School Bus Life Lessons: Keeping Your Cool

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I just wrapped up my fourth school year of driving a big yellow riot on wheels and while I’ve never thought I know it all, I learned some important but unexpected stuff.

(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.)

For example, it dawned on me that I really can keep my cool when the going gets hot.

My first year or so I would come back from runs vibrating with anger and frustration about the three ring circus I’d just hauled. This year, I realized it wasn’t worth letting myself be wound up by a bunch of rampaging and sometimes insolent urchins. Getting mad doesn’t help your concentration. Better to take cool, effective action (a tactic I learned from my wife while we were raising our four kids).

In other words, don’t get mad, get even.

The new group of middle schoolers I drove this year made every day a grand game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as I got them to stop cavorting in the aisle, they started leaving trash all over the bus. After I made them be more tidy, they started wrasslin’, bickering about seats, and sometimes even fighting. When I put the kibosh on that, they threw stuff and sprayed what smelled like cologne, body spray or bug juice. (The school viewed my bus videos in search of vapers.) Then they went back to cavorting in the aisle.

Rather than blow a fuse, I just wrote them up or presented them with bags of garbage as part of my “Trash Back Bonus” program.

SEE: How I won the School Bus Garbage War

I have to admit I chortled with satisfaction at their surprise of coming to school the next day and being summoned to the principal’s office when they thought they’d gotten away with something. Or the astonished looks on their faces when I handed them a bag of candy wrappers, crumbs, empty water bottles and broken pencils as they left the bus.

Yeah, there were times I raised my voice in frustration or to drive home the message that I was serious about something. I always pointed out that I was only trying to keep them safe, but I found there was great value in doing a fake burn, at looking and sounding more angry than I actually was. My precious cargo sprouted “deer in the headlights” eyes and there was always a period of total silence occasionally broken by a “Hey, sit down!” they directed at someone who dared move.

I also had more subtle ways of getting even …

I confess I did spend more time than I should have thinking of snarky comebacks to smart aleck remarks. It felt darned good to be ready when Whipsnade, a seventh grader who was one of the most cheeky riders, yelled (after one of my lectures, of course), “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! How come you’re so good at driving?”

When the titters and guffaws subsided, I replied, “I’m not good. I’m lucky. I’m legally blind and deaf in one ear. So you’d better hope my luck holds.”

They didn’t know quite what to make of that, but it was much more effective to let them discover that I meant what I’d said about not staying in their seats or the importance of not distracting me.

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

“Don’t push me” I’d told them. “I’m a patient guy but I have my limits.” Some of them learned the hard way what those limits are: four kids had their bus privileges suspended. Four more were removed from my bus altogether … for the sake of easing overcrowding that was causing conflict, but I strongly suggested to our router which kids I’d like to see on another bus in the name of peace and (my) sanity.

In the end, they turned out to be the best bunch I’d ever driven, though that bar was pretty low to begin with. They could have been worse, but I brought all of my tools to bear and saw some results. What surprised me was how easily I did it, like it was all second nature. That ease was a far cry from when I started this gig.

No doubt the summer school session and next fall will bring new learning experiences, but I feel more ready for them than I’ve ever been.

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