Now Hear This: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

Of all the tools available to us pilots of pandemonium, the public address system on the bus is by far my favorite. Sure, using it for the sake of crowd control is often futile, but there’s just something about the way it fills the cabin with my commands that makes me feel like I have some authority.

(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, I confess that I feel drunk with power whenever I seize that black microphone on the dashboard and make a thundering pronouncement in my best Voice of The Almighty.

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

“Attention! Will the congregation please be seated!” I intoned to my milling passengers as we were about to leave Bubblefish Middle School. “Please find a pew so we may depart. Bless you.”

Based on my experience driving kids who are between the ages of 8 and 15, it’s best to keep your messages clear and simple. Sarcasm and irony are lost on them.

“Hey, Robespierre! I didn’t know you had a seat allergy,” I declared as the energetic fourth-grader ran amok one afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

“What?” he replied amid a sea of similarly curious faces.

“Do seats give you a rash on your caboose?” I inquired. “You never sit on them!”

“Huh? What?” he asked, looking genuinely mystified like his peers.

Driven to order my middle school hellions to sit down for the hundred-and-umpteenth time, I went on the PA and cheerfully said, “You probably haven’t heard, and I know this will seem hard to believe, but the school district has a rule about leaving your seat while the bus is in motion. Yep, it’s true! And just in case you do leave your seat, I’ve been given some nifty forms to fill out so you can visit the office and have a nice chat about it with your principal.” 

See: The School Bus Justice System

Needless to say, they started to tune me out about halfway through this vital public service announcement and were back to cavorting in a jiffy.

My intermediate schoolers were baffled when I told them, “Hey, I just want you to know that the seats are free! We won’t charge you to sit on them. Best of all, they don’t bite. Try one today!”

Naturally, they did not.

On the last day of school, I plan to say: “Hey, I want you all to do something you haven’t done all year. Take a seat. Try it! You may even like it!”

See: How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

I confess that frustration occasionally gets the better of me and soils my professionalism. After several tries at commanding fifth-graders Ignatz and his pals Stitch and Satch to plant themselves in their assigned seats, I grabbed the mic and demanded, “Will you stooges in the back sit down! Come on!”

Gales of laughter ensued — “The bus driver called them stooges!” (I later nicknamed them: “Ignatz & The Stooges”) — but lo and behold the offenders did park their posteriors … at least for a few minutes.

Not that I condone the use of force, mind you, but I have threatened to seize my heavy duty staple gun and fasten rowdy children to their seats by their pants. I’ve also informed perpetually wandering fourth-grader Jehosaphat that I happen to have a handful of three-penny nails and a sturdy hammer and will be coming forth to affix his wagon, so to speak.

Being a man of immense dignity, I can say it is deeply rewarding to bark orders over the PA, get no reaction, and be told by the kid sitting behind you, “You’re holding the mic backwards.”

Likewise, it inflates the old self esteem to bellow furiously without realizing that the PA’s switch has been flipped to “External.”

One morning while waiting to unload the bus at Helga Poppin Intermediate, I thundered, “Settle down back there! I’m sick and tired of telling you knuckleheads to stop jumping on the seats!” … only to be informed by Principal Diesel that my anguished cry had been trumpeted to the mob of students and teachers outside the school as well as the other drivers. 

Sadly, my PA system has died, probably from overuse. Integrated with the AM/FM radio, which also conked, the entire unit must be replaced. While I wait for a new one to be ordered and installed, I’ve been reduced to asking a cooperative student to relay my commands — “Hey! The bus driver says you numbskulls have to stop running around!” — or screaming myself hoarse whenever I see dancing in the aisles, things being thrown, arms sticking out windows, and steel cage wrestling matches.

Of course, miscreants far in the back are out of earshot no matter how loudly I shriek, so I’m thinking about getting a bullhorn … with a siren on it.

By golly, I’m going to make them listen to me one way or another … or expire trying.

Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

We school bus jockeys are encouraged to “write kids up” for transgressions ranging from basic safety violations — like distracting us or standing while the bus is moving — to more serious infractions like fighting, pushing, tripping, eating, drinking, littering, unacceptable language, destroying or defacing property, smoking, rudeness, excessive mischief, menacing, and violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause

(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.)

Each written report (see form above) results in a talking-to by a scowling school official and the notifying of parental units. Sometimes the mere threat of my filing a formal complaint is enough to snuff misbehavior. Principal Diesel and equally no-nonsense Assistant Principal Carnage at Helga Poppin Intermediate are feared by all but the most hardened hellions, and the accused often beg me to not turn them over to face their wrath.

Principal Bullhorne at Bubblefish Middle School also runs a tight ship. The convicted are routinely frog-marched out to the bus by the scruff o’ the neck to stand sheepishly by while I am told of the verdict and sentence (usually in-school suspension — aka study hall — or an assigned seat for a month, which can be quite humiliating for a cock-of-the-walk eighth-grader who finds himself in the front seat near the despised sixth-graders).

Sometimes I speak to parents first — always emphasizing that I am not picking on their offspring, I’m only concerned about their safety — but even mom or dad’s stern warnings to behave are naturally forgotten quickly by the dear child in question. After Rollo the dreaded fourth-grader was written up twice in two days for tormenting other passengers by calling them unseemly names and seizing their possessions, he immediately resumed his antics after returning from the Poppin woodshed.  

As the dreaded Principal Diesel passed my bus one noisy, troubled morning, I mentioned that I was still going through the paces with Rollo. Diesel suggested I move Rollo’s seat yet again and wished me luck. I felt like a crew member of the doomed spaceship Nostromo in the movie Alien being told by Ash the cyborg science officer, “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy.”

SEE: On Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Being a soft touch, I tend to give kids second, third, fourth, tenth and twentieth chances to go straight before I throw the book at them. When finally driven to hand up an indictment of fourth-grader Robespierre for constant rambunctiousness, brazen cheek and excessive mischief, I was so exasperated I thought about tacking on charges of crimes against humanity.

Robespierre was flabbergasted when he was condemned to the Honored Student Seat in the first row until further notice.

“Hey, it’s by order of Principal Diesel,” I told him whenever he begged for parole. (I finally sprung him, much to my regret, after two weeks.)

Sometimes, entire groups are sentenced. Finally reaching my fill of their raucous antics, I sent eighth-graders Skeezix (half-gainer over a seat back; standing on his head), Otto (water fight), Spud (dancing in the aisles), Jethro (roughhousing), Coggins (casting foodstuffs), and Herkimer (aiding and abetting) to the Fishmeal Falls District’s version of The Hague.

Chronic rule-breakers are given three strikes (write-ups) after which — in theory — they will be removed from the bus and assigned to another. I confess I felt much guilt when Lucifer, my most notorious sixth-grader, ended up on a vehicle driven by one of my colleagues. (Our small buses are often Devil’s Islands of the condemned.) I could only apologize and offer my sympathy while not lying to her about her chances.

Though the recidivism rate is sky-high, I press on despite a painful case of writer’s cramp from all the forms I fill out. I have to say it was a truly special moment the first time a chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus” broke out one morning. My middle schoolers switched the line “The driver on the bus says ‘Move on back, move on back, move on back’” to “The driver on the bus says ‘I’ll write you up!’ I’ll write you up! I’ll write you up!’”

They know. They’ve heard my tune many, many times.

Grunt Work: Greetings Can Be A Chore

It is often emphasized to us wretches o’ the wheel that we’re the first and last representatives of the school district that many children see each day. We’re told to always be pleasant and say “Good morning” or “Enjoy the rest of your day” as our precious cargo boards or departs our buses.

(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.)

Quite often I get no response or perhaps — if I listen very closely — a muffled something that sounds like “mumpf.” 

Some kids do cheerily offer or return hearty greetings. Daisy, a delightfully perky fourth grader, almost always stops, turns, and exclaims something like, “Well, you have a nice day!” at me before she exits. 

Some will thank you for your suffering on their behalf. Some actually say they feel sorry for me. “Good luck,” I’ve been told more than once by a student as he or she leaves my hopelessly raucous bus.

And, oddly enough, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, the kids I drive have been strangely polite and I’m hearing “Hello” and even “Thank you” fairly often. A side effect of the bug, perhaps?

Even the coldest ragamuffins warm up at least a bit during the course of a school year as they become familiar with you, but I’ve found that you can’t take the silent types personally and be insulted by their ignoring your pleasantries. Tis better to content yourself with the knowledge that you did your duty without undue strife or calamity during the trip.

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

Being a mere mortal, I found this consolation to be a thin emotional gruel during my first year behind the wheel. After saying “good morning” to no avail for many weeks, I began adding “little buttercup” or “same to you” under my breath.

Fearing that I would grow old and expire before I received an actual reply, I contemplated announcing over the PA system that the first kid to utter as much as a “You, too” in response to one of my greetings would be the winner of a valuable prize, maybe a set of snow tires or some oven mitts. I’ve yet to decide.

However, establishing such a quid pro quo is probably unseemly. And we are discouraged from handing out treats, due to the scourge of food allergies as well as possible liability for bringing on a medical emergency.

I have to say it is amusing when you startle a kid with your greeting and they suddenly stop and look at you like you’re nuts.

“What?!” they ask, as if I just accused them of a high crime or told them an alligator is loose on the bus.

When I greeted Oswald, a fretful third grader, one morning he suddenly locked his horrified stare on me. I have to imagine he was even more alarmed when I cackled loudly and said, “What?!” 

He quickly fled to his seat.

You gotta love the Eddie Haskells. If you are of a certain vintage, you likely remember the character from the old Leave It to Beaver sitcom. Haskells are kids who put on an angelic demeanor and pleasantly hail you en route to or from wreaking havoc.

I’ve observed them doing headers over seats, uttering hoary oaths and epithets, blatantly eating and drinking despite my repeated warnings about stuffing their faces on the bus, and engaging in crimes against the soul. But whenever they’re near me, they act like nothing undue happened.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Then there are those cherished moments when a child offers a sweet, spontaneous salutation:

One afternoon at Helga Poppin Intermediate School, Oswald came up the bus steps with a green cube in his hand.

“I’m going to blow you up!” he solemnly informed me as he casually waved it in my face. 

“Oh yeah?” I replied. “If you blow me up, who will drive the bus?”

“My mom will just come and get me,” he replied as he sauntered to his seat.

Yes, it’s always a blast to be acknowledged and know you’re appreciated.

Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

“Student management” is an art and science that only some of us school bus jockeys truly master.

The good ol’ days of being able to grab an unruly urchin by the scruff of the neck or evict him (or her) from the bus wherever you can stop or at least slow down are long gone. Sadly, requests, pleas, warnings, frank chats with parents, disciplinary write-ups, and visits to the principal’s office have only limited effects.

See: The School Bus Justice System

My dear wife regularly and happily declares that the daily aggravations and insubordinations I suffer are karmic payment for my playing the “good cop” role with our kids while she was left to be the heavy and do the grunt work of actually disciplining them. (“The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life” has the details of this stark human drama.)

(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.)

Those of us who do not naturally command unwavering respect must always be mindful of legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel’s rule about the importance of keeping those who hate you away from those who are still undecided.

We also resort to something kids often despise: assigned seats. 

Alas, coming up with effective seat assignments is harder than solving a Rubik’s Cube. I’ve spent many nights, days, weekends and months scribbling and erasing and re-scribbling and re-erasing and re-re-scribbling names on a seating chart in painstaking and maddening attempts at a containment scheme.

You continually rearrange the pieces of the puzzle with the goal of breaking up blocks of obstreperous kids, separating the ones who annoy each other, and keeping the firestarters away from tinder.

Inevitably, though, if you move Rollo to put him beyond spitting distance of his nemesis Brutus, he’ll surely start mixing it up with Robespierre, and perhaps even Hortense Prunella or Maude, two demure lasses who surprised me by revealing that they don’t suffer fools gladly, especially fools of the male persuasion.

See: It Only Takes One … to Drive a Bus Wild

The hyperactive Beetlebomb annoyeth everyone, but their requests that I keep him back 500 feet from their seats are impossible to accommodate.

Tarkus, my bus, is 40 feet long, but it’s not long enough by any stretch. Even parted by six or seven rows of seats, separated rowdies still engage in loud, long-distance taunting and chicanery or simply sneak closer to their targets while I’m not looking.

I’ve repeatedly asked my superiors if I can put the worst offenders in the storage compartment under the bus or affix them to the roof with bungee cords, but I’ve been told such things are against district policy. I have also inquired if the district will order some London-style double-decker buses so the miscreants can be assigned to a level apart from the solid citizens. 

I can only hope.

Blessedly, several intermediate school students (all gals, mind you) have eagerly offered to serve as spies and keep me informed of mischievous doings. Two sit directly behind me and another is planted in the back. The dirt they provide keeps me busy reassigning evil-doers to new seats.

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

No matter how many seating changes you make, guilt (your own) is always in the mix. If you have even a shred of conscience, you can’t help asking yourself, “Do I really want to visit this dreadful plague upon undeserving urchins?” by seating a raging Visigoth near the quiet and innocent, although some ladies can be just as rambunctious as the alleged gentlemen.

Quite often, I am paralyzed by remorse and stand alone in despair on Tarkus, gazing at my seating chart, Scotch tape and name tags in hand, realizing there is no way to be fair or completely end the madness.

Sometimes the best you can do is employ a zone defense: consigning groups of like-minded hellions to specific areas of the bus, moving kids you need to keep an eye on (e.g. Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Jehosaphat the Wanderer), and creating buffer zones with empty seats and popular kids who get along with everyone.

Having a no-nonsense tough girl (“Moxie Lady” Maude) or two is helpful as they can serve as enforcers to keep the yobs in check. (Lads dislike being shown up by lasses and usually steer clear.)

In one of my first attempts at containment, I put the gutter-talking fifth graders in the back; a group of loud, squealing girls in the rows in front of them; noisy, rowdy fourth-graders in front of the girls; a buffer of two empty rows, and then three kids who were trying to flee the insanity behind them but ran out of room. 

Peace reigned for about 15 minutes.

For my middle school run, I made a strict “no sixth-graders in the back” policy that was heartily seconded by the eighth-graders who reside there. The infamous Lucifer was remanded to the middle of the bus with an empty two-row buffer zone around him. Cowering refugees sit in the front, close to me. 

My intermediate school runs have been made a little more peaceful by forbidding males to enter the last four rows … ever again. It also helps that my district has made pandemic rules limiting kids to one per seat, which limits their wrasslin’ matches and Three Stooges routines.

See: The Back of the Bus (Where the Action Is)

So far, pretty good, though I still sweat blood over the seating chart every day.

Meet the Hellions

Welcome aboard! 

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

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

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

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

Afternoons are another matter.

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

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

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

Thankfully, I am undefeated … so far.

World War I

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

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

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

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

Game on.

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

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

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

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

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

Buckle up!

WORLD WAR II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it’s time to abandon all hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Merciful End

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

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

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

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

School Bus Driving 101: The Dreaded Road Test

Oh, the queasy anticipation.

I felt pretty confident even though I knew parallel parking would still be a crapshoot. There was also constant unsettling talk among us trainees about an infamous road test examiner who barked commands and insulting criticism with the intent of rattling all who took the wheel under his curdled gaze. Most of those poor souls failed the test. 

“Pray you don’t get him!” I was told.

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

The night before my hour of judgment, my wise trainer offered some advice: Do some touch-up studying. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Beseech the deity of your choice.

On a cloudy June morning outside Dutchess Stadium in aptly-named Fishkill, I sighed with relief when I was directed to two pleasant female examiners. After duly impressing them with my knowledge of the hamster wheels and other stuff under the hood, they cut short my soliloquy on the rest of the bus and told me to conduct the air brake test.

Taking the driver’s seat, I turned the key to the right without starting the engine, saw the air pressure gauge on the dashboard read 120 PSI, held the brake pedal down for a minute to see if the PSI dropped more than four pounds, started pumping to lower it to 60, pushed the parking brake knob in to disengage it … and was horrified when it refused to stick.

I stabbed at it again. And again. It kept popping out.

“Do you know what you did wrong?” one of the examiners asked as I sat flummoxed.

“Uhh … um …ahm” was all I could stammer.

“If you don’t disengage the parking brake before you start pumping the brakes down, how will you know if there’s a leak in the system?” asked the other.

Fair question.

“You need to disengage the parking brake before you test the air brakes,” I was gently reminded.

Somehow, I’d managed to do this test successfully but incorrectly all along without alerting my trainer. The brake knob had picked a fine time to finally betray me. So I was sent away to schedule another $40 road test. 

See: School Bus Driving 101: The Training Process

My trainer was gobsmacked. “This has never happened before!” she said.

Taking consolation in having made district history, I went back to the bus yard feeling much shame. The news of my epic failure preceded me.

“What happened?” I was repeatedly asked.

“Brain cramp,” was all I could say.

The rest of the day was fraught with anxiety. The end of the school year was three weeks away. If there were no open test dates until summer, I’d have to wait until fall with no way to practice. Fortunately, there was one date left, across the Hudson River in Kingston.

Two weeks later, in the bright sun outside Dietz Stadium, my examiner turned out to be a grumpy geezer but not the legendary scourge who, rumor had it, had been remanded to sensitivity training.  

I got through the inspections and brake tests without a hitch, but made a heavenly hash of parallel parking. The cones were much smaller and arrayed in a slightly different configuration on an uphill slope, which disoriented me. When I backed into the box, the examiner immediately shouted “Stop!” and threw up his hands in disgust. 

Clambering out of the bus, I saw I’d gone over the side line of cones, but was stunned when he told me to try again. And again. 

Invariably, my back bumper grazed or crossed the side line as I cut into the box. My third attempt left the bus somewhat askew in the box. I climbed out and resigned myself to more ignominy only to be shocked (shocked!) when the examiner groused, “OK, that’s good enough. Let’s go on the road.”

By then, my trainer couldn’t bear to watch anymore and had ducked into a nearby Rite-Aid for a sedative only to be stunned upon emerging to see my bus passing by on the way to the highways and byways of Kingston. 

I was instructed where to go and had to call out everything I saw (such as nearby vehicles, signs and signals, pedestrians and other potential hazards). All went well until I failed to call out an overpass. After an agonizingly long wait back at the test site, the examiner returned to the bus and informed me that I would be unleashed upon the public. I very nearly gave him a tearful hug.

I was qualified at last to enjoy all the wonders and aggravations of this noble profession.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

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

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

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

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

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

See: Meet the Hellions

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

Or so we thought.

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

“So do you. Hurry up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

FUN REGULATIONS TO KNOW AND TELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

The horn alarm is blaring in repeated honks. Twenty-five kids are in a panicked uproar. The stench of tracked-in dog doo fills the bus as it sits outside … let’s call it Helga Poppin Intermediate School.

So how did I get here?

(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.)

“Here” is behind the wheel of that unfortunate vehicle, in a state of frazzled despair. For three decades I’d been a writer, editor and website producer at Time Inc. Much of that time was spent at Sports Illustrated For Kids, but catering to urchins has never been one of my ambitions, though I am the father of three and stepfather of one. 

After I was downsized in late 2016, my wife told me that an acquaintance — a driver for a school district near our home in New York’s Hudson Valley — had said her employer needed intrepid souls to man the wheel and would train as well as pay me a modest sum for my suffering.  It seemed like a sensible, practical idea and quite possibly a lot of fun … at the time.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to be a bus driver,” a principal later told a gathering of my new colleagues. 

People, especially teachers and school administrators, often express admiration and amazement at the job we do on a daily basis. I never dreamed I’d end up doing it.

This gig requires you to be part parent, teacher, medic, psychologist, referee, chauffeur, and janitor. Our responsibility for the safety of the children we transport is enormous. Our daily challenges are potentially catastrophic, and we are routinely subjected to the most jarring mayhem and insults that little hellions can dish out while we try to concentrate on not driving into trees, ditches, pedestrians or other vehicles.

Ironically, you couldn’t pay us much less: In the neighborhood of 20 bucks an hour before taxes. Some benefits, such as overtime, health insurance and retirement savings plans, can come with the gig after enough time served.

Then again, we get to enjoy the arts (children shrieking “Baby Shark” and “Old Town Road” off-key) and nature (urchins making loud animal noises) for free. 

In order to gain these privileges, we must get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for school buses, and pass background checks, random drug tests and yearly physicals. We are fingerprinted and required to get testimonials to our good character from reputable people. We must take physical performance tests and specialized safety courses and train for months in order to pass a road test that enables us to pilot a 40-foot-long, 29,800-pound madhouse. Refresher courses and tests are mandatory.

See: Bus Driving 101 (Training Wheels)

“If you don’t like being around kids, you’re in the wrong business,” we trainees were told. “Some people quit as soon as they find out what’s really involved.”

Small wonder there’s a national shortage of school bus drivers.

So why do we do it?

I must admit I had my doubts about what I was getting into. Despite being a dad with a background in writing for kids, I’ve never really felt comfortable with children other than my own. Driving a bunch of middle schoolers weirdly forced me to revisit one of my earliest terrors.

I was relentlessly picked on in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to confront the kinds of bullies who made my life miserable. Would they listen to me or laugh in my face?

Then again, when had my own kids ever listened to me?

Surprisingly, after only a few months I found I actually liked the job despite the best efforts to persuade me otherwise by some of the rascals on my bus.

See: Meet the Hellions

I now have enormous respect for my colleagues in school districts all over the land, many of whom have been driving for years and somehow managed to preserve their sanity as well as their sense of humor.

It was no small task. Here’s to them!