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 no-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 can’t help noticing that some of my sixth-graders belong to 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.

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: Meet the Hellions

I naturally wonder 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 home, 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. One girl told me how she dreads that her father will die.

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on. I had a fifth-grader who said alarming things like, “I think about killing people” and “What if you went to a boarding school where they made you forget your parents and when you graduated, they kill you?”

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 (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.

Another colleague made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. She told me of students she drove years ago who still remember her, greet her and talk to her whenever they see her 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.

Understanding Kids: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

What do they want?

That question continues to vex me. As the father of three, the stepfather of one, and the bus driver of 60, I’m still no closer to an answer than I was when I was a kid who thought he knew what he wanted.

What do they want?

(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.)

I know why kids are on my bus, but not what they ultimately want.

I also know this much: Many want to sit in the back of the bus where they have a better chance of getting away with all kinds of ungodly mischief. Some want to stick their arms and heads out the windows and hoot at the people on the street. They all probably want me to stop at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. I get asked to do it quite often.

But there are other things that have me scratching my addled head:

Kids will drive you to the edge of apoplexy, then ask you for a favor.

One prime example: Brutus, a fourth-grader with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore, is constantly moving about the bus without asking and getting into scrapes with other kids, particularly his adversary, Rollo. Their school told me to separate their assigned seats by a minimum of three rows if three miles are not feasible.

No matter how many times I sternly tell Brutus to sit down or stop baiting Rollo or leave someone alone; no matter how many times I yell or write him up, he just keeps doing what he has seemingly been born to do.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Many more than once I’ve had to pull over, secure the bus, rebuke Brutus and order him up to the “Honored Student Seat” in the front row. I can set my clock by him pleasantly asking within five minutes, “Hey Mr. John, can I sit in the back? I’m being good.”

My standard reply: “You’re going to have to be good for longer than that … how about the rest of your life?”

Nevertheless, I can count on him doing it all again the next day. But Brutus is not the only one. Researchers say young, developing brains lack the circuit that connects a bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests they may be right.

Kids hate assigned seats but are very territorial about them.

Behold Beetlebomb, who always wanders from any seat you give him (I wrote “in theory” under his name above one), but God save anyone who sits there while he’s gone.

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlbomb and Brutus were feeling unusually mellow one morning when they told me they wanted to sit together. Silly me for letting them. They were at each other’s throats that afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

The next morning, I moved Beetlebomb, who was furious that I’d given his old seat with Hobbestweedle to Oswald after Oswald asked to sit there.

“Get out of my seat!” Beetlebomb kept demanding, getting in Oswald’s grill while refusing to heed my commands to take his new perch so we could all proceed to school and arrive before sundown.

“What difference does it make?” I kept asking. “You wouldn’t stay in that seat when you had it!”

“But it’s still mine!” he cried, tempting me to ask him to present the deed.

Alas, he’s not the only one who has felt that way.

“Hey, Mr. John! Satch (or Hogshead or Hortense Prunella or whoever) is in my seat!” is something I often hear from an assortment of kids after I’ve allowed them to move during a trip.

“That’s OK. You’re not in it and I said they could sit there” is clearly not an acceptable reply.

Kids won’t stop moving … until they should move.

Jehosaphat and Lucille are two of the most migratory creatures on my bus. Lucille, who is well-behaved, has earned permission to switch seats (just not while we’re in motion) whenever she likes. Jehosaphat has not, but he will defy even a court order to stay put.

Both can reliably be counted on to be heading somewhere … except when we reach their stops. Then they are frozen in place and need to be told over the P.A. that it might be a good idea to get up and leave.

“How come you’re always moving except when it’s time to get off?” I’ve asked many, many, many times while a long line of clearly aggravated traffic forms behind us as Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other accoutrements.

Two years on, I’m still waiting for an explanation.

Kids demand things they don’t want.

Sixth-grader Sassafrass constantly complains about having to sit in the front four rows while Ethel, whom she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders out of the middle four rows where the more sedate seventh-graders are deposited … by order of me for the sake of some semblance of peace.

Unfortunately for Sassafrass, she doesn’t grasp that whenever she and her minions — Wisenheimer, Lulubelle, and Zoothorn — get anywhere near Ethel, highly distracting unpleasantries ensue.

One day, to my surprise, they all said they wanted to switch seating areas … only to have Sassafrass and Co. return to the front near Ethel the next day.

The ensuing highly distracting unpleasantries forced me to call a summit meeting at their school and include a guidance counselor.

So, as near as I can reckon, kids want what they want when they want it … until they don’t want it no more. Which is usually a few minutes later.

Maybe you’ve got them figured out. If so, I salute you.