How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

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

So how did I get here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: Bus Driving 101 (Training Wheels)

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

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

So why do we do it?

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

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

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

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

See: Meet the Hellions

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

It was no small task. Here’s to them!

School Bus Driving Tips: 10 Gold Nuggets

Now that I’m in the home stretch of my fifth year behind the wheel of a big yellow box of pandemonium, it seems like a natural time to look back on all that I’ve learned. And as my sainted mother used to say, “You only learn by bitter experience.”

These are the 10 things I wish I had known or at least fully taken to heart when I started in February 2018. Many I have written about at greater length during the three-plus years I’ve been squeezing out this blog, which by the way …

(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.)

1. Expect the unexpected

Vehicles, pedestrians and kids running late for your bus have a way of sneaking up unseen on all sides or suddenly stepping off sidewalks into your path. Animals dart out into the road where you can quickly come upon objects you don’t want to hit but have no room to swerve around. It helps to be prepared to deal with mechanical breakdowns, fallen trees that leave you sitting for the better part of an hour while your precious cargo grows antsier by the minute, panic-causing insects (spiders, especially) and, of course, unruly or downright bizarre behavior. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll see something new … like the fourth-grader on my bus who got his thumb caught in the metal latch tab of a seat belt and had to be rescued by a crew from the nearest school I could find. (They cut him loose and took him inside to remove the tab from his hand … how exactly I don’t know, but he still had the thumb the next time I saw him.)

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

2. Never rush

I well remember feeling stressed when I was running late. Maybe I had been delayed in the bus yard by a mechanical problem. A kid or three were slow getting to their stop. Traffic was jammed or a light got stuck on red and I couldn’t move even with permission from my dispatcher. No matter what the reason may be, I’ve learned I can take a deep breath and remind myself that I’ll get to wherever I need to go when I get there. No one is going to get mad, and even if they do, I ignore them. Better late than never. Safety first.

SEE: School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels | Shake Hands With Slack Adjusters | The Dreaded Road Test

3. The parking brake is your savior

It’s very easy to forget to engage it after you stop and then have the bus roll forwards or backwards, often while kids are getting on or off. I’ve heard stories of drivers whose buses hit parked vehicles or buildings. One even crashed through a chain link fence. Those drivers lost their jobs. So I’ve never forgotten something one of my trainers told me about that all-important yellow knob on the dashboard, “That’s your career right there.”

SEE: Tricks of the Trade

4. Do not brake check misbehaving kids

When our precious cargo is cavorting in the aisles and jumping over seats and we’ve gone royal blue in the face telling them to sit down, the temptation is strong to hit the brakes and give the rascals a jolt of reality. But drivers who did so have been brought up on charges of child endangerment, including one fellow in Colorado who had warned his passengers that he was going to show them exactly why not remaining seated was dangerous. The frightened kids told their parents and an uproar ensued. So lay off the brakes. Go slow instead if you can. I’m lucky to drive in a rural area with long stretches of empty road where I can slow to a crawl if things get wild in back. “The worse you behave, the slower the bus goes and the longer the trip takes,” I tell my hellions. I’ve got them trained. They notice when I slow down and get the message, especially if I pull over and sit.

SEE: The Roadside Lectures Roll On

5. Make your hourly wage work for you

When things get crazy and too distracting to continue, simply notify your dispatcher that you are finding a safe place to pull over and sit until sanity returns. Then do paper work. Pull out a book or newspaper and read. Give the Evil Eye. Make your passengers clean up if they’ve been spreading trash and crumbs. But take your time and keep ’em guessing about when you’ll move again. (If you reveal a set time out, they’ll just act crazy for however long you’ve said.) “I get paid by the hour and am happy to sit here all day,” I’ve told my rollicking crew, “so you are now funding my luxurious lifestyle and opulent retirement.” When they whine that they are hungry and need to get home or use the bathroom, I simply tell them, “If you want to get home on time, stop acting like jackasses.” (An unfortunate word choice, perhaps, but I drive middle schoolers who utter far worse things and sometimes you gotta talk a little like they do in order to drive home your point.)

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

6. Keep a paper trail

It’s a frustrating fact of this life that no matter how many times you report or write up your hooligans, it can seem like nothing is ever done to make them stop. Schools and even bosses may not take you seriously or back you up. So talk to parents if you can. (I always tell them I’m not picking on their kid, I’m just concerned that their precious one is putting himself or herself and everyone else in danger by running amok while I am trying to drive.) Keep copies of your write-ups. Keep a journal with dates, times and notes about incidents and ongoing bad behavior. Write detailed letters to the principal listing your concerns and keep copies. God forbid you should be called on to defend yourself, but it will be a relief to have material to substantiate your side. Your persistence can get incorrigible kids removed from your bus. Just don’t let the, um, bastards grind you down.

SEE: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

7. Do everything by the book

Kids are always watching you and even monitoring your driving, even how fast you are going. (One wisenheimer kept making a noise like tires screeching every time I went around a corner…) They talk to their parents about you. They often use their phones to record you and anything that is going on. No matter how challenging things get, keep calm and know that the on-board cameras are your best friend. They are insurance against They Said/You Said scenarios, and kids, little dears that they are, will always insist they didn’t do or say something appalling that is right there on video for their parents and school administrators to enjoy.

SEE: The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All | Dealing With Parents

8. Stay focused

Zoning out is very easy when you drive the same roads every day or have long stretches without a stop. Force yourself to think about what you are doing in the moment. If you catch yourself enough times, you will train your brain to not get lost in thought (and train yourself to not get lost en route because you missed a turn). Limit distractions by constantly reminding yourself of your priorities. A kid being dropped off or picked up is always Number 1. Everything else can wait, especially responding to cries of, “Hey, Bus Driver! Butch is putting peanut butter on Maggie’s head!”

SEE: Route Hypnosis is Not the Way to Go | A Fraction of the Distraction

Assigned seats are helpful for keeping your mind on the road, but where you want to put your most rambunctious urchins is up to you. The most common practice is to make them sit in the front row — in the Honored Student Seat or, as one Canadian driver calls it, The Penalty Box. I’ve found that I prefer to keep my hooligans in back because they usually don’t improve their act when they are moved up front where I am now more aware of everything they do, including wrestling, fighting and using bloodcurdling language. I just let the cameras and write-ups ultimately do the heavy lifting. But according to an informal poll I conducted with several driver groups on Facebook, the front is preferred to the back by 36 percent to 19, with 33 percent of respondents saying the middle or “it depends.” Of course, I’ll bet that all of us identify with the 12 percent who replied with things like, “On the hood, preferably” and “In the principal’s office” and “Prefer they stay home.”

SEE: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

9. Stay calm and drop the bomb

It’s jolly hard to do when your blood is boiling over the defiance and disrespect the little angels are showing you, but never take anything they say or do personally. Kids are creatures of impulse that do not think about consequences. And there is usually more than meets the eye with many of them. Some come from horrendous homes. Some are facing pain and fear in school. Some have medical issues of which we aren’t aware. So stay calm. I’ve learned that in the worst cases, yelling at them doesn’t do any good. It’s better to just quietly drop the bomb on them later by writing them up or refusing to them a favor. (Funny how often they will ask for one right after you’ve read them The Riot Act.) Talk to and get to know them if you can. Some may not respond, but some may open up and pour their hearts out. I’ve been surprised to develop warm relationships with kids I was sure saw me only as some stern old fart, “The Man” they wanted to stick it to.

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

10. Never think positively

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve invited immediate chaos simply by telling myself or someone else, “Gee, things have been going well lately.” You’d think I’d learn by now. Maybe during my next five years…

SEE: The Perils of Positive Thinking

Beware School Bus Sneaks and Stowaways!

One of the more sobering realities of a gig chock full of sobering realities is our responsibility for every kid who comes aboard our school bus, and that includes the rascals who aren’t supposed to be on there in the first place.

(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.)

Every now and then a driver confronts a stowaway: the kid who tries to hop a ride to a friend’s house without permission from their parents. A bus pass from the school is required for such excursions — my district is starting to require all students to show ID when boarding — but these rogues try to sneak on and sometimes succeed. I’ve had to stop at least one strange face from getting off.

“And where do you think you’re going?” I asked one startled lad as he followed Chumley, one of my regulars, to the bus door after we arrived at Chumley’s house. “Do you have a pass?”

Relieved that I caught him in time, I radioed for instructions and was told he lived right around the corner, but I was to drop him at his house anyway. Fortunately, he just heaved an exasperated sigh and did not jump ugly with me. Drivers I know have had kids tell them to F off before barging out the door and scampering away. One of my regulars managed to scoot out at a friend’s stop and he ignored my pleas to come back. A middle schooler in my district is notorious for randomly riding buses to wherever he pleases.

Guess who will be liable if something happens to these rapscallions?

There are also kids who try to sneak back on to a bus after being booted off. I recently succeeded in getting a seventh-grader removed for constant misbehavior. Hortence Prunella was reassigned to a small bus, one of our Devil’s Island transports for the incorrigible, but one afternoon the assistant principal came aboard mine looking for her. Lo and behold, Hortence Prunella was found hiding in the back amid her usual partners in crime. She’d managed to come on without me spotting her in a thicket of kids. Every day now requires me to be vigilant for her possible return.

SEE: Who’s Who? Losing the Name Game

My after-school activities runs are particularly dicey because I am given only a basic route of main streets but not the names of the ever-changing cast of kids or where they actually live. They often look alike, but after a while I become familiar with some faces. Every so often a kid I’ve never seen before will ride and I’m supposed to let them off wherever they say they are going. Unfortunately for one girl who tried to pull a fast one on her mom, her nefarious plan went awry:

I was hauling my usual cargo of 25 or so kooks one afternoon when my dispatcher’s dulcet tones came over the radio: “Attention all after-school buses. Please check to see if a Beulah Belle Whipsnade is on your bus.”

When I inquired over the PA, a hand shot up in the back. So I reported that I was the lucky contestant who had today’s featured wayfarer on board. “Please drop her off at 2455 Bunkum Boulevard,” I was told.

Beulah was too far away to hear this crucial instruction, which made for a rather nasty surprise … for her.

About 20 minutes later, Beulah made her way to the front and said, “You’re supposed to let me off on Agita Road at Angelina’s house.”

Suspecting that this might be news to my dispatcher, I radioed it in and was told to stand by while a call was placed to Beulah’s mother. A few minutes later, I was told, “Her mother says under no circumstances is she to get off at Agita Road with that girl. She is to be taken home.”

When I relayed this to Beulah, she was hardly pleased and I soon overheard her grumbling to her friends, “The bus driver won’t let me off!”

This moved me to grab my PA and explain, “The bus driver is responsible for everyone’s whereabouts and making sure they get to where they are supposed to go. If you get off somewhere you’re not supposed to be and something bad happens to you, I will be in big trouble. I regret to inform everyone that I am not going to risk my job if I can possibly help it.”

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

So Beulah, who turned out to be the last one off, ended up sitting in the seat behind me, muttering “How did this happen?” and staring like a con about to go to the electric chair. Apparently her mom was waiting and wasn’t pleased.

I thank my lucky stars that my dispatcher radioed about Beulah, which enabled me to blow the whistle on her, but the close call makes me fret and stew over every passenger. They often come on in a fast-moving crush that makes it hard to take stock. Some ride infrequently, so they don’t seem familiar at first. I’ve called in my suspicion that Beulah was on board and trying to get to Agita Road again. (She wasn’t.) But she does resemble three other girls on my bus.

Kids think we run a taxi service. Gotta watch ’em all like a hawk.

School Bus Life: Dealing With Parents

As the parent of four kids, I am more than familiar with kids’ shenanigans. That experience and hard-earned knowledge sure helps with my job as the pilot of a big yellow nuthouse. I also learned (the hard way) to discipline children (or at least try) … about 10 years too late. All of my kids are now adults with homes of their own. But my wife, who was burdened with the role of chief disciplinarian during their formative years, takes great satisfaction with my daily karmic payback in frustration and aggravation.

(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.)

Knowing what many parents are up against, I can sympathize even though I often hear horror stories about how they treat school bus drivers. If we write-up or call out someone’s Precious Boo Boo for a good reason, we are often seen as the villain by their parental units. Sometimes, much worse happens.

A fellow driver — I’ll call him Harry — told me about a father who took exception to his daughter being disciplined by Harry for constant misbehavior on his bus. The father accompanied the girl to the bus one morning and began yelling at Harry, who eventually had to drive off in order to stay on time for his route. The father got in his car and pursued the bus, cut it off, got out, and resumed yelling. Harry threatened to summon police, but the irate dad followed him to the school and again launched a tirade. Harry had been totally right to write the girl up.

SEE: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

One day, another fellow driver — I’ll call him Lou — had to drop a group of kids off at a different location due to police activity on their street. Parents were expected to meet his bus at the new stop, but only one mother was there when he arrived. When Lou rightly refused to release all of the kids to her, she started screaming at him. She was going to come aboard but stopped when he warned her that cops would be called. (It’s against New York State law for unauthorized people, such as parents, to enter a school bus.) Even so, she still refused to let Lou return to the school with the kids.

I’ve had my (thankfully small) share of parents who were angry, usually because I was late — and often because their little angel or the rest of my precious cargo had been acting up and forced me to pull over and restore order. Some folks are extra steamed because their kid missed a game or appointment, sometimes at cost to them, and some demand compensation! The only consolation I can give is that there wasn’t an accident (with possible injuries) that would have made the bus arrive even later if it arrived at all.

The worst I’ve experienced was a mom who was justifiably upset that her son had been bullied, unbeknownst to me, on my bus the previous day. She was furious and started to come up the steps, threatening to “tear the heads off” the kids who had tormented her son. I fully understood her feelings, but had to tell her she could face criminal charges for boarding the bus and, quite possibly, murder. Thankfully, she calmed down when I gently assured her I would take the matter up with the school and have video pulled.

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

When it comes to enforcing rules, I try to speak to parents before getting the school involved. I disarm them by first explaining that I’m not singling out their kids, many are acting like lunatics (I don’t phrase it quite that way), and my concern is for their safety. Most parents I’ve met understand and try to help. One mom said she’d wait with her son every morning so I could let her know how he was doing. A dad told me to be sure to tell him if his son kept roaming the bus. I let him know. Presumably the dad took action, but nothing it seems will still the feet of Jehosaphat the Notorious Nomad.

SEE: Meet the Hellions

I take some (small) consolation in kids not listening to parents (hardly front page news) when they won’t listen to teachers, guidance counselors and principals, let alone humble school bus drivers. I also worry that if something happens to a kid — say, he or she gets hurt jumping over a seat back — while I’m focused on driving (many people seem to forget that is our main job), I will be blamed. So it was a relief to have the assistant principal at the middle school I drive for tell me, “Most parents sympathize with the driver in cases like that.”

I do find solace in knowing that many of the rowdy kids I drive will some day have kids of their own who drive them crazy. Too bad I can’t be a fly on the dashboard during one of their family trips when they are trying to focus on the road and all kinds of messy mayhem is breaking out in the back of the car. Won’t that be a jolly load of cosmic justice!

School Bus Life Lessons: Perils of Positive Thinking

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

Well …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’d think I’d learn by now.

But you would be wrong.

Getting Even: A School Bus Driver Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

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

SEE: Keeping Your Cool

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

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

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

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

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

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

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

Buttering Up the School Bus Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Great Misadventure

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

Nothing stops them, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of School Bus Routes Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Fiends: Brutus and Rollo

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

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: The Roadside Lecture Series Rolls On

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

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

“Not exactly,” I’d replied drily.

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

SEE: Meet the Hellions

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

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

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

SEE: School Bus Life Lessons — Picking Your Battles

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

School Bus Life Lessons: Teachin’ ’em About Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

You would be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: Now Hear This! Rocking the School Bus PA

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

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

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

You would be wrong.

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

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

See: Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

This does not seem to matter.

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

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

“Hokum Street,” he finally replied.

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

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

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

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

And even then all they did at first was mumble.

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

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

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

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

That’s something I’ve learned.

School Bus Driving 101: Tricks of the Trade

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

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

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

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Grunt Work: Greetings Can Be a Chore

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

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

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

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

SEE: School Bus Discipline: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

The School Bus Wildlife Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: The Rat Patrol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War