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.

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

“Attention determines destiny.”

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

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

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

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

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

A typical view in the overhead mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Bus Driver, can I have a pencil?

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

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

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

It never ends, and neither do the complaints.

“Mr. Bus Driver, Withershins hit me!”

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

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

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

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

“Do clean knives count?” Brutus asked.

See: The Rat Patrol

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Back of the Bus: Where the Action Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: Meet the Hellions

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

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

The intermediate schoolers were another matter.

Dear Brutus, always respectful.

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

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

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

What a fool I was.

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

They didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: The School Bus Justice System

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

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

Still, the lure of the back is eternal.

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

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

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 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 at Fishmeal Falls Central School District.

“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.

School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

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

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

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

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

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

See: Government’s Greasy Fingerprints

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

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

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

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

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

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

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

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

See: It Only Takes One

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

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

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

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

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

See: Understanding Kids

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

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

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

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

See: The School Bus Justice System

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

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

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

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

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