I’m a Sucker for This Gig

It’s summer time and I’m driving a wet vac instead of a bus.

Fishmeal Falls Central School District employs a select number of us bus jockeys to assist custodial staffs as they prepare their institutions of alleged learning for the coming year. Monday through Friday from early July to the end of August I’m cleaning, painting and moving furniture.

(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 messes and stuff you find in and under desks are pretty much the same as what you scrape out of your bus at the end of the year: candy wrappers, gum wads, pens, bits of pencil or crayon, paper snoops, broken toys, crumpled notes and other flotsam. I’m always amazed to find there are actually school buildings under all the trash and grime.

It’s fun to see how our dear little passengers live after they leave our buses — the books they read, the murals they paint, the inspirational messages their teachers post on the walls of their classrooms. Here’s a great one: “Life is all about mistakes and learning from them.”

Ain’t that the gospel truth?

During my first summer gig at a school, I made the mistake of fighting a floor-scrubbing machine and learned it can turn into a mechanical bull. I was doing a classroom floor when the scrubber suddenly spun. I reacted by trying to control it instead of letting go so it would shut off. I ended up on my back in a puddle of suds, fortunately bruising only my pride, but I now treat the contraption with great wariness.

One more: “Only focus on what you can control.”

That usually ain’t the floor scrubber or the kids on my bus, but I have a better chance with the bus if I tune out the yowling and resist the temptation to keep looking in the overhead mirror.

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

This year I’ve been assigned to Runnynose Elementary, the scene of one of the highlights of my young driving career.

Shortly after I passed my road test, I was assigned a small bus and a handful of kids. Morning drop-off was behind Runnynose, but no one told me afternoon pick-up was in front. So I found myself trapped in a traffic jam of parents with very little room to turn around. Bubs, the head custodian, happened to be outside. Amused to see me and my predicament, he tried to wave me back and out, but I rolled too close to a basketball hoop.

Besides being an immediate attraction for gawkers and the principal, my little scrape required an accident report, though the damage was limited to the roof of the bus and could not be seen unless one stood on the roof of the school or went up in a helicopter or hot air balloon. Nevertheless, Bubs enjoys reminding me of that fine day while I toil under his direction in a hall or classroom.

The process of cleaning floors involves scrubbing, sucking up the suds with the wet vac, and mopping with clean water. “OK, Clem will scrub. Gus will mop. John’s the sucker,” Bubs declared to much mirth from my co-workers. Like my bus mishap, his words are now legendary and will likely end up on my headstone.

Getting a building ready for a new school year is no small job. Besides scrubbing and waxing the floors, we must wipe down all the desks, chairs and tables, empty all furniture from the classrooms, wash the windows, and paint any walls and doors that need it. The gym, cafeteria, bathrooms, nurse’s office and staff room also get the royal treatment. We’re often hopping from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the knowledge that the student body will reduce it all to a grimy mess in short order when it returns.

See: Coronavirus Shut Down: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

This year’s prep work is clouded by uncertainty due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Each district in my state (New York) must come up with a plan to open safely, either fully or partly, in September. Runnynose wants desks separated by six feet, a physical impossibility unless some classroom walls are knocked down. New York State wants us drivers to make sure kids keep their masks on, a physical impossibility unless I can figure out how to be in two places at once.

Ah, well. Life is all about learning and focusing on what you can control, right? Hopefully the ride will be a little smoother than it was on that damned floor scrubber. At least I’ve learned to watch out for basketball hoops.

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

One of the requirements of this noble profession is controlling herds of cantankerous, rambunctious kids while piloting a 29,000-pound yellow building along treacherous roads. Hey, no sweat!

(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.)

Though we bus jockeys often work wonders, we can’t be in two places at once — behind the wheel and in the back prying children off one another. Fortunately, kids do help us by providing useful intel on lawbreakers.

A word from a well-placed informant enables me to catch perps in the act by looking in the rearview mirror or having the on-board vide reviewed.

See: The Camera’s Eyes Have It

Kids hate being ratted out and will complain bitterly to the snitch, sometimes threatening revenge. But I’ve been amazed to find that once a rule-breaker has been called on the carpet, he or she will immediately turn stool pigeon with great enthusiasm. And there’s a domino effect. The more kids get caught, the more kids there are to provide constant choruses of “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! [Kid’s name here] is [committing — pick a crime — here].”

Fourth-grader Beetlebomb is a prime example. A master rabble rouser and wandering instigator, he’s frequently been written up for creating safety issues (distractions for the driver). As I eternally try to explain to my precious cargo, when they do things that make me look at the overhead rearview “suicide” mirror instead of the road, we are very possibly heading for an accident.

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

Whenever he’s been brought to justice, Beetlebomb promptly starts blowing the whistle on every rule-breaker he sees. Girls are common targets, especially for boys like Beetlebomb who resent my “Females Only” policy for sitting in the coveted back four rows. (I’ve found that the ladies are just better-behaved than the laddies.)

“Hey, Mr. John! Lucille and Daisy are changing seats while the bus is moving,” Beetlebomb yelled one afternoon after visiting the principal’s office for having committed that very infraction on many occasions.

“How come you never tell me when you move without asking?” I wondered aloud over the PA.

“You’re always busy screaming about everyone else,” he replied.

Like other stoolies, Beetlebomb won’t hesitate to tell on his pals.

“Brutus is picking on Muffin!” he informed me one day. “She’s crying.”

Sure enough. So I gave Brutus the finger — the good ol’ come-to-the-front index finger.

See: Meet the Hellions

Besides being a holding pen, the front of the bus is also a nest of spies. Calliope, Ocarina and Prudence (who is also allowed to move to the back whenever she wishes) sit directly behind me and keep a sly, close eye on mischief. Ocarina alerted me to Brutus using his phone (all electronic devices are prohibited), which moved Brutus to immediately alert me to Petunia and Lucille crawling around on the floor.

“Phaedra gives out lollipops and leaves the sticks all over the bus!” is another piece of Brutus dish he delivered one afternoon while departing the bus at his home.

Calls to the cop (me) easily become a flood of distraction over things that can easily wait until I’m done trying to, oh, say, stay on a slippery curving road.

When Brutus yelled, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver! Robespierre is eating!” in one such instance, I couldn’t resist asking, “Is he cheating on his taxes, too? If so, let me know and I’ll alert the IRS.”

Sometimes you have no choice but to take immediate action. Brutus alerted me to the scent of peanuts just days after I’d told the kids about the dangers of food allergies. Fortunately, we hadn’t left Helga Poppin Intermediate yet, so I marched back to find Ignatz quickly closing his book on a bag of the feared nuts while his henchman Stitch chowed down on graham crackers.

They gazed at me wide-eyed as I told them about having to call 911 in the case of an allergic reaction by one of their fellow riders.

“You’ll feel guilty!” I said. “And I’ll make you visit them at the hospital.”

Another day, I was handed a “signed” letter from Ignatz, Jehosaphat, Robespierre, Pismeyer, Beetlebomb, and Axel accusing Brutus of making inappropriate noises and using words that would make the vicar blush. They also threw Buster under the bus for assorted high crimes and misdemeanors.

Alarmed, I took the note to Assistant Principal Carnage, who asked for proof of the alleged misdeeds. I must admit I expected the long arm of the law to swing into immediate action upon my mere request. Now that I’ve thought about it, Carnage was only being fair in a balanced-scales-of-justice way.

“Did you ask Brutus and Buster if they did it?” I was asked — really, what are they going to say? I thought — and it was suggested that I patrol the aisle when possible. We’ll see. I have to figure out how to do it while I’m driving because that’s when the dirty deeds usually go down, but blessedly I have my trusty spies.

Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

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

(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 halcyon 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 a bit 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. (My book “The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life” contains the details of this stark human drama.)

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.

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 Helga Poppin Intermediate 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 re-assigning 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 on Tarkus in despair, 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 with the Helga Poppins, 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 Bubblefish 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 Poppin forays have been made a little more peaceful by forbidding males to enter the last four rows … ever again.

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