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!

Roadside Lectures Roll On

After a long, peaceful stretch of few riders due to the pandemic, I finally gave my first Roadside Lecture of the school year in mid-April.

Actually, it was a Schoolside Lecture delivered outside Helga Poppin Intermediate one morning while waiting to let the kids off my bus.

The topic: A refresher on my job and the two video cameras on board.

(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.)

“OK, people,” I said, standing in the aisle before the suddenly quiet congregation. “I saw some stuff yesterday afternoon that I didn’t like.”

I then mentioned the seatbelt trip wire (a timeless prank) I found stretched across the aisle next to notorious fourth-grader Guttersnipe’s seat. I didn’t mention him (he’s a firestarter in training) by name. I just said (while watching his smug expression turn into a cringe), “Whoever did it, you know who you are … and so do the cameras. In case you forgot, everything you do and say is being recorded.”

See: The Camera’s Eyes Have It

I then explained (for the umpteenth hundredth time) the importance of not climbing on seats or standing in the aisle because “if I have to slam on the brakes and stop suddenly, you’ll go flying. You aren’t watching the road like I am, so you won’t know if a car or a person or an animal darts out in front of us … and they can and do.”

Pausing for dramatic effect, I added, “Kids have fallen on buses and gotten hurt. It hasn’t happened on my bus yet, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way. My job is to keep you all safe.”

Somehow I don’t think they were impressed.

Finally, having seen fifth-grader Clementine play peek-a-boo-duck!-peek-a-booduck! with me during the entire ride home — a sure sign that she was up to no good — I continued:

“I see you ladies in the back are having a grand old time with the windows. Please don’t throw stuff out or stick your arms and hands out. I don’t mind you opening them on a warm day but there’s a phone number on the back of the bus. So if you’re going to toss stuff or greet the public as you’ve been doing, be nice or they will call and complain. Then we’ll pull the video and you’ll end up in Principal Diesel’s office. As some of you know, the Principal’s expression can turn a man to stone!”

My audience’s silence lasted well beyond my brilliant, vaguely ominous closer: “Thank you. We’ll catch you later.”

You’ll often find me pontificating here.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I started my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series not long after I began driving my big yellow institution of learning. When warnings, threats and shrieking over the PA failed, it dawned on me that I had no choice but to find a safe spot to pull over, put my hazard lights on, and “educate” my precious cargo.

(I must admit I get a kick out of their reaction: eyes widening as the bus slows to a stop, silence growing as I rise from my seat and turn towards the back…)

Some of my topics: Why distracting the driver is dangerous (“Trust me, you don’t want us to end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree”); the hazards of moving around while the bus is rolling, jostling in the aisle or using seats like gymnastics equipment (see above), and a scary thing called “black ice.”

It’s there (in the photos) that I can set my clock by the kids suddenly coming unglued after they’ve been little angels for the first half of the trip.

I often rehearse speeches (in my head) and have had plenty of practice actually delivering them. Sadly, I’ve had to repeat them many times. My most frequent site for lectures is a particularly treacherous, winding stretch of hilly, wooded road that’s loaded with hidden driveways, wandering animals (including a wayward cow) and other hazards.

“No matter how many times I tell you how dangerous this road is, you just don’t get it,” I keep saying. And it’s true.

Of course, within minutes of getting back on the road they are usually back at it. In that case, I resort to the unoriginal but classic move of pulling over, shutting off the engine and announcing over the PA, “OK, we’re not going anywhere until you settle down. We’ll sit here all day and all night if we have to. I get paid by the hour so you’ll just be helping me pay for my yacht!” Ha Ha.

See: Rocking the School Bus PA

That always gets their attention and inspires a few cries of, “He’s kidnapping us!” and “Call the cops!”

“Go ahead and call the cops,” I tell them. “They’ll take my side as soon as they see the video!”

I’ve had guest speakers before. Teachers, principals and other school officials have come aboard to deliver a few choice remarks and pointed suggestions. Maybe law enforcement personnel will be able to teach a lesson that finally sinks in.

School Bus Life’s a Gas

Not to be crude, but is anything more universally funny than the humble fart?

Rare is the person who doesn’t chortle at the sound or even the mere thought of a fanny beep. Doesn’t matter who or how old you are, a cheek squeak will likely raise at least a smile if not a crinkled nose.

Pardon me for going all pop psychology on you for a second, but it’s said that misfortune and indignity are the essence of humor. Think of a classic slapstick bit like someone falling down an open manhole. Trouser toots are a social manhole, especially in a dignified setting like a school bus.

(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 timeless appeal of seam splitters was demonstrated by the mad-libs that my passengers Rollo and Calliope did during their ride to Helga Poppin Intermediate School one morning. They dutifully filled all of the blanks in the text with “fart” and that old favorite “poop” the way my kids used to do when they were young and getting endless hours of fun from making our boxy Apple computer’s voice say “Poop poop poop poop poop.”

Oh, the hilarity!

Asked by Rollo to read the ad-lib opus aloud over the PA — not quite the level of material our Bus Driver of the Year award winners typically share with their passengers — I was relieved when the call to release the kids came before I could get started destroying the last shreds of my professional dignity. But I’m sure it would have been good for a laugh.

One individual, a seventh-grader I’ll call Methane Man, has been a reliable source of thunder down under. He’s even reveled in his reputation for sparking gusts of laughter and howls of revulsion with a robust rump roar. Uncannily (pardon the pun) able to detonate a bootie bomb on demand by his pals, Methane Man was a source of daily amusement in the ranks until he experienced an unexpected gas shortage at the pump, if you will.

“I haven’t farted in a month. Is that bad?” I overheard him ask one afternoon during the ride home.

Unable to resist chiming in, I got on the PA and replied, “I thought it’s been a little too quiet around here.”

“I’m waiting for an explosion,” said Oscar, a fellow seventh-grader who sits perilously close to Methane Man.

An explosion was a distinct possibility given that humans typically backfire 14 times each day. In the meantime, ever-mischievous eighth-grader Coggins brought a whoopee cushion on board to help break the boring silence if not the actual wind.

“This is what my life has come to,” I thought as I was serenaded by rude noises all the way to Bubblefish.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Air biscuits aren’t the only things on the menu, mind you. From time to time there are pleasant sounds and aromas floating about my bus.

Kids have busted out their instruments and played a tune, though the temptation to simulate a tush tuba eventually overcomes them. Being the good influence that they are, I was tempted to put on a tape of “Our Song” by Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, a collection of syncopated flatulence, belching, wheezes and other bodily noises set to a bouncy piano, but decided against it when I envisioned being browbeaten by scowling parents and school administrators, not to mention my boss.

On the aromatic front, Heloise the middle schooler often boarded in the morning redolent of fresh bread or cookies. Exotic scents sometimes waft from the back, making me wonder if someone is making waffles or baking potatoes. After some runs, I expected to find evidence of a cooking fire, but fortunately haven’t … so far.

The remedy for a gas attack is always at hand.

One morning during the usual rollicking ride to Helga Poppin, I noticed something especially fragrant and was moved to grab the PA mic and ask, “Who’s using aftershave? What are you lunatics doing back there?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jehosaphat replied, giggling and looking guilty. Then I noticed his pal Beetlebomb spraying what turned out to be deodorant.

Deodorant would have come in handy the time I noticed all the windows were being frantically opened by my passengers.

“Someone cut the cheese!” Beetlebomb informed me, so I told him I would turn on the fans in front to blow the fumes away. (Those fans were frequently requested after that.)

When the kids kept complaining that Brutus and Hogshead were continuing to produce breezers, I was tempted to radio in that my bus was under a serious gas attack. Instead, I went on the PA and told my precious cargo, “Hey, thanks for the back drafts! I was afraid we were going to run out of gas. And cheese, too. I just wanted to say I appreciate anyone who helps us meet our daily quota.”

When they went silent and looked confused, I said, “I bet you didn’t know there’s a New York State law that says there must be at least one fart on a school bus during every trip.”

“Really?” someone asked from the sea of puzzled faces in my overhead mirror.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “You could look it up!” (Though I didn’t say where.)

I actually had them going for a bit, but it’s no joke that my bus runs on gas in more ways than one.

It Only Takes One … to Drive a School Bus Wild

I’m jazzed to say life behind the wheel has been a sea breeze lately. My first two years were a gale of nerve-jangling mayhem, but blessed peace has prevailed for five months and counting.

Though the pot is bubbling a bit now that spring has sprung and riders are reuniting as schools return to normal schedules, the kids on my bus have been mistaken for church mice. I discovered what a pleasure this job can be as I motor through beautiful Hudson Valley countryside, the sun rising through mist on a field, my ears filled with the heartwarming sound of children talking and laughing instead of shrieking and complaining. Good times.

Unfortunately a dark cloud hovers over these shiny, happy proceedings: the return of Sassafrass.

(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.)

A potty-mouthed middle schooler, Sassafrass used to incite bitter conflict on my bus every day. She hasn’t been back this year, but I got a note in my key room mailbox that she’ll be riding again soon.

I’m bracing myself. I’ve gotten a little rusty with the discipline thing. The most I’ve had to handle this year is one cereal event and a grade school annoyance problem I squelched by enforcing my “Girls Only” rule in the back. With fewer kids on board (3-15 instead of 15-30), good behavior naturally prevails, but some of Sassafrass’s old targets and recruits in deviltry are still around. I know all too well how one bad apple can get the whole barrel riled up.

Most drivers know that special feeling of trying to get “The One” to their stop or to school as quickly as possible so some semblance of sanity returns to their bus. As soon as The One comes on, the noise level rises, horseplay ripples through the rows like brushfire and pretty soon someone is in tears or calling for our help.

There’s a reason we call these pieces of precious cargo “fire starters” and I used to have four of them on my intermediate school run. Any one was capable of sparking an uproar in a peaceful group.

There was Rollo, who pestered anyone he was near. The time he came aboard with a pointy Harry Potter wand made my hair levitate. His mere presence always ignited his nemesis, Brutus, and vice versa. They constantly baited each other with insults, and their school told me to separate them but that only created two problem zones as they mixed it up with their new neighbors.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Brutus always made his presence felt.

Brutus could start a brawl while alone in an empty room. Constantly written up for teasing, taunting, cussing and getting into physical scrapes with anyone who sat near him, he was frenemies with Beetlebomb, who was always in everybody’s grill, changing seats while I wasn’t looking, and forcing me to stop the bus.

One day while repeatedly popping up from behind his seat back and roaring at two girls, Beetlebomb got himself smacked by Petunia, a quiet, sweet, fourth-grader. “Petunia hit me in the eye!” he cried to me. Not that I condone violence, mind you, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Good for her!” Petunia is so meek that Beetlebomb really had it coming if he got her fired up.

After being dragged to the principal’s woodshed, Beetlebomb was good and stayed in his seat … for one day. Then it was back to tussling with Brutus and Robespierre, who needed little to rev him up. When Robespierre took off his shoe and threw it at Beetlebomb, they were both remanded to the Honored Student Seat in the very front.

See: The School Bus Justice System

In that kind of high-octane situation, removing even one firestarter from the mix can help the way a burned out bulb can darken a whole string of Christmas lights. I rejoiced the day I learned that the fourth graders were going on a field trip and would not be back in time for my afternoon run. That meant no Rollo and Brutus, which meant a (at least a little) calmer Beetlebomb and Robespierre, who were promptly separated by half a bus.

It was always heartbreaking to have a fire starter not show up in the morning and drive off in great relief with a quiet bus only to pass them and a parent going the opposite way, then have them reappear in my rearview mirror and chase me to the next stop. There the fun started with complaints coming fast and furious.

I gave thanks when schools and parents have finally stepped in decisively. Rollo was removed to another, smaller bus with closer supervision and fewer sparring partners, a fate that also befell Lucifer on my middle school run.

A factory showroom of foul language, Lucifer was forever taunting other kids, putting seatbelts across the aisle as a tripwire, and drawing threats of revenge. “Just wait and see what happens,” grumbled Otto, a much larger eighth-grader after he nearly fell. I, for one, didn’t want to find out.

In-school suspensions had no effect on Lucifer. Fresh out of one, he immediately stole Fartinhausen’s football, setting off a wild wrestling match after Fartinhausen leapt over the seat to grab Lucifer by the neck.

See: The Rat Patrol

Lucifer unexpectedly leaving on a family trip made my usually bonkers Bubblefish run much easier for a couple of weeks though his pal Butch gallantly tried to fill the void. He, too, got suspended and I sighed with relief when he moved, taking with him his maniacal cackle and vocabulary that would shame the most vulgar dockworker.

Not Wanted: The Notorious Sassafrass Gang

Now Sassafrass looms. The first time around, she formed a gang with three other riders who didn’t know each other: Zoot Horn, Lulubelle, and Wisenheimer (who sat in Lucifer’s old seat; maybe it’s possessed).

While Sassafrass filled the air with bloodcurdling profanity, they stuck their arms out windows, jeered at pedestrians, gleefully left a mess of Pop Tart crumbs (earning my first Big Bag O’ Trash Award for the year), and got into such a beef with other kids that I called a meeting with their guidance counselor to lay down the law.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Whenever Sassafrass was aboard, she and her crew were in the thick of any mocking and mischief. When she wasn’t, they were much better though Wisenheimer became a first class fire starter in his own right. A constant threat with the broom stored behind my seat, he was given the finger by Spud the eighth grader. I was relieved when he too didn’t return.

It pains me to think that Zoot Horn and Lulubelle, who no longer even sit together, may return to the dark side if Sassafrass comes back. Some of my seven newbies could be drawn into her orbit, too. The veteran riders won’t be thrilled, but I’ll give her a chance, or course. A year can make a big change and difference in a kid.

Let us pray.

How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

It helps to have a sense of humor in this job.

That said, I’m blessed to be amused by how kids are forbidden to eat on the bus, yet their schools still send them home with armloads of candy, cookies and cupcakes after class parties. They’re sneaky little buggers when it comes to filling their faces, so my bus ends up looking like Times Square after a New Year’s Eve celebration — an kaleidoscope of wrappers, lollipop sticks, crumbs, and sprinkles.

“If you need Fruit Loops, just let me know,” I told my colleagues after my middle schoolers tossed cereal all over the back. “I’ve got plenty.”

(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.)

Mess just comes with this yellow turf and no matter how often I ordered my precious cargo to not throw garbage on the floor, they kept doing it and no one would fess up. When I was told the district brass wanted drivers to sweep out our buses each day, I asked if we can make the kids help.

No such luck, but my plight inspired me to take action.

I created a “Rewards Program.”

I wanted to call it “Live Clean or Die” or “Give Me Cleanliness or Give Me Death” but those names seemed a bit heavy-handed if not dire and threatening. The basic idea was to collect the garbage on the floor and give it to the litterbugs the next day as they got off the bus at school. (Thanks to the wonders of seating charts, it isn’t hard to trace trash back to its source.)

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It seemed to work. Eighth graders Otto and Coggins were the first recipients and they looked shocked when I handed them baggies of ramen noodle crumbs that had been scattered around the back. The bus was much cleaner after that, at least while my Bubblefish Middle Schoolers were on board, and my messy passengers got better at using the trash boxes in the front and back. Unfortunately, a raccoon in the bus compound didn’t get the memo (see photo).

One day, fourth graders Calliope and Ocarina asked me which school’s students were the messiest on a scale of 1 to 10. Thanks to its class parties, Helga Poppin Intermediate rated a solid 9 and I sang the praises of how neat the Bubblefishers had been.

Naturally, the next day the Bubblefish brigade left a blizzard of Wheaties all over the back. I discovered it after I pulled in to pick up my crew at Helga Poppin. Clearly it was time for another round of rewards, but it was a Friday afternoon, so I wouldn’t be able to present prizes to the perpetrators until Monday.

That gave me time to come up with the idea for an official “Big Bag O’ Crap Giveaway.”

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

After we pulled in to the parking lot at Bubblefish on Monday, Coggins and his pals Otto, Herkimer and Jethro were each given a large plastic bag stuffed with cereal flakes and other valuables such as crumbs, bread crusts, soda cans, water bottles, yogurt containers, candy wrappers, half-eaten lollipops, gum wads, fruit rinds, apple cores, popcorn, tissues, pencil shavings, paper wads, pencil stubs, and pen caps — much of it bonus “value-added” material from Helga Poppin.

The lads were silent and a little contrite as they received the mementos of their work, and that afternoon I delivered an inspirational speech to the entire cast:

“You’re not supposed to eat on the bus, but being the fine, upstanding young citizens you are, I know you will do it anyway,” I said. “On Friday, some kind souls left me one sweet mess to clean up, so I strongly suggest that you aim the food at your mouths and not at the floor or each other. If you do not obey this command, you will continue to receive gifts like the ones I gave out this morning.”

For dramatic effect, I paused and added: “I may even show up at your house and dump the stuff on your living room floor. I’m sure your parents will be thrilled.”

The rest of the year went reasonably well, though Bubblefish did beat out Helga Poppin for the coveted “Bus 631 Big Bag O’ Trash Award for Excellence in Mess Making.” It was presented on the next-to-last day of school.

“It’s the end of the year and the school is giving out awards and honors,” I said as I stood before the winners with a huge white trash bag stuffed to bursting with the finest refuse I could collect in the final weeks. “So I thought I would give out one of my own.”

Seeing how enthralled they were, I continued. “No individuals were the clear winner. I’d say the residents of the last four or five rows are the most deserving for the sheer number of messes and their magnitude during the school year. This was a team effort and there’s plenty of credit to go around.”

And with that I handed the ceremonial bag to Mildew, an athletic eighth-grader who just happened to be the first person down the aisle after we got the signal to let ’em off the bus.

“It’s a team award! Think of it like carrying the flag at the Olympics,” I told her before giving each of her teammates a slap on the back and a hearty, “Well done! You don’t see this kind of commitment to excellence every day!”

And I don’t see as much trash anymore.

I’m now working on an award for the raccoon.

The Back of the Bus: Where the Action Is

It’s a school kid’s Promised Land, their El Dorado. A seat there is the Holy Grail. It’s where the fun and food and shenanigans are, the talk is coarse, and the facts of life are learned and debated.

It’s the famous back of the bus, the coveted last two or three rows that attract kids the way a shiny object draws horse flies.

(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.)

Oh, they think the old fart at the wheel can’t see what they’re up to, but I can certainly hear them. They also keep forgetting there’s a video camera on them and that I can see them in my overhead mirror — scuttling about, rough housing, doing headers over the setbacks, throwing stuff around and out the windows, yelling snarky things at pedestrians …

On one trip, I spotted the always mischievous Coggins waving and hooting at a big truck behind us.

“I hope he’s being cool,” I thought. “The last thing I need is an irate 16-wheeler driver chasing me.”

Even during these days of plague, with only eight or 10 riders on each trip, they all head straight to the back. Sometimes it’s a stampede for the very last row after school lets out.

In an uncertain world, it’s comforting (I guess) to know that you can always count on mayhem in the back, especially when males are in the mix. I learned that the hard way.

See: Meet the Hellions

During my first two years of driving, the back of my bus was a combination three-ring circus and uncanny recreation of the Haymarket Riot of 1886. It was all I could do to not keep looking in the overhead mirror at the horror going on. That was how my famous Roadside Lecture Series was born.

Oddly, Coggins and his fellow eighth-graders weren’t all that bad, other than the occasional header or water fight. Most of the trouble was between the sixth graders, who were trying to prove how tough they were, and the other kids who found them highly annoying. Some semblance of order was preserved by the seniority system I adopted from the driver who used to have my run: eighth graders in the back four rows, seventh graders in the middle four, and sixth graders in the front four.

The intermediate schoolers were another matter.

Dear Brutus, always respectful.

I had at least six certified firestarters among my 25 or so passengers, and until I wised up and assigned everyone seats, Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, Ignatz and his sidekicks Stitch and Satch were moved up and back like yo-yos. Wherever they went, mayhem followed, but it was somewhat more containable the closer they were to me.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Believe me, I gave those rascals every chance to prove they could behave.

What a fool I was.

“If you don’t behave this time,” I said in a fiery speech after yet another outrage, this one involving cereal, “I’m going to move you all up for good and you won’t like it.”

They didn’t.

I finally went nuclear after a stream of complaints from other kids about cursing in the back, Brutus whacking Ophelia with a book bag, and Esmerelda slugging Brutus in the gut.

My “Girls Only” rule for the last four rows created peace in our time — girls are generally more civilized than boys at this age — but only after it sparked a loud protest by the lads, who chanted, “We want to sit in the back! We want to sit in the back!!”

I stifled their uprising with a question: “Hey, why would I let you sit in the back again when every time you’ve been there you’ve caused me problems? I may look dumb but my mama didn’t raise no fools!”

Apparently they thought otherwise because after they were moved up, they attempted a devilish ploy.

“Can we move back?” Satch asked me one morning after we arrived at his school. “The third graders are attacking us.”

“They’re cracking our spines!” Ignatz added with a most serious expression.

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “Well, if anyone cracks your spines again, you tell me and I shall have Principal Diesel assign them to the stocks!”

See: The School Bus Justice System

Of course, they were the ones assigned to the stocks a few days later … for tormenting the kids in the middle of the bus. But Assistant Principal Carnage later told me Ignatz had said during his Star Chamber hearing that he was relieved things were much calmer on the bus since I’d moved him and the Stooges out of the back.

I have noticed that as the school year progresses, the front becomes more appealing. Where once I was radioactive, the seats near me are now a sanctuary from the madness in the rear. Even Brutus and Beetlebomb asked if they could move up at one particularly crazy point.

Still, the lure of the back is eternal.

“Mr. Bus Driver,” Stitch asked me one afternoon months after he and his gang had been permanently planted in the middle and front of the bus, “when will we be allowed to move to the back again?”

“Maybe when you’re in high school,” I told him with a big grin. “Most likely when you’re in college.”

The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

It’s said that you never forget your first. That’s true in this noble profession. Many drivers remain fond of the first school bus they drove and I’m no different.

Mine was an International 40-footer with 103,000 miles on it. I called it Tarkus, after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s classic album of the same name. It was a fitting moniker. The engine roared and the bus rumbled along like it was on tank treads.

(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.)

Tarkus was a rustic vehicle to say the least. Besides the rust patches and frayed, duct-taped seats (kids enjoyed pulling stuffing out of the holes), the heat barely worked and the PA didn’t. But I adapted as I navigated my way through a (very) challenging first year of driving that included brake failure, a boil-over breakdown, a scrape with a rock wall while squeezing past a tree crew, and dinging two buses while entering or leaving my parking space at our compound.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

“Are you trying to kill all our buses?” our dispatcher finally asked me one morning when I radioed in that Tarkus had failed to start after I’d dropped my precious cargo at Bubblefish Middle School.

Good question.

Even after a new starter was installed, Tarkus again failed during my first wait for afternoon dismissal at Bubblefish. I was just sitting there with the engine off when a beeping started and the alarm sounded. Vexed, I radioed for help and a mechanic came out out but couldn’t start the bus.

“What a day,” I texted to my wife. “My bus died twice, once in the morning and then in the afternoon after they fixed it.”

“Well, aren’t you glad it was the bus and not you?” she replied.

Well, yes.

Apparently, either Tarkus was haunted or I was. Its flashers would suddenly come on, the stop arms would swing out, the front crossing gate would open, and the beeper would sound with the emergency switches off, all for no apparent reason.

Tarkus was constantly in and out of the garage, leaving me feeling guilty about increasing the workload on our small crew of intrepid, overworked mechanics.

Sadly, after little more than a school year behind the wheel, I was finally switched to Tarkus II … because a parent called to complain that her son had arrived at school encased in ice after a particularly frigid ride. (The “heat” usually took about 45 minutes to reach lukewarm, where it stayed, defying repeated efforts to improve it and inspiring me to suggest that a wood-burning stove be installed.)

The original Tarkus had its shortcomings.

Tarkus II was another International with about 100,000 hard-fought miles on it. The heat was a lot better, but the bus refused to start twice, once after more than a week in the shop for that same problem. While it was laid up, I was given a substitute bus and sure enough a dashboard light resembling a mushroom cloud came on during my first run.

“The engine is having a meltdown!” I cried over the radio.

It turned out that it was only a problem with the exhaust system, but for good measure that bus soon developed an air brake leak.

“You’re breaking all the buses!” our head mechanic groused as I left my big yellow victim in front of the garage.

Tarkus II was soon deemed unreliable, so I was given Tarkus III, yet another International with 94,000 miles on it.

“I feel sorry for it,” one of my fellow drivers said as I headed out to it for my first run. “I don’t know how it will survive you.”

Naturally, it wasn’t long before the beeper, engine light and “low coolant level” message came on as I left the compound for a morning run, forcing me to limp back to the garage.

“You’re killing all our buses!” my boss yelled as I schlepped out to the yard and yet another vehicle.

My original Tarkus has sadly gone to the Great Bus Graveyard in the Sky. Meanwhile, Tarkus III and the rest of our fleet quakes in fear when it hears me coming.

They Ain’t Making School Bus Drivers Like They Used To

When I was an apple-cheeked lad riding the bus to school, I never dreamed that one day I would end up behind the wheel. Here I am, still learning the ropes after nearly three years and thinking back to my drivers of yore.

The first one I remember was, fittingly, named John. He hauled me roughly three blocks from my house to Locust Elementary School. A real character with a flat-top haircut, John had a big transistor radio held together with thick rubber bands on his dashboard. AM stations spouting news or the top pop music of the day (Beatles, Beach Boys, Supremes, Four Seasons etc. ) was always on.

(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.)

John was definitely a rascal. If you sat directly behind him, sometimes while we were stopped he’d suddenly spin around, grab your thigh and squeeze hard right above your knee, causing a sensation like being tickled. If I did something like that today I’d end up in the hoosegow. We’re told to never touch kids unless it’s an emergency.

Also not recommended: Stopping and taking a kid into a liquor store so they can use the bathroom. Yes, I heard about a (now ex-) driver who actually did that.

Times have certainly changed. My friend Dave told me of the time when he was about eight years old and his bus was bombarded with snowballs thrown by a bunch of kids atop a snow mountain in a freshly-plowed supermarket parking lot.

“Our driver, Steve, stopped the bus and let the big kids (seventh and eighth graders) out to throw snowballs at those kids and chase them off the mountain,” Dave said. “All us little kids got to watch and yell out the windows at the carnage. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life up to that point.” 

Nowadays I’d bet my last crinkled George Washington that Steve would be pelted with a pink slip for pausing his route to provide such excitement.

Speaking of excitement, when my kids were in grade school during the early 2000s, their driver was a foul-mouthed dame who delighted in leaving them in the dust even as they were coming down the driveway in the morning. She once gleefully told her passengers, “Watch! The Rolfe kids are going to miss the bus today!” before driving off.

My wife had to complain to their school to get her to stop, but that driver kept her job. How, I don’t know.

I do have to admit I’ve been tempted to follow that lady’s lead-footed example with a kid who deliberately shuffles so slowly from his house to my bus door that you can clock him with a sun dial. But patience is a virtue in this gig, especially if you want to keep it.

Those Were the Days

There’s a lot of stuff we drivers aren’t supposed to do anymore, like handing out candy (food allergies, medical emergencies and lawsuits go hand-in-legal-brief) or punting kids off the bus for misbehaving.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Used to be you could just pull over anywhere and make miscreants walk home. A colleague of mine told me she set a district record for most hellions ejected from her bus in one semester (57) before the rules were changed. Now we have to deposit the little Visigoths at their home or school unless they are so out of control that we need to call 911.

I don’t recall causing trouble during my salad days. I do remember Seb, my stoic high school driver, occasionally pulling over to browbeat us for being rowdy. In a kind of cosmic full-circle, I now have my “Roadside Lecture Series” where I harangue my precious cargo about the importance of not recreating the Battle of Bull Run while I’m trying to drive.

Who knows if any kids will remember me. Maybe years from now my little nemesis Robespierre will say, “Yeah, I had this weird old geezer who called me Porcupine.” Or Ignatz and his pals Stitch and Satch will chortle when they recall the driver who used to bark at them over the PA, “Will you stooges sit down back there!”

It’s the stuff of golden memories.

Why Driving a School Bus is a Lot Like Marriage

As an inmate of the Great Institution of Holy Acrimony for nearly 35 years, I couldn’t help noticing that it’s not much different from the job I’ve had for less than three.

For example, while my beloved wife regales me with tales of fabulous things other husbands do — build extensions on their houses, fix their own cars, rustle up gourmet meals, and plan exotic trips (instead of sitting on the sofa and cussin’ at the New York Football Giants) — the kids on my bus tell me how great other drivers are.

(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.)

“Miss Beulah gives us candy!” I am told.

“Mr. Roscoe gives us presents even if it isn’t Christmas!” I am told.

“Mr. Hobart says funny stuff over the loudspeaker!” I am told.

“So do I,” I reply.

“Yeah, but Mr. Hobart says funny things!” they say.

Kids tell me they like other drivers better because those drivers play the radio. When asked, I always say mine is broken. Hey, I have enough noise as it is and the radio just makes kids even louder because they yell over the music. I also have another good excuse: My boss wants me to keep the din down so he can hear the kids’ cussin’ and other deviltry on the video.

“Miss Harriett doesn’t scream like you do!” I am told.

Adding indignity to insult, Brutus, my most “challenging” rider, told me he likes Mr. Titus better because “Mr. Titus is strict, but he’s good strict.”

“Oh, really?” I replied with a wild roll of my eyes. “I’ll have to ask him how I can improve the way I write you up, won’t I?”

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

For Better or For Worse

As in marriage, you can count on being promptly reminded of your screw-ups.

“You sure miss a lot of people’s stops!” grumbled Mortimer, the fifth-grader who sits directly behind me, during a particularly bad week when nothing went right (largely because of all the distracting foofaraw in the back).

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

“I don’t want to upset you but this bus seems to get slower every day,” groused Hobbestweedle the blunt fourth-grader as we approached his stop one afternoon.

“Gee, Hobbes, I’m pedaling as fast as I can,” was all I could say in my defense.

And just as one’s spouse will fawn over an old flame or someone they think you should adopt as your role model, so the little buggers on your bus will excitedly wave and yell at a beloved driver they had before they got stuck with the sorry likes of you.

“Hi, Mr. Stew! Hi!! We miss you!!!”

“Hi, Miss Beverly! We love you!! Please come rescue us!!!”

Like marriage, driving a school bus lets you discover just how dumb you really are. For instance, one day I put up signs about not touching or moving the name tags over the seats. Of course, the kids took one look at the signs and immediately started touching the tags. Even Louise and Calliope, two of my most angelic passengers, went over to the dark side and moved them.

Lest you think I’m serving only lemon juice in this bar, I must admit I’ve gotten very nice notes of appreciation from kids just as I get kind words and cards from my wife. I’m not at sword’s points with her and I get along well with my riders, even the ones like Brutus who drive me crackers. But I am humbled by what other drivers do, especially the ones who have earned our county’s Driver of the Year Award: read to the kids, play games with them, wear Santa suits, and turn every trip into a heartwarming Hallmark Special.

Heck, it’s all I can do to get the little rascals to and from school without triggering an international incident.

One day a big roll of paper towels fell out from behind my seat and bounded down the steps to the door. So I pulled over in a quiet spot and went to get it. As I schlepped down the stairs I heard a kid ask, “Hey, where’s the driver going?”

Unable to resist, I yelled, “I’m leaving! I’ve had enough of you numbskulls!”

Wouldn’t you know it, they burst into cheers and applause.

By golly, I sure was tempted to spout the old line my grandpa used to lay on grandma: “If you can get someone better than me, you go right ahead and get ’em!”

One of these days …

Help! I Can’t Stop Doing the School Bus Driver Wave!

“Mr. John, why do you always wave at other bus drivers?”

Good question! Kids often ask me that one, along with “What are all those switches for?” and “Do you like driving a bus?”

“We’re just saying ‘Hi’,” I explain after I’ve exchanged waves with another driver passing us in the opposite direction. “We’re like a family.”

And like a family we share the Four Cs: camaraderie, concerns, cares and conflict.

(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.)

We are always crossing paths — on the road, in the bus yard, the key room, the garage, the dispatcher’s quarters, the head bus driver’s office, or the boss’s woodshed. Interestingly, I was warned to stay out the driver’s lounge except for a quick trip to the wee-wee room or the vending machine because it’s a hotbed of gossip and sour gripes. Interestingly, that warning came from the person who urged me to apply for a job at Fishmeal Falls Central School District.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “You’ll love it!”

See: How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

I was there barely a month before she started grousing, “This place sucks! I can’t wait to get out of here!”

She’d been there for years. Maybe I ruined it for her? But during my entire working life I’ve avoided watercooler talk, so I try to mind my own bidness and follow the command on the sign above our dispatcher’s desk: COME IN, DO YOUR JOB, GO HOME

I do enjoy my job and my colleagues. The vast majority of them, anyway.

Unfortunately, in today’s insanely strained political environment, people fall out at the proverbial drop of a hat. I’ve been snubbed by a few co-workers I once got along with, but (so far) they haven’t let the air out of my tires or tried to run me off the road, so I’m still ahead of the game.

Wave On, Brothers and Sisters!

I often exchange waves with drivers who are not from the same district or company. We also offer each other courtesies, like stopping, turning our hazards on, and letting a bus turn onto a busy street if there’s a break in the traffic that will save them time.

Piloting a yellow madhouse is a brotherhood/sisterhood and we appreciate what each other does every day. It’s a challenging, demanding and often thankless gig I liken to trying to control a herd of crazed weasels and a 29,800-pound vehicle as you drive over Niagara Falls on a rickety bridge while folks complain about you.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I confess that early in my illustrious career, I felt snubbed if my wave wasn’t returned. Oh, I realized that the driver may simply have been focused on something other than my jolly gesture, but it still felt like when your Facebook post gets no likes even from friends, family or your friendly vicar.

Now there’s the weird feeling of realizing that I just waved at someone who doesn’t particularly like me, but I can’t stop. I’ve developed a habit born of one wave after another, especially when a long line of buses is going by me.

I wave at everything now, even when I’m behind the wheel of my car. If an oncoming vehicle is big it automatically gets a waggle of my hand. It’s become a reflex .

In one of my prouder moments ferrying urchins to school, I waved and suddenly realized it was a beer truck passing us, not a bus.

“Oh, dear, that doesn’t look good,” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.

Well, the on-board camera did, but if anyone asks about it I think I have a pretty good excuse.

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.