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 no-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 can’t help noticing that some of my sixth-graders belong to 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.

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: Meet the Hellions

I naturally wonder 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 home, 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. One girl told me how she dreads that her father will die.

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on. I had a fifth-grader who said alarming things like, “I think about killing people” and “What if you went to a boarding school where they made you forget your parents and when you graduated, they kill you?”

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 (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.

Another colleague made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. She told me of students she drove years ago who still remember her, greet her and talk to her whenever they see her 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.

Understanding Kids: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

What do they want?

That question continues to vex me. As the father of three, the stepfather of one, and the bus driver of 60, I’m still no closer to an answer than I was when I was a kid who thought he knew what he wanted.

What do they want?

(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 know why kids are on my bus, but not what they ultimately want.

I also know this much: 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 there are other things that have me scratching my addled head:

Kids will drive you to the edge of apoplexy, 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.

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

See: The School Bus Justice System

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

My 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 a bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests they may be right.

Kids hate assigned seats but are very territorial about them.

Behold Beetlebomb, who always wanders from any seat you give him (I wrote “in theory” under his name above one), but God save anyone who sits there while he’s gone.

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlbomb 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 that afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

The next morning, I moved Beetlebomb, who was furious that I’d given his old seat with Hobbestweedle to Oswald after Oswald 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.

“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 to present the deed.

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 an assortment of 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.

Kids won’t 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 while a long line of clearly aggravated traffic forms behind us as Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other accoutrements.

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

Kids demand things they don’t want.

Sixth-grader Sassafrass constantly complains about having to sit in the front four rows while Ethel, whom she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders 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 ensue.

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.

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. 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.

Being stuck on a packed bus while you wait for the signal to unload your patients at their school is not one of life’s more pleasant situations. On the plus side, when half of your passengers are out with whatever’s going around, your job tends to be blessedly calmer and easier.

The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. 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 just 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. Then 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 — from 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 lonely 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.

Another sure thing: Your first, “Hey Bus Driver, I think I’m gonna throw up!” will come when you absolutely can’t afford a delay. Trying to finish my afternoon runs on time, if not early, in order to make the 7 p.m. start of an Elton John concert two hours away, my heart (and stomach) sank when Ethel the middle schooler reported feeling green at the gills.

All I could do was hand her a plastic shopping bag, goose the gas, and pray. Fortunately, she kept her chowder down.

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 and required multiple visits to the doctor and medication. The worst I’ve had (besides head colds) was a dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep.

My district says drivers should stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing, as being left short-staffed gives our dispatchers agita). We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. So unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. Maybe wearing cloves of garlic will help.

Coronavirus is naturally of concern to school bus drivers. Many of us are of ancient vintage (50+) and not in the best physical shape though we can’t be so crumbly we fail physical performance tests (timed exits from the bus; dragging a 125-pound sack that approximates a prone carcass). It’s important to be reasonably active as it is a sedentary gig, like a desk job with a steering wheel. Back and hip problems are common.

Unfortunately, I mainly get my aerobic exercise these days by shrieking at kids or running to the bathroom. Aggravation at least keeps the heart rate up and you can work up a nice sweat at the sight of what is going on behind you.

With coronavirus panic sweeping the nation, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader even had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. that I’d heard that the bug wasn’t affecting many children and they’d probably be just fine as long as they 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” but thought that might be pressing my luck with parents whose little loved ones came home and repeated what Mr. Driver had said.

When the kids’ chatter about coronavirus continued the next day, I got on the P.A. and said, “Hey, if you’re worried, you can tell your parents that we’re disinfecting the buses now.”

No one seemed to care or react.

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

“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a father. 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.

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

One of the requirements of this noble profession is controlling herds of cantankerous, rambunctious kids while piloting a 29,000-pound yellow building along treacherous roads. Hey, no sweat!

(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.)

Though we bus jockeys often work wonders, we can’t be in two places at once — behind the wheel and in the back prying children off one another. Fortunately, kids do help us by providing useful intel on lawbreakers.

A word from a well-placed informant enables me to catch perps in the act by looking in the rearview mirror or having the on-board video reviewed.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Kids hate being ratted out and complain bitterly to the snitch, sometimes threatening retribution. But I’ve been amazed to find that once a rule-breaker has been called on the carpet, he or she will immediately turn stool pigeon with great enthusiasm. And there’s a domino effect. The more kids get caught, the more kids there are to provide constant choruses of “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! [Name here] is [committing crime here].”

Fourth-grader Beetlebomb is a prime example. A master rabble rouser and wandering instigator, he’s frequently been written up for creating safety issues (distractions for the driver). As I eternally try to explain to my precious cargo, when they do things that make me look at the overhead rearview “suicide” mirror instead of the road, we are very possibly heading for an accident.

Whenever he’s been brought to justice, Beetlebomb promptly starts blowing the whistle on every rule-breaker he sees. Girls are common targets, especially for boys like Beetlebomb who resent my “Females Only” policy for sitting in the coveted back four rows. (I’ve found that the ladies are just better-behaved than the laddies.)

See: Student management, assigned seats and sanity

“Hey, Mr. John! Lucille and Daisy are changing seats while the bus is moving,” Beetlebomb yelled one afternoon after visiting the principal’s office for having committed that very infraction on many occasions.

“How come you never tell me when you move without asking?” I wondered aloud over the PA.

“You’re always busy screaming about everyone else,” he replied.

Like other stoolies, Beetlebomb won’t hesitate to tell on his pals.

“Brutus is picking on Muffin!” he informed me one day. “She’s crying.”

Sure enough. So I gave Brutus the finger — the good ol’ come-to-the-front index finger.

Besides being a holding pen, the front of the bus is also a nest of spies. Calliope, Ocarina and Prudence (who is also allowed to move to the back whenever she wishes) sit directly behind me and keep a sly, close eye on mischief. Ocarina alerted me to Brutus using his phone (all electronic devices are prohibited), which moved Brutus to immediately alert me to Petunia and Lucille crawling around on the floor.

“Phaedra gives out lollipops and leaves the sticks all over the bus!” is another piece of Brutus dish he delivered one afternoon while departing the bus at his home.

Calls to the cop (me) easily become a flood of distraction over matters that can easily wait until I’m done trying to, oh, say, stay on a slippery curving road.

When Brutus yelled, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! Robespierre is eating!” in one such instance, I couldn’t resist asking, “Is he cheating on his taxes, too? If so, let me know and I’ll alert the IRS.”

See: Meet the Hellions

Sometimes you have no choice but to take immediate action. Brutus alerted me to the scent of peanuts just days after I’d told the kids about the dangers of food allergies. Fortunately, we hadn’t left Helga Poppin Intermediate yet, so I marched back to find Ignatz quickly closing his book on a bag of the feared nuts while his henchman Stitch chowed down on graham crackers.

They gazed at me wide-eyed as I told them about having to call 911 in the case of an allergic reaction by one of their fellow riders.

“You’ll feel guilty!” I said. “And I’ll make you visit them at the hospital.”

Another day, I was handed a “signed” letter from Ignatz, Jehosaphat, Robespierre, Pismeyer, Beetlebomb, and Axel accusing Brutus of making inappropriate noises and using words that would make the vicar blush. They also threw Buster under the bus for assorted high crimes and misdemeanors.

Alarmed, I took the note to Assistant Principal Carnage, who asked for proof of the alleged misdeeds. I must admit I expected the long arm of the law to swing into immediate action upon my mere request. Now that I’ve thought about it, Carnage was only being fair in a balanced-scales-of-justice way.

“Did you ask Brutus and Buster if they did it?” I was asked — really, what are they going to say? I thought — and it was suggested that I patrol the aisle when possible. We’ll see. I have to figure out how to do it while I’m driving because that’s when the dirty deeds usually go down, but blessedly I have my trusty spies.

Tis the Season of Sugary Wonder on This Bus

The holiday season is said to be a time of miracles. By golly, it looks like that’s true.

(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.)

About two weeks before Christmas, I was rumbling along a stretch of road where my intermediate schoolers usually come off the spool — yelling, rough-housing, darting from seat to seat, throwing stuff — when I gazed up at my rearview mirror and to what to my wondering eyes did appear but children … sitting.

Every last one of them.

I nearly wept in astonishment — never before had all of my precious cargo been seated at the same time — and not only that, they were all talking in their “classroom voices.”

This miraculous scene lasted a full 15 minutes. By the time we reached Helga Poppin Intermediate School, things were a bit livelier but still far from the usual earsplitting chaos.

Of course it helped that several prime pot-stirrers, notably Brutus and Rollo, were not on board, but agitator extraordinaire Beetlebomb was inspired to yell, “Mr. John! See how good we’re being?”

When I recounted this truly historic day to one of my colleagues at the Fishmeal Falls Central bus compound, she said, “They’re probably trying to look good for Santa.”

Probably.

Their strangely angelic behavior continued the next day for the entire morning ride, and I couldn’t help wondering if something was terribly wrong with the children. Nevertheless, I broke my cardinal rule about never acknowledging positives (it jinxes them) and I commended the minions as we sat outside their school waiting for the signal to release them. 

See: Meet the Hellions

“People, this was one of our best trips ever,” I declared over the PA. “You guys were great!”

Rowdy fourth-graders Robespierre and Jehosaphat were so touched by my sentiments that they came forth to pat me on the shoulder and say, “Good job, Mr. John!”

Naturally, Beetlebomb, Robespierre and Jehosaphat had the joint jumping on the way home, but it was a truly spiritual moment during a time when the sugary rush of the holidays leaves my bus sounding and looking like Times Square during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Noise, candy wrappers, and festive trash cover everything like fresh fallen snow.

Blessedly, at this time of year the kids also render unto Caesar for all of his suffering. The bounty of goodies and Dunkin Donuts gift cards that are bestowed upon me certainly go a long way toward un-curdling my usually crusty demeanor. 

Of course, it never hurts to bribe the bus driver. 

I was on the verge of speaking to Jehosaphat’s parents about the need for them to remind him yet again that those strange objects (seats) are there for his safety when he came aboard and presented me with a gift card.

“Maybe another day,” I thought, stashing the offering in my shirt.

I must confess I have a soft spot for students who come bearing gifts.

“When’s your birthday?” I was asked one afternoon by Ethel the eighth-grader. The date was still a week or so away, and I was stunned when she boarded the bus on the solemn occasion and declared, “I remembered what you said. Happy birthday!”

It was very sweet of her. So was the Christmas candy cane and note she gave me that read, “I hope you have a safe holiday. I’m also grateful that I have you as a bus driver!”

I’m still getting the hang of this Christmas thing, though. Other drivers wear Santa suits, hang decorations, play holiday tunes and hand out gifts. I’m Scrooge by comparison, but I did hang a stocking full of candy canes from the dashboard and invite departing riders to take one.

“Hey, the bus driver’s nice!” I heard Axel — a cheeky fifth-grader who is often the object of my scolding — tell his fellow travelers as they exited with their sweetmeats. There was real amazement in his voice.

It seems the wonders never cease during the holidays.

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.