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.”

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 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.

It Only Takes One … to Drive a School Bus Wild

I’m jazzed to say life behind the wheel has been a sea breeze lately. My first two years were a gale of nerve-jangling mayhem, but blessed peace has prevailed for five months and counting.

Though the pot is bubbling a bit now that spring has sprung and riders are reuniting as schools return to normal schedules, the kids on my bus have been mistaken for church mice. I discovered what a pleasure this job can be as I motor through beautiful Hudson Valley countryside, the sun rising through mist on a field, my ears filled with the heartwarming sound of children talking and laughing instead of shrieking and complaining. Good times.

Unfortunately a dark cloud hovers over these shiny, happy proceedings: the return of Sassafrass.

(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 potty-mouthed middle schooler, Sassafrass used to incite bitter conflict on my bus every day. She hasn’t been back this year, but I got a note in my key room mailbox that she’ll be riding again soon.

I’m bracing myself. I’ve gotten a little rusty with the discipline thing. The most I’ve had to handle this year is one cereal event and a grade school annoyance problem I squelched by enforcing my “Girls Only” rule in the back. With fewer kids on board (3-15 instead of 15-30), good behavior naturally prevails, but some of Sassafrass’s old targets and recruits in deviltry are still around. I know all too well how one bad apple can get the whole barrel riled up.

Most drivers know that special feeling of trying to get “The One” to their stop or to school as quickly as possible so some semblance of sanity returns to their bus. As soon as The One comes on, the noise level rises, horseplay ripples through the rows like brushfire and pretty soon someone is in tears or calling for our help.

There’s a reason we call these pieces of precious cargo “fire starters” and I used to have four of them on my intermediate school run. Any one was capable of sparking an uproar in a peaceful group.

There was Rollo, who pestered anyone he was near. The time he came aboard with a pointy Harry Potter wand made my hair levitate. His mere presence always ignited his nemesis, Brutus, and vice versa. They constantly baited each other with insults, and their school told me to separate them but that only created two problem zones as they mixed it up with their new neighbors.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Brutus always made his presence felt.

Brutus could start a brawl while alone in an empty room. Constantly written up for teasing, taunting, cussing and getting into physical scrapes with anyone who sat near him, he was frenemies with Beetlebomb, who was always in everybody’s grill, changing seats while I wasn’t looking, and forcing me to stop the bus.

One day while repeatedly popping up from behind his seat back and roaring at two girls, Beetlebomb got himself smacked by Petunia, a quiet, sweet, fourth-grader. “Petunia hit me in the eye!” he cried to me. Not that I condone violence, mind you, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Good for her!” Petunia is so meek that Beetlebomb really had it coming if he got her fired up.

After being dragged to the principal’s woodshed, Beetlebomb was good and stayed in his seat … for one day. Then it was back to tussling with Brutus and Robespierre, who needed little to rev him up. When Robespierre took off his shoe and threw it at Beetlebomb, they were both remanded to the Honored Student Seat in the very front.

See: The School Bus Justice System

In that kind of high-octane situation, removing even one firestarter from the mix can help the way a burned out bulb can darken a whole string of Christmas lights. I rejoiced the day I learned that the fourth graders were going on a field trip and would not be back in time for my afternoon run. That meant no Rollo and Brutus, which meant a (at least a little) calmer Beetlebomb and Robespierre, who were promptly separated by half a bus.

It was always heartbreaking to have a fire starter not show up in the morning and drive off in great relief with a quiet bus only to pass them and a parent going the opposite way, then have them reappear in my rearview mirror and chase me to the next stop. There the fun started with complaints coming fast and furious.

I gave thanks when schools and parents have finally stepped in decisively. Rollo was removed to another, smaller bus with closer supervision and fewer sparring partners, a fate that also befell Lucifer on my middle school run.

A factory showroom of foul language, Lucifer was forever taunting other kids, putting seatbelts across the aisle as a tripwire, and drawing threats of revenge. “Just wait and see what happens,” grumbled Otto, a much larger eighth-grader after he nearly fell. I, for one, didn’t want to find out.

In-school suspensions had no effect on Lucifer. Fresh out of one, he immediately stole Fartinhausen’s football, setting off a wild wrestling match after Fartinhausen leapt over the seat to grab Lucifer by the neck.

See: The Rat Patrol

Lucifer unexpectedly leaving on a family trip made my usually bonkers Bubblefish run much easier for a couple of weeks though his pal Butch gallantly tried to fill the void. He, too, got suspended and I sighed with relief when he moved, taking with him his maniacal cackle and vocabulary that would shame the most vulgar dockworker.

Not Wanted: The Notorious Sassafrass Gang

Now Sassafrass looms. The first time around, she formed a gang with three other riders who didn’t know each other: Zoot Horn, Lulubelle, and Wisenheimer (who sat in Lucifer’s old seat; maybe it’s possessed).

While Sassafrass filled the air with bloodcurdling profanity, they stuck their arms out windows, jeered at pedestrians, gleefully left a mess of Pop Tart crumbs (earning my first Big Bag O’ Trash Award for the year), and got into such a beef with other kids that I called a meeting with their guidance counselor to lay down the law.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Whenever Sassafrass was aboard, she and her crew were in the thick of any mocking and mischief. When she wasn’t, they were much better though Wisenheimer became a first class fire starter in his own right. A constant threat with the broom stored behind my seat, he was given the finger by Spud the eighth grader. I was relieved when he too didn’t return.

It pains me to think that Zoot Horn and Lulubelle, who no longer even sit together, may return to the dark side if Sassafrass comes back. Some of my seven newbies could be drawn into her orbit, too. The veteran riders won’t be thrilled, but I’ll give her a chance, or course. A year can make a big change and difference in a kid.

Let us pray.

How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

It helps to have a sense of humor in this job.

That said, I’m blessed to be amused by how kids are forbidden to eat on the bus, yet their schools still send them home with armloads of candy, cookies and cupcakes after class parties. They’re sneaky little buggers when it comes to filling their faces, so my bus ends up looking like Times Square after a New Year’s Eve celebration — an kaleidoscope of wrappers, lollipop sticks, crumbs, and sprinkles.

“If you need Fruit Loops, just let me know,” I told my colleagues after my middle schoolers tossed cereal all over the back. “I’ve got plenty.”

(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.)

Mess just comes with this yellow turf and no matter how often I ordered my precious cargo to not throw garbage on the floor, they kept doing it and no one would fess up. When I was told the district brass wanted drivers to sweep out our buses each day, I asked if we can make the kids help.

No such luck, but my plight inspired me to take action.

I created a “Rewards Program.”

I wanted to call it “Live Clean or Die” or “Give Me Cleanliness or Give Me Death” but those names seemed a bit heavy-handed if not dire and threatening. The basic idea was to collect the garbage on the floor and give it to the litterbugs the next day as they got off the bus at school. (Thanks to the wonders of seating charts, it isn’t hard to trace trash back to its source.)

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It seemed to work. Eighth graders Otto and Coggins were the first recipients and they looked shocked when I handed them baggies of ramen noodle crumbs that had been scattered around the back. The bus was much cleaner after that, at least while my Bubblefish Middle Schoolers were on board, and my messy passengers got better at using the trash boxes in the front and back. Unfortunately, a raccoon in the bus compound didn’t get the memo (see photo).

One day, fourth graders Calliope and Ocarina asked me which school’s students were the messiest on a scale of 1 to 10. Thanks to its class parties, Helga Poppin Intermediate rated a solid 9 and I sang the praises of how neat the Bubblefishers had been.

Naturally, the next day the Bubblefish brigade left a blizzard of Wheaties all over the back. I discovered it after I pulled in to pick up my crew at Helga Poppin. Clearly it was time for another round of rewards, but it was a Friday afternoon, so I wouldn’t be able to present prizes to the perpetrators until Monday.

That gave me time to come up with the idea for an official “Big Bag O’ Crap Giveaway.”

See: School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

After we pulled in to the parking lot at Bubblefish on Monday, Coggins and his pals Otto, Herkimer and Jethro were each given a large plastic bag stuffed with cereal flakes and other valuables such as crumbs, bread crusts, soda cans, water bottles, yogurt containers, candy wrappers, half-eaten lollipops, gum wads, fruit rinds, apple cores, popcorn, tissues, pencil shavings, paper wads, pencil stubs, and pen caps — much of it bonus “value-added” material from Helga Poppin.

The lads were silent and a little contrite as they received the mementos of their work, and that afternoon I delivered an inspirational speech to the entire cast:

“You’re not supposed to eat on the bus, but being the fine, upstanding young citizens you are, I know you will do it anyway,” I said. “On Friday, some kind souls left me one sweet mess to clean up, so I strongly suggest that you aim the food at your mouths and not at the floor or each other. If you do not obey this command, you will continue to receive gifts like the ones I gave out this morning.”

For dramatic effect, I paused and added: “I may even show up at your house and dump the stuff on your living room floor. I’m sure your parents will be thrilled.”

The rest of the year went reasonably well, though Bubblefish did beat out Helga Poppin for the coveted “Bus 631 Big Bag O’ Trash Award for Excellence in Mess Making.” It was presented on the next-to-last day of school.

“It’s the end of the year and the school is giving out awards and honors,” I said as I stood before the winners with a huge white trash bag stuffed to bursting with the finest refuse I could collect in the final weeks. “So I thought I would give out one of my own.”

Seeing how enthralled they were, I continued. “No individuals were the clear winner. I’d say the residents of the last four or five rows are the most deserving for the sheer number of messes and their magnitude during the school year. This was a team effort and there’s plenty of credit to go around.”

And with that I handed the ceremonial bag to Mildew, an athletic eighth-grader who just happened to be the first person down the aisle after we got the signal to let ’em off the bus.

“It’s a team award! Think of it like carrying the flag at the Olympics,” I told her before giving each of her teammates a slap on the back and a hearty, “Well done! You don’t see this kind of commitment to excellence every day!”

And I don’t see as much trash anymore.

I’m now working on an award for the raccoon.

Help! I Can’t Stop Doing the School Bus Driver Wave!

“Mr. John, why do you always wave at other bus drivers?”

Good question! Kids often ask me that one, along with “What are all those switches for?” and “Do you like driving a bus?”

“We’re just saying ‘Hi’,” I explain after I’ve exchanged waves with another driver passing us in the opposite direction. “We’re like a family.”

And like a family we share the Four Cs: camaraderie, concerns, cares and conflict.

(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.)

We are always crossing paths — on the road, in the bus yard, the key room, the garage, the dispatcher’s quarters, the head bus driver’s office, or the boss’s woodshed. Interestingly, I was warned to stay out of the driver’s lounge except for a quick trip to the wee-wee room or the vending machine because it’s a hotbed of gossip and sour gripes. Interestingly, that warning came from the person who urged me to apply for a job where she worked.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “You’ll love it!”

See: How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

I was there barely a month before she started grousing, “This place sucks! I can’t wait to get out of here!”

She’d been there for years. Maybe I ruined it for her? But during my entire working life I’ve avoided watercooler talk, so I try to mind my own bidness and follow the command on the sign above our dispatcher’s desk: COME IN, DO YOUR JOB, GO HOME.

I do enjoy my job and my colleagues. The vast majority of them, anyway.

Unfortunately, in today’s insanely strained political environment, people fall out at the proverbial drop of a hat. I’ve been snubbed by a few co-workers I once got along with, but (so far) they haven’t let the air out of my tires or tried to run me off the road, so I’m still ahead of the game.

Wave On, Brothers and Sisters!

I often exchange waves with drivers who are not from the same district or company. We also offer each other courtesies, like stopping, turning our hazards on, and letting a bus turn onto a busy street if there’s a break in the traffic that will save them time.

Piloting a yellow madhouse is a brotherhood/sisterhood and we appreciate what each other does every day. It’s a challenging, demanding and often thankless gig I liken to trying to control a herd of crazed weasels and a 29,800-pound vehicle as you drive over Niagara Falls on a rickety bridge while folks complain about you.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I confess that early in my illustrious career, I felt snubbed if my wave wasn’t returned. Oh, I realized that the driver may simply have been focused on something other than my jolly gesture, but it still felt like when your Facebook post gets no likes even from friends, family or your friendly vicar.

Now there’s the weird feeling of realizing that I just waved at someone who doesn’t particularly like me, but I can’t stop. I’ve developed a habit born of one wave after another, especially when a long line of buses is going by me.

I wave at everything now, even when I’m behind the wheel of my car. If an oncoming vehicle is big it automatically gets a waggle of my hand. It’s become a reflex .

In one of my prouder moments ferrying urchins to school, I waved and suddenly realized it was a beer truck passing us, not a bus.

“Oh, dear, that doesn’t look good,” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.

Well, the on-board camera did, but if anyone asks about it I think I have a pretty good excuse.

Chomping at the Wheel to Get Going

At this time of year I’m usually back at the helm of Tarkus, my trusty school bus. After a summer of dragging a wet vac around a school as I (theoretically) help the custodial staff prep it for the coming year, I’m shaking mental cobwebs off my daily procedures and routines, and regaining the feel of a big yellow building full of squalling urchins.

There is anticipation in seeing the kids again — the old favorites, even the ones who drive me crackers, and the new additions. Getting your run sheet at the staff orientation meeting can feel like Christmas. What wondrous surprises await this year? Last September, I received Sassafrass, an alarmingly potty-mouthed sixth-grader who kept my middle school run bubbling over until school was shut down in March by the pandemic.

(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.)

There’s also a sweet melancholy in realizing that some kids have moved on to other schools. It brings a dewy tear to my eye to know I will no longer have Robespierre stirring the pot. That rapscallion was a classic agitator, for sure, a constant challenge who actually made me threaten to assign him a seat in the luggage compartment. But he had a good — if often misguided — heart and could be contrite on occasion, as the document below shows.

Fortunately, Brutus will be back with his charmingly insolent salutes (when I lecture him and his misbehaving fellow travelers) and the glacial pace at which he moves from his front door to the bus when I’m trying to be on time.

Unfortunately, this year will be a matter of hurry up and wait … until October as the COVID-19 pandemic has led my district to go with a mostly remote learning approach. Some schools will host a few classes, but only the most senior drivers will be given routes. With only two years on my ledger, I’ll be off the road a while.

Fortunately (very!), I will be paid for my downtime, a blessing that resulted from my qualifying as a part-time salaried employee a few weeks before the March shutdown. If I were still a per-diem (hourly) driver, I would be looking for work. So I sympathize with the plight of laid-off or furloughed drivers, many of whom work for private companies that are going under in the pandemic. It’s a national problem and a serious one.

When I finally return, I’ll be required to keep the little dears two rows apart (more do-able when you have 18 middle schoolers and 12 rows separated by an aisle; a tad problematic when 51 intermediate schoolers come aboard and the district forbids lashing them to the roof) and make sure they keep masks on their sweet faces. Based on my efforts to make them stay in their seats, I’m willing to bet it’s easier to get ferrets to perform precision marching drills.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

I’ll also have to figure out a way to keep my eyes on the road and on the overhead rearview mirror that is called the most dangerous piece of equipment on the bus for a very good reason.

And I’ll be asked to give frequent talks on how to properly wear a mask, maintain social distance and spot the symptoms of COVID-19. Given the hardly rousing success of my roadside lecture series on how it’s really not in the best interests of safety to run around the bus and distract me (particularly by nailing me in the back of the head with a football), I expect yawns, blank stares and salutes.

With COVID-19 now on the bug menu, we drivers will have one more malady to worry about catching. If we start dropping in even modest numbers, the district will be in tough to replace us. As it is, there’s a national shortage of drivers (for obvious reasons) and qualified mechanics and office staff are often pressed into service as fill-ins during the best of times.

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

The smart money says schools will probably open and close again in a week or so after teachers and kids start testing positive or causing alarm with high temperatures caused by colds or flu. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Fasten your seat belt, as the old saying goes. I just wish that is what I was doing in good ol’ Tarkus right now.