School Bus Life Lessons: Kids Learn the Hard Way

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: WHERE THE ACTION IS

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

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

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

SEE: PICKING YOUR BATTLES WITH KIDS

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? Who’s that?”

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

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

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

Sadly, my sage wisdom usually falls on deaf ears.

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

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

SEE: THE ROADSIDE LECTURES ROLL ON

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

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

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

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

SEE: STUDENT MANAGEMENT, ASSIGNED SEATS AND SANITY

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

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

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

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

School Bus Confidential: Cupid Runs Amok

One of the most heartwarming parts of this often thankless job is receiving Valentines from our passengers. Now I’m not deluded enough to think these notes of tender appreciation were cooked up spontaneously from the heart. They were squeezed out in school under duress from scowling teachers.

But even so, it’s nice to get a Dear John note from a constantly contentious passenger who easily could have faked being sick when the cards were assigned.

It also stirs the ol’ sentiments and nostalgia to see young love blooming in my big yellow nuthouse.

(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.)

Sometimes I find what we used to call “mash notes” on the floor. The first time I noticed actual romance was when Penny, a pretty eighth grader, attracted the attention of Mumford, a clearly smitten classmate who started sitting with her during morning trips to their school. A short while later Ethel, a seventh grader, proudly regaled the bus with updates of her long-distance romance via text with Butch, a fellow rider who had moved out of state. Judging by the flood of messages he sent her each day, Butch wasn’t focused on academics in his new home.

My middle school fearsome foursome of sixth graders — Sassafrass, Zoothorn, Wisenheimer and Lulubelle — talked constantly of popularity, dating, rating the personal appearance of classmates they considered fodder for canoodling, and (unfortunately) lewd acts.

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

Even intermediate schoolers on my bus have not been immune to the ways of amore. Ophelia and Esmerelda, two somewhat saucy fifth graders, were catnip to Ignatz and The Stooges, a trio of enterprising lads who swarmed around these ladies each day. I couldn’t help overhearing a lot of chatter about who was asking who to the dance, and I loved this pithy statement by Ignatz to his pal Satch: “Just because she talks to you doesn’t mean she doesn’t hate you!”

Indeed.

Before I started driving a school bus, I’d never heard seven-to-nine-year-olds discussing dating let alone committed relationships. Fourth-grader Beetlebomb declaring, “I don’t want to hang out with my ex!” was arresting enough, but that declaration was topped by this corker from his pal Brutus: “I’m dating a supermodel.”

My, how times have changed.

SEE: They Ain’t Makin’ School Bus Drivers Like They Used To

For a grizzled, beleaguered driver, it’s always nice to find out you are appreciated.

When I was in grade school, girls had cooties and they thought likewise of boys, though there was some tee-hee activity about who likes who that I still hear from modern kids. Just the other day a group of third graders on my bus were accusing each other of having crushes on classmates. Gasp!

It wasn’t until middle school, probably mid-seventh grade, that I began to feel and behave awkwardly as nature worked its wonders. More than a bit of a nerd who was picked on by the cool toughs and jocks in my school, I nevertheless had a hopeless crush on Susie Gelman, who belonged to a group of popular girls who would never look twice at a chump like me.

But the day Susie spontaneously said “Hi, John” to me as we passed in the hall was a thrilling confirmation of my existence. Nothing more came of it nor the clumsy peck I later planted on Barbara Finch’s cheek at a Junior High dance, more out of a sense of “that’s what you’re supposed to do” obligation than any raging passion I felt. And my school bus was never the scene of romantic escapades for me or my friends.

Fortunately, what goes on now is more brazen chatter than action, though I have heard some salty tales from other drivers who told of kids being caught in the act on buses. Maybe it’s only a matter of time on mine before I spot a buss on my bus or worse. The world kids grow up in now is hyper-sexualized and I can only imagine the pressures they must feel. When I was a teenager I succumbed to the belief that I was nothing unless I had a girlfriend and “got lucky.”

SEE: It Only Takes One…to Drive a School Bus Wild

Marjorie and Muffin are two sixth graders who sit well within earshot and make it impossible to not ignore them while they loudly compare notes. By any measure, Marjorie is what you’d call Boy Crazy. If you took the word “boyfriend” out of the English language, she would be mighty quiet.

A typical stream of her conversational snippets that find their way into my ears each day: “Everyone thinks I have, like, 500 boyfriends. I only had one in September … I didn’t date in first grade … He’s cute … I have a crush on him … That’s the boy who is in love with me … He broke up with his girlfriend … I broke up with him … This is my random boyfriend. That’s a photo of his foot …”

And this genuinely alarming statement: “I don’t even know who I was dating. We didn’t even like each other!”

One wonders when Marjorie has time for her school work or to do things like sleep and eat, but she’s obviously planning for her future. “We should go to college together,” she told Muffin. “We’d be real hot and go to all the parties and get all the boys!”

Maybe not if her mom still has anything to do with it. “She found out about Bartley and Lochinvar and made me stop dating them,” Marjorie groused one day. “She says I’m too young to be dating.”

Ya think?

SEE: The Back of the Bus — Where the Action Is

A few rows further back is Sheila the Siren eighth-grader who attracts lovingly ham-handed treatment from Ichabod and his sidekick Poopowitz. Whenever Sheila is aboard, the two lads cram into her seat, grab her belongings, mess up her hair and basically display male behavior that has been seen since the days of the cavemen. I keep expecting Sheila to complain, and I’m ready to move the two mashers to the roof if need be, but she assured me there’s no problem and continues to bear their “affections” with bemused grace.

All things considered, in a setting that is usually full of bickering, barking and bitter recrimination (usually mine), it’s good to see some expressions of affection though the ones that raise red hearts are much more heartwarming than the ones that raise red flags.

Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

There’s a reason why bus drivers in my district are asked to do a dry run of new routes before school opens. Some of us (mainly, me) are unfamiliar with much of the area we service and we need to familiarize ourselves with its highways and byways lest we go horribly astray.

I live 40 minutes away from my district, and for my first three years I drove regular, unchanging runs. But because of the driver shortage, I’m now being pressed into service on short notice, handed a run sheet (or just some general directions I quickly forget) for a totally strange route, and told, “Good luck and Godspeed.”

Now, some drivers (we call them “floaters” or relief drivers) do this kind of thing every day. They know the turf down to the last blade of grass and can tackle a route, any route, without advance warning, no freaking sweat. I marvel at how they got to that point.

(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.)

Just before the 2021 holiday season, I was assigned an afterschool run out of Runnynose Elementary, hauling 30 or so kindergarten-through-third graders. I didn’t know the route, but I thankfully had a run sheet because kids that young are rarely of help in finding your way to their homes.

SEE: Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

The bus was barely loaded when a little girl declared she had to use the bathroom.

Fortunately, a teacher was on hand, checking on a lad who was in tears because his beloved regular bus driver had been replaced by my grizzled, forbidding presence. After the young lass returned from the pissoir, we pulled out of the parking lot only to have another girl declare that she, too, had to use the facilities. Now.

I started to ask her how far away her stop was but realized that was a waste of time. She naturally insisted that her back teeth were floating. So I radioed to base that I was returning to the school … but not until after I mistook the two-way mic for the interior PA and assured every bus driver in the district that they could make a wee-wee if they wanted.

“No thanks, I don’t have to go,” one replied.

Apparently kids are required by law to load up at the water fountain before boarding a school bus. I used to get bawled out by the security guard at Our Lady of Dismay Elementary for bringing my precious cargo back to let it do its business, so returning to Runnynose was likely to be an act of raw courage.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

No sooner did we pull up to the school’s front door than half the bus declared that they, too, had to tinkle. The teacher was stunned by the lengthy procession, which took a good 15 minutes to complete its ablutions.

“Water is either going in or coming out of kids,” I told her with an ingratiating smile and chuckle, though she wasn’t amused.

Expected to leave at 3:30, we finally pulled away at 4. The ride was chaos from the get-go. Despite my constant orders to sit down, urchins kept coming up the aisle to ask questions and report on crimes in progress.

SEE: It Only Takes One to Drive a School Bus Wild

“Fescue is choking my brother,” one somber lad informed me, only to return moments later and say, “Fescue is hitting everyone with a seat belt.”

So I grabbed the PA and ordered Fescue to the Honored Student Seat in the front of the bus. He replied that he’d be there as soon as he established a Wi-Fi connection. “What’s the password?” he asked.

SEE: Crowd Control Measures I’d Like to See

The quickly setting sun left me squinting in the glare of oncoming headlights as I tried to read my run sheet and street signs. Sometimes there were none, or no numbers on houses. Kids kept screaming that I was going the wrong way or had passed their houses. I kept messing up turns. Other drivers kept radioing me with directions. The dispatcher kept inquiring about my ETA to various destinations.

“When do you think you’ll complete your run?” he finally asked.

All I could honestly say was, “I’ll have them all home for Christmas if only in their dreams.”

Two kids (one of them Fescue, of course) didn’t get off at their stop, forcing me to stop several turns later and try to figure out how to retrace my path in a dark, unfamiliar neighborhood. I was hopelessly confused, soaking in flop sweat, and sitting at an intersection when the dispatcher radioed to tell me parents were trying to find me.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“From what I can tell, I’m at the corner of Surrender and Quitting,” I replied.

SEE: Bus Driver’s Wish: A Fraction of Distraction

Fortunately, the parents in question drove up moments later though the mother was less than pleased with the course of events (and my bus) that evening.

I was then left alone with Fescue, who had taken the seat directly behind me. Our conversation went like this:

“I’m hungry,” he said several times.

“I’m hungry, too,” I finally replied.

“What if I don’t get home?”

“You’ll get home.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“I’ve been driving a bus for almost four years and I’ve never failed to get a kid home.”

“Are we going to spend the night on the bus?”

“No.”

“But what if we do? Do you have a blanket?”

“We’re not going to spend the night on the bus.”

“Everyone else got home safely. How come?”

“Because you are the last stop. You’ll get home safely.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“What if we have an accident?”

“I’ve never had an accident and I’m not going to start now.”

“But what if we do and I don’t get home?

“You’re going to get home!”

“But what if I don’t?”

“Kid, I will get you home if it kills me!”

I finally did get him home, and I lived to tell, but not until after I’d made a wrong turn that took me all the way to the town of Fishmeal, about 15 miles from where I needed to go. Thankfully, Fescue’s parents were understanding even though their dear son was two hours late.

When I returned to base, I discovered that the back of my bus was a riot of crumbs, wrappers and other trash. I worried that I would be locked in the yard while I fueled and cleaned up and went to the wee-wee room in the drivers trailer. That would have been a most fitting end to the day.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

So I tip my hat to relief drivers who fly by the seat of their pants with skill and steely resolve without letting neither snow nor pee nor gloom of night prevent them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. How they achieved that state of grace could not have been easy.

As my Sainted Mother used to tell me, “You only learn by bitter experience.”

I’m getting plenty of that these days.

School Bus Discipline: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

When it comes to discipline, some drivers just have the magic touch. They command respect, effortlessly squelch insurrections in the bud, and pilot buses full of quiet, obedient children.

Then there are schlubs like me who rely on assigned seats, disciplinary write-ups, lectures, threats and shrieking to little or no avail.

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

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

It was with great envy that I listened to a colleague recount the good old days when she set a district record for kicking misbehaving kids off her bus in mid-journey. Yep. There was a time when you could simply stop wherever you were and order an obstreperous urchin to walk home.

Perhaps my futility is best captured by this early entry in the journal I started when I began driving in 2018: “To make the worst kids stop misbehaving, you can’t move them, you can’t talk to their parents, you can’t write them up. The only solution I can think of is lobotomy.”

Now, forced mutilation may be a tad extreme and not likely to be well-received by parents or the school district for that matter, but I have some other suggestions that I think are perfectly reasonable and would like to see implemented:

DOUBLE-DECKER BUS: A staple of London and tourist companies in other major cities, this is the most humane option on my list. It would enable me to quarantine the hellions upstairs while the good children ride in peace below.

HAND TOOLS: On many occasions I have threatened to come back and secure wandering children to their seats with my heavy duty staple gun. Jehosaphat, a particularly mobile fourth-grader, was told after many, many, many warnings and a conference with his father that he would be receiving the hammer-and-three-penny-nails treatment. I have yet to make good on these threats, mind you, but kids push me at their own risk.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

ALTERNATIVE SEATING: After constantly moving the seats of expert firestarters to no effect, I announced that I would be putting them on the roof or in the luggage compartment under the bus.

Sometimes the old ways work best.

“You can’t do that!” Robespierre cried.

“Not yet,” I replied. “But I’ve asked my boss. I think he’s starting to come around.”

SEE: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

EJECTOR SEATS: It only takes one bad apple to ignite a behavioral conflagration, so having the ability to push a button on a grid and send the bad fruit into orbit a la James Bonds’ famous Aston-Martin would be a godsend.

TRANQUILIZER DARTS: To borrow the immortal words of the Beach Boys, wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, to have these at your disposal so all you have to do is pull over, take aim and restore calm to the bus?

SEE: It Only Takes One to Drive a School Bus Wild

RIOT GEAR: One raucous afternoon I pulled up to Fiends ‘n Fun Day Care and informed the lady at the door that a re-enactment of the 1886 Haymarket Riot was in progress on my bus and I had called for tear gas, but the district had yet to respond. I still think a cloud agent would help … along with a few flash-bang grenades to get the kids’ attention.

“I want the entire arsenal,” I insisted yet again while visiting the Head Bus Driver’s office to press my case. “If that’s my legacy here, I’ll be happy.”

“For the kids or for you?” she asked.

For me, certainly, but our router thoughtfully suggested a little something for our entire staff: “We need valium salt licks.”

No, this isn’t a profession for the faint of heart, so I heartily salute all those who can handle it without resorting to the wonders of technology and chemistry.

Classic Mysteries: A New School Year

Expect the unexpected.

That was one of the first things I was told after I signed on for this gig in 2018. I can certainly say that 2021-22 looks like it’s going to be loaded with surprises.

Ordinarily, a new school year feels like Christmas morning. What dear, sweet new riders has our router gifted to me? Will the old villains behave any better? What changes were made to my route? What new issues will I be wrestling?

(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.)

At our annual orientation meeting we discussed timeless basics, such as defensive driving in intersections, how to avoid accidents when picking up or dropping off students, and some new wrinkles like our pandemic procedures. Masks must still be worn indoors and on buses, which won’t please some parental units. Seats must also be assigned, which our precious cargo surely won’t like.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

I wondered how crowded my bus will be. After our delayed start in October last year, I had as few as three or even one lonesome urchin on some trips. When things returned to some normalcy in February, I had 20-25 hellions rather than the 45 I’ve been given this year.

With an entirely new route and brand new kids (only dreaded middle schoolers!), I definitely needed to do a dry run, which turned out to be a wet one. The sky opened with a Hurricane Ida downpour as I crept along streets and squinted at house numbers while angry motorists honked behind me.

Some streets weren’t marked and I got lost, in one case on a dead end where I had to back up my 40-foot bus unassisted. (Note ominous foreshadowing.) I wisely surrendered about half-way through my route and tried again a few days later.

Required to produce a seating chart for contact tracing, and having no idea who should not be seated near whom, I had the bright idea of doing a first-aboard, first-seated from back to front plan. This was blown out of the water when my opening day run sheet had even more kids and some route changes. All the numbered name cards I’d lovingly crafted were no good. So I let the buggers sit where they wanted and hoped for the best.

The biggest surprise of all awaited.

I was absolutely gob-smacked at how well behaved the kids were. They were quiet and said hello or have a nice day or thanks for a safe run. Even the two charmers I had during my summer school stint were amazingly pleasant.

In all honesty, I never thought I’d live to see (in my overhead mirror) the sight of middle schoolers (middle schoolers!!!) all sitting peacefully for an entire trip. Frankly, I thought I was hallucinating. And after my first 14 runs with this alarming new crew I was still waiting for them leave some trash on the bus.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Some of the kids had been browbeaten into polite shape by their previous driver, who runs a tight ship. I will surely remember her in my Last Will and Testament. But the rest, mostly sixth graders who are naturally prone to going over to The Dark Side upon entering middle school, have also been angels. That’s a very good thing because there are several impossibly tight turns onto busy streets in my run. The last thing I need is insurrection in the back.

See: A Fraction of the Distraction, Please

Otherwise, the first week or so turned out to be a nice big box of chaos.

Many parents were late registering their kids for transportation, so their angels weren’t in our routing system or on run sheets. Our dispatcher had to tell us to pick up anyone we saw along our routes. Many kids got on wrong buses and drivers had to call in for addresses and other info. Our phones were jammed by schools and parents wondering where their children could be found. The usual delays that occur as we master our new routes were also compounded by the customary breakdowns of a bus or two.

See: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

Pressed into spot service after my usual morning and afternoon run, I took a busload of K-2 kids on a merry tour of Dutchess County thanks to an unfamiliar route and a road I’d never been on.

“I’m your substitute driver,” I’d told the 20 or so wide-eyed ragamuffins. “But don’t worry. I have the address for your houses. I know where to go.”

Famous last words.

The fun began when no parents were waiting at my first stop and the three kids who were supposed to get off there did not respond to my calls over the PA. After waiting five minutes, I continued on only to have my dispatcher call on the radio.

“Did you leave Huey, Dewey and Louise DeFungus at Recrimination Street yet?” he asked.

Told no, he informed me I had to get them back there post-haste … no, hold on, another bus would meet me further on up my route and take them back. Unfortunately, that route included no indication of where one street turned into another. A key turn-around point was also unmarked. I ended up going miles out of my way only to be trapped behind slow-moving bicyclists on a narrow country road after I’d corrected course.

By then, the world was inquiring of my whereabouts. My relief driver was pursuing me and running late for her next scheduled route. My next stop was an unmarked house, which, of course, I passed.

My dispatcher was now urgently and repeatedly asking for an ETA for the first three urchins, so I had to pull over to take stock. My relief driver appeared at the door to ask for Huey, Dewey and Louise and she was soon joined by a concerned cop, who wanted to know if everything was OK and see my run sheet.

Meanwhile, I spotted a mother braving traffic as she walked down the road in search of her wayward child.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to get her killed…”

Pleading for Huey, Dewey and Louise to make themselves known and come forth, I was informed by my dispatcher that my soliloquy had gone out over the two-way radio instead of the PA.

“I have to say you’re as good a public speaker as you are a writer,” he noted. I could only give thanks that I hadn’t called the kids stooges, knuckleheads and numbskulls as I had done with the intermediate schoolers I used to drive.

See: Now Hear This! Rocking the School Bus PA

Once back on the road, the remaining kids asked, “Where are we going now, Mr. Bus Driver?”

“I don’t know. Staten Island?” I wanted to say but keeping them calm was paramount. And as I pulled up to my final stop, I muttered, “At least no one has left the bus in tears.”

Famous last words.

Awaiting me was a smoldering mother who responded to my apology for being an hour late with “They missed their gymnastics!”

“Gymnastics” was all the two kids heard. So they exclaimed, “Are we going to gymnastics, mama?”

I was given a look of contempt as she told them, “No. Your bus was too late. We’ll go next time.” Which, of course, induced tears.

“Maybe that was your cue to break down and cry,” my wife later suggested.

Maybe.

With my new schedule, after school activities run, and role as an occasional wandering fill-in, I have to believe that “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” are probably going to be the biggest mysteries this year.

Who’s Who: Losing the Name Game

When I was the age of the kids I drive, I could remember on sight the names of every model of car on the road. Now, remembering the names of the kids I drive? Fuhgeddaboudit.

To be honest, as an adult I’ve always had trouble with names and faces. Until I see someone often enough for them to sink into my skull, they’d best wear a “Hello! I Am ___” tag. Seeing them out of context — in a store instead of at work, for example — forget it. They might as well be total strangers.

(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 busload of kids is a mind-wracking challenge, especially at the beginning of a new school year. Oh, some will stand out immediately for their charming habits, such as wildly cavorting about the bus, shrieking at the top of their little lungs, or uttering bloodcurdling profanity. But the quiet ones who rarely speak to me require time to attach their names to their faces.

See: It Only Takes One to Drive a Bus Wild

And I’m not much better with street names. Once I know where I’m going, I’m going to need my run sheet to tell you where I’m going. And it’s always a moment of sweet panic whenever my dispatcher radios me to ask about a student and an address I do not have in the front of what’s left of my mind.

“Base, can someone tell me who these kids are?”

The dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Base to 631. Did you drop off Fescue McSwiggin yet?”

“Uh …”

“At 53 Balderdash Street.”

“Uh …”

“The parent says you were supposed to be there 15 minutes ago.”

“Uh …”

“What’s your 20 (location)?”

“Uh …”

I’m every bit as eloquent when I radio in to report that a student asked to get off at a friend’s house and does not have a bus pass.

“What’s the child’s name?” my famously crusty dispatcher asked the first time I did.

“Uh … uh … uh … Mildred.”

“What’s the last name?”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“The last name.”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“What. Is. The. Child’s. Last. Name?”

“Uh … uh … uh … Wood. Like my head.”

So you can imagine the hives I sprouted when I found out I would be hauling 20-or-so units of precious cargo from Helga Poppin Intermediate School to Fiends and Fun Daycare each afternoon. Not only did most of them basically look alike, they had names like Morton, Norton, Horton, Duane, Dwayne, DeWayne, Sean, Shawn, Deshaun, DaShawn, D’Shaun and Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly, Dolly, Brittany, Brittney, Hannah, Hanna, and Anna.

And there was more than one of each in some cases.

They boarded and left the bus like a herd of sheep, almost impossible to differentiate, leaving me to pray I didn’t leave anyone behind or lose track of someone. As far as I know, and it’s been three years, they all got to where they were supposed to go.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Assigning seats with name tags above them eventually helps. And in times of faulty memory, I try using a mnemonic device, such as giving each kid a nickname based on their most memorable characteristics. Unfortunately, I end up remembering only their nicknames … and I don’t dare utter some of them aloud.

Frankenstein, Ma Barker, and worse do not speak well of them … or of me.

Bitter Lessons Pay Off in Summer School

After spending the last three summers driving a wet vac at an elementary school, I’m behind the wheel of a bus for this one. As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked.

The disrupted school year and shortcomings of remote learning created a glut of kids in need of summer school to inflate their grades. So I’m hauling three saintly high schoolers followed by a group of rambunctious sixth-graders who have given me no break from flying projectiles, rough-housing, standing in the aisle, yelling, cussing and the other usual mayhem.

(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.)

Driving a small bus for the first time, I must admit I’ve had to get used to it. The commotion is on your back. You can’t miss it in the rearview mirror, which is in your line of sight. You hear every salty word you wish you hadn’t heard. And with new controls and different blind spots to master, you need your concentration to be sharp.

Fortunately, I’m now a crusty, battle-tested veteran. I used to come off challenging runs vibrating with frustration. Now I stay as cool as a proverbial four-star cucumber, cackling with confident satisfaction as I lower the boom, which is good because my middle school run is an uncanny mix of my first three years of driving. That was a raucous Baptism by Fire.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am and Meet the Hellions.

I am blessed with a Robespierre/Wisenheimer hybrid who spouts foul language and seizes every opportunity to get up to no good, even from his assigned seat in the very front. I also have a new Beetlebomb/Jehosaphat blend who won’t stop standing, moving around and getting in other kids’ faces. Some of the ladies remind me of Sassafrass, Lulubelle and Esmerelda from my old run thanks to their potty mouths and eagerness to go along with the lads.

I even have a new Methane Man whose daily farts cause a mighty uproar in the smaller confines.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

In a small bus, objects in the rear view mirror are closer (and louder) than they appear.

The rest of the kids are tinder. It all adds up to pulling over every other run or so. But without a PA system for my thundering commands, and having to get out and come in the passenger door to deliver one of my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lectures, I just yell at the top of my lungs. Thankfully, I am getting them to quiet down at least for a while.

Yes, nothing beats the benefits of bitter experience, which my mother used to say is the only way you really learn in this life. The first day, I gave the kids a choice: mellow out and sit together as you are or keep acting like stooges and end up in assigned seats. Just like my Helga Poppin Intermediate crew of yore, they ended up in assigned seats.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

My precious cargo still gets rowdy and particularly salty, but I know how to regain control pretty quick.

“Do I need to have your principal look at the video?” I yelled during one particularly nasty trip when they forgot, as kids always do, that everything they say and do is recorded.

See: The Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

“No” they replied with wide eyes.

“I think I do.”

That threat earned me hearty handshakes, a “Thank you” or two, and some “Have a nice weekend” wishes as they departed. But it wasn’t long before they were at it again, forcing me to pull over and deliver on another warning. I wrote them up by composing a kind of $#i+ List letter to the assistant principle (an ace at backing up drivers) about who deserves a stern warning of parental notification.

See: The School Bus Justice System

That move worked like a charm. After that, I was I driving church mice.

Best of all, I discovered I’m now good at improvising my route so I can drop the loudest kids off first, which usually quiets things down. Fortunately, my run is in a grid of streets that makes it possible to change the drop-off order without going off my designated route.

My summer gig is only six weeks, but it will keep me in fighting trim for the fall when I’ll be given new routes. Fresh (so to speak) adventures surely await, but I’ll be loaded for bear. I’ve been getting tips from one of my fellow drivers, a wily gentleman who taught me a trick:

Deliberately pass an obnoxious kid’s house and when he yells, “Hey! You missed my stop!” tell him, “Hey! You distracted me! Now I have to drop everyone else off.” Then simply radio in to let your dispatcher know in case the kid’s parents call to inquire about the whereabouts of their angel.

“Once was all it took to get that kid to stop,” my wily colleague said.

I’m saving that one for fall when I’ll surely need it.

Curses! From the Mouths of Babes …

Nothing warms the heart quite like the sound of children telling each other to shut the F up in the morning.

No matter how many times I hear it, it’s always jarring to listen to a grade schooler drop the F Bomb like a seasoned dock worker. The forbidden novelty of the word and others like it is catnip to kids, and the peer pressure to swear is high, particularly in middle school where proving how tough you are is part of life.

(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 may be a fossil but I still remember the thrill of cursing and getting a rise out of adults when I was a kid. My memories aren’t of doing it on the school bus, though. I vividly recall sitting in my neighbor’s bushes with friends and slinging some hair-raising language. We were under an open window and easily heard inside. Mr. Kohart came out and sternly told us to stifle ourselves as there were ladies in the house.

Now, even though I occasionally drop a choice oath when I’m angry away from the job, I’m the one trying to make kids clean up their verbal act.

Complaints about F Bombs and MF Bombs in the back reach me at the wheel. Sixth-grader Sassafrass has a mouth on her that could make the saltiest sailor blush but I’ve heard third graders using the P word and racial or sexual slurs. No matter how many times I scold them or remind them that everything they say and do is being recorded, they are often surprised to find themselves in the principal’s office after they’ve been caught in the video review of another crime.

See: The Camera on the Bus Sees All

During one memorable trip, seventh-graders Coggins and Ethel were unleashing a blue barrage of F Bombs, S Bombs and B Bombs. So I got on the PA and said, “Can’t you please watch your language? You sound like you’re possessed. Should I call for an exorcist?”

That stopped ’em, at least for a while. But cursing seems to be a contractual obligation for middle schoolers. When Lucifer, my prime purveyor of obscenity, went on vacation, fellow seventh-grader Butch stepped up to fill the void.

Sometimes I’m just not sure I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing. The engine is roaring, the two-way radio is blaring, and I’m pretty far away from the action. For all I know, my precious cargo could simply be talking about trucking and floral sets and I don’t want to look like my mind is in the gutter if I wrongly accuse them of smutty utterances.

And they like to keep me guessing.

One day on my Helga Poppin Intermediate run, Jehosaphat and Robespierre kept shouting words that sounded like curses: “Duck!” and “Ship!” in particular. The whole crew also took to shrieking the popular song “Old Town Road.” I looked up the lyrics and found a few dicey words like, “Cheated on my baby/You can go and ask her/My life is a movie/Bull riding and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty.”

It’s just unsettling to hear that stuff coming from tender voices, and sometimes I’d rather not know what is being said, like when a smirking Coggins passed me while getting off the bus. When I told him to have a good day, I could have sworn I heard him mutter, “Up yours.”

Of course it was possible that he was merely talking to his friend Jethro, who was right behind him. I’ve just been conditioned to expect the worst.

See: Picking Your Battles With Kids

And if they can’t rise to your level, they can always drag you down to theirs.

It is with much shame that I confess I’ve let a D Bomb slip on occasion. The first time, while quelling an intermediate school riot during an especially aggravating week, I quickly added “Pardon me” over the PA but no one seemed to notice. They certainly did the time time I blurted “Stop sticking your damn arms out the windows!” a few days later.

The bus suddenly grew silent and I heard one kid say in a stage whisper, “The bus driver said the D Word!”

In a Can-You-Believe-It? tone, another said “Damn!” … as my head slumped onto the wheel.

So much for the moral high ground. It certainly doesn’t help to lose it when you need to have your trip video reviewed because of a disciplinary incident.

The road in question.

My least shining moment occurred (of course) on the treacherous stretch of road where my riders always come unglued. It had been one of those weeks and my patience was gone. When the ever-challenging Robespierre spilled Esmerelda’s makeup all over the aisle and began wrestling with his frenemy Beetlebomb, I eventually pulled over and marched back.

See: The Roadside Lecture Series Rolls On

After letting them have it with both barrels (“What part of sit down don’t you understand?”) they gave me a few smirks and a giggle or two.

“It’s not funny!” I barked. “Behave!”

And with that I marched back to the wheel only to have Robespierre chime in with “I’m not laughing.”

Without thinking, I turned and snapped, “Don’t be a smart ass!”

Then came the Dark Night of the Soul: wrestling with the temptation to deal with this incident by myself and hope the video gets lost unseen in the mists of time. But someone had to tame Robespierre, who’d been up to no good all year. So I gritted my teeth and wrote him up, expecting a “See me” note from my boss after Principal Diesel had viewed the video.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I was sure Robespierre and his cronies would see to it that I was hung out to dry for cursing. Amazingly, I heard nothing.

My first thought was, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

I wisely kept it to myself.

Roadside Lectures Roll On

After a long, peaceful stretch of few riders due to the pandemic, I finally gave my first Roadside Lecture of the school year in mid-April.

Actually, it was a Schoolside Lecture delivered outside Helga Poppin Intermediate one morning while waiting to let the kids off my bus.

The topic: A refresher on my job and the two video cameras on board.

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

“OK, people,” I said, standing in the aisle before the suddenly quiet congregation. “I saw some stuff yesterday afternoon that I didn’t like.”

I then mentioned the seatbelt trip wire (a timeless prank) I found stretched across the aisle next to notorious fourth-grader Guttersnipe’s seat. I didn’t mention him (he’s a firestarter in training) by name. I just said (while watching his smug expression turn into a cringe), “Whoever did it, you know who you are … and so do the cameras. In case you forgot, everything you do and say is being recorded.”

See: The Camera’s Eyes Have It

I then explained (for the umpteenth hundredth time) the importance of not climbing on seats or standing in the aisle because “if I have to slam on the brakes and stop suddenly, you’ll go flying. You aren’t watching the road like I am, so you won’t know if a car or a person or an animal darts out in front of us … and they can and do.”

Pausing for dramatic effect, I added, “Kids have fallen on buses and gotten hurt. It hasn’t happened on my bus yet, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way. My job is to keep you all safe.”

Somehow I don’t think they were impressed.

Finally, having seen fifth-grader Clementine play peek-a-boo-duck!-peek-a-booduck! with me during the entire ride home — a sure sign that she was up to no good — I continued:

“I see you ladies in the back are having a grand old time with the windows. Please don’t throw stuff out or stick your arms and hands out. I don’t mind you opening them on a warm day but there’s a phone number on the back of the bus. So if you’re going to toss stuff or greet the public as you’ve been doing, be nice or they will call and complain. Then we’ll pull the video and you’ll end up in Principal Diesel’s office. As some of you know, the Principal’s expression can turn a man to stone!”

My audience’s silence lasted well beyond my brilliant, vaguely ominous closer: “Thank you. We’ll catch you later.”

You’ll often find me pontificating here.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I started my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series not long after I began driving my big yellow institution of learning. When warnings, threats and shrieking over the PA failed, it dawned on me that I had no choice but to find a safe spot to pull over, put my hazard lights on, and “educate” my precious cargo.

(I must admit I get a kick out of their reaction: eyes widening as the bus slows to a stop, silence growing as I rise from my seat and turn towards the back…)

Some of my topics: Why distracting the driver is dangerous (“Trust me, you don’t want us to end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree”); the hazards of moving around while the bus is rolling, jostling in the aisle or using seats like gymnastics equipment (see above), and a scary thing called “black ice.”

It’s there (in the photos) that I can set my clock by the kids suddenly coming unglued after they’ve been little angels for the first half of the trip.

I often rehearse speeches (in my head) and have had plenty of practice actually delivering them. Sadly, I’ve had to repeat them many times. My most frequent site for lectures is a particularly treacherous, winding stretch of hilly, wooded road that’s loaded with hidden driveways, wandering animals (including a wayward cow) and other hazards.

“No matter how many times I tell you how dangerous this road is, you just don’t get it,” I keep saying. And it’s true.

Of course, within minutes of getting back on the road they are usually back at it. In that case, I resort to the unoriginal but classic move of pulling over, shutting off the engine and announcing over the PA, “OK, we’re not going anywhere until you settle down. We’ll sit here all day and all night if we have to. I get paid by the hour so you’ll just be helping me pay for my yacht!” Ha Ha.

See: Rocking the School Bus PA

That always gets their attention and inspires a few cries of, “He’s kidnapping us!” and “Call the cops!”

“Go ahead and call the cops,” I tell them. “They’ll take my side as soon as they see the video!”

I’ve had guest speakers before. Teachers, principals and other school officials have come aboard to deliver a few choice remarks and pointed suggestions. Maybe law enforcement personnel will be able to teach a lesson that finally sinks in.

School Bus Life’s a Gas

Not to be crude, but is anything more universally funny than the humble fart?

Rare is the person who doesn’t chortle at the sound or even the mere thought of a fanny beep. Doesn’t matter who or how old you are, a cheek squeak will likely raise at least a smile if not a crinkled nose.

Pardon me for going all pop psychology on you for a second, but it’s said that misfortune and indignity are the essence of humor. Think of a classic slapstick bit like someone falling down an open manhole. Trouser toots are a social manhole, especially in a dignified setting like a school 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.)

The timeless appeal of seam splitters was demonstrated by the mad-libs that my passengers Rollo and Calliope did during their ride to Helga Poppin Intermediate School one morning. They dutifully filled all of the blanks in the text with “fart” and that old favorite “poop” the way my kids used to do when they were young and getting endless hours of fun from making our boxy Apple computer’s voice say “Poop poop poop poop poop.”

Oh, the hilarity!

Asked by Rollo to read the ad-lib opus aloud over the PA — not quite the level of material our Bus Driver of the Year award winners typically share with their passengers — I was relieved when the call to release the kids came before I could get started destroying the last shreds of my professional dignity. But I’m sure it would have been good for a laugh.

One individual, a seventh-grader I’ll call Methane Man, has been a reliable source of thunder down under. He’s even reveled in his reputation for sparking gusts of laughter and howls of revulsion with a robust rump roar. Uncannily (pardon the pun) able to detonate a bootie bomb on demand by his pals, Methane Man was a source of daily amusement in the ranks until he experienced an unexpected gas shortage at the pump, if you will.

“I haven’t farted in a month. Is that bad?” I overheard him ask one afternoon during the ride home.

Unable to resist chiming in, I got on the PA and replied, “I thought it’s been a little too quiet around here.”

“I’m waiting for an explosion,” said Oscar, a fellow seventh-grader who sits perilously close to Methane Man.

An explosion was a distinct possibility given that humans typically backfire 14 times each day. In the meantime, ever-mischievous eighth-grader Coggins brought a whoopee cushion on board to help break the boring silence if not the actual wind.

“This is what my life has come to,” I thought as I was serenaded by rude noises all the way to Bubblefish.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Air biscuits aren’t the only things on the menu, mind you. From time to time there are pleasant sounds and aromas floating about my bus.

Kids have busted out their instruments and played a tune, though the temptation to simulate a tush tuba eventually overcomes them. Being the good influence that they are, I was tempted to put on a tape of “Our Song” by Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, a collection of syncopated flatulence, belching, wheezes and other bodily noises set to a bouncy piano, but decided against it when I envisioned being browbeaten by scowling parents and school administrators, not to mention my boss.

On the aromatic front, Heloise the middle schooler often boarded in the morning redolent of fresh bread or cookies. Exotic scents sometimes waft from the back, making me wonder if someone is making waffles or baking potatoes. After some runs, I expected to find evidence of a cooking fire, but fortunately haven’t … so far.

The remedy for a gas attack is always at hand.

One morning during the usual rollicking ride to Helga Poppin, I noticed something especially fragrant and was moved to grab the PA mic and ask, “Who’s using aftershave? What are you lunatics doing back there?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jehosaphat replied, giggling and looking guilty. Then I noticed his pal Beetlebomb spraying what turned out to be deodorant.

Deodorant would have come in handy the time I noticed all the windows were being frantically opened by my passengers.

“Someone cut the cheese!” Beetlebomb informed me, so I told him I would turn on the fans in front to blow the fumes away. (Those fans were frequently requested after that.)

When the kids kept complaining that Brutus and Hogshead were continuing to produce breezers, I was tempted to radio in that my bus was under a serious gas attack. Instead, I went on the PA and told my precious cargo, “Hey, thanks for the back drafts! I was afraid we were going to run out of gas. And cheese, too. I just wanted to say I appreciate anyone who helps us meet our daily quota.”

When they went silent and looked confused, I said, “I bet you didn’t know there’s a New York State law that says there must be at least one fart on a school bus during every trip.”

“Really?” someone asked from the sea of puzzled faces in my overhead mirror.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “You could look it up!” (Though I didn’t say where.)

I actually had them going for a bit, but it’s no joke that my bus runs on gas in more ways than one.