It’s pushing 6 a.m., the sun is warily cracking the horizon, and I’m firing up Tarkus, my big yellow International bus for a typical morning run to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School and Helga Poppin Intermediate. Our journey will cover roughly 60 miles of beautiful, often peaceful countryside that is in direct contrast to the frenzy within my vehicle.
NOTE: The children you are about to meet are characters every school bus driver knows all too well. Based on real kids who have darkened my doorway, I’ve given them different names and other characteristics to shroud the inspiration they provided for this blog. It’s safe to say the human race in all its rich ethnic variety is well represented here.
Each run on any given day has a predictable pattern. Mornings are like steam steadily building in a big yellow boiler that will be on the verge of exploding by the time we reach a school. Afternoons are like that intense pressure slowly being released with each drop-off of a student.
Mornings can have at least a shred of sanity as the kids are still sleepy and morose about having to go sit in a classroom for six hours.
Afternoons are another matter.
It’s like the little dears have been pumped full of cane sugar and the finest high-quality methamphetamine.
“That’s when I earn my combat pay,” one of my battle-hardened colleagues informed me early on. In keeping with that sentiment, I have adopted the motto, “Just win the war, baby.”
In other words, I win the war if I get the little dears to or from school without having an accident or someone getting hurt. Bonus points if no one leaves my bus in tears.
Thankfully, I am undefeated … so far.
World War I
Our first pick-up for Bubblefish is at 6:15 a.m. Middle schoolers are renowned for being aloof and moody thanks to raging hormones, insecurity, and social media pressure. Their desire for group acceptance compels them to commit ghastly acts if doing so will help win them admiration from their peers.
All remains quiet through our first three stops (Lulubelle, Wally, and Mabel) until Fartinhausen (aka Methane Man) joins the mix. No trip is complete without this notoriously gassy sixth-grader grandly announcing an emission that is followed by a noxious cloud and revolted reaction from those around him.
By 6:30, Lucifer has gotten behind me. Foul of mouth and impervious to punishment, he is what we in the trade call a “firestarter.” This seventh-grader can ignite a brouha in an empty room.
Before we reach the end of his block, the first F-bomb or “Shut up, b—h!” has been dropped.
While Lucifer and Methane Man swap barbs and threats, the back rows steadily fill with a collection of snarky eighth-graders: Otto, Jethro, Coggins, and Skeezix, who allow a couple of a suitably cool seventh-graders — Spud and Herkimer — to sit among them.
Most of the ladies — Penny, Mildew, Gertrude, Minnie, Babs, Heloise and Henrietta — gather closer to the middle of the bus and always seem to be up to something (their squeals are a dead giveaway), though identifying perpetrators is a job for a monitor — a luxury I don’t have on my bus.
The crew is completed by chatty sixth-graders Zoot Horn, Sassafrass and Weisenheimer, who join Lulubelle in the rows close behind me.
With Tarkus loaded with precious cargo by 7 a.m., our 20-minute ride to Bubblefish is usually a zesty affair chock full of flatulence, bloodcurdling profanity, salacious music, jarring noise, raucous laughter, dancing in the aisles, and my howls of “Sit down!” and “Watch your language!” all of which are more intense during the return trip in the afternoon.
After depositing my charges at their institution (of learning), I have a half-hour respite before my run to Helga Poppin. Some drivers linger in the lot at Bubblefish, but I prefer a spot in the countryside where I inhale coffee and steel myself for the squalls and brushfires to come.
WORLD WAR II
Intermediate schoolers are more sociable than middle schoolers, but they are also creatures of unfortunate impulse with the attention span of squirrels and, occasionally, the temperaments of rabid raccoons.
We start at 8 a.m. with a combustible mix that includes fourth-grade agitator Beetlebomb, his sidekick Hobbestweedle, and their cantankerous classmate Brutus, a notorious firestarter who comes bearing a chip on his shoulder the size of a bank safe.
Beetlebomb and Brutus are frenemies, so peace occasionally reigns through our first nine or 10 pickups.
Then master of mischief Robespierre climbs aboard followed by Ignatz & The Stooges (his pals Stitch and Satch), a truly “happening” crew. What’s happening is always cause for consternation. Robespierre is an expert pot-stirrer, a master at roiling the masses. The charismatic Ignatz carries himself with a mob boss swagger that is catnip to two older ladies on the bus: fifth-graders Ophelia and Esmerelda.
By 8:20, we’ve taken on Jehosaphat, an upstanding fourth-grader (he won’t stay seated) and reliable source of litter. The levels of noise, scuttling, conflict, and hijinks rise dramatically. In this bubbling stew, Petunia and her friends Lucille and Phaedra are huddling in the back while the gals nearest me — Prudence, Maude, Ocarina and Calliope — discuss the natural weirdness of boys.
At 8:24, behold Freida and Huggins shortly followed by Louie and Louise. All are so polite and well-behaved, they make me weep at the thought that I can’t drive a bus full of them.
Then it’s time to abandon all hope:
Here comes Rollo, arch-nemesis of Brutus and, for that matter, everyone else on the bus. Like Lucifer on my Bubblefish run, Rollo cannot be subdued by threats and punishment. I’m told only tear gas will work.
By 8:30 the bus is nearly at full boil when we pull into a day care enterprise we’ll call Urchins Amok. It’s here we take on Magnolia, Beatrice, Hortence Prunella, Josephine, Fescue, Guttersnipe, Bumpus and Stu.
In the afternoon, we’ll haul them and an additional load of rollicking urchins from Helga Poppin back to Urchins Amok. The P.M. crew includes Horton, Norton, Morton, Thornton and Gordon, interchangeable lads I can’t keep straight because they quickly blend in with each other and the madding crowd the same way that Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly and Sally do before they all exit 20 minutes later.
Fortunately, Daisy is memorably whimsical, but Axel and Buster are hard to forget because they distinctively enhance any volatile situation with their brazenness.
Last but certainly not least, we have Pismeyer, primary purveyor of projectiles. If something’s in the air, Pismeyer likely put it there.
Suffice it to say, a trip between Poppin and Amok feels like the longest trek in the history of mankind. It’s truly amazing how much trouble and noise kids can make within the space of a few minutes, and I am often reminded of something the legendary comedian W.C. Fields once said:
“I like children. If they’re properly cooked.”
The Merciful End
After a morning run, I’m back at the depot by 9 a.m. with time to regroup until my afternoon shift begins at 1:30. Somehow I find the strength to do my pre-and-post-trip inspection paperwork and gas up Tarkus, which will be strewn with crumbs and trash by the time my day mercifully ends by 5.
“Do you get a prize when you go back?” Hobbestweedle asked one day.
“Maybe a hearty handclasp or tearful hug,” I replied.
Driving a school bus. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.