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.

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 (57) 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 …

Help! I Can’t Stop Doing the School Bus Driver Wave!

“Mr. John, why do you always wave at other bus drivers?”

Good question! Kids often ask me that one, along with “What are all those switches for?” and “Do you like driving a bus?”

“We’re just saying ‘Hi’,” I explain after I’ve exchanged waves with another driver passing us in the opposite direction. “We’re like a family.”

And like a family we share the Four Cs: camaraderie, concerns, cares and conflict.

(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.)

We are always crossing paths — on the road, in the bus yard, the key room, the garage, the dispatcher’s quarters, the head bus driver’s office, or the boss’s woodshed. Interestingly, I was warned to stay out of the driver’s lounge except for a quick trip to the wee-wee room or the vending machine because it’s a hotbed of gossip and sour gripes. Interestingly, that warning came from the person who urged me to apply for a job where she worked.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “You’ll love it!”

See: How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

I was there barely a month before she started grousing, “This place sucks! I can’t wait to get out of here!”

She’d been there for years. Maybe I ruined it for her? But during my entire working life I’ve avoided watercooler talk, so I try to mind my own bidness and follow the command on the sign above our dispatcher’s desk: COME IN, DO YOUR JOB, GO HOME.

I do enjoy my job and my colleagues. The vast majority of them, anyway.

Unfortunately, in today’s insanely strained political environment, people fall out at the proverbial drop of a hat. I’ve been snubbed by a few co-workers I once got along with, but (so far) they haven’t let the air out of my tires or tried to run me off the road, so I’m still ahead of the game.

Wave On, Brothers and Sisters!

I often exchange waves with drivers who are not from the same district or company. We also offer each other courtesies, like stopping, turning our hazards on, and letting a bus turn onto a busy street if there’s a break in the traffic that will save them time.

Piloting a yellow madhouse is a brotherhood/sisterhood and we appreciate what each other does every day. It’s a challenging, demanding and often thankless gig I liken to trying to control a herd of crazed weasels and a 29,800-pound vehicle as you drive over Niagara Falls on a rickety bridge while folks complain about you.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I confess that early in my illustrious career, I felt snubbed if my wave wasn’t returned. Oh, I realized that the driver may simply have been focused on something other than my jolly gesture, but it still felt like when your Facebook post gets no likes even from friends, family or your friendly vicar.

Now there’s the weird feeling of realizing that I just waved at someone who doesn’t particularly like me, but I can’t stop. I’ve developed a habit born of one wave after another, especially when a long line of buses is going by me.

I wave at everything now, even when I’m behind the wheel of my car. If an oncoming vehicle is big it automatically gets a waggle of my hand. It’s become a reflex .

In one of my prouder moments ferrying urchins to school, I waved and suddenly realized it was a beer truck passing us, not a bus.

“Oh, dear, that doesn’t look good,” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.

Well, the on-board camera did, but if anyone asks about it I think I have a pretty good excuse.

The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

They say the camera don’t lie, and for that I am (mostly) thankful.

Being monitored by a video surveillance system makes driving my big yellow nuthouse a lot less stressful if a bit more embarrassing. It’s easy to forget it’s on and start talking to yourself … much to the amusement of anyone who watches the footage.

(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.)

On a more serious note, I don’t know how drivers got by without an on-board camera to keep things honest.

“He said, she said” situations with kids or parents can put us in serious professional or legal jeopardy. Drivers I know have been confronted by angry parents and relatives. My worst incident was an upset mother threatening to “rip the heads off” the kids who taunted her son. I calmly assured her I’d asked the school to investigate the incident, but she could have claimed I was nasty to her when I told her she wasn’t allowed to come on board. It’s a relief to have proof of my innocence in the proverbial video pudding.

Having your “tape pulled” and reviewed is invaluable for proving your case against the little viper you suspect has been up to no good like fastening seat belts across the aisle to create tripwires.

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

It’s also a stark existential moment that makes you put your life under a microscope.

Anything you’ve done or said can be used against you. Any little molehill you can think of feels like Mount Everest while your video is being scrutinized. Driving errors like failing to signal a turn have been called out by school principals who insist on watching an entire run before they rule on whether the driver coulda-shoulda prevented Smedley from stealing Stufflebean’s Pokemon cards. But drivers have been caught in fireable offenses like texting at the wheel.

It’s always the day I’ve done something unseemly that the video from my bus is called in for review.

One afternoon I was waiting outside Helga Poppin Intermediate School for my precious cargo to be dismissed when a mosquito bite on my foot started tormenting me. I got up, plopped onto a seat out of a view (so I thought), took off my sneaker and sock, and enjoyed a good scratch … before realizing the camera was still running. Not my most dignified on-screen moment.

Of course, I was summoned to the dispatcher’s office at the end of my run.

“Mrs. Overshoe called and said Prudence came home with blue nail polish all over her book bag,” I was told.

“I had no idea anything happened,” I stammered. Usually, kids tell on their tormentors. Not this time. So I was asked, “Can you have your tape pulled?”

See: The Rat Patrol: No One Likes a Snitch (Except a Bus Driver)

The video revealed Prudence was splashed with polish when Pismeyer and Jehosaphat wrassled for a bottle of it they’d taken from Prudence’s friend Esmerelda. Of course, I fretted about how good I must have looked scratching my dog before the fun started.

I confess I’ve lost a pound or two in anxious sweat at times like that.

During one particularly tumultuous run, I blurted “don’t be a smart ass” at sassy fourth-grader Robespierre when he cracked wise at me after one of my many, many roadside lectures about the evils of swinging from the chandeliers. Embarrassed, I hesitated to write up the incident but gulped deeply and prayed that viewing the riot in back would make the court take some mercy on me.

Blessedly, no one called me out. (Shows you the power of religion, eh? It’s why there are few atheists in these yellow trenches.)

I constantly tell kids that everything they say and do is being recorded, but they still swear on a big stack o’ Bibles that they’re innocent even though their guilt will be right there on the video. It’s one of the lessons they never learn, like the dangers of scuttling around the bus while it’s in motion.

Kids are always gobsmacked when they get caught in a sweep for others’ misdeeds. While reviewing complaints about salty language on my bus, Principal Diesel at Helga Poppin spotted an infraction away from the action: Hortense Prunella slugging Brutus in the gut. The young lady was shocked to be called on Diesel’s carpet.

When they are aware of the cameras, kids sometimes play to them, mugging, waving and yelling “Hi!” Others get smart. An eighth-grader smugly told me he and his partners in crime on another bus used to spray stuff on the camera lenses to cover up their mischief.

Heaven knows we drivers have a lot to contend with, so after writing up some middle school wrong-doers it was gratifying to hear the assistant principal tell me, “I watched the tape and all I can say is thank you. You need to be able to drive the bus, not control behavior. There should be a monitor on every bus but I know that will never happen.”

Hogs will pilot jetliners before it does, but I’ll gladly settle for the security of the camera until then.

Route Hypnosis: Zoning Out Behind the Wheel is No Way to Go

Have you ever been driving and suddenly felt like you just awoke from a dream?

There’s an electric jolt, a moment of panic when you realize you zoned out and aren’t quite sure exactly where you are. It’s scary, especially when you’re at the wheel of a school bus.

Welcome to “route hypnosis.” Anyone can fall into it by getting lost in thought while not much is happening or the scenery is boring.

(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.)

Zoning out is one of the biggest challenges of this job. We school bus drivers are vulnerable to it due to the sheer familiarity of where we go each day. A kind of muscle memory takes over when you’ve been along a route many times. You do things by habit and that can really mess you up when your schedule has changed and you’re on automatic pilot.

And when you have a long stretch of clear sailing, you can easily start thinking about things that worry you or an aggravating political argument or your favorite team’s latest galling, bonehead defeat … until you realize you cruised by a turn or you hear that dreaded, “Hey, you missed my stop!”

You do it without realizing it and it can happen even when the little dears on the bus have your full attention.

One afternoon, Lucifer, my most accomplished middle school hellion, was loudly taunting and roughhousing with other kids. I stopped once to give him the evil eye and I also issued several warnings over the PA, but the obnoxious shenanigans continued. I began thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get him off the bus … and drove right past his house, damning myself to another five minutes of grinding my teeth while I found a place to safely turn around and go back.

On another memorable day, I was thinking about how I could possibly rearrange my already re-arranged (many times) assigned seats to restore some semblance of sanity when I hung a right and heard, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver. Why are we going this way?”

I’d turned one road too soon at an almost identical corner and was now doomed to going about ten minutes out of my way.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It’s mortifying when you have to radio in to let your dispatcher (as well as your boss and every other driver) know you’ve screwed up and are running late, but radio in you must because heaven help you if something bad happens while you’re off your designated route on the sly while trying to protect your pride. And you sure feel guilty when your mess-up means a kid will be late getting home for an appointment.

This job can humble you in a hurry, and rude awakenings are particularly humbling. During a half-day when I had to be at the middle school early for afternoon pickup, I automatically took my full-day route. That made the trip about 10 miles longer. I was praying I’d make it on time when I heard our dispatcher bark on the radio, “John, where are you? Your kids are waiting outside and all the buses are ready to leave.”

Gulp.

During my two years in this stirring profession, I’ve learned (the hard way) to prevent these unfortunate events. You have to leave everything, especially all worries and disputes, behind when you start a run, so it helps to think about the consequences if you don’t. Practicing mindfulness — consciously staying in the moment — also helps. You can train your brain to behave differently by staying focused or quickly snapping back to the present, but it does take some time and repetition of a conscious trick.

For example, if I suspect I may zone out, I’ll think about the way to my next stop. Or I’ll pretend I’m taking a driving test and have to point out hazards and road signs to an inspector while making surgically clean turns, lane changes and stops. Focusing on your driving is vital for safety anyway.

I have found that what works best, though, is the lasting sting of shame.

After Bumpus, the third-grade critic who sits directly behind me, drily said, “You sure miss a lot of people’s stops” I haven’t missed any again. Now, every time I approach the site of a gaffe, I am instantly reminded of my less-than-stellar moment there.

As one of my colleagues said after telling me about the time she started loudly singing Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” without realizing her two-way radio was on and everyone could hear her, “Some mistakes you only need to make once.”

On the Road Again: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

After seven months off due to the coronavirus pandemic, most schools in my district are finally open. I’m back behind the wheel of my trusty bus Tarkus … and things are quiet. Weirdly quiet. At least for me.

For most drivers and district staff, chaos is in order: There are new and re-routed runs to work out, and kids showing up at the wrong stops or not showing up at all or getting on the wrong buses.

(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.)

After our orientation meeting, it took me a day or two to get used to doing my pre-trip inspection again and locating the switches and other goodies I need on the bus. I also had to stock up on masks and gloves and remember to spray the seats and hand rail with disinfectant after each trip.

But other than that, my first week really wasn’t what I’d steeled myself for.

All of my intermediate school hellions from last year — Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, and Jehosaphat — have graduated to another school, are staying home or are being driven by their long-suffering parents. The only holdovers are Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Guttersnipe, a little fourth-grader who is known in NHL slang as a “$#i+disturber.” But this dastardly duo rides on separate days and there just aren’t enough kids on board at any time to start a good ruckus.

With most kids in the district being driven or kept home, I have only six urchins riding on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays I’m off while the schools are fumigated. Thursdays and Fridays I chauffeur three different riders. Instead of four trips per day, I have only two with a generous midday window of free time. Life just feels too easy, and that’s very unsettling.

Even with Guttersnipe in their midst, my Monday-Tuesday riders were like church mice. At one kid per seat, there wasn’t much deviltry they could get up to, though Lucille, a returning fifth-grader, promptly defied my “masks on at all times; no eating or drinking” rules by leaving a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs on and around her seat. But compared to carnage of yore, this was small spuds.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

As we rolled along through the Hudson Valley’s gloriously sunny autumn countryside and down the stretch of winding, treacherous road where the kids always decide to come off the behavior spool, it felt strange not to look in the overhead mirror and see Robespierre sailing through the air across the aisle from seat to seat.

Or spot Jehosaphat scuttling about in the aisle.

Or constantly bark “Sit down back there!” into the PA microphone.

See: Now Hear This: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

Or hear someone yelling “Hey Mr. Bus Driver, Brutus is annoying me!”

Or smell suspicious scents like baby powder, body spray or waffles (yes, waffles) wafting from the back.

Or drown in noise that can make your hair stand on end.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

No, there was just the hum of the engine and the crackle of the radio as drivers reported rider snafus or that their buses were having mechanical difficulties. In fact, there was so much radio chatter that our dispatchers begged for mercy. But that’s to be expected during the first few days of a school year when everyone is trying to get an armful of things right. This year is proving to be a lulu.

Of course, I didn’t make it through the week without some excitement.

On my third morning, Tarkus greeted me with a “low coolant level” message on the dashboard followed by “turn off engine.” I made it from my parking slot to the garage where Tarkus conked as soon as two mechanics opened the hood. A mad rush for another bus ensued but I managed to pre-trip it and make it to my first stop on time.

Naturally, Pismeyer wasn’t there.

After a generous five-minute grace period, I moved on to pick up Persephone, a new third-grader. No sign of her either. So it was on to get Ichabod, another newbie.

Nope.

So I radioed our dispatcher and asked her to inform the good folks at Helga Poppin Intermediate that I had nothing for them that morning. Then it was back to the compound. Easy as pie as they say in the pastry-hauling trade.

You know, after all the mayhem and tomfoolery I’ve experienced in only two years of driving, I could really get used to this. I’ve always said this would be a really great job if kids weren’t involved. I’m going to have to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts, though. The middle schoolers return next month.

Chomping at the Wheel to Get Going

At this time of year I’m usually back at the helm of Tarkus, my trusty school bus. After a summer of dragging a wet vac around a school as I (theoretically) help the custodial staff prep it for the coming year, I’m shaking mental cobwebs off my daily procedures and routines, and regaining the feel of a big yellow building full of squalling urchins.

There is anticipation in seeing the kids again — the old favorites, even the ones who drive me crackers, and the new additions. Getting your run sheet at the staff orientation meeting can feel like Christmas. What wondrous surprises await this year? Last September, I received Sassafrass, an alarmingly potty-mouthed sixth-grader who kept my middle school run bubbling over until school was shut down in March by the pandemic.

(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.)

There’s also a sweet melancholy in realizing that some kids have moved on to other schools. It brings a dewy tear to my eye to know I will no longer have Robespierre stirring the pot. That rapscallion was a classic agitator, for sure, a constant challenge who actually made me threaten to assign him a seat in the luggage compartment. But he had a good — if often misguided — heart and could be contrite on occasion, as the document below shows.

Fortunately, Brutus will be back with his charmingly insolent salutes (when I lecture him and his misbehaving fellow travelers) and the glacial pace at which he moves from his front door to the bus when I’m trying to be on time.

Unfortunately, this year will be a matter of hurry up and wait … until October as the COVID-19 pandemic has led my district to go with a mostly remote learning approach. Some schools will host a few classes, but only the most senior drivers will be given routes. With only two years on my ledger, I’ll be off the road a while.

Fortunately (very!), I will be paid for my downtime, a blessing that resulted from my qualifying as a part-time salaried employee a few weeks before the March shutdown. If I were still a per-diem (hourly) driver, I would be looking for work. So I sympathize with the plight of laid-off or furloughed drivers, many of whom work for private companies that are going under in the pandemic. It’s a national problem and a serious one.

When I finally return, I’ll be required to keep the little dears two rows apart (more do-able when you have 18 middle schoolers and 12 rows separated by an aisle; a tad problematic when 51 intermediate schoolers come aboard and the district forbids lashing them to the roof) and make sure they keep masks on their sweet faces. Based on my efforts to make them stay in their seats, I’m willing to bet it’s easier to get ferrets to perform precision marching drills.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

I’ll also have to figure out a way to keep my eyes on the road and on the overhead rearview mirror that is called the most dangerous piece of equipment on the bus for a very good reason.

And I’ll be asked to give frequent talks on how to properly wear a mask, maintain social distance and spot the symptoms of COVID-19. Given the hardly rousing success of my roadside lecture series on how it’s really not in the best interests of safety to run around the bus and distract me (particularly by nailing me in the back of the head with a football), I expect yawns, blank stares and salutes.

With COVID-19 now on the bug menu, we drivers will have one more malady to worry about catching. If we start dropping in even modest numbers, the district will be in tough to replace us. As it is, there’s a national shortage of drivers (for obvious reasons) and qualified mechanics and office staff are often pressed into service as fill-ins during the best of times.

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

The smart money says schools will probably open and close again in a week or so after teachers and kids start testing positive or causing alarm with high temperatures caused by colds or flu. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Fasten your seat belt, as the old saying goes. I just wish that is what I was doing in good ol’ Tarkus right now.

I’m a Sucker for This Gig

It’s summer time and I’m driving a wet vac instead of a bus.

Fishmeal Falls Central School District employs a select number of us bus jockeys to assist custodial staffs as they prepare their institutions of alleged learning for the coming year. Monday through Friday from early July to the end of August I’m cleaning, painting and moving furniture.

(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.)

The messes and stuff you find in and under desks are pretty much the same as what you scrape out of your bus at the end of the year: candy wrappers, gum wads, pens, bits of pencil or crayon, paper snoops, broken toys, crumpled notes and other flotsam. I’m always amazed to find there are actually school buildings under all the trash and grime.

It’s fun to see how our dear little passengers live after they leave our buses — the books they read, the murals they paint, the inspirational messages their teachers post on the walls of their classrooms. Here’s a great one: “Life is all about mistakes and learning from them.”

Ain’t that the gospel truth?

During my first summer gig at a school, I made the mistake of fighting a floor-scrubbing machine and learned it can turn into a mechanical bull. I was doing a classroom floor when the scrubber suddenly spun. I reacted by trying to control it instead of letting go so it would shut off. I ended up on my back in a puddle of suds, fortunately bruising only my pride, but I now treat the contraption with great wariness.

One more: “Only focus on what you can control.”

That usually ain’t the floor scrubber or the kids on my bus, but I have a better chance with the bus if I tune out the yowling and resist the temptation to keep looking in the overhead mirror.

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

This year I’ve been assigned to Runnynose Elementary, the scene of one of the highlights of my young driving career.

Shortly after I passed my road test, I was assigned a small bus and a handful of kids. Morning drop-off was behind Runnynose, but no one told me afternoon pick-up was in front. So I found myself trapped in a traffic jam of parents with very little room to turn around. Bubs, the head custodian, happened to be outside. Amused to see me and my predicament, he tried to wave me back and out, but I rolled too close to a basketball hoop.

Besides being an immediate attraction for gawkers and the principal, my little scrape required an accident report, though the damage was limited to the roof of the bus and could not be seen unless one stood on the roof of the school or went up in a helicopter or hot air balloon. Nevertheless, Bubs enjoys reminding me of that fine day while I toil under his direction in a hall or classroom.

The process of cleaning floors involves scrubbing, sucking up the suds with the wet vac, and mopping with clean water. “OK, Clem will scrub. Gus will mop. John’s the sucker,” Bubs declared to much mirth from my co-workers. Like my bus mishap, his words are now legendary and will likely end up on my headstone.

Getting a building ready for a new school year is no small job. Besides scrubbing and waxing the floors, we must wipe down all the desks, chairs and tables, empty all furniture from the classrooms, wash the windows, and paint any walls and doors that need it. The gym, cafeteria, bathrooms, nurse’s office and staff room also get the royal treatment. We’re often hopping from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the knowledge that the student body will reduce it all to a grimy mess in short order when it returns.

See: Coronavirus Shut Down: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

This year’s prep work is clouded by uncertainty due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Each district in my state (New York) must come up with a plan to open safely, either fully or partly, in September. Runnynose wants desks separated by six feet, a physical impossibility unless some classroom walls are knocked down. New York State wants us drivers to make sure kids keep their masks on, a physical impossibility unless I can figure out how to be in two places at once.

Ah, well. Life is all about learning and focusing on what you can control, right? Hopefully the ride will be a little smoother than it was on that damned floor scrubber. At least I’ve learned to watch out for basketball hoops.