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.

Roadside Lectures Roll On

After a long, peaceful stretch of few riders due to the pandemic, I finally gave my first Roadside Lecture of the school year in mid-April.

Actually, it was a Schoolside Lecture delivered outside Helga Poppin Intermediate one morning while waiting to let the kids off my bus.

The topic: A refresher on my job and the two video cameras on board.

(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.)

“OK, people,” I said, standing in the aisle before the suddenly quiet congregation. “I saw some stuff yesterday afternoon that I didn’t like.”

I then mentioned the seatbelt trip wire (a timeless prank) I found stretched across the aisle next to notorious fourth-grader Guttersnipe’s seat. I didn’t mention him (he’s a firestarter in training) by name. I just said (while watching his smug expression turn into a cringe), “Whoever did it, you know who you are … and so do the cameras. In case you forgot, everything you do and say is being recorded.”

See: The Camera’s Eyes Have It

I then explained (for the umpteenth hundredth time) the importance of not climbing on seats or standing in the aisle because “if I have to slam on the brakes and stop suddenly, you’ll go flying. You aren’t watching the road like I am, so you won’t know if a car or a person or an animal darts out in front of us … and they can and do.”

Pausing for dramatic effect, I added, “Kids have fallen on buses and gotten hurt. It hasn’t happened on my bus yet, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way. My job is to keep you all safe.”

Somehow I don’t think they were impressed.

Finally, having seen fifth-grader Clementine play peek-a-boo-duck!-peek-a-booduck! with me during the entire ride home — a sure sign that she was up to no good — I continued:

“I see you ladies in the back are having a grand old time with the windows. Please don’t throw stuff out or stick your arms and hands out. I don’t mind you opening them on a warm day but there’s a phone number on the back of the bus. So if you’re going to toss stuff or greet the public as you’ve been doing, be nice or they will call and complain. Then we’ll pull the video and you’ll end up in Principal Diesel’s office. As some of you know, the Principal’s expression can turn a man to stone!”

My audience’s silence lasted well beyond my brilliant, vaguely ominous closer: “Thank you. We’ll catch you later.”

You’ll often find me pontificating here.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I started my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series not long after I began driving my big yellow institution of learning. When warnings, threats and shrieking over the PA failed, it dawned on me that I had no choice but to find a safe spot to pull over, put my hazard lights on, and “educate” my precious cargo.

(I must admit I get a kick out of their reaction: eyes widening as the bus slows to a stop, silence growing as I rise from my seat and turn towards the back…)

Some of my topics: Why distracting the driver is dangerous (“Trust me, you don’t want us to end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree”); the hazards of moving around while the bus is rolling, jostling in the aisle or using seats like gymnastics equipment (see above), and a scary thing called “black ice.”

It’s there (in the photos) that I can set my clock by the kids suddenly coming unglued after they’ve been little angels for the first half of the trip.

I often rehearse speeches (in my head) and have had plenty of practice actually delivering them. Sadly, I’ve had to repeat them many times. My most frequent site for lectures is a particularly treacherous, winding stretch of hilly, wooded road that’s loaded with hidden driveways, wandering animals (including a wayward cow) and other hazards.

“No matter how many times I tell you how dangerous this road is, you just don’t get it,” I keep saying. And it’s true.

Of course, within minutes of getting back on the road they are usually back at it. In that case, I resort to the unoriginal but classic move of pulling over, shutting off the engine and announcing over the PA, “OK, we’re not going anywhere until you settle down. We’ll sit here all day and all night if we have to. I get paid by the hour so you’ll just be helping me pay for my yacht!” Ha Ha.

See: Rocking the School Bus PA

That always gets their attention and inspires a few cries of, “He’s kidnapping us!” and “Call the cops!”

“Go ahead and call the cops,” I tell them. “They’ll take my side as soon as they see the video!”

I’ve had guest speakers before. Teachers, principals and other school officials have come aboard to deliver a few choice remarks and pointed suggestions. Maybe law enforcement personnel will be able to teach a lesson that finally sinks in.