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.

Now Hear This: Your School Bus P.A. is a Terrible Thing to Lose

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.

“Attention! Will the congregation please be seated!” I intoned to my milling passengers as we were about to leave their 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 appear to be 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.

“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: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

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!” (why 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 trousers. I’ve also informed perpetually wandering fourth-grader Jehosaphat that I happen to possess 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 physical altercations.

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.

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.

School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

In February 2018, I began my new endeavor in child trafficking at the wheel of a white Dodge Grand Caravan, chauffeuring a lone eighth-grader. Meanwhile I trained on a 40-foot bus for three months.

Under the watchful and sometimes amused gaze of a seasoned, sage, and blessedly patient colleague, I and several other recruits spent at least two hours a day three days a week learning to navigate streets, make pick-ups and drop-offs, traverse railroad crossings, parallel and offset park, and inspect a bus inside and out, from under the hood to the back bumper.

(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.)

My first time behind the wheel felt like I was driving a building. I’d handled a 24-foot RV on a family trip around the West and actually parallel-parked it on a hilly street in San Francisco. But that was 14 years earlier. Eventually, the bus began to feel smaller though it was impressed upon me that that its long tail must never be forgotten when turning lest it give anything nearby a hearty whack and lovely scrape.

Practice sessions were conducted in local parking lots. The parallel and offset drills in a course of red traffic cones typically resulted in great frustration and occasional hilarity. One poor soul had a devil of a time deciding when to stop and nearly deposited the bus in a large bush.

The trick was learning to use the five rearview mirrors, each offering a different perspective and proportion. Parallel and offset parking meant aligning particular tires to particular cones before cutting the wheel left or right and then straightening it while slowly, continually backing up until coming to a stop. The object is to keep the bus from going over the back or side lines and end up reasonably straight within a ridiculously small, narrow box o’ cones. 

I’m proud to say I quickly mastered the art and science of running over the cones, which often got wedged between the rear tires. Some days, though, I could do no wrong and I chortled with overconfidence. Other days, I could do no right and reduced my instructor to quiet weeping.

In the face of these daunting daily challenges, I fortified myself with the knowledge that once I passed the dreaded road test and acquired my B license, I would likely never again be required to attempt these maddening parking maneuvers.

Mean Streets and Tough Brakes

While out on the road scattering pedestrians, we were routinely instructed to attempt the most hair-raising hairpin turns, snaky traffic circles and tight traffic situations without hitting the curb … or anything else. Threading the bus between a large oak and a mail truck on a narrow street while encountering an oncoming car whose driver was not inclined to back up didn’t do much for my nerves, but it prepared me for the worst.

Beyond the dreaded road test, drivers must perform daily interior inspections of the seats, doors, roof hatches, exit windows, steps, handrail, wipers, signals, lights, horn and steering wheel. Then comes the ceremonial reading of the dashboard gauges and the brake tests. 

The static variety of test involves engaging the parking brake by pushing in a yellow knob on the dashboard and briskly pumping the brake pedal to release air pressure. Once the psi drops from 120 to 90, a beeping alarm goes off. At 60, a little red stop sign called a wig-wag descends in front of you. At that point, you turn the engine on and, if all goes well, something called the governor restores air pressure to 120 and silences the alarm.

Exterior inspections require eyeballing about 40 items including the mirrors, lights, reflectors, tires and rims, whether the bus is listing to port or starboard (not good), and if there are any puddles underneath that would suggest a leak of some kind. We spent an inordinate amount of time on things we’d never be asked to do outside of our dreaded road test, mainly correctly identifying at least 21 of the more than 50 gizmos, flywheels, filters and hoses under the hood, as well as parts of the brakes and suspension. 

See: School Bus Driving 101: Shake Hands With Slack-Adjusters

“It was never like this,” an old timer told us. “All you had to know how to do was drive. Now the state wants a lot more. I think they’re trying to discourage people from getting CDLs because they want to switch to self-driving buses.” 

If so, those buses don’t know what they’re in for.

Actually, it’s the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that now requires us to know our Pitman arm from our castle nuts, but the school district forbids us to raise the hood again after our dreaded road test. The engine is the realm of trained professional mechanics, though drivers are required to monitor 70 parts of the bus and file daily written reports on their working condition or lack thereof.

While not on the job, and perhaps even while sleeping, I constantly muttered “properly mounted and secured” and “belt driven or gear driven” as well as “ABC for rubber parts: abrasions, bubbles, cracks and cuts” and “BBC for metal: bent, broken, cracked or corroded” – the mnemonic mantras for the dissertation parts of the dreaded road test. 

Eventually, I memorized it all and got cocky. 

“The Pitman Arm was invented in the mid-1800s by George Washington Pittman, a railroad engineer in northern Alabama,” I brassily intoned to my fellow trainees during one of my last rehearsals for what would be a thoroughly humbling experience.

See: The Dreaded Road Test