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 acquire 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!

School Bus Life Lessons: Perils of Positive Thinking

No matter what we do in life, we are told about the benefits of a positive attitude and appreciating the good things that come our way. That mindset enables us to do just about anything.

Well …

Right. I’ve discovered that it also includes handling all the trouble that rains down as soon as you look on the bright side.

During my five years at the wheel of a big yellow madhouse, I’ve found positive thinking is the best way to court trouble and have it arrive at my bus door bearing wilted flowers and a box of melted chocolates.

(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.)

Bascially, any time I think it’s going good, I doom myself to aggravation.

The first time this happened wasn’t long after I’d completed my training and was given a route in a big 40-foot bus. The thought crossed my mind that my runs were on time and the kids had been angels. Later that same day I hit and knocked out a tail light on a bus while trying to pull into the parking space next to it.

Fast forward five years. I most recently made the mistake of complimenting the usually rowdy kids on my middle school run for “keeping things civilized” for two weeks. The next day, they came off the spool big time.

“I knew was jinxing myself,” I groaned over the PA as they ran amok in the aisles, hootin’ and hollerin’ and cussin’ up a storm.

For good measure, the precious cargo on my after school run started acting up (again). Write-ups and suspensions had briefly achieved peace in our time.

Now, you’d think I would have learned my lesson, but you would be wrong. In between the two incidents, my sad story is littered with this kind of stuff:

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

During the height of the pandemic, things were quiet — too quiet — in my district … until I was told by our head bus driver that there had been only one write-up and no complaints from drivers, kids or parents for an entire month. I replied that the kids on my bus were strangely cooperating and getting along and, gasp!, treating me politely and with respect. I actually wrote a column for my local newspaper about it and how kids like this can be good role models for adults.

The very next morning after the column ran, a driver radioed in that a girl on his bus had pushed another lass down and hurt her. Then a second driver reported that kids were pulling down their pants on her bus. For good measure, my intermediate schoolers got in on the act by sticking their arms out the windows and boisterously jeering and waving at cars behind us. I had to pull over and restore order.

“No good deed goes unpunished” is another fact of school bus life.

A fourth grader named Brutus always made me regret using positive reinforcement. I actually told another driver that I was nominating Brutus for a Nobel Peace Prize because he’d helped me defuse a scuffle by letting his frenemy Beetlebomb, one of the combatants, sit next to him and away from his foe, Hogshead. That arrangement lasted one day. Brutus and Beetlebomb started arguing about who got to sit next to the window. The next morning, they refused to get in their seats. That afternoon Beetlebomb informed me that he and Brutus didn’t want to sit together anymore. Then they went back to being at each other’s throats.

All of his took place not long after the time I was about to praise Brutus to the Principal during a visit to her office. That silly idea came to a screeching halt when she informed me that Brutus had slugged Hogshead in the gut (unbeknownst to me) during our trip that morning. Merely thinking positive thoughts about Brutus was enough to cause him to revert to the mean. But like Charlie Brown attempting once more to kick a football being held by the smirking Lucy, I gave him yet another chance after he stayed out of trouble for a couple of weeks.

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

“I don’t want to hear any complaints about you,” I told him while allowing him to return to the rear of the bus as a reward for his improved behavior.

Of course, not wanting to hear complaints didn’t mean I wouldn’t hear them.

Sure enough, within five minutes I got three: Brutus was using the F word, standing on seats, and calling another kid’s mom mean names. “He’s picking on Gertrude,” Beetlebomb informed me. “She’s crying.”

SEE: The Rat Patrol (Snitches Can Be a Big Help)

So I planted Brutus in a seat behind me for the rest of the school year with no chance of parole.

I now doubt my sanity every time I do someone a favor, but sometimes it can work the other way. When I expect the worst, it doesn’t happen. I try this approach while watching my favorite sports teams.

I’ve also prepared big, windy speeches only to have the main miscreants not show up for a few days. But if I were a betting man, I’d lay my wages on the bus breaking down and/or the kids going haywire as soon as I think this gig is going good.

You’d think I’d learn by now.

But you would be wrong.

Getting Even: A School Bus Driver Strikes Back

I’ll be the first to admit it can take a while for my porch light to come on. But after nearly five years behind the wheel, I have finally realized that kids who raise hades on a school bus are totally unfazed by lectures, write-ups, detentions and suspensions.

These rascals just keep doing what they were seemingly born to do: run around in the aisle, jump over seats, make noise and messes, throw stuff, rough house, pester their fellow passengers, use language that makes Beelzebub blush, and put wrinkles on the forehead of the person responsible for safely hauling them to and from school.

(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.)

Getting urchins to behave is an endless battle and most disciplinary measures fail to keep them disciplined. When the mayhem continues, I’ve found that a classic containment measure — moving offenders up to the front of the bus — only makes for more distraction. With hellions that close, you are much more aware of everything they do. And they will keep doing it. I’ve had fights break out — right behind my shoulder at 45 miles per hour in traffic — between kids I’d just been told by their school to move up.

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

Another classic move, one that’s more effective, is to pull over and simply sit until the hooligans settle down. I explain over the PA that I get paid by the hour, have no particular place to go, and am in no hurry to get there. That can make my precious cargo start policing itself. But what truly curries my goat is when that cargo continues cavorting and raising Holy Hobbes after two, three or four pull-overs.

SEE: Keeping Your Cool

So I figured I needed some new ways to make them realize they will pay a price in aggravation. Inconvenience seems to really bug ’em. I started by taking a page out of my wife’s disciplinary playbook for our kids by quietly dropping the hammer when they think they’ve gotten away with something. For instance, when they get off at school, I give them the trash they left on the floor the day before.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

Or I write them up without saying anything, so they have the pleasure of a surprise summons to the principal’s office. But standard punishments only slow them for a day or two. Smedley, an incorrigible sixth-grader on my bus, was finally removed after four write-ups and a five-day suspension … for dousing a girl with Axe body spray, which is apparently the preferred stink bomb of the young miscreants in my district this year.

I have my wish list of things I want (see illustration above), but need realistic, practical tactics. After wracking my brain, here are some I’ve started to use:

Slowing down. Before a trip, I explain that the bus now has new technology: The more people stand up or move in the aisle while we are in motion, the slower the bus goes. Of course, I can only crawl on roads where it is safe to do so, but since I drive in a rural area, there are plenty of ’em and it’s a great way to drag out trips until the kids really want to get home and finally start to act like sane individuals.

Keeping the bad eggs on longer. My after-school run is a general route determined by how many kids are on board and where they live. I am free to improvise, so I will drop the good kids off first and keep the cretins on for as long as possible, often taking the longest way possible to their place of residue. But that depends on how disruptive they are being and how much of their shenanigans I can stomach.

Returning to school. The nuclear option, it requires permission from dispatch. I was told to have an administrator come on board. If all have left for the day, I can tell kids to call their parents for a ride. The first time I tried it, they got a stern warning from a no-nonsense, in-their-face security guard, but shortly after we returned to the road a kid set off a body spray bomb in back, forcing me to pull over. This led to a zesty exchange with the bomb thrower’s sister, who actually said, “Take us home right now! I’m sick of this $#it, you pulling over all time time!”

“You’re sick of it? You’re sick of it?!!!” I replied, absolutely gobsmacked.

She and her fragrant brother were written up with relish and suspended for a week, but the aggravation of that episode reminded me that it really helps me to stay calm and centered if I have a plan of response in advance. Given how limited our options are, fellow drivers in the Facebook group “School Bus Drivers are the Unsung Heroes of the Predawn Light” offered some suggestions:

Lois (Note: drivers’ full names are not used for sake of privacy) recommended what Amazon calls “the world’s loudest whistle.” She said she got one and blew it when her bus got horribly loud. “Then I told them I would hold it up and count to 10,”she wrote. “Before long I only had to hold it up and after a bit they just didn’t get so loud anymore.”

Tyrone cited a driver who pulled into a police station and told the kids she was going to get a cop to come on the bus and yell at them.

Bryan suggested playing horrible music on the radio and turning it louder until the kids cry uncle.

Brian recommended classical tunes — “They will either learn to behave or get an appreciation for classical music” — while Diann recommended blaring oldies or a gospel cd. But the problem I have with music is my boss told us to keep it low so he can hear what kids are saying when he has to review video. I’ve also found that they speak over the music, which only makes the bus unbearably loud.

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

Brian had another novel idea I really like: “I’ve told them I would come in during their lunchtime and sit with them and all their friends in the lunchroom so I could ruin their time just like they ruin mine.”

Kids, especially the wisenheimers, get squirrely when they have to talk to you one-on-one. Cristal said that she releases her kids by row so she can confront wrongdoers.

“The kids most likely to cause trouble tend to sit in the back, and the last thing they want to do when they get to school is listen to you,” she wrote. “I will stand up before I open the door so I’m blocking the walk way, and then excuse one row at a time. When I get to the part of the bus that’s giving me the most trouble, I’ll say something like, ‘I don’t much appreciate how you’ve been treating me/my bus/each other, and I feel like you all can do better. Think you guys can make an effort to be better on the bus?’ Then I’ll let them all go for the day. If the behavior continues, I’ll do it again. I’ll do it over and over every day, and I’ll be honest with them.”

Cristal’s persistence reminds me of my wife, who knows that sometimes you just gotta grind ’em down.

Don’t get mad, get even. That’s my new mantra.

Buttering Up the School Bus Driver

The daily aggravations of this job can sure sour your feelings about your precious cargo.

I start each year full of good will, cheer and optimism. Two months in I’m curdled and crabbed by the lack of response to my greetings, the bloodcurdling language, the littering, and the refusal to follow simple rules that have been explained a thousand times.

Just the other day, after pulling the bus over several times to restore order, I was still treated to the sight of Wilhelmina, a particularly loud and active eighth grader, making her way up the aisle while we were in motion.

I pulled over yet again and when she said, “Sorry! I forgot!” all I could do was slump onto the wheel and mutter, “God bless your pointed little heads.”

(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.)

Life has been especially enriched lately by the kids on my after school runs who won’t tell me where they get off … or tell me 20 minutes after I’ve driven past their house. This despite my explanation at the start of each trip that I don’t have names and addresses, only a general route, so it is up to them to let me know when to stop. Some do, most don’t. Having to wind my way back turns what should be a one-hour run into an open-ended tour of the county.

SEE: Great Misadventure

The kids who act like soccer hooligans actually give me a certain amount of perverse pleasure at keeping them on while I drop the pleasant kids off first. Some aren’t released until 6:30 p.m. or later…after leaving school at 3:30.

Nothing stops them, though.

With the start of the holiday season, it dawned on me that now that I drive only middle schoolers, I don’t get many cards and goodies like I did when I was driving a bunch of raucous rascals to and from Helga Poppin Intermediate. So I wasn’t feeling inclined to wish anyone a happy Thanksgiving unless they wished me one first. When someone in the back asked, “Hey, driver, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” — after I’d pulled the bus over for the fourth time on the trip I recounted above — all I could reply was, “I’m seceding from the human race and moving to another planet.”

So I was stunned the next afternoon when some of the more lively ladies on the bus handed me notes.

I must admit, these messages gave me a dewy eye and a lump in the throat. Suddenly, all (well most of it) was forgiven. Or if not forgiven, I was at least willing to postpone poisoning the lot of them. Yes, this is the kind of thing that makes the job worthwhile, the pat of butter that soothes a driver’s suffering.

Of course, the girls barely paid attention to me when I told them how it was kind of them to give me the notes and how they meant a lot. And when I got home, my wife presented me with a reality check: “They must have had an assignment in class.

I prefer to think that somewhere underneath all their single-minded devotion to being contrary, raising hell, and making me rip what’s left of my hair out in tufts, these urchins do have a conscience and don’t live just to stick it to the old man at the wheel.

So in this season of peace (in theory) on Earth and good will toward all, I will do my best not to carry “Bah, humbug!” in my heart. They are only kids after all and they do always give me stuff to write about. For that I am most grateful.

Ghosts of School Bus Routes Past

In this job, nothing reminds you of how fast time is flying quite like running into your former precious cargo years down the line.

Five years ago I was a new driver receiving a baptism by fire at the hands of a busload of rowdy intermediate schoolers. Now I’m hauling new batches of equally obstreperous middle schoolers, but it has come as a complete shock to discover some of my former tormentors on my bus again, although they have changed in dramatic ways as kids do in their teen years.

(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.)

One day on my afterschool activities run — a loose route of main drags with stops at cross streets — a lad asked if my bus went to Headcheese Lane. The address sounded familiar although I didn’t recognize the lad. But as we approached his house, suddenly it dawned on me. Lo and behold, it was Jehosaphat the Wanderer!

During the three years I drove him to and from Helga Poppin Intermediate School, I was sorely tempted to staple Jehosaphat to his seat in order to keep him out of the aisle while the bus was in motion. Several write-ups and discussions with his concerned father could not still the lad’s ramblin’ feet.

“Oh, wow!” I cried. “You’re Jehosaphat McCarpetcleaner! I used to drive you!”

“Yeah,” he replied, though he was obviously not interested in talkin’ ’bout the good ol’ days when he had me yanking out my remaining hair in tufts. He’d filled out a lot and his once round face was more chiseled, yet I was tempted to say, “I didn’t recognize you because you were sitting the entire trip!”

Instead, I held my tongue and let him off with a “Have a good day.”

No, that was not what you’d call a tearful reunion. Nor was dropping off Birdie, Daisy and Maude, three lasses who were usually more well-behaved in days of yore. It took me a moment to realize who they were as they’d grown and changed, and I had to remind them of who I was. They responded politely but were not particularly thrilled by seeing their old chauffeur again, which was somewhat deflating as we’d had a cordial relationship. I’d even received several nice notes and cards from them thanking me for my efforts on their behalf. And I’d actually considered including the no-nonsense Maude in my Last Will and Testament as reward for her help reining in the male fools she did not suffer gladly on my bus.

SEE: They Ain’t Making Drivers Like They Used To

I’m happy to say that Oswald remembered me, though I would never have known it was him. As with Jehosaphat, a familiar house and address tipped me off. Once clean cut, earnestly nerdy and eager to prove that he wasn’t a miscreant, Oswald’s face was now buried under a thick mop of long curly hair and he was dressed like a typically cool middle schooler. Though he was hardly chatty or sentimental, I got a kick out of him looking up at me before crossing in front of the bus and giving me one of his old hearty but furtive waves goodbye.

Best of Fiends: Brutus and Rollo

During my Helga Poppin Era (2018-21), my bus was blessed with two lads I was ordered to keep apart because they interacted like two strange bulldogs. Separately, they were more than capable of turning the bus into a maelstrom and giving me writer’s cramp from writing them up.

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

Running into Rollo again after two years was alarming. I noticed a very big kid in the back standing and loudly chatting up girls, some of whom seemed annoyed. And once again, it was the house and address that made me think, “Could it be?”

This kid had a big ol’ head of bushy hair but my first thought was that he was an older sibling of my old nemesis. Nope, it was Rollo, whose immortal deeds included nearly giving me a heart attack when I looked in the overhead mirror and saw him waving a Harry Potter wand with a sharpened end on my crowded bus.

Truly at a loss for words, I let him get off at his house without either of us acknowledging the other. The same with Brutus, who directed me to a new address without ever betraying a hint that he knew me. I will give him this: He was a model passenget the entire trip. There is hope for mankind.

On yet another afterschool journey, I was shocked to see that Guttersnipe, a former hellion-in-training, was now in middle school. When I last saw him, he was a fourth-grade apprentice in the dark arts of stirring the pot and creating trip wires by fastening seat belts across the aisle. No write-up or detention could deter him. He still looked very much the same and had his old eye for the ladies (he typically bothered). I let him off the bus with a shudder.

Some memories are best left to fade into the ether of eternity.

However, one of my former charges is making an effort to never be forgotten. If there has ever been a Bane of My Existence, Robespierre was a strong contender for the honor. Rambunctious, cheeky and uncontainable, he likely set a world record for forcing me to pull over and restore order (which usually lasted five minutes, if that).

SEE: The Roadside Lecture Series Rolls On

In one of my, ahem, prouder and most, ahem, professional, ahem, moments, I’d warned Robespierre not to be “a smart ass” after he sassed me. To his credit, and my everlasting relief, he didn’t go home and tell his parents what his mean old bus driver had said. But despite all of our daily battles, he has retained some warm feelings for his former sparring partner. That became clear one afternoon while I waited outside Bubblefish Middle School as students were being dismissed. I noticed him walking past my bus with Beetlebomb, another charter member of the old wrecking crew.

“Hey, Mr. John!” Robespierre called out. “Do you miss us?”

“Not exactly,” I’d replied drily.

But our recent meeting on the activities bus was more cordial. Once again, he asked if I remembered him.

SEE: Meet the Hellions

“Oh, yes!” I chuckled, but I decided not to let bygones be bygones and not dig up old grievances. “How could I forget? How’s it going? You good?”

He said he was and I was glad to hear it. And although I hardly needed them, he kindly gave me directions to his house (now a fixture in my nightmares). We even shook hands as he departed.

So I have been thinking that while, unlike some of my fellow drivers, I’ve yet to have a former passenger come up to me and tell me that they appreciated me, I’m actually grateful to Robespierre and his rollicking cohorts. Why? Because they taught me how to better handle my current crop of middle schoolers without relying on strong drink, antacids and psychiatric therapy.

SEE: School Bus Life Lessons — Picking Your Battles

I never thought I’d say this, but these reunions, such as they were, made me misty for the good old days. They went by too fast.

School Bus Life Lessons: Teachin’ ’em About Consequences

Correct me if I’m wrong, but school is supposed to be a place of learning. And I am told that a school bus is an extension of the classroom. I drive a school bus. So I assume that makes me a teacher … of sorts.

For the past four-plus years I have been trying to impart a few simple lessons to my passengers, the main one being that actions have consequences. Some of those consequences ain’t always good.

(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.)

Case in point: I frequently tell my precious cargo not to stick their hands out the bus windows while the bus is in motion. “If you value your hand or arm, you might want to know that kids have lost theirs when the bus passed too close to a tree or a pole or another vehicle,” I have said more times than I care to say.

Now, you would think this alarming prospect would make the children think twice.

You would be wrong.

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

Likewise, I tell them not to throw things out the bus windows because, one, littering is illegal and a crummy thing to do and, two, cars around us may swerve to avoid being hit by thrown objects and cause an accident. If you think that alarming prospect would make children think twice, I have a nice suspension bridge that connects Brooklyn (NY) to Manhattan Island that I would love to sell you at cost.

All this brings us to the case of Smedley, a rather rebellious eighth-grader who the other day hit an exacta of sorts. Glancing up into my overhead mirror (where we drivers see so many fascinating things), I noticed Smedley in the back of the bus waving his cell phone near the open window. A glance into one of my side mirrors then revealed a hand holding the phone outside. While stopped to discharge several students, I heard a cry from the back.

“Wait! He dropped his phone in the street!”

Naturally, Smedley and his friends expected me to go fetch the phone or let them off the bus to get it.

They were wrong. Terribly wrong. And horrified when I closed the door and drove off saying over the PA, “There’s are reasons why I’ve been telling you not to stick your hands out the windows! There’s one.”

See: Now Hear This! Rocking the School Bus PA

Of course I had to explain that there were these pesty things called rules, regulations and laws that forbid me from letting students out into traffic or to leave them unattended on a bus. But there was also a principle at work: Actions have consequences.

Several other groups of students have been learning this, the hard way, of late. I am now driving after school activity runs. My route is set but it deposits kids at intersections nearest their homes rather than at their doors. I am not given names and addresses. Therefore, it is up to the kids to tell me when I am getting close to their stops so that I can actually stop and let them off.

You would think that, after a long day, they would be eager to get home.

You would be wrong.

Not a trip has gone by where most of my passengers did not remain silent despite my constant pleas…except, or course, to cry out after I missed their stop. Please note that these cries almost always arose about 20 minutes after I’d sailed by it. They were almost always followed by phone calls to parents with complaints such as, “I’m still on the bus! Yeah! This is longest bus ride ever!”

“The reason this is the longest bus ride ever is because you won’t tell me where you live so I can take you there!” I have replied, many times, over the PA. “I am not a mind reader. If you won’t help me, you will just have to stay on for as long as it takes.”

See: Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

This does not seem to matter.

One pair of middle school girls was too busy dropping F Bombs and making saucy talk to listen to my announcement that I was on their street. Another time, I was left with one silent lad in the very back of the bus.

“And where are you going?” I asked. “Are we playing Guess The Student’s Destination?”

“Hokum Street,” he finally replied.

“It would have been nice if you’d said something while we were on it 20 minutes ago…”

Turns out, he was deliberately trying to stay on the bus. “I don’t want to go home,” he told me. “I did something dumb and got in trouble at school today.”

I didn’t have the stomach to ask what “dumb” meant.

In one epic case, we departed Bubblefish Middle School at 4 p.m. and a journey that should have taken an hour to complete did not end until almost 7 p.m. because two Sphinxes in the back allowed me to pass through their neighborhood and continue for 15 or 20 miles before they finally told me why they were still in the back of the bus after everyone else had gotten off.

And even then all they did at first was mumble.

“What?!” I bellowed in exasperated astonishment. “I can’t hear you! Come up here and tell me where you live!”

And even with that they only came halfway up before taking seats in the middle of the bus and mumbling again.

Thanks to the grace and guidance of the Almighty, I got them home before sunrise. But even using those kids as a cautionary tale has not convinced others that their right to remain silent can and will be used against them.

“If you won’t speak up, I’ll just drive all night,” I say now. “I get paid by the hour. You are going to make me a wealthy man!”

That’s something I’ve learned.

School Bus Driving 101: Tricks of the Trade

We Pilots of the Big Yellow Madhouse are taught a lot of things on this job: safe driving; passenger safety; responding to mechanical problems and accidents and medical emergencies; student management and discipline; the list is endless and topics are addressed at our annual orientation meeting in early September and a mid-year refresher.

Some things are required to legally operate a school bus, others we learn on the fly from experience or other drivers.

One of my favorite sayings is legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s “It’s what you learn after you know it all that that counts.” I’m getting ready to use that stuff for another school year, my fifth behind the wheel.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

(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.)

One of the never-ending challenges is keeping a bus reasonably tidy. Kids, especially those who leave school in the afternoon equipped with cupcakes, cookies and other goodies left over from class parties, will turn the floor into a recreation of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’ve had success with my “Trash Back Bonus” program: bagging garbage and handing it to various litterbugs as they get off at school the next day.

One of my fellow drivers gave me another great idea that he uses:

“If they leave the bus a real mess in the afternoon, I leave the trash where it is until the next afternoon,” he told me. “Then I pull over and tell them we aren’t going anywhere until they clean up. Some complain, but others usually start putting pressure on the messy ones. They hate getting home late.”

Pulling over when kids come off the spool has often been necessary, and I still resort to my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series. But I’m definitely calmer about it now. I’ve begun following a suggestion from another driver at my district: She pulls over, pulls out a book and calmly starts reading after telling her raucous passengers that she won’t drive until they settle down. I’ve taken a page from her and told my careening cargo that I get paid by the hour, so I’m happy to have them fund my retirement nest egg.

When they yell, “You’re holding us hostage!” I tell them, “No, YOU are holding you hostage with your behavior.” So far, it has worked like a charm.

Speaking of far, that is usually where I am from a stop when a kid informs me that I missed his or hers. Never mind that I had actually stopped and called it out several times. The dear child in question was usually lost in their earbuds or totally wrapped up in some fascinating mischief. Another colleague of mine has an excellent way of curing repeat offenders. “I make them stay on until the run is over and then I take them home,” he says.

In one case, I found that being left alone with a middle school lass who’d been getting carried away with her friends was an excellent opportunity to talk to her about the importance of not delaying everyone or distracting me.

SEE: A Driver’s Wish — Fraction of the Distraction

Do you believe in miracles? Yes! She actually listened to me, looked contrite, and wasn’t a problem anymore.

Good public relations can be a huge help. I’ve learned that it’s often better to talk to parents (if I can) before I write up a kid. I always say I’m not singling anyone out — there is no shortage of hellions — and it’s all about safety. I’ve yet to have a parent argue with me, and most have told me to keep them informed if their beloved Robespierre or Esmerelda keeps acting up.

Keeping them from acting up isn’t always easy, but I had a chance this past summer to serve as a monitor with a driver who was an ace at engaging kids with friendly enthusiasm. Besides asking them how they were doing, he’d give them a fist bump and even bought them donuts one day after clearing it with their parents. He made my job easy and made me want to be less of a scowling presence up front.

And as a new school year dawns, I’m vowing to get better at remembering kids’ names. As it is, I’m horrible at it, and it’s the same with recalling people in general. But thanks to the good folks of the Facebook group School Bus Drivers Are the Unsung Heroes of the Predawn Light, I’ve been given some nice ways to keep my memory jogged.

I particularly like the suggestion that I try addressing each kid by name and saying “good morning” when they come aboard. I just have to remember to not take grunts or mumbled replies personally.

SEE: Grunt Work: Greetings Can Be a Chore

Of course, there’s always much more to be done. I’m still trying to figure out how to concoct a seating chart that actually keeps the peace, and how to keep urchins in those seats. We are warned early on to never jack the brakes when we feel sorely tempted to deliver a little warning jolt to kids who won’t stop cavorting in the aisles.

Fortunately, my new bus did it for me, thanks to the sensor in front that puts the brakes on if I get too close to something … like another vehicle. The startled look in my passengers’ eyes was priceless.

“See?” I said. “That’s what I’ve been talking about when I say it’s so important to stay in your seats!”

I’ll soon find out if that lesson took. If not, maybe I’ll follow the advice offered by the clerk at my local hardware store who suggested I use a hammer and some three-penny nails.

SEE: School Bus Discipline: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

The School Bus Wildlife Sanctuary

In the best of times, I drive a rolling zoo. It’s yellow, 40 feet long, and packed with a variety of critters that make the job a challenging adventure.

On any given school day you will find on my bus:

Pigs: Experts at making breathtaking messes in which they often wallow. After repeatedly finding trash on the floor, I left the bottles and wrappers and medical waste (used masks, band-aids) on the culprits’ seats for them to dispose of when they returned. To a pig, er, kid, they just sat in it.

Screech Owls: Their shrieks and maximum-volume chatter drown out my two-way radio while raising what’s left of my hair.

Parrots: They can be relied on to pick up and repeat … and repeat … and loudly repeat … any profanity and inappropriate language they hear. And like the beloved but notorious bird, they pay no mind to who is in earshot when they repeat it.

Otters: According to Fauna Facts, they are very active, playful creatures that love to chase each other around, especially when they are bored.

Caribou: No, my passengers aren’t that large and they don’t have antlers, but caribou migrate long distances with round-trips of more than 745 miles. I’m willing to bet my last doubloon that the kids I drive also migrate at least as far if not more during a school year with their endless changing of seats and cavorting up and down the aisle.

Rats: The snitches who tattle on wrongdoers. I’ve found them to be of great help in keeping tabs on wrong-doers.

SEE: The Rat Patrol

(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.)

During down times (nights, weekends, vacation breaks), other varmints move in.

My district’s bus compound is haunted by a raccoon who is skilled at pulling unsecured doors open, climbing aboard, and feasting on trash that hasn’t been emptied.

As you can see, he or she has done quite well on my bus, once finding a large baggie of crackers I’d left in the garbage box in front.

There are also birds, robins mostly, that find their way in. One September I returned after two months to find a nest had been constructed on the first aid kit near the door. More recently, feathered friends have been finding open windows and hatches and leaving icky white reminders on the dashboard, seats and anything else they can perch on or above.

Fortunately, my bus doesn’t look this bad, but the birds that get in are trying their best.

So far, I’ve gotten off light. The driver who parks next to me has not, but even she doesn’t have to deal with what the pilot of one unfortunate spare bus will find when he or she is assigned to drive it. Often unused, it has become a full-time bird house that will require a massive cleanup (see photos above) if not a Superfund grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Honestly, those birds make the pigs I drive look like amateurs. And like the pigs, they aren’t very good about cleaning up after themselves. But that kind of stuff just comes with this territory.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

School Bus Life Lessons: Keeping Your Cool

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I just wrapped up my fourth school year of driving a big yellow riot on wheels and while I’ve never thought I know it all, I learned some important but unexpected stuff.

(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.)

For example, it dawned on me that I really can keep my cool when the going gets hot.

My first year or so I would come back from runs vibrating with anger and frustration about the three ring circus I’d just hauled. This year, I realized it wasn’t worth letting myself be wound up by a bunch of rampaging and sometimes insolent urchins. Getting mad doesn’t help your concentration. Better to take cool, effective action (a tactic I learned from my wife while we were raising our four kids).

In other words, don’t get mad, get even.

The new group of middle schoolers I drove this year made every day a grand game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as I got them to stop cavorting in the aisle, they started leaving trash all over the bus. After I made them be more tidy, they started wrasslin’, bickering about seats, and sometimes even fighting. When I put the kibosh on that, they threw stuff and sprayed what smelled like cologne, body spray or bug juice. (The school viewed my bus videos in search of vapers.) Then they went back to cavorting in the aisle.

Rather than blow a fuse, I just wrote them up or presented them with bags of garbage as part of my “Trash Back Bonus” program.

SEE: How I won the School Bus Garbage War

I have to admit I chortled with satisfaction at their surprise of coming to school the next day and being summoned to the principal’s office when they thought they’d gotten away with something. Or the astonished looks on their faces when I handed them a bag of candy wrappers, crumbs, empty water bottles and broken pencils as they left the bus.

Yeah, there were times I raised my voice in frustration or to drive home the message that I was serious about something. I always pointed out that I was only trying to keep them safe, but I found there was great value in doing a fake burn, at looking and sounding more angry than I actually was. My precious cargo sprouted “deer in the headlights” eyes and there was always a period of total silence occasionally broken by a “Hey, sit down!” they directed at someone who dared move.

I also had more subtle ways of getting even …

I confess I did spend more time than I should have thinking of snarky comebacks to smart aleck remarks. It felt darned good to be ready when Whipsnade, a seventh grader who was one of the most cheeky riders, yelled (after one of my lectures, of course), “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! How come you’re so good at driving?”

When the titters and guffaws subsided, I replied, “I’m not good. I’m lucky. I’m legally blind and deaf in one ear. So you’d better hope my luck holds.”

They didn’t know quite what to make of that, but it was much more effective to let them discover that I meant what I’d said about not staying in their seats or the importance of not distracting me.

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

“Don’t push me” I’d told them. “I’m a patient guy but I have my limits.” Some of them learned the hard way what those limits are: four kids had their bus privileges suspended. Four more were removed from my bus altogether … for the sake of easing overcrowding that was causing conflict, but I strongly suggested to our router which kids I’d like to see on another bus in the name of peace and (my) sanity.

In the end, they turned out to be the best bunch I’d ever driven, though that bar was pretty low to begin with. They could have been worse, but I brought all of my tools to bear and saw some results. What surprised me was how easily I did it, like it was all second nature. That ease was a far cry from when I started this gig.

No doubt the summer school session and next fall will bring new learning experiences, but I feel more ready for them than I’ve ever been.

Happiness is a New School Bus … I Think

The biggest surprise I’ve received (so far) in this job of never-ending surprises is a new bus. And not just a new bus. A brand-spankin’-fresh-from-the-factory new bus.

You could have knocked me over with a goose quill when I was told by my boss that I would be one of five drivers to receive one. I’ve only been at this infernal business for four years. Many other pilots where I work have more seniority. Second, I have a reputation as a bus killer.

No matter what wheel I climb behind, the vehicle under it is doomed to die of mechanical failure in short order. Mine have expired on main roads, side streets, a hill, an incline and the bus compound. Doesn’t matter if it’s the brakes, the fuel pump, the starter, the entire engine, the transmission, or some other gizmo, a mushroom cloud of distress is guaranteed to rise shortly after I turn the key. And the problems won’t be easily fixable. It will just be THE END for the bus in question.

SEE: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

(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.)

As a newbie in 2018, I was assigned one of the district’s older buses, which I named Tarkus after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album of the same name. The bus rumbled and bounced like a tank and handled like an armadillo. What’s more, its heat (or lack thereof) was so bad that at least one parent complained about a partially frozen kid. (I actually thought of asking for permission to put a small wood stove in the back.)

And if that weren’t bad enough, the PA failed, leaving me to bellow at my always-unruly passengers.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

When Tarkus went to the Big Bus Yard in the Sky after a year or so, I was assigned to a series of vehicles, all of which had at least 100,000 miles on them and some noticeable problems that I made worse by simply being their driver. Our mechanics sighed with despair each time I drove off in one.

So given my killer’s touch, the last thing I expected to get was a sparkling new 2022 International Propane Autogas CE with an 8.8L LP Gen II, 270 horsepower PSI engine, Allison fifth generation transmission (with fuel sense!), SmarTrac hydraulic brakes, electronic stability control, Bendix Wingman Advanced collision sensor system, and that new bus smell.

Turned out that my volunteering to cover after school runs (with often unfortunate results), and my showing up for work each day despite the Covid pandemic, had its rewards. Or so it seemed.

Lemon bus very pretty but the steering wheel has a squeak and the brakes on this darn lemon haven’t lasted me a week. (Apologies to Proctor & Bergman’s song “Lemon Car” sung to the tune of “Lemon Tree.”)

Of the five new buses that came in, four immediately developed bugs. One wouldn’t start for its maiden run because of an electrical issue and it later leaked antifreeze while its rear brakes smoked. A second bus had a front brake that rattled and it, too, later succumbed to the electrical issue. A third had to be towed back to base while out on a school trip. And the fourth developed a roof leak that later appeared in most of the others, including mine, which, like all the others also developed a weird tendency to shed loose screws in various places.

At least mine held up … except for a “check engine” light that came on and stayed on, defying efforts by our mechanics and the dealer’s staff to shut it off. And there was a cord that looked like an electrical plug dangling under the bus one day.

My new ride took some getting used to after my long line of diesel covered wagons. For one thing, the starting procedure required me to turn the key halfway and wait 30 seconds until all the dashboard lights went out. There was a front sensor that suddenly triggered the brakes if it felt I was getting too close to something for its comfort. This came as a bit of a surprise to me and my passengers one day. And the bus proved to be a fuel hog that gets about 12 feet to the gallon, so I had to gas up every day with about 30 gallons even though I was driving about 70 miles.

Oh, it was nice to have good heat and a working PA, though the PA mic was located above me to the left instead of in the dashboard. And when screws started falling out of doors and seats, and one of the fans above the dashboard suddenly came down during a trip, I began to wonder what would go next.

“Has the radio fallen on your head yet?” I was asked by one of my fellow drivers.

I thought she was joking, but then one of our mechanics mentioned that while he was out driving one of the new buses, he hit a bump and the radio came down, narrowly missing his noggin.

“Looks like you just got a bad batch,” one driver suggested, and our mechanic said he thinks the problems are Covid-related: The factory was probably understaffed and under the weather and people were just forgetting to tighten nuts and bolts and stuff.

A lot of good that does us, of course.

SEE: They Ain’t Making Drivers Like They Used To

Meanwhile, kids have christened the nice new floor with gum and the back of a nice new seat with Wite-out. I also discovered that my bus has a roof leak like the others, but I just figure it’s the manufacturer’s newfangled Student Irrigation System designed to keep precious cargo moist and fresh.

I was told that some of other drivers, the ones with more seniority, would likely grumble and even stare daggers at me when they learned that I was getting a new bus and they weren’t. I have tried to reassure everyone that I didn’t ask for my new bus and that they should probably be thankful for their older, more reliable models even if they have a wart or two.

I’ve learned that there are different makes and models out there — we use Internationals and Bluebirds — and they’ve come a long way from the days of manual crank door handles and stick shifts. The bus I’m driving now looks like it’s state of the art, but I can’t help noticing its distinct citrus flavor.

I guess that’s only fitting given my track record. So I drive on, waiting for Tarkus 2 to go belly-up like all the others I’ve ever driven, though it is kind of ironic that this one seems to keep going even though all signs suggest it won’t much longer.

That figures. The one that should be easiest for me to kill isn’t.

School Bus Life Lessons: This Job’s No Joke

Of the many things I’ve learned from driving a school bus, one really stands out: This job can humble you in a heartbeat.

Plenty of things can go wrong. Many are not the driver’s fault, but some are, like getting lost in thought and missing a stop.

SEE: Zoning Out Is Not the Way to Go

Or losing your cool with kids. Or doing something silly and looking like a fool. I know all about that one.

You see, ever since I was a kid I’ve had a mischievous streak a mile wide, so I have a devil of a time resisting the temptation to do things like making, shall we say, offbeat remarks over the two-way radio.

(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 hear playful banter between drivers all the time, but I started cracking wise after I heard their announcements while they were backing out of their parking spaces in our compound. The mischief wheels in my mind immediately started spinning and one day I just blurted, “For your entertainment pleasure, 631 is backing out of space 90.”

I immediately felt ashamed of myself, but when no one said anything to me, I kept going.

A stream of similar messages followed. Stuff like: “631 backing up and bound for glory” and “631 backing up . . . but not indefinitely. I hope to stop at some point.”

I was also inspired by another driver who, when asked by our dispatcher how many kids he had on board, replied, “I don’t know. I’d say somewhere between seven and nine.” So I began commenting about the challenges of the job: “631 backing out of space 90 to suffer the little children.”

I’ve been told by some of my fellow drivers that they get a kick out of my announcements and even listen for them. Of course, that only eggs me on, increasing the urge to turn my bus into my own personal comedy club. As it is, I say bizarre things over the PA, such as informing kids who are complaining about someone’s rather noticeable fart that state law requires at least one such emission per trip so the bus does not run out of gas.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

These vocal gateway drugs led to drawings and messages in the dust on the back door of my bus.

A self-portrait.

But I’ve learned the hard way that it helps to remember that humor, like beauty, is in the eye (and ear) of the beerholder. Not everyone finds me amusing and they’ve let me know by erasing my dust messages or scrawling, “Wash your bus!” over them.

Even worse, it’s usually after I’ve said something goofy that I immediately do something embarrassing — like missing a turn, having to go miles out of my way, and arriving late at a school. Or a discipline situation arises, my video is pulled, and I end up under a microscope. I’ve been told that some school officials will watch the video of an entire trip and not just the incident in question in order to make sure the driver is not somehow at fault. So I’ve sweated out a few reviews.

SEE: The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

The problem with trying to be a comedian is you can be a very conscientious driver but joking makes you sound like your mind is elsewhere and you don’t take the job seriously. This is a job that demands concentration and must be taken seriously. Plus you clutter the radio with inane chatter when drivers and the dispatcher need everything on it to be important, clear, concise, and not a distraction.

I’ve been left red-faced by our dispatcher saying, “We don’t need to hear this!” while I merrily prattled during a busy time on the radio. After I declared that it was “Time for today’s exciting episode of Assigned Seat Roulette, so let’s meet today’s contestants!” I was curtly and coldly informed by our former head mechanic that everyone, including the big bosses, can hear me and there is a very real need to remain strictly professional.

Gulp.

Clearly, I need to engage my brain before I put my mouth in “drive.”

You’d think I would have learned my lesson after four years behind the wheel. But you would be wrong. I’ve been chastened, and I’m very careful about picking my spots and not becoming an annoyance. But when volunteering to help out with after-school runs even though I tend to not know the routes (with predictable results), I’ll still say whatever pops into my head, such as: “631 to base. My luxury vehicle is empty and available for misguided tours of Greater New England” or “Bus 631 is now available for salvage operations, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and other social events.”

SEE: Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

I really do have to be very careful about letting my inner child out. This is a job that requires a responsible adult and it will quickly remind me when I am not being one.