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 fairly confident despite knowing that 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 that the pressure gauge on the dashboard read 120 PSI, held it for a minute to see if it dropped more than four, started pumping the brake pedal to lower the pressure 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