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 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 …