Who’s Who: Losing the Name Game

When I was the age of the kids I drive, I could remember on sight the names of every model of car on the road. Now, remembering the names of the kids I drive? Fuhgeddaboudit.

To be honest, as an adult I’ve always had trouble with names and faces. Until I see someone often enough for them to sink into my skull, they’d best wear a “Hello! I Am ___” tag. Seeing them out of context — in a store instead of at work, for example — forget it. They might as well be total strangers.

(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.)

A busload of kids is a mind-wracking challenge, especially at the beginning of a new school year. Oh, some will stand out immediately for their charming habits, such as wildly cavorting about the bus, shrieking at the top of their little lungs, or uttering bloodcurdling profanity. But the quiet ones who rarely speak to me require time to attach their names to their faces.

See: It Only Takes One to Drive a Bus Wild

And I’m not much better with street names. Once I know where I’m going, I’m going to need my run sheet to tell you where I’m going. And it’s always a moment of sweet panic whenever my dispatcher radios me to ask about a student and an address I do not have in the front of what’s left of my mind.

“Base, can someone tell me who these kids are?”

The dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Base to 631. Did you drop off Fescue McSwiggin yet?”

“Uh …”

“At 53 Balderdash Street.”

“Uh …”

“The parent says you were supposed to be there 15 minutes ago.”

“Uh …”

“What’s your 20 (location)?”

“Uh …”

I’m every bit as eloquent when I radio in to report that a student asked to get off at a friend’s house and does not have a bus pass.

“What’s the child’s name?” my famously crusty dispatcher asked the first time I did.

“Uh … uh … uh … Mildred.”

“What’s the last name?”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“The last name.”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“What. Is. The. Child’s. Last. Name?”

“Uh … uh … uh … Wood. Like my head.”

So you can imagine the hives I sprouted when I found out I would be hauling 20-or-so units of precious cargo from Helga Poppin Intermediate School to Fiends and Fun Daycare each afternoon. Not only did most of them basically look alike, they had names like Morton, Norton, Horton, Duane, Dwayne, DeWayne, Sean, Shawn, Deshaun, DaShawn, D’Shaun and Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly, Dolly, Brittany, Brittney, Hannah, Hanna, and Anna.

And there was more than one of each in some cases.

They boarded and left the bus like a herd of sheep, almost impossible to differentiate, leaving me to pray I didn’t leave anyone behind or lose track of someone. As far as I know, and it’s been three years, they all got to where they were supposed to go.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Assigning seats with name tags above them eventually helps. And in times of faulty memory, I try using a mnemonic device, such as giving each kid a nickname based on their most memorable characteristics. Unfortunately, I end up remembering only their nicknames … and I don’t dare utter some of them aloud.

Frankenstein, Ma Barker, and worse do not speak well of them … or of me.

Bitter Lessons Pay Off in Summer School

After spending the last three summers driving a wet vac at an elementary school, I’m behind the wheel of a bus for this one. As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked.

The disrupted school year and shortcomings of remote learning created a glut of kids in need of summer school to inflate their grades. So I’m hauling three saintly high schoolers followed by a group of rambunctious sixth-graders who have given me no break from flying projectiles, rough-housing, standing in the aisle, yelling, cussing and the other usual mayhem.

(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.)

Driving a small bus for the first time, I must admit I’ve had to get used to it. The commotion is on your back. You can’t miss it in the rearview mirror, which is in your line of sight. You hear every salty word you wish you hadn’t heard. And with new controls and different blind spots to master, you need your concentration to be sharp.

Fortunately, I’m now a crusty, battle-tested veteran. I used to come off challenging runs vibrating with frustration. Now I stay as cool as a proverbial four-star cucumber, cackling with confident satisfaction as I lower the boom, which is good because my middle school run is an uncanny mix of my first three years of driving. That was a raucous Baptism by Fire.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am and Meet the Hellions.

I am blessed with a Robespierre/Wisenheimer hybrid who spouts foul language and seizes every opportunity to get up to no good, even from his assigned seat in the very front. I also have a new Beetlebomb/Jehosaphat blend who won’t stop standing, moving around and getting in other kids’ faces. Some of the ladies remind me of Sassafrass, Lulubelle and Esmerelda from my old run thanks to their potty mouths and eagerness to go along with the lads.

I even have a new Methane Man whose daily farts cause a mighty uproar in the smaller confines.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

In a small bus, objects in the rear view mirror are closer (and louder) than they appear.

The rest of the kids are tinder. It all adds up to pulling over every other run or so. But without a PA system for my thundering commands, and having to get out and come in the passenger door to deliver one of my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lectures, I just yell at the top of my lungs. Thankfully, I am getting them to quiet down at least for a while.

Yes, nothing beats the benefits of bitter experience, which my mother used to say is the only way you really learn in this life. The first day, I gave the kids a choice: mellow out and sit together as you are or keep acting like stooges and end up in assigned seats. Just like my Helga Poppin Intermediate crew of yore, they ended up in assigned seats.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

My precious cargo still gets rowdy and particularly salty, but I know how to regain control pretty quick.

“Do I need to have your principal look at the video?” I yelled during one particularly nasty trip when they forgot, as kids always do, that everything they say and do is recorded.

See: The Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

“No” they replied with wide eyes.

“I think I do.”

That threat earned me hearty handshakes, a “Thank you” or two, and some “Have a nice weekend” wishes as they departed. But it wasn’t long before they were at it again, forcing me to pull over and deliver on another warning. I wrote them up by composing a kind of $#i+ List letter to the assistant principle (an ace at backing up drivers) about who deserves a stern warning of parental notification.

See: The School Bus Justice System

That move worked like a charm. After that, I was I driving church mice.

Best of all, I discovered I’m now good at improvising my route so I can drop the loudest kids off first, which usually quiets things down. Fortunately, my run is in a grid of streets that makes it possible to change the drop-off order without going off my designated route.

My summer gig is only six weeks, but it will keep me in fighting trim for the fall when I’ll be given new routes. Fresh (so to speak) adventures surely await, but I’ll be loaded for bear. I’ve been getting tips from one of my fellow drivers, a wily gentleman who taught me a trick:

Deliberately pass an obnoxious kid’s house and when he yells, “Hey! You missed my stop!” tell him, “Hey! You distracted me! Now I have to drop everyone else off.” Then simply radio in to let your dispatcher know in case the kid’s parents call to inquire about the whereabouts of their angel.

“Once was all it took to get that kid to stop,” my wily colleague said.

I’m saving that one for fall when I’ll surely need it.

It Only Takes One … to Drive a School Bus Wild

I’m jazzed to say life behind the wheel has been a sea breeze lately. My first two years were a gale of nerve-jangling mayhem, but blessed peace has prevailed for five months and counting.

Though the pot is bubbling a bit now that spring has sprung and riders are reuniting as schools return to normal schedules, the kids on my bus have been mistaken for church mice. I discovered what a pleasure this job can be as I motor through beautiful Hudson Valley countryside, the sun rising through mist on a field, my ears filled with the heartwarming sound of children talking and laughing instead of shrieking and complaining. Good times.

Unfortunately a dark cloud hovers over these shiny, happy proceedings: the return of Sassafrass.

(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.)

A potty-mouthed middle schooler, Sassafrass used to incite bitter conflict on my bus every day. She hasn’t been back this year, but I got a note in my key room mailbox that she’ll be riding again soon.

I’m bracing myself. I’ve gotten a little rusty with the discipline thing. The most I’ve had to handle this year is one cereal event and a grade school annoyance problem I squelched by enforcing my “Girls Only” rule in the back. With fewer kids on board (3-15 instead of 15-30), good behavior naturally prevails, but some of Sassafrass’s old targets and recruits in deviltry are still around. I know all too well how one bad apple can get the whole barrel riled up.

Most drivers know that special feeling of trying to get “The One” to their stop or to school as quickly as possible so some semblance of sanity returns to their bus. As soon as The One comes on, the noise level rises, horseplay ripples through the rows like brushfire and pretty soon someone is in tears or calling for our help.

There’s a reason we call these pieces of precious cargo “fire starters” and I used to have four of them on my intermediate school run. Any one was capable of sparking an uproar in a peaceful group.

There was Rollo, who pestered anyone he was near. The time he came aboard with a pointy Harry Potter wand made my hair levitate. His mere presence always ignited his nemesis, Brutus, and vice versa. They constantly baited each other with insults, and their school told me to separate them but that only created two problem zones as they mixed it up with their new neighbors.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Brutus always made his presence felt.

Brutus could start a brawl while alone in an empty room. Constantly written up for teasing, taunting, cussing and getting into physical scrapes with anyone who sat near him, he was frenemies with Beetlebomb, who was always in everybody’s grill, changing seats while I wasn’t looking, and forcing me to stop the bus.

One day while repeatedly popping up from behind his seat back and roaring at two girls, Beetlebomb got himself smacked by Petunia, a quiet, sweet, fourth-grader. “Petunia hit me in the eye!” he cried to me. Not that I condone violence, mind you, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Good for her!” Petunia is so meek that Beetlebomb really had it coming if he got her fired up.

After being dragged to the principal’s woodshed, Beetlebomb was good and stayed in his seat … for one day. Then it was back to tussling with Brutus and Robespierre, who needed little to rev him up. When Robespierre took off his shoe and threw it at Beetlebomb, they were both remanded to the Honored Student Seat in the very front.

See: The School Bus Justice System

In that kind of high-octane situation, removing even one firestarter from the mix can help the way a burned out bulb can darken a whole string of Christmas lights. I rejoiced the day I learned that the fourth graders were going on a field trip and would not be back in time for my afternoon run. That meant no Rollo and Brutus, which meant a (at least a little) calmer Beetlebomb and Robespierre, who were promptly separated by half a bus.

It was always heartbreaking to have a fire starter not show up in the morning and drive off in great relief with a quiet bus only to pass them and a parent going the opposite way, then have them reappear in my rearview mirror and chase me to the next stop. There the fun started with complaints coming fast and furious.

I gave thanks when schools and parents have finally stepped in decisively. Rollo was removed to another, smaller bus with closer supervision and fewer sparring partners, a fate that also befell Lucifer on my middle school run.

A factory showroom of foul language, Lucifer was forever taunting other kids, putting seatbelts across the aisle as a tripwire, and drawing threats of revenge. “Just wait and see what happens,” grumbled Otto, a much larger eighth-grader after he nearly fell. I, for one, didn’t want to find out.

In-school suspensions had no effect on Lucifer. Fresh out of one, he immediately stole Fartinhausen’s football, setting off a wild wrestling match after Fartinhausen leapt over the seat to grab Lucifer by the neck.

See: The Rat Patrol

Lucifer unexpectedly leaving on a family trip made my usually bonkers Bubblefish run much easier for a couple of weeks though his pal Butch gallantly tried to fill the void. He, too, got suspended and I sighed with relief when he moved, taking with him his maniacal cackle and vocabulary that would shame the most vulgar dockworker.

Not Wanted: The Notorious Sassafrass Gang

Now Sassafrass looms. The first time around, she formed a gang with three other riders who didn’t know each other: Zoot Horn, Lulubelle, and Wisenheimer (who sat in Lucifer’s old seat; maybe it’s possessed).

While Sassafrass filled the air with bloodcurdling profanity, they stuck their arms out windows, jeered at pedestrians, gleefully left a mess of Pop Tart crumbs (earning my first Big Bag O’ Trash Award for the year), and got into such a beef with other kids that I called a meeting with their guidance counselor to lay down the law.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Whenever Sassafrass was aboard, she and her crew were in the thick of any mocking and mischief. When she wasn’t, they were much better though Wisenheimer became a first class fire starter in his own right. A constant threat with the broom stored behind my seat, he was given the finger by Spud the eighth grader. I was relieved when he too didn’t return.

It pains me to think that Zoot Horn and Lulubelle, who no longer even sit together, may return to the dark side if Sassafrass comes back. Some of my seven newbies could be drawn into her orbit, too. The veteran riders won’t be thrilled, but I’ll give her a chance, or course. A year can make a big change and difference in a kid.

Let us pray.

School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

When I started piloting a big yellow madhouse in the fall of 2018, a fellow driver gave me a piece of advice: “Always empathize with the child.”

He didn’t mean, “Give the little vipers a pass when they misbehave because life can be tough for them.” He meant keep in mind that even though they are making you want to pull your hair out in tufts it doesn’t mean they are unredeemable monsters.

(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.)

Young, developing brains are sieves when it comes to remembering rules. Kids see the school bus as a playpen. They’ve got a herd mentality (what one does, all will do). Some simply haven’t been taught discipline and respect. Something bad and maybe even very serious may be going on their lives. All of the above can be factors in their behavior.

Challenging authority to prove they’re cool is what kids are legally obligated to do and, like it or not, you’re just another scowling old fart in their lives.

See: Government’s Greasy Fingerprints

Of course, you have to make it clear who is in charge. I’m somewhat mellower than your average houseplant but I have my limits and the kids on my bus know it. Sometimes all I have to do is give them the evil eye and I’ll get an “Oh, sorry” and an end to the mischief. Until the next time … but there’s only so much you can do about young non-stick brains.

What you don’t want to do is make bad matters worse. Had a scuffle with the boss, your spouse or a fellow driver? Don’t take it out on the kids. Don’t take challenges to your authority personally. Don’t get into a sarcastic battle of wits and belittle them. Don’t project your own baggage.

Speaking of baggage, I came in with an American Tourister full of expectations: mainly the worst from my middle schoolers because “junior high” was a nightmare for me when I was a kid. I was picked on and put down for three years. I dreaded every day I had to get on the bus and go to that school.

I couldn’t help noticing that some of my sixth-graders are part of the classic middle school culture of cruelty and harsh judgment, the kinds of kids who tormented me. They constantly put others down and smell blood when they sense fear and hurt in someone.

(“Never let them see you sweating under the collar” when riders are acting up is another piece of great advice I was given by a colleague.)

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

The feeling that these are the punks who made my life miserable! can creep in and color my reactions to provocative behavior if I let it, but this is a whole new situation. I’m not 13 years old anymore, but I do naturally empathize with kids I know are being bullied.

Sometimes it takes real effort to stay emotionally disengaged, but these kids are, after all, 12-year-olds trying to prove they’re cool and tough. They’re brazen in a pack but much more polite and quiet on their own.

See: It Only Takes One

I can’t help wondering what the deal is with the worst-behaved kids on my bus. Sometimes they can be on medication for physical or emotional conditions. You never know.

It’s hard not to notice how many kids come from two homes. Divorce is sometimes for the best, but when you see kids from what appears to be a peaceful, relatively happy and functioning two-parent household, you realize how fortunate they are.

I overheard a discussion where one middle schooler said she remembers her mother throwing plates and that her parents got divorced so the kids wouldn’t see them fighting. “They hate each other now,” she said. That has to have an effect on a kid.

I found that once my passengers get to know and trust me, some open up and start confiding in me. What you hear can be heartbreaking. I’ve been told about neglectful parents, violent crimes (including murder/suicide) that left lasting trauma, close relatives in prison, money and housing troubles that include no heat in winter, and serious illnesses that cast a heavy cloud over kids’ lives.

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on.

See: Understanding Kids

I once found a notebook on my bus open to a page expressing hatred for kids who put the notebook’s owner down. “My confusion won’t let me sleep,” he’d written. I reported it to the school so a guidance counselor could check in and make sure he was OK.

Usually, though, I’m dealing with garden variety shenanigans. Still, it’s aggravating when a piece of your precious cargo immediately starts doing something you just told them not to do, or keeps doing something you’ve told them a million times not to do. Your first thought is, “How dare they disrespect me!”

Brutus, one of my more challenging fourth graders, stands and salutes me when I lecture him for breaking rules. I confess that I fight the urge to waggle my fingers in front of my nose and blow a raspberry at him. Instead, I take a deep breath and chill out. You have to take kids seriously but you can’t take them too seriously.

I’ve also learned to pick my battles (yet another great piece of advice I was given). If I have to, I quietly lower the boom by surprising bad actors with a write-up that brings school officials and parents into the mix. It usually works, especially when they don’t see it coming.

See: The School Bus Justice System

It also helps to keep your sense of humor, but that’s easier said than done. I’m lucky. Unlike many drivers across the land, I haven’t had to deal with really nasty or dangerous kids and situations. One driver I work with has been physically assaulted by a troubled student.

Other colleagues have made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. They’ve told me of students they drove years ago who still remember them, greet them and talk to them whenever they see them in a store or restaurant.

One of my students, who came from a troubled foster home, used to pour his heart out to me. “If you’re driving to the high school next year, can I stop by your bus to talk?” he asked on our last day together.

I was deeply moved. That’s what makes this job so worthwhile. When the going gets tough, you just need to think about where a kid may be coming from.

See: They Ain’t Making Drivers Like They Used To