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.

Happiness is a New School Bus … I Think

The biggest surprise I’ve received (so far) in this job of never-ending surprises is a new bus. And not just a new bus. A brand-spankin’-fresh-from-the-factory new bus.

You could have knocked me over with a goose quill when I was told by my boss that I would be one of five drivers to receive one. I’ve only been at this infernal business for four years. Many other pilots where I work have more seniority. Second, I have a reputation as a bus killer.

No matter what wheel I climb behind, the vehicle under it is doomed to die of mechanical failure in short order. Mine have expired on main roads, side streets, a hill, an incline and the bus compound. Doesn’t matter if it’s the brakes, the fuel pump, the starter, the entire engine, the transmission, or some other gizmo, a mushroom cloud of distress is guaranteed to rise shortly after I turn the key. And the problems won’t be easily fixable. It will just be THE END for the bus in question.

SEE: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

(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.)

As a newbie in 2018, I was assigned one of the district’s older buses, which I named Tarkus after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album of the same name. The bus rumbled and bounced like a tank and handled like an armadillo. What’s more, its heat (or lack thereof) was so bad that at least one parent complained about a partially frozen kid. (I actually thought of asking for permission to put a small wood stove in the back.)

And if that weren’t bad enough, the PA failed, leaving me to bellow at my always-unruly passengers.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

When Tarkus went to the Big Bus Yard in the Sky after a year or so, I was assigned to a series of vehicles, all of which had at least 100,000 miles on them and some noticeable problems that I made worse by simply being their driver. Our mechanics sighed with despair each time I drove off in one.

So given my killer’s touch, the last thing I expected to get was a sparkling new 2022 International Propane Autogas CE with an 8.8L LP Gen II, 270 horsepower PSI engine, Allison fifth generation transmission (with fuel sense!), SmarTrac hydraulic brakes, electronic stability control, Bendix Wingman Advanced collision sensor system, and that new bus smell.

Turned out that my volunteering to cover after school runs (with often unfortunate results), and my showing up for work each day despite the Covid pandemic, had its rewards. Or so it seemed.

Lemon bus very pretty but the steering wheel has a squeak and the brakes on this darn lemon haven’t lasted me a week. (Apologies to Proctor & Bergman’s song “Lemon Car” sung to the tune of “Lemon Tree.”)

Of the five new buses that came in, four immediately developed bugs. One wouldn’t start for its maiden run because of an electrical issue and it later leaked antifreeze while its rear brakes smoked. A second bus had a front brake that rattled and it, too, later succumbed to the electrical issue. A third had to be towed back to base while out on a school trip. And the fourth developed a roof leak that later appeared in most of the others, including mine, which, like all the others also developed a weird tendency to shed loose screws in various places.

At least mine held up … except for a “check engine” light that came on and stayed on, defying efforts by our mechanics and the dealer’s staff to shut it off. And there was a cord that looked like an electrical plug dangling under the bus one day.

My new ride took some getting used to after my long line of diesel covered wagons. For one thing, the starting procedure required me to turn the key halfway and wait 30 seconds until all the dashboard lights went out. There was a front sensor that suddenly triggered the brakes if it felt I was getting too close to something for its comfort. This came as a bit of a surprise to me and my passengers one day. And the bus proved to be a fuel hog that gets about 12 feet to the gallon, so I had to gas up every day with about 30 gallons even though I was driving about 70 miles.

Oh, it was nice to have good heat and a working PA, though the PA mic was located above me to the left instead of in the dashboard. And when screws started falling out of doors and seats, and one of the fans above the dashboard suddenly came down during a trip, I began to wonder what would go next.

“Has the radio fallen on your head yet?” I was asked by one of my fellow drivers.

I thought she was joking, but then one of our mechanics mentioned that while he was out driving one of the new buses, he hit a bump and the radio came down, narrowly missing his noggin.

“Looks like you just got a bad batch,” one driver suggested, and our mechanic said he thinks the problems are Covid-related: The factory was probably understaffed and under the weather and people were just forgetting to tighten nuts and bolts and stuff.

A lot of good that does us, of course.

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

Meanwhile, kids have christened the nice new floor with gum and the back of a nice new seat with Wite-out. I also discovered that my bus has a roof leak like the others, but I just figure it’s the manufacturer’s newfangled Student Irrigation System designed to keep precious cargo moist and fresh.

I was told that some of other drivers, the ones with more seniority, would likely grumble and even stare daggers at me when they learned that I was getting a new bus and they weren’t. I have tried to reassure everyone that I didn’t ask for my new bus and that they should probably be thankful for their older, more reliable models even if they have a wart or two.

I’ve learned that there are different makes and models out there — we use Internationals and Bluebirds — and they’ve come a long way from the days of manual crank door handles and stick shifts. The bus I’m driving now looks like it’s state of the art, but I can’t help noticing its distinct citrus flavor.

I guess that’s only fitting given my track record. So I drive on, waiting for Tarkus 2 to go belly-up like all the others I’ve ever driven, though it is kind of ironic that this one seems to keep going even though all signs suggest it won’t much longer.

That figures. The one that should be easiest for me to kill isn’t.

School Bus Life Lessons: Kids Learn the Hard Way

It is often said that we bus jockeys can be a positive influence on our precious cargo. Besides setting a good example by keeping our cool and not cussin’ ’em out when they drive us to drooling distraction, we have opportunities to teach kids valuable life lessons.

I have devoted much of the past four years to convincing my passengers that the choices they make have consequences. For example, at the beginning of each school year I tell them they can sit with their friends and behave or they can misbehave and sit where I put ’em.

It’s amazing how they insist they want the first option but keep choosing the second.

(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.)

It’s no secret that everyone, no matter their age or grade, wants to sit in the back of the bus.

SEE: WHERE THE ACTION IS

It’s either something in the air back there or the distance from the driver’s jaundiced eye, but a seat in the rear naturally inspires mischief, rowdiness, noise, projectiles, cursing, conflict, littering and other crimes against the soul. So I told my very first busload of intermediate schoolers that I would keep tabs on who behaves for the first week. Those who don’t will be assigned perches closer to their favorite bus driver.

“Hey, why do I have to move?” was the customary complaint from those I later condemned to the middle or front of the bus.

“You have to earn your seat back there,” I kept explaining. “You can’t be loud and bother other kids. You can’t keep running around in the aisles and distracting me. It’s dangerous. I don’t have many rules, but the ones I have you need to follow if you want to sit where you want to sit.”

SEE: PICKING YOUR BATTLES WITH KIDS

If I had a dime for every time I have delivered that speech only to have the kids get kooky as soon as I stopped speaking, I could retire in a kind of luxury that makes Buckingham Palace look like a tarpaper shack. Alas, kids, like many adults, can’t seem to grasp the notion of earning things these days. They want everything handed to them and believe they should keep them no matter what they do.

Robespierre, a fourth grader who became a living legend for his relentless rowdiness, was frequently remanded to the Honored Student Seat in the very front and he bitterly resented my praise of good kids. When I told Louie and Louise (an exceptionally quiet and polite brother and sister) that I wished I had a busload just like them, Robespierre yelled, “Why do they get to sit in the back?”

“Because they earned it,” I explained. “Louie and Louise never give me any trouble, unlike someone we both know.”

“Oh, yeah? Who’s that?”

SEE: IT ONLY TAKES ONE … TO DRIVE A SCHOOL BUS WILD

That group of kids was eventually replaced by time and new routes. Sad to say, most of them departed without displaying any evidence that they had learned their lesson. And even though Einstein defined insanity as repeatedly doing the same things and expecting a different result, I continue trying to drive home the notion that privileges come with a price (such as self control and responsibility).

This year, I gave my new batch of middle schoolers the same classic options: Choose your seat now but know you won’t keep it if you cause trouble.

Sadly, my sage wisdom usually falls on deaf ears.

Seven months and at least as many assigned seating charts later, most of these rapscallions still haven’t made the connection between their crazed actions and where their carcasses are later planted.

They also don’t seem to make the connection between their uproars and me suddenly pulling the bus over in a safe spot on the side of the road. For a while there I tried to use these pauses in our trip as teaching moments.

SEE: THE ROADSIDE LECTURES ROLL ON

Now I simply stop driving and sit quietly. (A colleague told me she keeps a book handy for such occasions and puts her feet up on the dashboard and starts to read.)

Of course, after I inform them that I am refusing to move until they settle down, and some long minutes pass, someone inevitably cries, “You can’t do this! You’re holding us hostage!”

“I’m not holding you hostage,” I reply. “You are. You can settle down and go home or you can keep acting like knuckleheads and we’ll sit here all day. I don’t care. I get paid by the hour. Ka-CHING! It’s your choice.”

Alas, after our most recent pull-over, they chose three more sets of write-ups, a detailed two-page (single spaced!) letter to the principal from yours truly requesting that this matter be turned over to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, and yet another set of assigned seats that left them gobsmacked and (relatively) quiet for at least a couple of days.

SEE: STUDENT MANAGEMENT, ASSIGNED SEATS AND SANITY

“Hey, why did you change our seats?” I was asked by Beulah Belle, a seventh-grader who’d given me writer’s cramp with the number of times I’d indicted her for rowdiness.

“Where do I begin?” I replied after staring at her in slack-jawed astonishment. “You really have to ask?”

“I feel sorry for you, man,” Axel a raucous seventh-grader said to Spud, his former partner in crime who found himself transplanted to the seat directly behind me and, for good measure, pinned near the window by an exceedingly quiet kid he does not know.

Hey, it was Spud’s choice. Maybe someday that will sink in, but I fear the sun will burn out first.

Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

One of the charming things about our precious cargo, is that they often want to assist us in our daily rounds.

Lifting the rear door handle or pushing a button to deactivate the bus alarm after arriving at school is seen as a great privilege by the younger ones. Beetlebomb, one of my noisiest and most “active” fifth-graders, redeems himself by informing me whenever I’ve left my flashing amber lights on. Other kids happily serve as spies for the sake of maintaining discipline.

See: The Rat Patrol

(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.)

Of course, there are times you need them to help and they can’t, especially wide-eyed kindergartners who stare or shrug when you need directions and ask them where they live. Sometimes even older kids can’t tell you.

One day a teacher brought a sixth-grader to my bus and said, “He doesn’t know where he’s going. Let me give you his address. He doesn’t speak any English.”

Oh, goody.

I at least knew the way, but he had to get off at the end of a street I couldn’t go down and just walked away. Naturally, the next morning he wasn’t at his stop. I can only assume he got home.

“If he didn’t, you probably would have heard by now,” my wife says.

But I’ve learned (the hard way) to be skeptical of the information my passengers provide.

For instance:

They’ll say someone isn’t on the bus and then yell that they are … as soon as I’ve passed or pulled away from the kid’s stop. Beetlebomb, who seems to be up on everyone’s business, tells me when someone won’t be needing a ride on any given day. Sometimes he’s right.

“He went in early for chess club,” he’ll say as we approach Hobbestweedle’s house in the morning. But one day he claimed that Hobbestweedle had a dentist appointment and it turned out that he was merely late getting down his long, winding driveway to our pickup point. The lad was left behind to his mother’s, and my, dismay.

Live and learn … to take anything you are told with a grain of sodium chloride. Which is why I didn’t freak out the morning Brutus and Robespierre yelled from the back, “Hey, Mr. John! Beetlebomb is dead!”

“Well, that will keep him quiet until we get to school,” I cooly replied over the PA.

See: Now Hear This — Rocking the School Bus PA

Those kids, they’re always joking.

The Big Three: Robespierre, Beetlebomb and Brutus

The infamous Robespierre, one of the most rambunctious of intermediate school hellions, got everyone’s hopes up when he announced that he was moving to Arizona. I thought it was too good to be true, but when was gone for a few days I dared to believe though I wondered why our router hadn’t told me he’d been taken off my run sheet.

Then Robespierre showed up one morning with a big grin on his face and turned the grin on mine upside down.

Like Charlie Brown convinced that Lucy will actually let him kick the football, I also bought into Brutus (one of Robespierre’s partners in crime) informing me one Friday afternoon, “This is my last trip on your bus.”

“I’m sure you’ll make it a memorable one,” I said.

“I’ll be taking another one. My mom says you get me home too late.”

“Did you tell her that might be because you keep forcing me to pull over and make you sit down and be quiet?” I asked with a flinty squint.

See: The Roadside Lectures Roll On

Lo and behold come Monday morning Brutus wasn’t on and I rejoiced.

Turned out he was only riding in the afternoons. I thought I’d have a good cry but there was an unexpected blessing: Rollo, yet another rider of ill repute, was removed from my bus and assigned to a small one after repeated scrapes with Brutus and others.

A few days later I learned from Rollo’s new driver that Brutus was being added in the afternoon. Apparently, his mom had prevailed in her request to have her dear, sweet son delivered to her door more promptly.

I could only chortle at the thought of how thrilled Ol’ Brutus would be to find out he’s been reunited with his nemesis Rollo (I had to keep them separated) and that he will actually be getting home later because Rollo’s stop adds time to the new driver’s run.

I must confess that sometimes I can’t resist turning the tables, like when I had my riotously flatlulent middle schoolers convinced that state law requires at least one fart on the bus per trip.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

One morning after my “lively” crew was surprisingly quiet, I told them over the PA as we pulled up to Helga Poppin Intermediate School, “Hey, great ride today, people! I didn’t have to call in the National Guard or change anyone’s seat!”

“He’s pranking us!” I head someone say.

“It’s April Fool’s Day!”

It wasn’t and I wasn’t. Truth is, there are times when I can use the Guard’s help. Maybe some of my well-behaved riders will enlist some day.

Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

We school bus jockeys are encouraged to “write kids up” for transgressions ranging from basic safety violations — like distracting us or standing while the bus is moving — to more serious infractions like fighting, pushing, tripping, eating, drinking, littering, unacceptable language, destroying or defacing property, smoking, rudeness, excessive mischief, menacing, and violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause

(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.)

Each written report (see form above) results in a talking-to by a scowling school official and the notifying of parental units. Sometimes the mere threat of my filing a formal complaint is enough to snuff misbehavior. Principal Diesel and equally no-nonsense Assistant Principal Carnage at Helga Poppin Intermediate are feared by all but the most hardened hellions, and the accused often beg me to not turn them over to face their wrath.

Principal Bullhorne at Bubblefish Middle School also runs a tight ship. The convicted are routinely frog-marched out to the bus by the scruff o’ the neck to stand sheepishly by while I am told of the verdict and sentence (usually in-school suspension — aka study hall — or an assigned seat for a month, which can be quite humiliating for a cock-of-the-walk eighth-grader who finds himself in the front seat near the despised sixth-graders).

Sometimes I speak to parents first — always emphasizing that I am not picking on their offspring, I’m only concerned about their safety — but even mom or dad’s stern warnings to behave are naturally forgotten quickly by the dear child in question. After Rollo the dreaded fourth-grader was written up twice in two days for tormenting other passengers by calling them unseemly names and seizing their possessions, he immediately resumed his antics after returning from the Poppin woodshed.  

As the dreaded Principal Diesel passed my bus one noisy, troubled morning, I mentioned that I was still going through the paces with Rollo. Diesel suggested I move Rollo’s seat yet again and wished me luck. I felt like a crew member of the doomed spaceship Nostromo in the movie Alien being told by Ash the cyborg science officer, “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy.”

SEE: On Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Being a soft touch, I tend to give kids second, third, fourth, tenth and twentieth chances to go straight before I throw the book at them. When finally driven to hand up an indictment of fourth-grader Robespierre for constant rambunctiousness, brazen cheek and excessive mischief, I was so exasperated I thought about tacking on charges of crimes against humanity.

Robespierre was flabbergasted when he was condemned to the Honored Student Seat in the first row until further notice.

“Hey, it’s by order of Principal Diesel,” I told him whenever he begged for parole. (I finally sprung him, much to my regret, after two weeks.)

Sometimes, entire groups are sentenced. Finally reaching my fill of their raucous antics, I sent eighth-graders Skeezix (half-gainer over a seat back; standing on his head), Otto (water fight), Spud (dancing in the aisles), Jethro (roughhousing), Coggins (casting foodstuffs), and Herkimer (aiding and abetting) to the Fishmeal Falls District’s version of The Hague.

Chronic rule-breakers are given three strikes (write-ups) after which — in theory — they will be removed from the bus and assigned to another. I confess I felt much guilt when Lucifer, my most notorious sixth-grader, ended up on a vehicle driven by one of my colleagues. (Our small buses are often Devil’s Islands of the condemned.) I could only apologize and offer my sympathy while not lying to her about her chances.

Though the recidivism rate is sky-high, I press on despite a painful case of writer’s cramp from all the forms I fill out. I have to say it was a truly special moment the first time a chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus” broke out one morning. My middle schoolers switched the line “The driver on the bus says ‘Move on back, move on back, move on back’” to “The driver on the bus says ‘I’ll write you up!’ I’ll write you up! I’ll write you up!’”

They know. They’ve heard my tune many, many times.

School Bus Driving 101: The Dreaded Road Test

Oh, the queasy anticipation.

I felt pretty confident even though I knew parallel parking would still be a crapshoot. There was also constant unsettling talk among us trainees about an infamous road test examiner who barked commands and insulting criticism with the intent of rattling all who took the wheel under his curdled gaze. Most of those poor souls failed the test. 

“Pray you don’t get him!” I was told.

(This blog is based on actual events, though some names, places and personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

The night before my hour of judgment, my wise trainer offered some advice: Do some touch-up studying. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Beseech the deity of your choice.

On a cloudy June morning outside Dutchess Stadium in aptly-named Fishkill, I sighed with relief when I was directed to two pleasant female examiners. After duly impressing them with my knowledge of the hamster wheels and other stuff under the hood, they cut short my soliloquy on the rest of the bus and told me to conduct the air brake test.

Taking the driver’s seat, I turned the key to the right without starting the engine, saw the air pressure gauge on the dashboard read 120 PSI, held the brake pedal down for a minute to see if the PSI dropped more than four pounds, started pumping to lower it to 60, pushed the parking brake knob in to disengage it … and was horrified when it refused to stick.

I stabbed at it again. And again. It kept popping out.

“Do you know what you did wrong?” one of the examiners asked as I sat flummoxed.

“Uhh … um …ahm” was all I could stammer.

“If you don’t disengage the parking brake before you start pumping the brakes down, how will you know if there’s a leak in the system?” asked the other.

Fair question.

“You need to disengage the parking brake before you test the air brakes,” I was gently reminded.

Somehow, I’d managed to do this test successfully but incorrectly all along without alerting my trainer. The brake knob had picked a fine time to finally betray me. So I was sent away to schedule another $40 road test. 

See: School Bus Driving 101: The Training Process

My trainer was gobsmacked. “This has never happened before!” she said.

Taking consolation in having made district history, I went back to the bus yard feeling much shame. The news of my epic failure preceded me.

“What happened?” I was repeatedly asked.

“Brain cramp,” was all I could say.

The rest of the day was fraught with anxiety. The end of the school year was three weeks away. If there were no open test dates until summer, I’d have to wait until fall with no way to practice. Fortunately, there was one date left, across the Hudson River in Kingston.

Two weeks later, in the bright sun outside Dietz Stadium, my examiner turned out to be a grumpy geezer but not the legendary scourge who, rumor had it, had been remanded to sensitivity training.  

I got through the inspections and brake tests without a hitch, but made a heavenly hash of parallel parking. The cones were much smaller and arrayed in a slightly different configuration on an uphill slope, which disoriented me. When I backed into the box, the examiner immediately shouted “Stop!” and threw up his hands in disgust. 

Clambering out of the bus, I saw I’d gone over the side line of cones, but was stunned when he told me to try again. And again. 

Invariably, my back bumper grazed or crossed the side line as I cut into the box. My third attempt left the bus somewhat askew in the box. I climbed out and resigned myself to more ignominy only to be shocked (shocked!) when the examiner groused, “OK, that’s good enough. Let’s go on the road.”

By then, my trainer couldn’t bear to watch anymore and had ducked into a nearby Rite-Aid for a sedative only to be stunned upon emerging to see my bus passing by on the way to the highways and byways of Kingston. 

I was instructed where to go and had to call out everything I saw (such as nearby vehicles, signs and signals, pedestrians and other potential hazards). All went well until I failed to call out an overpass. After an agonizingly long wait back at the test site, the examiner returned to the bus and informed me that I would be unleashed upon the public. I very nearly gave him a tearful hug.

I was qualified at last to enjoy all the wonders and aggravations of this noble profession.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am