School Bus Driver’s Wish: A Fraction of the Distraction

“Attention determines destiny.”

I read that line in, of all places, a book my friend wrote about Kabbalah (the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible) and it is The Truth when it comes to driving a school bus.

If you’ve been behind the wheel of the Big Yellow Madhouse for any length of time, you know full well that when your attention wanders, so does your bus, your passengers, you, and your destiny, which could be anywhere or, worse, any thing … like another vehicle, a pedestrian, a tree, a pole, a ditch.

See: Zoning Out Behind the Wheel is No Way to Go

One of the frequent topics in my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series is the overhead (and aptly-nicknamed) “Suicide Mirror.” As I’ve told my precious cargo many, many, many times: When their shenanigans make me look up at the mirror, my eyes are not on the road and anything can happen, none of it good.

(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.)

A typical view in the overhead mirror.

Of course, none of what I say sinks into their pointed little heads. They just think they can do or ask me for anything at any time. The bus is a playhouse to them and the idea that I’m steering it at 30-plus miles an hour and must be careful is totally foreign. Though they’ve surely been scolded by their parents for making family car trips an ordeal, they’ve never actually driven anything. So what do they know or care?

The more I worry that they’re up to no good back there, the more my eyes wander to the mirror. Wisenheimer, a particularly relentless seventh-grade agitator, likes to stand in the aisle, throw things or stick his arm out the window even though I’ve warned him many times saying, “I assume you value your hand.”

So much stuff competes for your attention: Calls on the two-way radio, kids scuttling about in the aisle and climbing on seats, wrestling, shrieking, making grating animal noises or singing off-key (particularly “Baby Shark”), insults and fights, and asking for stuff.

Phaedra needs a band-aid. Hortense Prunella wants a paper towel because there’s icky stuff on her seat. Ocarina wants her window raised or lowered.

It’s particularly alarming when kids suddenly materialize behind or next to you, especially while you’re dropping someone off or picking them up and need to cross them on a busy street.

“Mr. Bus Driver, can I have a pencil?

“Mr. Bus Driver Dude, can I sit with Stufflebean?”

And every pilot’s favorite: “Mr. Bus Driver, Ichabod is throwing up!”

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

It never ends, and neither do the complaints.

“Mr. Bus Driver, Withershins hit me!”

“Mr. Bus Driver, Rollo took my water bottle!”

“Mr. Bus Driver, Jehosaphat isn’t in his seat!”

“Mr. Bus Driver, Josephine called me a doodyhead!”

After one blizzard of cries from the back, I finally grabbed the PA and told them, “Look, I don’t need to hear about it every time someone annoys you! Unless they’re sawing your arm off with a rusty knife, wait until your stop or we get to school to tell me, OK?”

“Do clean knives count?” Brutus asked.

See: The Rat Patrol

And I haven’t even mentioned the friendly chatter such as town crier kids telling you what their dopey brother or sister did while their parents were out or how their uncle just got out of jail. Chatty third-grader Hobbestweedle likes to sit behind me and pepper me with questions like, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” and “What is the most musical part of a chicken?” (Answer: The drumstick.)

I’ve also been bombarded by dramatic readings, such as Hobbestweedle’s performance of Poe’s “The Raven” and Prudence’s presentation of “The Wish Tree.”

“I’ll read the first eight chapters!” she announced as she settled behind me with her copy of the book.

All you can do is go on “Hmm mmmm” autopilot and make ’em think you’re listening. I’ve tried to maximize peace and quiet with assigned seats, but school authorities tell us to keep an eye on the little buggers.

So I keep fighting to keep an eye on the road and my destiny.

The Back of the Bus: Where the Action Is

It’s a school kid’s Promised Land, their El Dorado. A seat there is the Holy Grail. It’s where the fun and food and shenanigans are, the talk is coarse, and the facts of life are learned and debated.

It’s the famous back of the bus, the coveted last two or three rows that attract kids the way a shiny object draws horse flies.

(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.)

Oh, they think the old fart at the wheel can’t see what they’re up to, but I can certainly hear them. They also keep forgetting there’s a video camera on them and that I can see them in my overhead mirror — scuttling about, rough housing, doing headers over the setbacks, throwing stuff around and out the windows, yelling snarky things at pedestrians …

On one trip, I spotted the always mischievous Coggins waving and hooting at a big truck behind us.

“I hope he’s being cool,” I thought. “The last thing I need is an irate 16-wheeler driver chasing me.”

Even during these days of plague, with only eight or 10 riders on each trip, they all head straight to the back. Sometimes it’s a stampede for the very last row after school lets out.

In an uncertain world, it’s comforting (I guess) to know that you can always count on mayhem in the back, especially when males are in the mix. I learned that the hard way.

See: Meet the Hellions

During my first two years of driving, the back of my bus was a combination three-ring circus and uncanny recreation of the Haymarket Riot of 1886. It was all I could do to not keep looking in the overhead mirror at the horror going on. That was how my famous Roadside Lecture Series was born.

Oddly, Coggins and his fellow eighth-graders weren’t all that bad, other than the occasional header or water fight. Most of the trouble was between the sixth graders, who were trying to prove how tough they were, and the other kids who found them highly annoying. Some semblance of order was preserved by the seniority system I adopted from the driver who used to have my run: eighth graders in the back four rows, seventh graders in the middle four, and sixth graders in the front four.

The intermediate schoolers were another matter.

Dear Brutus, always respectful.

I had at least six certified firestarters among my 25 or so passengers, and until I wised up and assigned everyone seats, Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, Ignatz and his sidekicks Stitch and Satch were moved up and back like yo-yos. Wherever they went, mayhem followed, but it was somewhat more containable the closer they were to me.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Believe me, I gave those rascals every chance to prove they could behave.

What a fool I was.

“If you don’t behave this time,” I said in a fiery speech after yet another outrage, this one involving cereal, “I’m going to move you all up for good and you won’t like it.”

They didn’t.

I finally went nuclear after a stream of complaints from other kids about cursing in the back, Brutus whacking Ophelia with a book bag, and Esmerelda slugging Brutus in the gut.

My “Girls Only” rule for the last four rows created peace in our time — girls are generally more civilized than boys at this age — but only after it sparked a loud protest by the lads, who chanted, “We want to sit in the back! We want to sit in the back!!”

I stifled their uprising with a question: “Hey, why would I let you sit in the back again when every time you’ve been there you’ve caused me problems? I may look dumb but my mama didn’t raise no fools!”

Apparently they thought otherwise because after they were moved up, they attempted a devilish ploy.

“Can we move back?” Satch asked me one morning after we arrived at his school. “The third graders are attacking us.”

“They’re cracking our spines!” Ignatz added with a most serious expression.

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “Well, if anyone cracks your spines again, you tell me and I shall have Principal Diesel assign them to the stocks!”

See: The School Bus Justice System

Of course, they were the ones assigned to the stocks a few days later … for tormenting the kids in the middle of the bus. But Assistant Principal Carnage later told me Ignatz had said during his Star Chamber hearing that he was relieved things were much calmer on the bus since I’d moved him and the Stooges out of the back.

I have noticed that as the school year progresses, the front becomes more appealing. Where once I was radioactive, the seats near me are now a sanctuary from the madness in the rear. Even Brutus and Beetlebomb asked if they could move up at one particularly crazy point.

Still, the lure of the back is eternal.

“Mr. Bus Driver,” Stitch asked me one afternoon months after he and his gang had been permanently planted in the middle and front of the bus, “when will we be allowed to move to the back again?”

“Maybe when you’re in high school,” I told him with a big grin. “Most likely when you’re in college.”

The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

It’s said that you never forget your first. That’s true in this noble profession. Many drivers remain fond of the first school bus they drove and I’m no different.

Mine was an International 40-footer with 103,000 miles on it. I called it Tarkus, after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s classic album of the same name. It was a fitting moniker. The engine roared and the bus rumbled along like it was on tank treads.

(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.)

Tarkus was a rustic vehicle to say the least. Besides the rust patches and frayed, duct-taped seats (kids enjoyed pulling stuffing out of the holes), the heat barely worked and the PA didn’t. But I adapted as I navigated my way through a (very) challenging first year of driving that included brake failure, a boil-over breakdown, a scrape with a rock wall while squeezing past a tree crew, and dinging two buses while entering or leaving my parking space at our compound.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

“Are you trying to kill all our buses?” our dispatcher finally asked me one morning when I radioed in that Tarkus had failed to start after I’d dropped my precious cargo at Bubblefish Middle School.

Good question.

Even after a new starter was installed, Tarkus again failed during my first wait for afternoon dismissal at Bubblefish. I was just sitting there with the engine off when a beeping started and the alarm sounded. Vexed, I radioed for help and a mechanic came out out but couldn’t start the bus.

“What a day,” I texted to my wife. “My bus died twice, once in the morning and then in the afternoon after they fixed it.”

“Well, aren’t you glad it was the bus and not you?” she replied.

Well, yes.

Apparently, either Tarkus was haunted or I was. Its flashers would suddenly come on, the stop arms would swing out, the front crossing gate would open, and the beeper would sound with the emergency switches off, all for no apparent reason.

Tarkus was constantly in and out of the garage, leaving me feeling guilty about increasing the workload on our small crew of intrepid, overworked mechanics.

Sadly, after little more than a school year behind the wheel, I was finally switched to Tarkus II … because a parent called to complain that her son had arrived at school encased in ice after a particularly frigid ride. (The “heat” usually took about 45 minutes to reach lukewarm, where it stayed, defying repeated efforts to improve it and inspiring me to suggest that a wood-burning stove be installed.)

The original Tarkus had its shortcomings.

Tarkus II was another International with about 100,000 hard-fought miles on it. The heat was a lot better, but the bus refused to start twice, once after more than a week in the shop for that same problem. While it was laid up, I was given a substitute bus and sure enough a dashboard light resembling a mushroom cloud came on during my first run.

“The engine is having a meltdown!” I cried over the radio.

It turned out that it was only a problem with the exhaust system, but for good measure that bus soon developed an air brake leak.

“You’re breaking all the buses!” our head mechanic groused as I left my big yellow victim in front of the garage.

Tarkus II was soon deemed unreliable, so I was given Tarkus III, yet another International with 94,000 miles on it.

“I feel sorry for it,” one of my fellow drivers said as I headed out to it for my first run. “I don’t know how it will survive you.”

Naturally, it wasn’t long before the beeper, engine light and “low coolant level” message came on as I left the compound for a morning run, forcing me to limp back to the garage.

“You’re killing all our buses!” my boss yelled as I schlepped out to the yard and yet another vehicle.

My original Tarkus has sadly gone to the Great Bus Graveyard in the Sky. Meanwhile, Tarkus III and the rest of our fleet quakes in fear when it hears me coming.

They Ain’t Making School Bus Drivers Like They Used To

When I was an apple-cheeked lad riding the bus to school, I never dreamed that one day I would end up behind the wheel. Here I am, still learning the ropes after nearly three years and thinking back to my drivers of yore.

The first one I remember was, fittingly, named John. He hauled me roughly three blocks from my house to Locust Elementary School. A real character with a flat-top haircut, John had a big transistor radio held together with thick rubber bands on his dashboard. AM stations spouting news or the top pop music of the day (Beatles, Beach Boys, Supremes, Four Seasons etc. ) was always on.

(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.)

John was definitely a rascal. If you sat directly behind him, sometimes while we were stopped he’d suddenly spin around, grab your thigh and squeeze hard right above your knee, causing a sensation like being tickled. If I did something like that today I’d end up in the hoosegow. We’re told to never touch kids unless it’s an emergency.

Also not recommended: Stopping and taking a kid into a liquor store so they can use the bathroom. Yes, I heard about a (now ex-) driver who actually did that.

Times have certainly changed. My friend Dave told me of the time when he was about eight years old and his bus was bombarded with snowballs thrown by a bunch of kids atop a snow mountain in a freshly-plowed supermarket parking lot.

“Our driver, Steve, stopped the bus and let the big kids (seventh and eighth graders) out to throw snowballs at those kids and chase them off the mountain,” Dave said. “All us little kids got to watch and yell out the windows at the carnage. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life up to that point.” 

Nowadays I’d bet my last crinkled George Washington that Steve would be pelted with a pink slip for pausing his route to provide such excitement.

Speaking of excitement, when my kids were in grade school during the early 2000s, their driver was a foul-mouthed dame who delighted in leaving them in the dust even as they were coming down the driveway in the morning. She once gleefully told her passengers, “Watch! The Rolfe kids are going to miss the bus today!” before driving off.

My wife had to complain to their school to get her to stop, but that driver kept her job. How, I don’t know.

I do have to admit I’ve been tempted to follow that lady’s lead-footed example with a kid who deliberately shuffles so slowly from his house to my bus door that you can clock him with a sun dial. But patience is a virtue in this gig, especially if you want to keep it.

Those Were the Days

There’s a lot of stuff we drivers aren’t supposed to do anymore, like handing out candy (food allergies, medical emergencies and lawsuits go hand-in-legal-brief) or punting kids off the bus for misbehaving.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Used to be you could just pull over anywhere and make miscreants walk home. A colleague of mine told me she set a district record for most hellions ejected from her bus in one semester (57) before the rules were changed. Now we have to deposit the little Visigoths at their home or school unless they are so out of control that we need to call 911.

I don’t recall causing trouble during my salad days. I do remember Seb, my stoic high school driver, occasionally pulling over to browbeat us for being rowdy. In a kind of cosmic full-circle, I now have my “Roadside Lecture Series” where I harangue my precious cargo about the importance of not recreating the Battle of Bull Run while I’m trying to drive.

Who knows if any kids will remember me. Maybe years from now my little nemesis Robespierre will say, “Yeah, I had this weird old geezer who called me Porcupine.” Or Ignatz and his pals Stitch and Satch will chortle when they recall the driver who used to bark at them over the PA, “Will you stooges sit down back there!”

It’s the stuff of golden memories.

The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

They say the camera don’t lie, and for that I am (mostly) thankful.

Being monitored by a video surveillance system makes driving my big yellow nuthouse a lot less stressful if a bit more embarrassing. It’s easy to forget it’s on and start talking to yourself … much to the amusement of anyone who watches the footage.

(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.)

On a more serious note, I don’t know how drivers got by without an on-board camera to keep things honest.

“He said, she said” situations with kids or parents can put us in serious professional or legal jeopardy. Drivers I know have been confronted by angry parents and relatives. My worst incident was an upset mother threatening to “rip the heads off” the kids who taunted her son. I calmly assured her I’d asked the school to investigate the incident, but she could have claimed I was nasty to her when I told her she wasn’t allowed to come on board. It’s a relief to have proof of my innocence in the proverbial video pudding.

Having your “tape pulled” and reviewed is invaluable for proving your case against the little viper you suspect has been up to no good like fastening seat belts across the aisle to create tripwires.

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

It’s also a stark existential moment that makes you put your life under a microscope.

Anything you’ve done or said can be used against you. Any little molehill you can think of feels like Mount Everest while your video is being scrutinized. Driving errors like failing to signal a turn have been called out by school principals who insist on watching an entire run before they rule on whether the driver coulda-shoulda prevented Smedley from stealing Stufflebean’s Pokemon cards. But drivers have been caught in fireable offenses like texting at the wheel.

It’s always the day I’ve done something unseemly that the video from my bus is called in for review.

One afternoon I was waiting outside Helga Poppin Intermediate School for my precious cargo to be dismissed when a mosquito bite on my foot started tormenting me. I got up, plopped onto a seat out of a view (so I thought), took off my sneaker and sock, and enjoyed a good scratch … before realizing the camera was still running. Not my most dignified on-screen moment.

Of course, I was summoned to the dispatcher’s office at the end of my run.

“Mrs. Overshoe called and said Prudence came home with blue nail polish all over her book bag,” I was told.

“I had no idea anything happened,” I stammered. Usually, kids tell on their tormentors. Not this time. So I was asked, “Can you have your tape pulled?”

See: The Rat Patrol: No One Likes a Snitch (Except a Bus Driver)

The video revealed Prudence was splashed with polish when Pismeyer and Jehosaphat wrassled for a bottle of it they’d taken from Prudence’s friend Esmerelda. Of course, I fretted about how good I must have looked scratching my dog before the fun started.

I confess I’ve lost a pound or two in anxious sweat at times like that.

During one particularly tumultuous run, I blurted “don’t be a smart ass” at sassy fourth-grader Robespierre when he cracked wise at me after one of my many, many roadside lectures about the evils of swinging from the chandeliers. Embarrassed, I hesitated to write up the incident but gulped deeply and prayed that viewing the riot in back would make the court take some mercy on me.

Blessedly, no one called me out. (Shows you the power of religion, eh? It’s why there are few atheists in these yellow trenches.)

I constantly tell kids that everything they say and do is being recorded, but they still swear on a big stack o’ Bibles that they’re innocent even though their guilt will be right there on the video. It’s one of the lessons they never learn, like the dangers of scuttling around the bus while it’s in motion.

Kids are always gobsmacked when they get caught in a sweep for others’ misdeeds. While reviewing complaints about salty language on my bus, Principal Diesel at Helga Poppin spotted an infraction away from the action: Hortense Prunella slugging Brutus in the gut. The young lady was shocked to be called on Diesel’s carpet.

When they are aware of the cameras, kids sometimes play to them, mugging, waving and yelling “Hi!” Others get smart. An eighth-grader smugly told me he and his partners in crime on another bus used to spray stuff on the camera lenses to cover up their mischief.

Heaven knows we drivers have a lot to contend with, so after writing up some middle school wrong-doers it was gratifying to hear the assistant principal tell me, “I watched the tape and all I can say is thank you. You need to be able to drive the bus, not control behavior. There should be a monitor on every bus but I know that will never happen.”

Hogs will pilot jetliners before it does, but I’ll gladly settle for the security of the camera until then.

School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

When I started piloting a big yellow madhouse in the fall of 2018, a fellow driver gave me a piece of advice: “Always empathize with the child.”

He didn’t mean, “Give the little vipers a pass when they misbehave because life can be tough for them.” He meant keep in mind that even though they are making you want to pull your hair out in tufts it doesn’t mean they are unredeemable monsters.

(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.)

Young, developing brains are sieves when it comes to remembering rules. Kids see the school bus as a playpen. They’ve got a herd mentality (what one does, all will do). Some simply haven’t been taught discipline and respect. Something bad and maybe even very serious may be going on their lives. All of the above can be factors in their behavior.

Challenging authority to prove they’re cool is what kids are legally obligated to do and, like it or not, you’re just another scowling old fart in their lives.

See: Government’s Greasy Fingerprints

Of course, you have to make it clear who is in charge. I’m somewhat mellower than your average houseplant but I have my limits and the kids on my bus know it. Sometimes all I have to do is give them the evil eye and I’ll get an “Oh, sorry” and an end to the mischief. Until the next time … but there’s only so much you can do about young non-stick brains.

What you don’t want to do is make bad matters worse. Had a scuffle with the boss, your spouse or a fellow driver? Don’t take it out on the kids. Don’t take challenges to your authority personally. Don’t get into a sarcastic battle of wits and belittle them. Don’t project your own baggage.

Speaking of baggage, I came in with an American Tourister full of expectations: mainly the worst from my middle schoolers because “junior high” was a nightmare for me when I was a kid. I was picked on and put down for three years. I dreaded every day I had to get on the bus and go to that school.

I couldn’t help noticing that some of my sixth-graders are part of the classic middle school culture of cruelty and harsh judgment, the kinds of kids who tormented me. They constantly put others down and smell blood when they sense fear and hurt in someone.

(“Never let them see you sweating under the collar” when riders are acting up is another piece of great advice I was given by a colleague.)

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

The feeling that these are the punks who made my life miserable! can creep in and color my reactions to provocative behavior if I let it, but this is a whole new situation. I’m not 13 years old anymore, but I do naturally empathize with kids I know are being bullied.

Sometimes it takes real effort to stay emotionally disengaged, but these kids are, after all, 12-year-olds trying to prove they’re cool and tough. They’re brazen in a pack but much more polite and quiet on their own.

See: It Only Takes One

I can’t help wondering what the deal is with the worst-behaved kids on my bus. Sometimes they can be on medication for physical or emotional conditions. You never know.

It’s hard not to notice how many kids come from two homes. Divorce is sometimes for the best, but when you see kids from what appears to be a peaceful, relatively happy and functioning two-parent household, you realize how fortunate they are.

I overheard a discussion where one middle schooler said she remembers her mother throwing plates and that her parents got divorced so the kids wouldn’t see them fighting. “They hate each other now,” she said. That has to have an effect on a kid.

I found that once my passengers get to know and trust me, some open up and start confiding in me. What you hear can be heartbreaking. I’ve been told about neglectful parents, violent crimes (including murder/suicide) that left lasting trauma, close relatives in prison, money and housing troubles that include no heat in winter, and serious illnesses that cast a heavy cloud over kids’ lives.

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on.

See: Understanding Kids

I once found a notebook on my bus open to a page expressing hatred for kids who put the notebook’s owner down. “My confusion won’t let me sleep,” he’d written. I reported it to the school so a guidance counselor could check in and make sure he was OK.

Usually, though, I’m dealing with garden variety shenanigans. Still, it’s aggravating when a piece of your precious cargo immediately starts doing something you just told them not to do, or keeps doing something you’ve told them a million times not to do. Your first thought is, “How dare they disrespect me!”

Brutus, one of my more challenging fourth graders, stands and salutes me when I lecture him for breaking rules. I confess that I fight the urge to waggle my fingers in front of my nose and blow a raspberry at him. Instead, I take a deep breath and chill out. You have to take kids seriously but you can’t take them too seriously.

I’ve also learned to pick my battles (yet another great piece of advice I was given). If I have to, I quietly lower the boom by surprising bad actors with a write-up that brings school officials and parents into the mix. It usually works, especially when they don’t see it coming.

See: The School Bus Justice System

It also helps to keep your sense of humor, but that’s easier said than done. I’m lucky. Unlike many drivers across the land, I haven’t had to deal with really nasty or dangerous kids and situations. One driver I work with has been physically assaulted by a troubled student.

Other colleagues have made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. They’ve told me of students they drove years ago who still remember them, greet them and talk to them whenever they see them in a store or restaurant.

One of my students, who came from a troubled foster home, used to pour his heart out to me. “If you’re driving to the high school next year, can I stop by your bus to talk?” he asked on our last day together.

I was deeply moved. That’s what makes this job so worthwhile. When the going gets tough, you just need to think about where a kid may be coming from.

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

Understanding Kids: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

What do they want?

As the father of three, the stepfather of one, and the bus driver of 60 urchins, it’s a question I’ve asked myself that question many times.

I certainly know why kids are on my bus.

(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.)

I also know that many want to sit in the back of the bus where they have a better chance of getting away with all kinds of ungodly mischief. Some want to stick their arms and heads out the windows and hoot at the people on the street. They all probably want me to stop at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. I get asked to do it quite often.

But some other questions have me scratching my addled head:

Why do kids drive you to wild-eyed exasperation and then ask you for a favor?

One prime example: Brutus, a fourth-grader with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore, is constantly moving about the bus without asking and getting into scrapes with other kids, particularly his adversary, Rollo. Their school told me to separate their assigned seats by a minimum of three rows if three miles are not feasible.

See: It Only Takes One

No matter how many times I sternly tell Brutus to sit down or stop baiting Rollo or leave someone else alone; no matter how many times I yell or write him up, he just keeps doing what he has seemingly been born to do.

Many more than once I’ve had to pull over, secure the bus, scold Brutus and order him up to the “Honored Student Seat” in the front row. I can set my clock by him pleasantly asking within two minutes, “Hey Mr. John, can I sit in the back? I’m being good.”

My now-standard reply: “You’re going to have to be good for longer than that … how about the rest of your life?”

Nevertheless, I can count on him doing it all again the next day. But Brutus is not the only one. Researchers say young, developing brains lack the circuit that connects the bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests the researchers may be right.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Why do kids hate assigned seats but become very protective of them?

Behold Beetlebomb, who always wanders from any seat you give him, but God save anyone who sits there while he’s gone.

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlebomb and Brutus were feeling unusually mellow one morning when they told me they wanted to sit together. Silly me for letting them. They were at each other’s throats by that afternoon.

The next morning, I moved Beetlebomb, who was furious that I’d given his old seat to Oswald because Oswald had asked to sit there.

“Get out of my seat!” Beetlebomb kept demanding, getting in Oswald’s grill while refusing to heed my commands to take his new perch so we could all proceed to school and arrive before sundown.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

“What difference does it make?” I kept asking. “You wouldn’t stay in that seat when you had it!”

“But it’s still mine!” he cried, tempting me to ask him for the deed to it.

Alas, he’s not the only one who has felt that way.

“Hey, Mr. John! Satch (or Hogshead or Hortense Prunella or whoever) is in my seat!” is something I often hear from kids after I’ve allowed them to move during a trip.

“That’s OK. You’re not in it and I said they could sit there” is clearly not an acceptable reply.

Why won’t kids stop moving … until they should move?

Jehosaphat and Lucille are two of the most migratory creatures on my bus. Lucille, who is well-behaved, has earned permission to switch seats (just not while we’re in motion) whenever she likes. Jehosaphat has not, but he will defy even a court order to stay put.

Both can reliably be counted on to be heading somewhere … except when we reach their stops. Then they are frozen in place and need to be told over the P.A. that it might be a good idea to get up and leave.

“How come you’re always moving except when it’s time to get off?” I’ve asked many, many, many times as a long line of clearly aggravated traffic forms behind the bus while Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other gear.

Two years on, I’m still waiting for an explanation.

Kids demand things they don’t want.

The dreaded Sassafrass Gang

Sixth-grader Sassafrass constantly complains about having to sit in the front four rows while Ethel, a seventh-grader she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders like Sassafrass out of the middle four rows where the more sedate seventh-graders are deposited … by order of me for the sake of some semblance of peace.

Unfortunately for Sassafrass, she doesn’t grasp that whenever she and her minions — Wisenheimer, Lulubelle and Zoothorn — get anywhere near Ethel, highly distracting unpleasantries occur.

One day, to my surprise, they all said they wanted to switch seating areas … only to have Sassafrass and Co. return to the front near Ethel the next day.

The ensuing highly distracting unpleasantries forced me to call a summit meeting at their school and include a guidance counselor in the festivities.

So, as near as I can reckon, kids want what they want when they want it … until they don’t want it no more. Which is usually a few minutes later.

Maybe you’ve got them figured out a little better. If so, I salute you.

Getting Down with the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Colds, flu, stomach virus, hoof and mouth disease…

If there’s an illness known to man or beast, we school bus drivers will get it thanks to our daily contact with runny-nosed, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, chundering urchins.

(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.)

I hadn’t had the sniffles in years until I started driving my big yellow sickroom. In an uncertain world, one of the few sure things is the kid who is a fountain of mucus (or worse) will be the one who sits directly behind you and sprays all kinds of germy goodies your way.

The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. Chances are, the first time you hear a “I think I’m gonna be sick” it will be when you’re already running late. Until it happens, you wonder how you’ll respond.

I found out during an afternoon run when several eighth-graders in the back notified me that their pal Coggins had blown grits.

Swallowing my panic, I radioed to base that I was changing my route to drop poor Coggins off first. I was told by our dispatcher that a janitor would be waiting for me upon my arrival at Helga Poppin Intermediate for my next run.

“Great! I don’t have to deal with this mess myself!” I thought with tremendous relief only to be disheartened when only a mop and pail were waiting on the curb; no janitor or assistance as I’d hoped.

Fearing the worst, I crept to the back of the bus … and found no trace of tossed cookies. It occurred to me that the other students had been strangely calm. Usually, a meal in reverse will set off a panic and stampede away from the spill site.

“Could this have been a devilish ploy by Coggins to get home early?” I wondered. I wouldn’t put it past that rascal. His stop is one of the last on the run.

I later asked Wally, an honest eighth-grader who sits near Coggins, and was told the entire mess — more of a severe belch than all-out yak — ended up on the front of the stricken lad’s shirt and one of his sleeves.

I’d dodged a messy bullet for sure, but I learned to keep a clean-up kit (gloves, regurgitation absorber, paper towels, plastic bags) on board.

The telltale sign of gastric calamity: A bus in the district compound, all doors open, mop and bucket by the steps, and a driver forlornly removing the lost lunch.

“This is not worth $20 bucks an hour!” one of my unfortunate colleagues grumbled as he toiled away. A kid he’d told not to eat on the bus went ahead and did it anyway before ejecting some foodstuffs (what goes down, must come up) in a rather nasty firehose fashion.

Of all the challenges we drivers face, one of the most unwelcome is confronting a foul puddle while trying to steer revolted, near-hysterical kids clear and comfort the sick and embarrassed. I’ve gotten off easy. Another colleague drove a vomit comet that had three technicolor yawns on it in one week.

What Goes Around …

With sharing a way of life on a school bus, some of my colleagues have developed respiratory ailments that lasted for months. I once had a mysterious dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep. (It wasn’t COVID.)

My district insists that drivers stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing), feeling symptoms that may be COVID, or after coming in contact with people and places that are possibly infected by the virus.

We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. Ordinarily, unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. I’ve thought about wearing cloves of garlic, too.

COVID-19 is naturally of great concern to school bus drivers. Like me, many of us are of older vintage (50+). We all have to wear masks and keep everyone at least one row apart but having caught COVID at my summer job, I feel reasonably safe. Still, who knows with this bug? It’s sneaky and hits different people differently. (You can read about my COVID experience here.)

When the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the nation in the winter of 2020, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. they’d probably be fine as long as they washed their hands, ate their vegetables, got plenty of sleep, did their homework and chores, and listened to their parents, teachers and, of course, their bus driver.

I was tempted to add, “The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving” as a remedy for a constant problem.

“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by Frieda the friendly fifth-grader as the noisy, afternoon hijinks continued.

“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a dad. I’m used to kids not listening to me.”

I’m also used to kids getting sick on the bus and me getting sick right along with them.

Meet the Hellions

Welcome aboard! 

It’s pushing 6 a.m., the sun is warily cracking the horizon, and I’m firing up Tarkus, my big yellow International bus for a typical morning run to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School and Helga Poppin Intermediate. Our journey will cover roughly 60 miles of beautiful, often peaceful countryside that is in direct contrast to the frenzy within my vehicle. 

NOTE: The children you are about to meet are characters every school bus driver knows all too well. Based on real kids who have darkened my doorway, I’ve given them different names and other characteristics to shroud the inspiration they provided for this blog. It’s safe to say the human race in all its rich ethnic variety is well represented here.

Each run on any given day has a predictable pattern. Mornings are like steam steadily building in a big yellow boiler that will be on the verge of exploding by the time we reach a school. Afternoons are like that intense pressure slowly being released with each drop-off of a student.

Mornings can have at least a shred of sanity as the kids are still sleepy and morose about having to go sit in a classroom for six hours.

Afternoons are another matter.

It’s like the little dears have been pumped full of cane sugar and the finest high-quality methamphetamine.  

“That’s when I earn my combat pay,” one of my battle-hardened colleagues informed me early on. In keeping with that sentiment, I have adopted the motto, “Just win the war, baby.”

In other words, I win the war if I get the little dears to or from school without having an accident or someone getting hurt. Bonus points if no one leaves my bus in tears.

Thankfully, I am undefeated … so far.

World War I

Our first pick-up for Bubblefish is at 6:15 a.m. Middle schoolers are renowned for being aloof and moody thanks to raging hormones, insecurity, and social media pressure. Their desire for group acceptance compels them to commit ghastly acts if doing so will help win them admiration from their peers.

All remains quiet through our first three stops (Lulubelle, Wally, and Mabel) until Fartinhausen (aka Methane Man) joins the mix. No trip is complete without this notoriously gassy sixth-grader grandly announcing an emission that is followed by a noxious cloud and revolted reaction from those around him.

By 6:30, Lucifer has gotten behind me. Foul of mouth and impervious to punishment, he is what we in the trade call a “firestarter.” This seventh-grader can ignite a brouha in an empty room. 

Before we reach the end of his block, the first F-bomb or “Shut up, b—h!” has been dropped.

Game on.

While Lucifer and Methane Man swap barbs and threats, the back rows steadily fill with a collection of snarky eighth-graders: OttoJethroCoggins, and Skeezix, who allow a couple of a suitably cool seventh-graders — Spud and Herkimer — to sit among them.

Most of the ladies — Penny,  Mildew, GertrudeMinnie, BabsHeloise and Henrietta — gather closer to the middle of the bus and always seem to be up to something (their squeals are a dead giveaway), though identifying perpetrators is a job for a monitor — a luxury I don’t have on my bus.

The crew is completed by chatty sixth-graders Zoot Horn, Sassafrass and Weisenheimer, who join Lulubelle in the rows close behind me.

With Tarkus loaded with precious cargo by 7 a.m., our 20-minute ride to Bubblefish is usually a zesty affair chock full of flatulence, bloodcurdling profanity, salacious music, jarring noise, raucous laughter, dancing in the aisles, and my howls of “Sit down!” and “Watch your language!” all of which are more intense during the return trip in the afternoon. 

After depositing my charges at their institution (of learning), I have a half-hour respite before my run to Helga Poppin. Some drivers linger in the lot at Bubblefish, but I prefer a spot in the countryside where I inhale coffee and steel myself for the squalls and brushfires to come.

Buckle up!

WORLD WAR II

Intermediate schoolers are more sociable than middle schoolers, but they are also creatures of unfortunate impulse with the attention span of squirrels and, occasionally, the temperaments of rabid raccoons. 

We start at 8 a.m. with a combustible mix that includes fourth-grade agitator Beetlebomb, his sidekick Hobbestweedle, and their cantankerous classmate Brutus, a notorious firestarter who comes bearing a chip on his shoulder the size of a bank safe. 

Beetlebomb and Brutus are frenemies, so peace occasionally reigns through our first nine or 10 pickups.

Then master of mischief Robespierre climbs aboard followed by Ignatz & The Stooges (his pals Stitch and Satch), a truly “happening” crew. What’s happening is always cause for consternation. Robespierre is an expert pot-stirrer, a master at roiling the masses. The charismatic Ignatz carries himself with a mob boss swagger that is catnip to two older ladies on the bus: fifth-graders Ophelia and Esmerelda

By 8:20, we’ve taken on Jehosaphat, an upstanding fourth-grader (he won’t stay seated) and reliable source of litter. The levels of noise, scuttling, conflict, and hijinks rise dramatically. In this bubbling stew, Petunia and her friends Lucille and Phaedra are huddling in the back while the gals nearest me — PrudenceMaude, Ocarina and Calliope — discuss the natural weirdness of boys. 

At 8:24, behold Freida and Huggins shortly followed by Louie and Louise. All are so polite and well-behaved, they make me weep at the thought that I can’t drive a bus full of them.

Then it’s time to abandon all hope:

Here comes Rollo, arch-nemesis of Brutus and, for that matter, everyone else on the bus. Like Lucifer on my Bubblefish run, Rollo cannot be subdued by threats and punishment. I’m told only tear gas will work. 

By 8:30 the bus is nearly at full boil when we pull into a day care enterprise we’ll call Urchins Amok. It’s here we take on MagnoliaBeatriceHortence Prunella, Josephine, Fescue, Guttersnipe, Bumpus and Stu.

In the afternoon, we’ll haul them and an additional load of rollicking urchins from Helga Poppin back to Urchins Amok. The P.M. crew includes HortonNortonMorton, Thornton and Gordon, interchangeable lads I can’t keep straight because they quickly blend in with each other and the madding crowd the same way that Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly and Sally do before they all exit 20 minutes later. 

Fortunately, Daisy is memorably whimsical, but Axel and Buster are hard to forget because they distinctively enhance any volatile situation with their brazenness.

Last but certainly not least, we have Pismeyer, primary purveyor of projectiles. If something’s in the air, Pismeyer likely put it there.

Suffice it to say, a trip between Poppin and Amok feels like the longest trek in the history of mankind. It’s truly amazing how much trouble and noise kids can make within the space of a few minutes, and I am often reminded of something the legendary comedian W.C. Fields once said: 

“I like children. If they’re properly cooked.”

The Merciful End

After a morning run, I’m back at the depot by 9 a.m. with time to regroup until my afternoon shift begins at 1:30. Somehow I find the strength to do my pre-and-post-trip inspection paperwork and gas up Tarkus, which will be strewn with crumbs and trash by the time my day mercifully ends by 5.

“Do you get a prize when you go back?” Hobbestweedle asked one day.

“Maybe a hearty handclasp or tearful hug,” I replied.

Driving a school bus. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

School Bus Driving 101: Shake Hands With Slack Adjusters and Livestock

Getting a CDL seemed simple enough. Until I got into the process. 

The first step was landing a permit for a Class B (bus) license with S (school bus) and P (passengers) endorsements. So off I went to my friendly Department of Motor Vehicles in Poughkeepsie. After forking over $22.50 to the requisite scowling clerk, I was told I needed to pass three written tests.

(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.)

I spent a fretful month scowling at nine sections and 132 pages-worth of the New York State Commercial Driver’s Manual, filling my spinning skull with the intricacies of air brakes, hauling cargo (including livestock, which, it turns out, was quite apropos), and emergency evacuations.

See: Meet the Hellions

“What’s taking so long?” my wife kept asking as the weeks rolled by and I continued to scribble copious notes in preparation for my day of reckoning. “Anyone can drive a bus!”

Or so we thought.

“I have no experience with this stuff and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” I kept replying. “Did you know that if a brake’s slack adjuster moves more than one inch where the push rod is attached, it probably needs adjustment?”

“So do you. Hurry up!”

Much to my relief, I passed the tests, oddly acing the air brakes and passenger safety parts while muffing several questions on the basic rules of the road for all drivers. I was also chuffed to pass a required state physical, actually managing to provide evidence of a pulse. I then strong-armed three former colleagues and/or friends to vouch for my character in writing and applied for a gig at what I’ll call Fishmeal Falls Central School District. 

The main advantage to the approach I took to getting my CDL is that, if hired, I’d be paid while I trained for my bus road test, a substantial savings over the driving school route, which can run well over $1,000. But getting hired, aye, there’s the rub.

“So you want to drive a school bus, eh?” one of the Fishmeal Falls Transportation Department’s directors asked during my interview. “Why?”

As a refugee from the wonderful world of media, I felt like an odd duck, but other applicants had also washed up on the shore of bus driving after being cast adrift by big corporations. I explained that I enjoyed driving and had a passing familiarity with children, being the father of three and stepfather of one who were the basis of a family humor column I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal for 16 years (and is now available in “The Goose In The Bathroom”). No stranger to challenges and aggravation am I, sir!

The glad tidings of my hiring came in a phone call cheerfully informing me that I’d been scheduled for a physical performance test at the Fishmeal Falls bus compound. It involved huffing and puffing up and down bus steps three times in 30 seconds, racing from the driver’s seat out the rear emergency door in 20 ticks, and dragging a 125-pound sack 30 feet in 30.

Being in Pillsbury Doughboy shape and possessing a morphine addict’s reflexes, I trained like I was facing an audition at the NFL Scouting Combine. I stomped up and down my porch steps and hauled bags of sand around my driveway for a week.

Thankfully, the actual test turned out to be far less taxing than toting the folders full of regulations, district procedures and employee conduct manuals I was given.

Next step: Coughing up $104 for the privilege of being fingerprinted. Then it was time to learn how to pilot a bus without terrorizing the community.

See: School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

FUN REGULATIONS TO KNOW AND TELL

1. Combustible materials are not to be carried in the passenger compartment (17 NYCRR 721.4A 8). Apparently, this does not apply to temperamental children.

2. Not withstanding the provisions of any law to the contrary, every driver of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary (VTL 1146). The laws to the contrary must be interesting. 

3. No driver of a vehicle shall sound the horn when approaching or passing a horse on a public highway (VTL 1146 a3). Carrots are much safer and more effective.

4. Fuel tanks shall not be filled while pupils are in the bus (8 NYCRR 156.3 d5). A vehicle shall not be fueled while the engine is running and no smoking or flames shall be permitted in or about the vehicle during fueling operations and until all fumes are dissipated. (17 NYCRR 721.4A 7). The days of cigar-chewing drivers pumping gas while students enjoy a butt have been legislated, if not blown, out of existence.

5. No person shall operate a motor vehicle without having at least one hand or, in the case of a physically handicapped person, at least one prosthetic device or aid on the steering mechanism at all times when the motor vehicle is in motion (VTL 1226). Rest assured that the “Look Ma, no hands!” style of driving is frowned upon in respectable states and school districts.

6. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to enter or leave the bus while it is in motion (8 NYCRR 156.3 d1). Although we’d occasionally like to do so, especially the leaving part. Alas, our requests for ejector seats are routinely denied.

7. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to thrust their heads or arms out of open windows (8 NYCRR 156.3 d3). As much as we’d sometimes like to thrust certain pupils out of open windows …

8. Drivers shall not exceed a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour on any road within or outside of New York State while their school bus is being used for the transportation of pupils. The 55 mph limit applies to any size bus as well as Suburbans, Grand Caravans and school cars when kids are on board even if the posted limit is greater than 55. Nothing — and I mean nothing — shall prohibit a school district from imposing a more restrictive speed limit policy. Tailgating to goose us along is futile!

9. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall check the vehicle to ensure that no child is left behind on board unattended at the conclusion of the school bus route (8 NYCRR 156.3 e4). This one was apparently the goal of the national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

10. Every motor vehicle with a seating capacity of more than seven passengers, and used primarily to transport pupil or pupils and teachers to and from school, shall be painted the color known as “national school bus chrome” (VTL 375.21). Now you know what that shade of yellow is called.

Fun Popular Myths About Bus Laws & Regulations to Know and Tell

Here are a few things I was surprised to learn while plowing through the rules and regulations books…

1. A bus ride cannot exceed one hour. No law restricts the length of a student’s bus ride, although the State Education Department recommends a one-hour maximum when possible. Unfortunately, many rides feel much longer than an hour … usually to the driver.

2. Bus drivers could be sued if a child isn’t wearing a seat belt in an accident. School bus drivers and attendants are protected from liability so long as belts were available and in working order, and all other laws and local policies were complied with. Unfortunately, most children refuse to acknowledge the presence of seats, so lots of luck getting them to use the belts for anything other than smacking each other with the metal latches or connecting them to form tripwires across the aisle.

3. Bus drivers over 65 (or 70) need more frequent physicals than younger drivers. The same standards apply to old farts as whippersnappers. Any driver can be required to undergo additional tests, due to specific medical issues, but not based on how many rings are in their trunk.

4. School buses must make a full stop at yield signs, regardless of traffic conditions. No state law or regulation requires school buses to routinely stop at all yield signs. And we still refuse to make a right turn on red no matter how long you lean on your horn or wave your middle finger. 

5. Emergency vehicles do not have to stop for a school bus’s flashing lights. There are no statutory exceptions, but school bus drivers should make every effort to allow emergency vehicles to pass. Everyone must stop unless they’d like five points tacked on their license and their wallet relieved of at least $250.