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.