The School Bus Swag Pile Always Grows and Grows

If you ever need a pencil, just ask a school bus driver. We got a million of ’em.

Bet you didn’t know that pencils, pens, crayons and markers grow on school buses. Yep. They’re planted there every day by the passengers. As a driver I also harvest a robust daily crop of sweaters, hoodies, jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, jewelry, toys, trading cards, books, musical instruments, backpacks, lunch boxes, keys, phones, footwear and ear buds. You’ll find them all in the front of my bus along with the world’s foremost collection of water bottles.

(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 often feel like I’m driving a department store.

Though kids occasionally grab things before I turn them in to their school’s Lost & Found, I’m always amazed by how long stuff can remain on my bus unclaimed while kids walk by it four times a day every day. They don’t seem to miss it and I wonder if their parents ever ask them, “Hey, where’s your coat?” when they arrive home on a day when it’s 10 degrees or raining so heavily that an ark looks like a good thing to have handy.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am: Ready for Anything

Lost phones are a cause for immediate concern, but that’s only natural. It’s been scientifically proven that humans of all ages can not survive long without ’em. It usually takes only minutes before a kid notices it is missing and our dispatcher notifies us that a search party is needed.

Sometimes kids will ask if I’ve seen something they’ve lost — usually a tiny gewgaw like a unicorn earring that requires me to crawl around on the floor with a magnifying glass. It almost never turns up.

As for musical instruments, I could start an orchestra with the variety that is left behind, but they don’t stay there more than a day or two before their owners or, most often, their parents come calling. Some urchins do seem determined to get rid of theirs. Jehosaphat, one of my standout (he won’t sit down) fourth-graders and Esmerelda, a fifth-grader, never fail to exit the bus without theirs. I’ve probably now spent more time with a violin or clarinet in my hands than they have.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

All of this valuable merchandise does attract enterprising souls who place dibs on it in case its owners never take it back. Ocarina, a charming third grader who sat directly behind me, had an eye for a couple of necklaces and a bracelet that kept hanging around.

After leaving them on display for months until the end of the school year and repeatedly asking every kid on my bus if the bling was theirs, I finally gave in and gave them to Ocarina with the stipulation that she’d have to return them to me if anyone asked about them. No one did. She’s probably fenced them by now.

It has occurred to me that this stuff could help offset the low pay that comes with the gig. I reckon that since my dear riders ask me for a pencil every day, I should start renting them out. At five cents a pop, I could soon end up retired and reclining on a beach in the Cayman Islands, cackling like a loon while I light pricey cigars with $100 bills.

Though it can be aggravating to keep accumulating so much stuff you have to ship out (sometimes I feel like a worker in an Amazon warehouse), there is a sweet sorrow in cleaning out the bus at the end of the year. Along with the final traces of kids you won’t see again, there are also unexpected goodies.

See: Coronavirus Shutdown: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

For instance, after not driving since mid-March due to the pandemic lockdown, I returned in June for my annual tidying of Tarkus and found a bird’s nest, though I’m not sure if one of the kids left it. I felt melancholy when I pulled a science project lunch box from the swag carton I keep in front and pondered what to do with a baggie of Pokemon cards that was lying under a seat.

It’s possible that I won’t be back behind the wheel until January. At least I have enough pencils to tide me over until then.

School Bus Life Lessons: Picking Your Battles With Kids

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

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

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

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

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

See: Government’s Greasy Fingerprints

Of course, you have to make it clear who is in charge. I’m somewhat mellower than your average houseplant but I have my limits and the kids on my bus know it. Sometimes all I have to do is give them the evil eye and I’ll get an “Oh, sorry” and an end to the mischief. Until the next time … but there’s only so much you can do about young no-stick brains.

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

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

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

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

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

See: Meet the Hellions

I naturally wonder what the deal is with the worst-behaved kids on my bus. Sometimes they can be on medication for physical or emotional conditions. You never know.

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

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

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

Then there is the stuff that really makes you wonder what’s going on. I had a fifth-grader who said alarming things like, “I think about killing people” and “What if you went to a boarding school where they made you forget your parents and when you graduated, they kill you?”

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

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

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

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

See: The School Bus Justice System

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

Another colleague made me realize the good we can do in kids’ lives. She told me of students she drove years ago who still remember her, greet her and talk to her whenever they see her in a store or restaurant.

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

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

Understanding Kids: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

What do they want?

That question continues to vex me. As the father of three, the stepfather of one, and the bus driver of 60, I’m still no closer to an answer than I was when I was a kid who thought he knew what he wanted.

What do they want?

(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 know why kids are on my bus, but not what they ultimately want.

I also know this much: Many want to sit in the back of the bus where they have a better chance of getting away with all kinds of ungodly mischief. Some want to stick their arms and heads out the windows and hoot at the people on the street. They all probably want me to stop at McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts. I get asked to do it quite often.

But there are other things that have me scratching my addled head:

Kids will drive you to the edge of apoplexy, then ask you for a favor.

One prime example: Brutus, a fourth-grader with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore, is constantly moving about the bus without asking and getting into scrapes with other kids, particularly his adversary, Rollo. Their school told me to separate their assigned seats by a minimum of three rows if three miles are not feasible.

No matter how many times I sternly tell Brutus to sit down or stop baiting Rollo or leave someone alone; no matter how many times I yell or write him up, he just keeps doing what he has seemingly been born to do.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Many more than once I’ve had to pull over, secure the bus, rebuke Brutus and order him up to the “Honored Student Seat” in the front row. I can set my clock by him pleasantly asking within five minutes, “Hey Mr. John, can I sit in the back? I’m being good.”

My standard reply: “You’re going to have to be good for longer than that … how about the rest of your life?”

Nevertheless, I can count on him doing it all again the next day. But Brutus is not the only one. Researchers say young, developing brains lack the circuit that connects a bus driver you’ve just infuriated to the unlikelihood of him or her doing something nice for you.

Evidence suggests they may be right.

Kids hate assigned seats but are very territorial about them.

Behold Beetlebomb, who always wanders from any seat you give him (I wrote “in theory” under his name above one), but God save anyone who sits there while he’s gone.

Volatile, roaming frenemies, Beetlbomb and Brutus were feeling unusually mellow one morning when they told me they wanted to sit together. Silly me for letting them. They were at each other’s throats that afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

The next morning, I moved Beetlebomb, who was furious that I’d given his old seat with Hobbestweedle to Oswald after Oswald asked to sit there.

“Get out of my seat!” Beetlebomb kept demanding, getting in Oswald’s grill while refusing to heed my commands to take his new perch so we could all proceed to school and arrive before sundown.

“What difference does it make?” I kept asking. “You wouldn’t stay in that seat when you had it!”

“But it’s still mine!” he cried, tempting me to ask him to present the deed.

Alas, he’s not the only one who has felt that way.

“Hey, Mr. John! Satch (or Hogshead or Hortense Prunella or whoever) is in my seat!” is something I often hear from an assortment of kids after I’ve allowed them to move during a trip.

“That’s OK. You’re not in it and I said they could sit there” is clearly not an acceptable reply.

Kids won’t stop moving … until they should move.

Jehosaphat and Lucille are two of the most migratory creatures on my bus. Lucille, who is well-behaved, has earned permission to switch seats (just not while we’re in motion) whenever she likes. Jehosaphat has not, but he will defy even a court order to stay put.

Both can reliably be counted on to be heading somewhere … except when we reach their stops. Then they are frozen in place and need to be told over the P.A. that it might be a good idea to get up and leave.

“How come you’re always moving except when it’s time to get off?” I’ve asked many, many, many times while a long line of clearly aggravated traffic forms behind us as Lucille and Jehosaphat search up and down the aisle for their scattered jackets, backpacks, lunch boxes, bassoons and other accoutrements.

Two years on, I’m still waiting for an explanation.

Kids demand things they don’t want.

Sixth-grader Sassafrass constantly complains about having to sit in the front four rows while Ethel, whom she despises, “always” gets everything she wants. “Everything” is keeping rowdy sixth-graders out of the middle four rows where the more sedate seventh-graders are deposited … by order of me for the sake of some semblance of peace.

Unfortunately for Sassafrass, she doesn’t grasp that whenever she and her minions — Wisenheimer, Lulubelle, and Zoothorn — get anywhere near Ethel, highly distracting unpleasantries ensue.

One day, to my surprise, they all said they wanted to switch seating areas … only to have Sassafrass and Co. return to the front near Ethel the next day.

The ensuing highly distracting unpleasantries forced me to call a summit meeting at their school and include a guidance counselor.

So, as near as I can reckon, kids want what they want when they want it … until they don’t want it no more. Which is usually a few minutes later.

Maybe you’ve got them figured out. If so, I salute you.

Coronavirus Shutdown: Missing the Little Dears on My Bus

I came to this job two years ago with a lot of uncertainty.

The father of three and stepfather of one, I had a passing familiarity with kids but didn’t know if I’d like the pressure and responsibility of the gig or if I had what it takes to handle 30 or so rampaging urchins at 30 miles per hour.

(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 wife delights in saying the daily aggravation I suffer is karmic payback for copping out as the Good Cop while we raised our brood. The tough discipline was left to her. Now I don’t have her to restore order on my bus. It’s DIY time, Buster. Enjoy!

For sure, driving a school bus has been a test of my resolve, better angels, and sanity. But I never thought I’d say this:

After the coronavirus crisis shut down schools across the land and left me parked at home until who knows when, I actually began to miss the little vipers. Even the ones who make me want to give them assigned seats in the luggage compartment.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Many of my fellow drivers feel this way, and now I know why.

I miss the things kids say.

One afternoon at his school, Oswald, a rather serious-minded third grader, came up the bus steps with a green cube in his hand. 

“I’m going to blow you up!” he solemnly informed me as he gestured with the cube.

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

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

All I could do was crack up.

I miss their gifts.

Notes like the one on the left from Robespierre, a fourth-grader who is one of my most rambunctious and, shall we say, challenging riders, warm my ol’ heart and make me want to go the extra miles for my young passengers.

I’ve been given drawings and a knitted necklace, but the sweetest moment was when Birdie came aboard one morning and handed me a shish-kebab made of chocolates and marshmallows all wrapped in cellophane and a ribbon.

“It’s her birthday,” Birdie’s mom explained. “She wanted you to have one.”

I never knew Birdie cared. A shy, quiet third-grader, she hadn’t said two words to me the whole school year. Her gift said a lot.

I miss their kindness.

One day, Bumpus, a sensitive third-grader, was crying because his friend Hobbestweedle didn’t get on the bus after school. When Guttersnipe and Snodgrass started making fun of him, Maude, a brassy fifth-grader who doesn’t suffer male fools gladly, got up, led Bumpus to her seat, and put her arm around him.

Then she told Guttersnipe and Snodgrass to leave Bumpus alone and consoled him the rest of the trip. At her stop, I told her what she did was wonderful. She just shrugged. Twarn’t nuthin’.

Kids like Maude can restore your faith in the human race.

I miss their performances of the fine arts.

Hobbestweedle was the only rider on my bus for a stretch one morning when he began reading poetry — “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe — at the top of his lungs. For some mysterious reason he kept dramatically repeating the lines, “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in bleak December. And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

It was a bizarre moment, but it was entertaining.

I miss their music.

Particularly the music they make themselves. The voices of 30 or so third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders raised in a zesty chorus of “Old Town Road” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” are a wonder to behold.

Forever seeking my permission to sit in the coveted last two rows of the bus (where they think can get away with their mischief), Brutus and Jehosaphat pleaded their case by singing — to the tune of “America the Beautiful” — “Oh, Mister John. Oh, Mister John. Can we please sit in back?”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Though I’ve had many days when I’ve said to anyone who would listen, “This gig would be pretty sweet if we didn’t have to let kids on board … maybe I’ll suggest it to the district,” I can truly say I miss the commotion, especially the happy commotion of kids just being kids.

The sooner I hear it again, the better.

Getting Down with the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Colds, flu, stomach virus, hoof and mouth disease…

If there’s an illness known to man or beast, we school bus drivers will get it thanks to our daily contact with runny-nosed, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, chundering urchins.

(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 hadn’t had the sniffles in years until I started driving my big yellow sickroom. In an uncertain world, one of the few sure things is the kid who is a fountain of mucus (or worse) will be the one who sits directly behind you and sprays all kinds of germy goodies your way.

Being stuck on a packed bus while you wait for the signal to unload your patients at their school is not one of life’s more pleasant situations. On the plus side, when half of your passengers are out with whatever’s going around, your job tends to be blessedly calmer and easier.

The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. Until it happens, you wonder how you’ll respond. I found out during an afternoon run when several eighth-graders in the back notified me that their pal Coggins had blown grits.

Swallowing my panic, I radioed to base that I was changing my route to drop poor Coggins off first. I was told by our dispatcher that a janitor would be waiting for me upon my arrival at Helga Poppin Intermediate for my next run.

“Great! I don’t have to deal with this mess myself!” I thought with tremendous relief only to be disheartened when just a mop and pail were waiting on the curb; no janitor or assistance as I’d hoped.

Fearing the worst, I crept to the back of the bus … and found no trace of tossed cookies. Then it occurred to me that the other students had been strangely calm. Usually, a meal in reverse will set off a panic and stampede away from the spill site.

“Could this have been a devilish ploy by Coggins to get home early?” I wondered. I wouldn’t put it past that rascal. His stop is one of the last on the run.

I later asked Wally, an honest eighth-grader who sits near Coggins, and was told the entire mess — from more of a severe belch than all-out yak — ended up on the front of the stricken lad’s shirt and one of his sleeves.

I’d dodged a messy bullet for sure, but I learned to keep a clean-up kit (gloves, regurgitation absorber, paper towels, plastic bags) on board.

The telltale sign of gastric calamity: A bus in the district compound, all doors open, mop and bucket by the steps, and a lonely driver forlornly removing the lost lunch.

“This is not worth $20 bucks an hour!” one of my unfortunate colleagues grumbled as he toiled away. A kid he’d told not to eat on the bus went ahead and did it anyway before ejecting some foodstuffs (what goes down, must come up) in a rather nasty firehose fashion.

Of all the challenges we drivers face, one of the most unwelcome is confronting a foul puddle while trying to steer revolted, near-hysterical kids clear and comfort the sick and embarrassed. I’ve gotten off easy. Another colleague drove a vomit comet that had three technicolor yawns on it in one week.

Another sure thing: Your first, “Hey Bus Driver, I think I’m gonna throw up!” will come when you absolutely can’t afford a delay. Trying to finish my afternoon runs on time, if not early, in order to make the 7 p.m. start of an Elton John concert two hours away, my heart (and stomach) sank when Ethel the middle schooler reported feeling green at the gills.

All I could do was hand her a plastic shopping bag, goose the gas, and pray. Fortunately, she kept her chowder down.

What Goes Around …

With sharing a way of life on a school bus, some of my colleagues have developed respiratory ailments that lasted for months and required multiple visits to the doctor and medication. The worst I’ve had (besides head colds) was a dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep.

My district says drivers should stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing, as being left short-staffed gives our dispatchers agita). We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. So unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. Maybe wearing cloves of garlic will help.

Coronavirus is naturally of concern to school bus drivers. Many of us are of ancient vintage (50+) and not in the best physical shape though we can’t be so crumbly we fail physical performance tests (timed exits from the bus; dragging a 125-pound sack that approximates a prone carcass). It’s important to be reasonably active as it is a sedentary gig, like a desk job with a steering wheel. Back and hip problems are common.

Unfortunately, I mainly get my aerobic exercise these days by shrieking at kids or running to the bathroom. Aggravation at least keeps the heart rate up and you can work up a nice sweat at the sight of what is going on behind you.

With coronavirus panic sweeping the nation, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader even had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. that I’d heard that the bug wasn’t affecting many children and they’d probably be just fine as long as they ate their vegetables, got plenty of sleep, did their homework and chores, and listened to their parents, teachers and, of course, their bus driver.

I was tempted to add, “The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving” but thought that might be pressing my luck with parents whose little loved ones came home and repeated what Mr. Driver had said.

When the kids’ chatter about coronavirus continued the next day, I got on the P.A. and said, “Hey, if you’re worried, you can tell your parents that we’re disinfecting the buses now.”

No one seemed to care or react.

“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by Frieda the friendly fifth-grader nearby as the noisy, afternoon hijinks continued.

“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a father. I’m used to kids not listening to me.”

I’m also used to kids getting sick on the bus and me getting sick right along with them.

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 video reviewed.

See: The School Bus Justice System

Kids hate being ratted out and complain bitterly to the snitch, sometimes threatening retribution. 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! [Name here] is [committing 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.

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.)

See: Student management, assigned seats and sanity

“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.

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 matters 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.”

See: Meet the Hellions

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.

Five Days That Made Me What I Am: Ready for Anything

You’ve surely had “one of those of days” that left you wondering what else can possibly go wrong.

Here’s my one of those weeks.

(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.)

Monday

The fun began with your humble narrator backing his bus, Tarkus (nicknamed after the half-tank, half-armadillo creature on the cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic album), into another vehicle. It was dark and rainy and I was still getting the hang of entering and exiting my parking space in our compound without leaving a trail of wreckage.

A week or so earlier, I’d surgically removed a tail light on the bus in the spot next to mine while pulling in. This time, I misjudged how much room I had behind me … and felt that sickening thud of contact.

My queasy inspection revealed a bent hood-mounted mirror on a small bus across from my spot.

So I sheepishly trudged to the office to report my misdeed, giving thanks that at least I hadn’t let Tarkus roll through a chain link fence, as I’m told one poor (now-ex) driver did after leaving their bus in neutral and neglecting to set the parking brake before getting out.

“I plead insanity,” I said as I grabbed an accident report sheet.

“We get that a lot around here,” said our office manager. “You’ll have to think of something else.”

Assured that the mirror repair would be simple, I was still flushed with embarrassment and I vowed to apologize to the driver of the bus I’d dinged. No doubt my colleagues were beginning to see me as a neighborhood threat.

Running late because of my mirror-bender, I was treated to a morning of riotous mayhem: shrieks, arguments, complaints, tussles, sour clarinet toots, flying hats and backpacks, you name it. On trips like these, my bus sounds like a crowded restaurant or a party packed with howling lunatics.

During my afternoon run from Helga Poppin Intermediate, Robespierre, an “energetic” fourth-grader who specializes in starting rugby scrums in the aisle and seats, drove me to pull over to a safe spot. After setting the parking brake and triggering my hazard warning lights, I read the Riot Act over the PA.

A few miles later, Robespierre slugged Rollo, so I pulled over again to inform him and his partners in crime that I would be switching their assigned seats (once again) and breaking up their evil cabal.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

As I spent that evening wrestling with the Rubik’s Cube of my seating chart, I took comfort in the thought that Robespierre only rides my bus in the afternoon.

Tuesday

I arrived at work to find a note in my mailbox informing me that Robespierre would also be riding in the morning from now on.

“Oh, goody,” I thought, fighting a strong urge to weep.

The new seat assignments were greeted by bitter complaints from the Helga Poppin Five: Robespierre, Beetlebomb, Brutus, Jehosaphat and Pismeyer. Brutus protested by making a passionate speech comparing himself to Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to surrender her seat when unjustly ordered to do so by the driver of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955.

It was a surprising, if slightly inapplicable, historical reference for a fourth-grader. The nation was not likely to be as moved by Brutus’s plight as it was by Rosa’s.

My day ended with my boss summoning me for a little inquiry.

The mother of Otto the Eighth-Grader had called to complain that her son came home doused with water. What’s up with that?

I explained that I’d noticed the usual commotion, but hadn’t seen Otto’s exchange of liquids with his fellow back-of-the-bus hooligans Coggins, Spud, Herkimer, and Jethro, or noticed his soggy condition as he left the bus.

Told to separate those rascals if need be, I left feeling much shame. Parental confidence in the comfort and safety of children on my watch is a matter of personal pride. Of course, it would help if the children in question did a little more to make their comfort and safety easier, but you can’t have everything in this world or this job.

Wednesday

My horoscope (Scorpio) filled me with dread: “This could be a disruptive sort of day and there is no way of knowing for sure whether you will gain or lose from what happens. However, as the sun is about to move in your favor even apparent setbacks will throw up new opportunities. Be ready.”

“Great,” I thought as I left for work. “Someone’s going to throw up on the bus.”

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Not exactly.

I was driving Tarkus to Hamilton Bubblefish Middle School for my afternoon run, doing a brisk 45 miles per hour on a busy three-lane road, when the air pressure alarm suddenly sounded. Then the red wig-wag sign fell above the dashboard, signaling that brake failure was now on tap in my already-exciting life.

The alarm goes off if the air brake pressure gauge drops to 60 psi. Any lower and you’re flirting with disaster, to quote Molly Hatchet. Having never experienced this hair-raising event, my blood pressure went in the opposite direction until I safely made it to the shoulder (with white knuckles), came to a stop, heaved a sigh, and radioed for help.

One of our intrepid mechanics arrived with a fresh bus in short order, but I was late getting to Bubblefish, where I was met by a gaggle of grumbling students eager to get home.

Some regularly grouse about my on-time performance. “Ugh, we’re soooo late again,” Sassafrass the sixth-grader gripes to Lulubelle, who replies, “I know! Right?” whenever we pull into the school parking lot — a minute early.

“Where were you?” they demanded this time.

I was tempted to reply that I’d been sunning myself and lost track of the hour. But being a steely, stoic professional, I told them Tarkus needed some work, so I had to grab new wheels to ensure them a safe, comfortable ride.

The highlight of the rest of my day was getting nailed in the back of the head by Pismeyer’s football while I navigated a treacherous, narrow downhill curve. A notorious projectile specialist, Pismeyer denied tossing the pigskin. It was only after pulling over that I extracted a confession from Brutus, who insisted that he’d merely forced a fumble by Jehosaphat.

Such was my reward for moving them to seats directly behind me.

Thursday

My morning was going reasonably well until one of the Helga Poppin kids tracked dog doo into the bus, leaving a pungent trail most of the way down the aisle. As soon as it was noticed by the student body, the foul aroma set off a panicked stampede to the front and back, and the frantic opening of every window.

By the time I pulled in to the school driveway, the kids were in a complete uproar. None heeded my increasingly desperate pleas on the PA to lift the handle on the back door and de-activate the beeper. There was no way I could get there through the huddled, yowling masses in time to stop the beeping from becoming an all-out alarm. (The system is designed to make someone walk the length of the bus in case sleeping or hiding children remain on board after a trip.)

I’d just like to say that nothing fluffs one’s professional self-esteem like setting off the bus alarm outside a school. Silencing the blaring horn takes several steps — sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — that may include moving the bus, never a good idea in an area crawling with kids.

Somehow, I managed to get the hysterical children in the front off, then convince the rest in the rear to gingerly make their way up the aisle and out the door before someone called the police to serve me with a summons for disturbing the peace. Even so, teachers, school officials and my fellow drivers gathered to gawk at the spectacle.

Cleanup, with mop and pail back at the compound, was a gag-inducing effort after a rather unpleasant ride with the windows open and the overhead fans on.

Friday

Fearing Biblical infestations of boils and locusts, I was afflicted by a flood instead.

While hitting a bump during my morning middle school run, I heard a heavy plonk in the storage compartment next to my seat where I stash the travel mug for my breaks. Taking a peek while stopped at a light, I was treated to the sight of all my paperwork awash in a sea of joe.

The mug had capsized, opening the lid and unleashing fragrant hell.

“Hey, it smells like coffee in here!” announced Zoot Horn, the nosy sixth-grader who sits behind me.

After listening to the slosh in the box for the rest of morning, I spent the first hour of my break with a sponge and bucket, sullenly hanging my dripping, brown-stained, daily bus inspection reports to dry on a cardboard box. Surely my boss will be pleased with my performance this week.

During my usually rollicking afternoon run, Robespierre stopped on his way off to pat me on the shoulder and say, “I feel sorry for you. I don’t know how you do your job with all these kids yelling. I’d flip out.”

No worries, kid. If this job doesn’t drive me insane, it’ll only make me stronger.

Tis the Season of Sugary Wonder on This Bus

The holiday season is said to be a time of miracles. By golly, it looks like that’s true.

(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.)

About two weeks before Christmas, I was rumbling along a stretch of road where my intermediate schoolers usually come off the spool — yelling, rough-housing, darting from seat to seat, throwing stuff — when I gazed up at my rearview mirror and to what to my wondering eyes did appear but children … sitting.

Every last one of them.

I nearly wept in astonishment — never before had all of my precious cargo been seated at the same time — and not only that, they were all talking in their “classroom voices.”

This miraculous scene lasted a full 15 minutes. By the time we reached Helga Poppin Intermediate School, things were a bit livelier but still far from the usual earsplitting chaos.

Of course it helped that several prime pot-stirrers, notably Brutus and Rollo, were not on board, but agitator extraordinaire Beetlebomb was inspired to yell, “Mr. John! See how good we’re being?”

When I recounted this truly historic day to one of my colleagues at the Fishmeal Falls Central bus compound, she said, “They’re probably trying to look good for Santa.”

Probably.

Their strangely angelic behavior continued the next day for the entire morning ride, and I couldn’t help wondering if something was terribly wrong with the children. Nevertheless, I broke my cardinal rule about never acknowledging positives (it jinxes them) and I commended the minions as we sat outside their school waiting for the signal to release them. 

See: Meet the Hellions

“People, this was one of our best trips ever,” I declared over the PA. “You guys were great!”

Rowdy fourth-graders Robespierre and Jehosaphat were so touched by my sentiments that they came forth to pat me on the shoulder and say, “Good job, Mr. John!”

Naturally, Beetlebomb, Robespierre and Jehosaphat had the joint jumping on the way home, but it was a truly spiritual moment during a time when the sugary rush of the holidays leaves my bus sounding and looking like Times Square during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Noise, candy wrappers, and festive trash cover everything like fresh fallen snow.

Blessedly, at this time of year the kids also render unto Caesar for all of his suffering. The bounty of goodies and Dunkin Donuts gift cards that are bestowed upon me certainly go a long way toward un-curdling my usually crusty demeanor. 

Of course, it never hurts to bribe the bus driver. 

I was on the verge of speaking to Jehosaphat’s parents about the need for them to remind him yet again that those strange objects (seats) are there for his safety when he came aboard and presented me with a gift card.

“Maybe another day,” I thought, stashing the offering in my shirt.

I must confess I have a soft spot for students who come bearing gifts.

“When’s your birthday?” I was asked one afternoon by Ethel the eighth-grader. The date was still a week or so away, and I was stunned when she boarded the bus on the solemn occasion and declared, “I remembered what you said. Happy birthday!”

It was very sweet of her. So was the Christmas candy cane and note she gave me that read, “I hope you have a safe holiday. I’m also grateful that I have you as a bus driver!”

I’m still getting the hang of this Christmas thing, though. Other drivers wear Santa suits, hang decorations, play holiday tunes and hand out gifts. I’m Scrooge by comparison, but I did hang a stocking full of candy canes from the dashboard and invite departing riders to take one.

“Hey, the bus driver’s nice!” I heard Axel — a cheeky fifth-grader who is often the object of my scolding — tell his fellow travelers as they exited with their sweetmeats. There was real amazement in his voice.

It seems the wonders never cease during the holidays.

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.

Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

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

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

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

See: Everything in Politics Can Be Seen on a School Bus

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

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

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

SEE: On Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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