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!

The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

They say the camera don’t lie, and for that I am (mostly) thankful.

Being monitored by a video surveillance system makes driving my big yellow nuthouse a lot less stressful if a bit more embarrassing. It’s easy to forget it’s on and start talking to yourself … much to the amusement of anyone who watches the footage.

(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.)

On a more serious note, I don’t know how drivers got by without an on-board camera to keep things honest.

“He said, she said” situations with kids or parents can put us in serious professional or legal jeopardy. Drivers I know have been confronted by angry parents and relatives. My worst incident was an upset mother threatening to “rip the heads off” the kids who taunted her son. I calmly assured her I’d asked the school to investigate the incident, but she could have claimed I was nasty to her when I told her she wasn’t allowed to come on board. It’s a relief to have proof of my innocence in the proverbial video pudding.

Having your “tape pulled” and reviewed is invaluable for proving your case against the little viper you suspect has been up to no good like fastening seat belts across the aisle to create tripwires.

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

It’s also a stark existential moment that makes you put your life under a microscope.

Anything you’ve done or said can be used against you. Any little molehill you can think of feels like Mount Everest while your video is being scrutinized. Driving errors like failing to signal a turn have been called out by school principals who insist on watching an entire run before they rule on whether the driver coulda-shoulda prevented Smedley from stealing Stufflebean’s Pokemon cards. But drivers have been caught in fireable offenses like texting at the wheel.

It’s always the day I’ve done something unseemly that the video from my bus is called in for review.

One afternoon I was waiting outside Helga Poppin Intermediate School for my precious cargo to be dismissed when a mosquito bite on my foot started tormenting me. I got up, plopped onto a seat out of a view (so I thought), took off my sneaker and sock, and enjoyed a good scratch … before realizing the camera was still running. Not my most dignified on-screen moment.

Of course, I was summoned to the dispatcher’s office at the end of my run.

“Mrs. Overshoe called and said Prudence came home with blue nail polish all over her book bag,” I was told.

“I had no idea anything happened,” I stammered. Usually, kids tell on their tormentors. Not this time. So I was asked, “Can you have your tape pulled?”

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

The video revealed Prudence was splashed with polish when Pismeyer and Jehosaphat wrassled for a bottle of it they’d taken from Prudence’s friend Esmerelda. Of course, I fretted about how good I must have looked scratching my dog before the fun started.

I confess I’ve lost a pound or two in anxious sweat at times like that.

During one particularly tumultuous run, I blurted “don’t be a smart ass” at sassy fourth-grader Robespierre when he cracked wise at me after one of my many, many roadside lectures about the evils of swinging from the chandeliers. Embarrassed, I hesitated to write up the incident but gulped deeply and prayed that viewing the riot in back would make the court take some mercy on me.

Blessedly, no one called me out. (Shows you the power of religion, eh? It’s why there are few atheists in these yellow trenches.)

I constantly tell kids that everything they say and do is being recorded, but they still swear on a big stack o’ Bibles that they’re innocent even though their guilt will be right there on the video. It’s one of the lessons they never learn, like the dangers of scuttling around the bus while it’s in motion.

Kids are always gobsmacked when they get caught in a sweep for others’ misdeeds. While reviewing complaints about salty language on my bus, Principal Diesel at Helga Poppin spotted an infraction away from the action: Hortense Prunella slugging Brutus in the gut. The young lady was shocked to be called on Diesel’s carpet.

When they are aware of the cameras, kids sometimes play to them, mugging, waving and yelling “Hi!” Others get smart. An eighth-grader smugly told me he and his partners in crime on another bus used to spray stuff on the camera lenses to cover up their mischief.

Heaven knows we drivers have a lot to contend with, so after writing up some middle school wrong-doers it was gratifying to hear the assistant principal tell me, “I watched the tape and all I can say is thank you. You need to be able to drive the bus, not control behavior. There should be a monitor on every bus but I know that will never happen.”

Hogs will pilot jetliners before it does, but I’ll gladly settle for the security of the camera until then.

Route Hypnosis: Zoning Out Behind the Wheel is No Way to Go

Have you ever been driving and suddenly felt like you just awoke from a dream?

There’s an electric jolt, a moment of panic when you realize you zoned out and aren’t quite sure exactly where you are. It’s scary, especially when you’re at the wheel of a school bus.

Welcome to “route hypnosis.” Anyone can fall into it by getting lost in thought while not much is happening or the scenery is boring.

(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.)

Zoning out is one of the biggest challenges of this job. We school bus drivers are vulnerable to it due to the sheer familiarity of where we go each day. A kind of muscle memory takes over when you’ve been along a route many times. You do things by habit and that can really mess you up when your schedule has changed and you’re on automatic pilot.

And when you have a long stretch of clear sailing, you can easily start thinking about things that worry you or an aggravating political argument or your favorite team’s latest galling, bonehead defeat … until you realize you cruised by a turn or you hear that dreaded, “Hey, you missed my stop!”

You do it without realizing it and it can happen even when the little dears on the bus have your full attention.

One afternoon, Lucifer, my most accomplished middle school hellion, was loudly taunting and roughhousing with other kids. I stopped once to give him the evil eye and I also issued several warnings over the PA, but the obnoxious shenanigans continued. I began thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get him off the bus … and drove right past his house, damning myself to another five minutes of grinding my teeth while I found a place to safely turn around and go back.

On another memorable day, I was thinking about how I could possibly rearrange my already re-arranged (many times) assigned seats to restore some semblance of sanity when I hung a right and heard, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver. Why are we going this way?”

I’d turned one road too soon at an almost identical corner and was now doomed to going about ten minutes out of my way.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It’s mortifying when you have to radio in to let your dispatcher (as well as your boss and every other driver) know you’ve screwed up and are running late, but radio in you must because heaven help you if something bad happens while you’re off your designated route on the sly while trying to protect your pride. And you sure feel guilty when your mess-up means a kid will be late getting home for an appointment.

This job can humble you in a hurry, and rude awakenings are particularly humbling. During a half-day when I had to be at the middle school early for afternoon pickup, I automatically took my full-day route. That made the trip about 10 miles longer. I was praying I’d make it on time when I heard our dispatcher bark on the radio, “John, where are you? Your kids are waiting outside and all the buses are ready to leave.”

Gulp.

During my two years in this stirring profession, I’ve learned (the hard way) to prevent these unfortunate events. You have to leave everything, especially all worries and disputes, behind when you start a run, so it helps to think about the consequences if you don’t. Practicing mindfulness — consciously staying in the moment — also helps. You can train your brain to behave differently by staying focused or quickly snapping back to the present, but it does take some time and repetition of a conscious trick.

For example, if I suspect I may zone out, I’ll think about the way to my next stop. Or I’ll pretend I’m taking a driving test and have to point out hazards and road signs to an inspector while making surgically clean turns, lane changes and stops. Focusing on your driving is vital for safety anyway.

I have found that what works best, though, is the lasting sting of shame.

After Bumpus, the third-grade critic who sits directly behind me, drily said, “You sure miss a lot of people’s stops” I haven’t missed any again. Now, every time I approach the site of a gaffe, I am instantly reminded of my less-than-stellar moment there.

As one of my colleagues said after telling me about the time she started loudly singing Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” without realizing her two-way radio was on and everyone could hear her, “Some mistakes you only need to make once.”

On the Road Again: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

After seven months off due to the coronavirus pandemic, most schools in my district are finally open. I’m back behind the wheel of my trusty bus Tarkus … and things are quiet. Weirdly quiet. At least for me.

For most drivers and district staff, chaos is in order: There are new and re-routed runs to work out, and kids showing up at the wrong stops or not showing up at all or getting on the wrong buses.

(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.)

After our orientation meeting, it took me a day or two to get used to doing my pre-trip inspection again and locating the switches and other goodies I need on the bus. I also had to stock up on masks and gloves and remember to spray the seats and hand rail with disinfectant after each trip.

But other than that, my first week really wasn’t what I’d steeled myself for.

All of my intermediate school hellions from last year — Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, and Jehosaphat — have graduated to another school, are staying home or are being driven by their long-suffering parents. The only holdovers are Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Guttersnipe, a little fourth-grader who is known in NHL slang as a “$#i+disturber.” But this dastardly duo rides on separate days and there just aren’t enough kids on board at any time to start a good ruckus.

With most kids in the district being driven or kept home, I have only six urchins riding on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays I’m off while the schools are fumigated. Thursdays and Fridays I chauffeur three different riders. Instead of four trips per day, I have only two with a generous mid-day window of free time. Life just feels too easy, and that’s very unsettling.

Even with Guttersnipe in their midst, my Monday-Tuesday riders were like church mice. At one kid per seat, there wasn’t much deviltry they could get up to, though Lucille, a returning fifth-grader, promptly defied my “masks on at all times; no eating or drinking” rules by leaving a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs on and around her seat. But compared to carnage of yore, this was small spuds.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

As we rolled along through the Hudson Valley’s gloriously sunny autumn countryside and down the stretch of winding, treacherous road where the kids always decide to come off the behavior spool, it felt strange not to look in the overhead mirror and see Robespierre sailing through the air across the aisle from seat to seat.

Or spot Jehosaphat scuttling about in the aisle.

Or constantly bark “Sit down back there!” into the PA microphone.

See: Now Hear This: Your School Bus P.A. is a Terrible Thing to Lose

Or hear someone yelling “Hey Mr. Bus Driver, Brutus is annoying me!”

Or smell suspicious scents like baby powder, body spray or waffles (yes, waffles) wafting from the back.

Or drown in noise that can make your hair stand on end.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

No, there was just the hum of the engine and the crackle of the radio as drivers reported rider snafus or that their buses were having mechanical difficulties. In fact, there was so much radio chatter that our dispatchers begged for mercy. But that’s to be expected during the first few days of a school year when everyone is trying to get an armful of things right. This year is proving to be a lulu.

Of course, I didn’t make it through the week without some excitement.

On my third morning, Tarkus greeted me with a “low coolant level” message on the dashboard followed by “turn off engine.” I made it from my parking slot to the garage where Tarkus conked as soon as two mechanics opened the hood. A mad rush for another bus ensued but I managed to pre-trip it and make it to my first stop on time.

Naturally, Pismeyer wasn’t there.

After a generous five-minute grace period, I moved on to pick up Persephone, a new third-grader. No sign of her either. So it was on to get Ichabod, another newbie.

Nope.

So I radioed our dispatcher and asked her to inform the good folks at Helga Poppin Intermediate that I had nothing for them that morning. Then it was back to the compound. Easy as pie as they say in the pastry-hauling trade.

You know, after all the mayhem and tomfoolery I’ve experienced in only two years of driving, I could really get used to this. I’ve always said this would be a really great job if kids weren’t involved. I’m going to have to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts, though. The middle schoolers return next month.

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.

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.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

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 urchins, 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.

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 wild-eyed exasperation, 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 else 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, scold 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 now-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 the bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests the researchers may be right.

Kids hate assigned seats but get very protective of them.

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

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlebomb 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 by 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 to Oswald because 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 for the deed to it.

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 the bus as Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other gear.

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, a seventh-grader she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders like Sassafrass 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 in the festivities.

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 a little better. 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.