Happiness is a New School Bus … I Think

The biggest surprise I’ve received (so far) in this job of never-ending surprises is a new bus. And not just a new bus. A brand-spankin’-fresh-from-the-factory new bus.

You could have knocked me over with a goose quill when I was told by my boss that I would be one of five drivers to receive one. I’ve only been at this infernal business for four years. Many other pilots where I work have more seniority. Second, I have a reputation as a bus killer.

No matter what wheel I climb behind, the vehicle under it is doomed to die of mechanical failure in short order. Mine have expired on main roads, side streets, a hill, an incline and the bus compound. Doesn’t matter if it’s the brakes, the fuel pump, the starter, the entire engine, the transmission, or some other gizmo, a mushroom cloud of distress is guaranteed to rise shortly after I turn the key. And the problems won’t be easily fixable. It will just be THE END for the bus in question.

SEE: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

(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.)

As a newbie in 2018, I was assigned one of the district’s older buses, which I named Tarkus after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album of the same name. The bus rumbled and bounced like a tank and handled like an armadillo. What’s more, its heat (or lack thereof) was so bad that at least one parent complained about a partially frozen kid. (I actually thought of asking for permission to put a small wood stove in the back.)

And if that weren’t bad enough, the PA failed, leaving me to bellow at my always-unruly passengers.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

When Tarkus went to the Big Bus Yard in the Sky after a year or so, I was assigned to a series of vehicles, all of which had at least 100,000 miles on them and some noticeable problems that I made worse by simply being their driver. Our mechanics sighed with despair each time I drove off in one.

So given my killer’s touch, the last thing I expected to get was a sparkling new 2022 International Propane Autogas CE with an 8.8L LP Gen II, 270 horsepower PSI engine, Allison fifth generation transmission (with fuel sense!), SmarTrac hydraulic brakes, electronic stability control, Bendix Wingman Advanced collision sensor system, and that new bus smell.

Turned out that my volunteering to cover after school runs (with often unfortunate results), and my showing up for work each day despite the Covid pandemic, had its rewards. Or so it seemed.

Lemon bus very pretty but the steering wheel has a squeak and the brakes on this darn lemon haven’t lasted me a week. (Apologies to Proctor & Bergman’s song “Lemon Car” sung to the tune of “Lemon Tree.”)

Of the five new buses that came in, four immediately developed bugs. One wouldn’t start for its maiden run because of an electrical issue and it later leaked antifreeze while its rear brakes smoked. A second bus had a front brake that rattled and it, too, later succumbed to the electrical issue. A third had to be towed back to base while out on a school trip. And the fourth developed a roof leak that later appeared in most of the others, including mine, which, like all the others also developed a weird tendency to shed loose screws in various places.

At least mine held up … except for a “check engine” light that came on and stayed on, defying efforts by our mechanics and the dealer’s staff to shut it off. And there was a cord that looked like an electrical plug dangling under the bus one day.

My new ride took some getting used to after my long line of diesel covered wagons. For one thing, the starting procedure required me to turn the key halfway and wait 30 seconds until all the dashboard lights went out. There was a front sensor that suddenly triggered the brakes if it felt I was getting too close to something for its comfort. This came as a bit of a surprise to me and my passengers one day. And the bus proved to be a fuel hog that gets about 12 feet to the gallon, so I had to gas up every day with about 30 gallons even though I was driving about 70 miles.

Oh, it was nice to have good heat and a working PA, though the PA mic was located above me to the left instead of in the dashboard. And when screws started falling out of doors and seats, and one of the fans above the dashboard suddenly came down during a trip, I began to wonder what would go next.

“Has the radio fallen on your head yet?” I was asked by one of my fellow drivers.

I thought she was joking, but then one of our mechanics mentioned that while he was out driving one of the new buses, he hit a bump and the radio came down, narrowly missing his noggin.

“Looks like you just got a bad batch,” one driver suggested, and our mechanic said he thinks the problems are Covid-related: The factory was probably understaffed and under the weather and people were just forgetting to tighten nuts and bolts and stuff.

A lot of good that does us, of course.

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

Meanwhile, kids have christened the nice new floor with gum and the back of a nice new seat with Wite-out. I also discovered that my bus has a roof leak like the others, but I just figure it’s the manufacturer’s newfangled Student Irrigation System designed to keep precious cargo moist and fresh.

I was told that some of other drivers, the ones with more seniority, would likely grumble and even stare daggers at me when they learned that I was getting a new bus and they weren’t. I have tried to reassure everyone that I didn’t ask for my new bus and that they should probably be thankful for their older, more reliable models even if they have a wart or two.

I’ve learned that there are different makes and models out there — we use Internationals and Bluebirds — and they’ve come a long way from the days of manual crank door handles and stick shifts. The bus I’m driving now looks like it’s state of the art, but I can’t help noticing its distinct citrus flavor.

I guess that’s only fitting given my track record. So I drive on, waiting for Tarkus 2 to go belly-up like all the others I’ve ever driven, though it is kind of ironic that this one seems to keep going even though all signs suggest it won’t much longer.

That figures. The one that should be easiest for me to kill isn’t.

School Bus Life Lessons: This Job’s No Joke

Of the many things I’ve learned from driving a school bus, one really stands out: This job can humble you in a heartbeat.

Plenty of things can go wrong. Many are not the driver’s fault, but some are, like getting lost in thought and missing a stop.

SEE: Zoning Out Is Not the Way to Go

Or losing your cool with kids. Or doing something silly and looking like a fool. I know all about that one.

You see, ever since I was a kid I’ve had a mischievous streak a mile wide, so I have a devil of a time resisting the temptation to do things like making, shall we say, offbeat remarks over the two-way radio.

(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 hear playful banter between drivers all the time, but I started cracking wise after I heard their announcements while they were backing out of their parking spaces in our compound. The mischief wheels in my mind immediately started spinning and one day I just blurted, “For your entertainment pleasure, 631 is backing out of space 90.”

I immediately felt ashamed of myself, but when no one said anything to me, I kept going.

A stream of similar messages followed. Stuff like: “631 backing up and bound for glory” and “631 backing up . . . but not indefinitely. I hope to stop at some point.”

I was also inspired by another driver who, when asked by our dispatcher how many kids he had on board, replied, “I don’t know. I’d say somewhere between seven and nine.” So I began commenting about the challenges of the job: “631 backing out of space 90 to suffer the little children.”

I’ve been told by some of my fellow drivers that they get a kick out of my announcements and even listen for them. Of course, that only eggs me on, increasing the urge to turn my bus into my own personal comedy club. As it is, I say bizarre things over the PA, such as informing kids who are complaining about someone’s rather noticeable fart that state law requires at least one such emission per trip so the bus does not run out of gas.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

These vocal gateway drugs led to drawings and messages in the dust on the back door of my bus.

A self-portrait.

But I’ve learned the hard way that it helps to remember that humor, like beauty, is in the eye (and ear) of the beerholder. Not everyone finds me amusing and they’ve let me know by erasing my dust messages or scrawling, “Wash your bus!” over them.

Even worse, it’s usually after I’ve said something goofy that I immediately do something embarrassing — like missing a turn, having to go miles out of my way, and arriving late at a school. Or a discipline situation arises, my video is pulled, and I end up under a microscope. I’ve been told that some school officials will watch the video of an entire trip and not just the incident in question in order to make sure the driver is not somehow at fault. So I’ve sweated out a few reviews.

SEE: The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

The problem with trying to be a comedian is you can be a very conscientious driver but joking makes you sound like your mind is elsewhere and you don’t take the job seriously. This is a job that demands concentration and must be taken seriously. Plus you clutter the radio with inane chatter when drivers and the dispatcher need everything on it to be important, clear, concise, and not a distraction.

I’ve been left red-faced by our dispatcher saying, “We don’t need to hear this!” while I merrily prattled during a busy time on the radio. After I declared that it was “Time for today’s exciting episode of Assigned Seat Roulette, so let’s meet today’s contestants!” I was curtly and coldly informed by our former head mechanic that everyone, including the big bosses, can hear me and there is a very real need to remain strictly professional.

Gulp.

Clearly, I need to engage my brain before I put my mouth in “drive.”

You’d think I would have learned my lesson after four years behind the wheel. But you would be wrong. I’ve been chastened, and I’m very careful about picking my spots and not becoming an annoyance. But when volunteering to help out with after-school runs even though I tend to not know the routes (with predictable results), I’ll still say whatever pops into my head, such as: “631 to base. My luxury vehicle is empty and available for misguided tours of Greater New England” or “Bus 631 is now available for salvage operations, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and other social events.”

SEE: Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

I really do have to be very careful about letting my inner child out. This is a job that requires a responsible adult and it will quickly remind me when I am not being one.

School Bus Life Lessons: Kids Learn the Hard Way

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: WHERE THE ACTION IS

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

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

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

SEE: PICKING YOUR BATTLES WITH KIDS

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? Who’s that?”

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

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

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

Sadly, my sage wisdom usually falls on deaf ears.

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

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

SEE: THE ROADSIDE LECTURES ROLL ON

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

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

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

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

SEE: STUDENT MANAGEMENT, ASSIGNED SEATS AND SANITY

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

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

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

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

School Bus Confidential: Cupid Runs Amok

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

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

Indeed.

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

My, how times have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ya think?

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

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

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

Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEE: Crowd Control Measures I’d Like to See

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

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

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

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

“Where are you?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“I’m hungry,” he said several times.

“I’m hungry, too,” I finally replied.

“What if I don’t get home?”

“You’ll get home.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“But what if I don’t?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“Everyone else got home safely. How come?”

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

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“What if we have an accident?”

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

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

“You’re going to get home!”

“But what if I don’t?”

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

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

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

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

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

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

I’m getting plenty of that these days.

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.

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.

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.