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 mid-day 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: Your School Bus P.A. is a Terrible Thing to Lose

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.