t have to deal with this mess myself!” I thought with tremendous relief only to be disheartened when just a mop and pail were waiting on the curb; no janitor or assistance as I’d hoped.

Fearing the worst, I crept to the back of the bus … and found no trace of tossed cookies. Then it occurred to me that the other students had been strangely calm. Usually, a meal in reverse will set off a panic and stampede away from the spill site.

“Could this have been a devilish ploy by Coggins to get home early?” I wondered. I wouldn’t put it past that rascal. His stop is one of the last on the run.

I later asked Wally, an honest eighth-grader who sits near Coggins, and was told the entire mess — from more of a severe belch than all-out yak — ended up on the front of the stricken lad’s shirt and one of his sleeves.

I’d dodged a messy bullet for sure, but I learned to keep a clean-up kit (gloves, regurgitation absorber, paper towels, plastic bags) on board.

The telltale sign of gastric calamity: A bus in the district compound, all doors open, mop and bucket by the steps, and a lonely driver forlornly removing the lost lunch.

“This is not worth $20 bucks an hour!” one of my unfortunate colleagues grumbled as he toiled away. A kid he’d told not to eat on the bus went ahead and did it anyway before ejecting some foodstuffs (what goes down, must come up) in a rather nasty firehose fashion.

Of all the challenges we drivers face, one of the most unwelcome is confronting a foul puddle while trying to steer revolted, near-hysterical kids clear and comfort the sick and embarrassed. I’ve gotten off easy. Another colleague drove a vomit comet that had three technicolor yawns on it in one week.

Another sure thing: Your first, “Hey Bus Driver, I think I’m gonna throw up!” will come when you absolutely can’t afford a delay. Trying to finish my afternoon runs on time, if not early, in order to make the 7 p.m. start of an Elton John concert two hours away, my heart (and stomach) sank when Ethel the middle schooler reported feeling green at the gills.

All I could do was hand her a plastic shopping bag, goose the gas, and pray. Fortunately, she kept her chowder down.

What Goes Around …

With sharing a way of life on a school bus, some of my colleagues have developed respiratory ailments that lasted for months and required multiple visits to the doctor and medication. The worst I’ve had (besides head colds) was a dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep.

My district says drivers should stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing, as being left short-staffed gives our dispatchers agita). We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. So unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. Maybe wearing cloves of garlic will help.

Coronavirus is naturally of concern to school bus drivers. Many of us are of ancient vintage (50+) and not in the best physical shape though we can’t be so crumbly we fail physical performance tests (timed exits from the bus; dragging a 125-pound sack that approximates a prone carcass). It’s important to be reasonably active as it is a sedentary gig, like a desk job with a steering wheel. Back and hip problems are common.

Unfortunately, I mainly get my aerobic exercise these days by shrieking at kids or running to the bathroom. Aggravation at least keeps the heart rate up and you can work up a nice sweat at the sight of what is going on behind you.

With coronavirus panic sweeping the nation, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader even had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. that I’d heard that the bug wasn’t affecting many children and they’d probably be just fine as long as they ate their vegetables, got plenty of sleep, did their homework and chores, and listened to their parents, teachers and, of course, their bus driver.

I was tempted to add, “The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving” but thought that might be pressing my luck with parents whose little loved ones came home and repeated what Mr. Driver had said.

When the kids’ chatter about coronavirus continued the next day, I got on the P.A. and said, “Hey, if you’re worried, you can tell your parents that we’re disinfecting the buses now.”

No one seemed to care or react.

“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by Frieda the friendly fifth-grader nearby as the noisy, afternoon hijinks continued.

“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a father. I’m used to kids not listening to me.”

I’m also used to kids getting sick on the bus and me getting sick right along with them.

The Rat Patrol: No One Likes a Snitch (Except a School Bus Driver)

One of the requirements of this noble profession is controlling herds of cantankerous, rambunctious kids while piloting a 29,000-pound yellow building along treacherous roads. Hey, no sweat!

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

Though we bus jockeys often work wonders, we can’t be in two places at once — behind the wheel and in the back prying children off one another. Fortunately, kids do help us by providing useful intel on lawbreakers.

A word from a well-placed informant enables me to catch perps in the act by looking in the rearview mirror or having the on-board video reviewed.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Kids hate being ratted out and complain bitterly to the snitch, sometimes threatening retribution. But I’ve been amazed to find that once a rule-breaker has been called on the carpet, he or she will immediately turn stool pigeon with great enthusiasm. And there’s a domino effect. The more kids get caught, the more kids there are to provide constant choruses of “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! [Name here] is [committing crime here].”

Fourth-grader Beetlebomb is a prime example. A master rabble rouser and wandering instigator, he’s frequently been written up for creating safety issues (distractions for the driver). As I eternally try to explain to my precious cargo, when they do things that make me look at the overhead rearview “suicide” mirror instead of the road, we are very possibly heading for an accident.

Whenever he’s been brought to justice, Beetlebomb promptly starts blowing the whistle on every rule-breaker he sees. Girls are common targets, especially for boys like Beetlebomb who resent my “Females Only” policy for sitting in the coveted back four rows. (I’ve found that the ladies are just better-behaved than the laddies.)

See: Student management, assigned seats and sanity

“Hey, Mr. John! Lucille and Daisy are changing seats while the bus is moving,” Beetlebomb yelled one afternoon after visiting the principal’s office for having committed that very infraction on many occasions.

“How come you never tell me when you move without asking?” I wondered aloud over the PA.

“You’re always busy screaming about everyone else,” he replied.

Like other stoolies, Beetlebomb won’t hesitate to tell on his pals.

“Brutus is picking on Muffin!” he informed me one day. “She’s crying.”

Sure enough. So I gave Brutus the finger — the good ol’ come-to-the-front index finger.

Besides being a holding pen, the front of the bus is also a nest of spies. Calliope, Ocarina and Prudence (who is also allowed to move to the back whenever she wishes) sit directly behind me and keep a sly, close eye on mischief. Ocarina alerted me to Brutus using his phone (all electronic devices are prohibited), which moved Brutus to immediately alert me to Petunia and Lucille crawling around on the floor.

“Phaedra gives out lollipops and leaves the sticks all over the bus!” is another piece of Brutus dish he delivered one afternoon while departing the bus at his home.

Calls to the cop (me) easily become a flood of distraction over matters that can easily wait until I’m done trying to, oh, say, stay on a slippery curving road.

When Brutus yelled, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! Robespierre is eating!” in one such instance, I couldn’t resist asking, “Is he cheating on his taxes, too? If so, let me know and I’ll alert the IRS.”

See: Meet the Hellions

Sometimes you have no choice but to take immediate action. Brutus alerted me to the scent of peanuts just days after I’d told the kids about the dangers of food allergies. Fortunately, we hadn’t left Helga Poppin Intermediate yet, so I marched back to find Ignatz quickly closing his book on a bag of the feared nuts while his henchman Stitch chowed down on graham crackers.

They gazed at me wide-eyed as I told them about having to call 911 in the case of an allergic reaction by one of their fellow riders.

“You’ll feel guilty!” I said. “And I’ll make you visit them at the hospital.”

Another day, I was handed a “signed” letter from Ignatz, Jehosaphat, Robespierre, Pismeyer, Beetlebomb, and Axel accusing Brutus of making inappropriate noises and using words that would make the vicar blush. They also threw Buster under the bus for assorted high crimes and misdemeanors.

Alarmed, I took the note to Assistant Principal Carnage, who asked for proof of the alleged misdeeds. I must admit I expected the long arm of the law to swing into immediate action upon my mere request. Now that I’ve thought about it, Carnage was only being fair in a balanced-scales-of-justice way.

“Did you ask Brutus and Buster if they did it?” I was asked — really, what are they going to say? I thought — and it was suggested that I patrol the aisle when possible. We’ll see. I have to figure out how to do it while I’m driving because that’s when the dirty deeds usually go down, but blessedly I have my trusty spies.

Five Days That Made Me What I Am: Ready for Anything

You’ve surely had “one of those of days” that left you wondering what else can possibly go wrong.

Here’s my one of those weeks.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

Monday

The fun began with your humble narrator backing his bus, Tarkus (nicknamed after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album), into another vehicle. It was dark and rainy and I was still getting the hang of entering and exiting my parking space in our compound without leaving a trail of wreckage.

A week or so earlier, I’d surgically removed a tail light on the bus in the spot next to mine while pulling in. This time, I misjudged how much room I had behind me … and felt that sickening thud of contact.

My queasy inspection revealed a bent hood-mounted mirror on a small bus across from my spot.

So I sheepishly trudged to the office to report my misdeed, giving thanks that at least I hadn’t let Tarkus roll through a chain link fence, as I’m told one poor (now-ex) driver did after leaving their bus in neutral and neglecting to set the parking brake before getting out.

“I plead insanity,” I said as I grabbed an accident report sheet.

“We get that a lot around here,” said our office manager. “You’ll have to think of something else.”

Assured that the mirror repair would be simple, I was still flushed with embarrassment and I vowed to apologize to the driver of the bus I’d dinged. No doubt my colleagues were beginning to see me as a neighborhood threat.

Running late because of my mirror-bender, I was treated to a morning of riotous mayhem: shrieks, arguments, complaints, tussles, sour clarinet toots, flying hats and backpacks, you name it. On trips like these, my bus sounds like a crowded restaurant or a party packed with howling lunatics.

During my afternoon run from Helga Poppin Intermediate, Robespierre, an “energetic” fourth-grader who specializes in starting rugby scrums in the aisle and seats, drove me to pull over to a safe spot. After setting the parking brake and triggering my hazard warning lights, I read the Riot Act over the PA.

A few miles later, Robespierre slugged Rollo, so I pulled over again to inform him and his partners in crime that I would be switching their assigned seats (once again) and breaking up their evil cabal.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

As I spent that evening wrestling with the Rubik’s Cube of my seating chart, I took comfort in the thought that Robespierre only rides my bus in the afternoon.

Tuesday

I arrived at work to find a note in my mailbox informing me that Robespierre would also be riding in the morning from now on.

“Oh, goody,” I thought, fighting a strong urge to weep.

The new seat assignments were greeted by bitter complaints from the Helga Poppin Five: Robespierre, Beetlebomb, Brutus, Jehosaphat and Pismeyer. Brutus protested by making a passionate speech comparing himself to Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to surrender her seat when unjustly ordered to do so by the driver of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955.

It was a surprising, if slightly inapplicable, historical reference for a fourth-grader. The nation was not likely to be as moved by Brutus’s plight as it was by Rosa’s.

My day ended with my boss summoning me for a little inquiry.

The mother of Otto the Eighth-Grader had called to complain that her son came home doused with water. What’s up with that?

I explained that I’d noticed the usual commotion, but hadn’t seen Otto’s exchange of liquids with his fellow back-of-the-bus hooligans Coggins, Spud, Herkimer, and Jethro, or noticed his soggy condition as he left the bus.

Told to separate those rascals if need be, I left feeling much shame. Parental confidence in the comfort and safety of children on my watch is a matter of personal pride. Of course, it would help if the children in question did a little more to make their comfort and safety easier, but you can’t have everything in this world or this job.

Wednesday

My horoscope (Scorpio) filled me with dread: “This could be a disruptive sort of day and there is no way of knowing for sure whether you will gain or lose from what happens. However, as the sun is about to move in your favor even apparent setbacks will throw up new opportunities. Be ready.”

“Great,” I thought as I left for work. “Someone’s going to throw up on the bus.”

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Not exactly.

I was driving Tarkus to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School for my afternoon run, doing a brisk 45 miles per hour on a busy three-lane road, when the air pressure alarm suddenly sounded. Then the red wig-wag sign fell above the dashboard, signaling that brake failure was now on tap in my already-exciting life.

The alarm goes off if the air brake pressure gauge drops to 60 psi. Any lower and you’re flirting with disaster, to quote Molly Hatchet. Having never experienced this hair-raising event, my blood pressure went in the opposite direction until I safely made it to the shoulder (with white knuckles), came to a stop, heaved a sigh, and radioed for help.

One of our intrepid mechanics arrived with a fresh bus in short order, but I was late getting to Bubblefish, where I was met by a gaggle of grumbling students eager to get home.

Some regularly grouse about my on-time performance. “Ugh, we’re soooo late again,” Sassafrass the sixth-grader gripes to Lulubelle, who replies, “I know! Right?” whenever we pull into the school parking lot — a minute early.

“Where were you?” they demanded this time.

I was tempted to reply that I’d been sunning myself and lost track of the hour. But being a steely, stoic professional, I told them Tarkus needed some work, so I had to grab new wheels to ensure them a safe, comfortable ride.

The highlight of the rest of my day was getting nailed in the back of the head by Pismeyer’s football while I navigated a treacherous, narrow downhill curve. A notorious projectile specialist, Pismeyer denied tossing the pigskin. It was only after pulling over that I extracted a confession from Brutus, who insisted that he’d merely forced a fumble by Jehosaphat.

Such was my reward for moving them to seats directly behind me.

Thursday

My morning was going reasonably well until one of the Helga Poppin kids tracked dog doo into the bus, leaving a pungent trail most of the way down the aisle. As soon as it was noticed by the student body, the foul aroma set off a panicked stampede to the front and back, and the frantic opening of every window.

By the time I pulled in to the school driveway, the kids were in a complete uproar. None heeded my increasingly desperate pleas on the PA to lift the handle on the back door and de-activate the beeper. There was no way I could get there through the huddled, yowling masses in time to stop the beeping from becoming an all-out alarm. (The system is designed to make someone walk the length of the bus in case sleeping or hiding children remain on board after a trip.)

I’d just like to say that nothing fluffs one’s professional self-esteem like setting off the bus alarm outside a school. Silencing the blaring horn takes several steps — sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — that may include moving the bus, never a good idea in an area crawling with kids.

Somehow, I managed to get the hysterical children in the front off, then convince the rest in the rear to gingerly make their way up the aisle and out the door before someone called the police to serve me with a summons for disturbing the peace. Even so, teachers, school officials and my fellow drivers gathered to gawk at the spectacle.

Cleanup, with mop and pail back at the compound, was a gag-inducing effort after a rather unpleasant ride with the windows open and the overhead fans on.

Friday

Fearing Biblical infestations of boils and locusts, I was afflicted by a flood instead.

While hitting a bump during my morning middle school run, I heard a heavy plonk in the storage compartment next to my seat where I stash the travel mug for my breaks. Taking a peek while stopped at a light, I was treated to the sight of all my paperwork awash in a sea of joe.

The mug had capsized, opening the lid and unleashing fragrant hell.

“Hey, it smells like coffee in here!” announced Zoot Horn, the nosy sixth-grader who sits behind me.

After listening to the slosh in the box for the rest of morning, I spent the first hour of my break with a sponge and bucket, sullenly hanging my dripping, brown-stained, daily bus inspection reports to dry on a cardboard box. Surely my boss will be pleased with my performance this week.

During my usually rollicking afternoon run, Robespierre stopped on his way off to pat me on the shoulder and say, “I feel sorry for you. I don’t know how you do your job with all these kids yelling. I’d flip out.”

No worries, kid. If this job doesn’t drive me insane, it’ll only make me stronger.

Tis the Season of Sugary Wonder on This Bus

The holiday season is said to be a time of miracles. By golly, it looks like that’s true.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

About two weeks before Christmas, I was rumbling along a stretch of road where my intermediate schoolers usually come off the spool — yelling, rough-housing, darting from seat to seat, throwing stuff — when I gazed up at my rearview mirror and to what to my wondering eyes did appear but children … sitting.

Every last one of them.

I nearly wept in astonishment — never before had all of my precious cargo been seated at the same time — and not only that, they were all talking in their “classroom voices.”

This miraculous scene lasted a full 15 minutes. By the time we reached Helga Poppin Intermediate School, things were a bit livelier but still far from the usual earsplitting chaos.

Of course it helped that several prime pot-stirrers, notably Brutus and Rollo, were not on board, but agitator extraordinaire Beetlebomb was inspired to yell, “Mr. John! See how good we’re being?”

When I recounted this truly historic day to one of my colleagues at the Fishmeal Falls Central bus compound, she said, “They’re probably trying to look good for Santa.”

Probably.

Their strangely angelic behavior continued the next day for the entire morning ride, and I couldn’t help wondering if something was terribly wrong with the children. Nevertheless, I broke my cardinal rule about never acknowledging positives (it jinxes them) and I commended the minions as we sat outside their school waiting for the signal to release them. 

See: Meet the Hellions

“People, this was one of our best trips ever,” I declared over the PA. “You guys were great!”

Rowdy fourth-graders Robespierre and Jehosaphat were so touched by my sentiments that they came forth to pat me on the shoulder and say, “Good job, Mr. John!”

Naturally, Beetlebomb, Robespierre and Jehosaphat had the joint jumping on the way home, but it was a truly spiritual moment during a time when the sugary rush of the holidays leaves my bus sounding and looking like Times Square during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Noise, candy wrappers, and festive trash cover everything like fresh fallen snow.

Blessedly, at this time of year the kids also render unto Caesar for all of his suffering. The bounty of goodies and Dunkin Donuts gift cards that are bestowed upon me certainly go a long way toward un-curdling my usually crusty demeanor. 

Of course, it never hurts to bribe the bus driver. 

I was on the verge of speaking to Jehosaphat’s parents about the need for them to remind him yet again that those strange objects (seats) are there for his safety when he came aboard and presented me with a gift card.

“Maybe another day,” I thought, stashing the offering in my shirt.

I must confess I have a soft spot for students who come bearing gifts.

“When’s your birthday?” I was asked one afternoon by Ethel the eighth-grader. The date was still a week or so away, and I was stunned when she boarded the bus on the solemn occasion and declared, “I remembered what you said. Happy birthday!”

It was very sweet of her. So was the Christmas candy cane and note she gave me that read, “I hope you have a safe holiday. I’m also grateful that I have you as a bus driver!”

I’m still getting the hang of this Christmas thing, though. Other drivers wear Santa suits, hang decorations, play holiday tunes and hand out gifts. I’m Scrooge by comparison, but I did hang a stocking full of candy canes from the dashboard and invite departing riders to take one.

“Hey, the bus driver’s nice!” I heard Axel — a cheeky fifth-grader who is often the object of my scolding — tell his fellow travelers as they exited with their sweetmeats. There was real amazement in his voice.

It seems the wonders never cease during the holidays.