Getting Even: A School Bus Driver Strikes Back

I’ll be the first to admit it can take a while for my porch light to come on. But after nearly five years behind the wheel, I have finally realized that kids who raise hades on a school bus are totally unfazed by lectures, write-ups, detentions and suspensions.

These rascals just keep doing what they were seemingly born to do: run around in the aisle, jump over seats, make noise and messes, throw stuff, rough house, pester their fellow passengers, use language that makes Beelzebub blush, and put wrinkles on the forehead of the person responsible for safely hauling them to and from school.

(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.)

Getting urchins to behave is an endless battle and most disciplinary measures fail to keep them disciplined. When the mayhem continues, I’ve found that a classic containment measure — moving offenders up to the front of the bus — only makes for more distraction. With hellions that close, you are much more aware of everything they do. And they will keep doing it. I’ve had fights break out — right behind my shoulder at 45 miles per hour in traffic — between kids I’d just been told by their school to move up.

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

Another classic move, one that’s more effective, is to pull over and simply sit until the hooligans settle down. I explain over the PA that I get paid by the hour, have no particular place to go, and am in no hurry to get there. That can make my precious cargo start policing itself. But what truly curries my goat is when that cargo continues cavorting and raising Holy Hobbes after two, three or four pull-overs.

SEE: Keeping Your Cool

So I figured I needed some new ways to make them realize they will pay a price in aggravation. Inconvenience seems to really bug ’em. I started by taking a page out of my wife’s disciplinary playbook for our kids by quietly dropping the hammer when they think they’ve gotten away with something. For instance, when they get off at school, I give them the trash they left on the floor the day before.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

Or I write them up without saying anything, so they have the pleasure of a surprise summons to the principal’s office. But standard punishments only slow them for a day or two. Smedley, an incorrigible sixth-grader on my bus, was finally removed after four write-ups and a five-day suspension … for dousing a girl with Axe body spray, which is apparently the preferred stink bomb of the young miscreants in my district this year.

I have my wish list of things I want (see illustration above), but need realistic, practical tactics. After wracking my brain, here are some I’ve started to use:

Slowing down. Before a trip, I explain that the bus now has new technology: The more people stand up or move in the aisle while we are in motion, the slower the bus goes. Of course, I can only crawl on roads where it is safe to do so, but since I drive in a rural area, there are plenty of ’em and it’s a great way to drag out trips until the kids really want to get home and finally start to act like sane individuals.

Keeping the bad eggs on longer. My after-school run is a general route determined by how many kids are on board and where they live. I am free to improvise, so I will drop the good kids off first and keep the cretins on for as long as possible, often taking the longest way possible to their place of residue. But that depends on how disruptive they are being and how much of their shenanigans I can stomach.

Returning to school. The nuclear option, it requires permission from dispatch. I was told to have an administrator come on board. If all have left for the day, I can tell kids to call their parents for a ride. The first time I tried it, they got a stern warning from a no-nonsense, in-their-face security guard, but shortly after we returned to the road a kid set off a body spray bomb in back, forcing me to pull over. This led to a zesty exchange with the bomb thrower’s sister, who actually said, “Take us home right now! I’m sick of this $#it, you pulling over all time time!”

“You’re sick of it? You’re sick of it?!!!” I replied, absolutely gobsmacked.

She and her fragrant brother were written up with relish and suspended for a week, but the aggravation of that episode reminded me that it really helps me to stay calm and centered if I have a plan of response in advance. Given how limited our options are, fellow drivers in the Facebook group “School Bus Drivers are the Unsung Heroes of the Predawn Light” offered some suggestions:

Lois (Note: drivers’ full names are not used for sake of privacy) recommended what Amazon calls “the world’s loudest whistle.” She said she got one and blew it when her bus got horribly loud. “Then I told them I would hold it up and count to 10,”she wrote. “Before long I only had to hold it up and after a bit they just didn’t get so loud anymore.”

Tyrone cited a driver who pulled into a police station and told the kids she was going to get a cop to come on the bus and yell at them.

Bryan suggested playing horrible music on the radio and turning it louder until the kids cry uncle.

Brian recommended classical tunes — “They will either learn to behave or get an appreciation for classical music” — while Diann recommended blaring oldies or a gospel cd. But the problem I have with music is my boss told us to keep it low so he can hear what kids are saying when he has to review video. I’ve also found that they speak over the music, which only makes the bus unbearably loud.

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

Brian had another novel idea I really like: “I’ve told them I would come in during their lunchtime and sit with them and all their friends in the lunchroom so I could ruin their time just like they ruin mine.”

Kids, especially the wisenheimers, get squirrely when they have to talk to you one-on-one. Cristal said that she releases her kids by row so she can confront wrongdoers.

“The kids most likely to cause trouble tend to sit in the back, and the last thing they want to do when they get to school is listen to you,” she wrote. “I will stand up before I open the door so I’m blocking the walk way, and then excuse one row at a time. When I get to the part of the bus that’s giving me the most trouble, I’ll say something like, ‘I don’t much appreciate how you’ve been treating me/my bus/each other, and I feel like you all can do better. Think you guys can make an effort to be better on the bus?’ Then I’ll let them all go for the day. If the behavior continues, I’ll do it again. I’ll do it over and over every day, and I’ll be honest with them.”

Cristal’s persistence reminds me of my wife, who knows that sometimes you just gotta grind ’em down.

Don’t get mad, get even. That’s my new mantra.

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.