School Bus Discipline: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

When it comes to discipline, some drivers just have the magic touch. They command respect, effortlessly squelch insurrections in the bud, and pilot buses full of quiet, obedient children.

Then there are schlubs like me who rely on assigned seats, disciplinary write-ups, lectures, threats and shrieking to little or no avail.

SEE: The School Bus Justice System

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

It was with great envy that I listened to a colleague recount the good old days when she set a district record for kicking misbehaving kids off her bus in mid-journey. Yep. There was a time when you could simply stop wherever you were and order an obstreperous urchin to walk home.

Perhaps my futility is best captured by this early entry in the journal I started when I began driving in 2018: “To make the worst kids stop misbehaving, you can’t move them, you can’t talk to their parents, you can’t write them up. The only solution I can think of is lobotomy.”

Now, forced mutilation may be a tad extreme and not likely to be well-received by parents or the school district for that matter, but I have some other suggestions that I think are perfectly reasonable and would like to see implemented:

DOUBLE-DECKER BUS: A staple of London and tourist companies in other major cities, this is the most humane option on my list. It would enable me to quarantine the hellions upstairs while the good children ride in peace below.

HAND TOOLS: On many occasions I have threatened to come back and secure wandering children to their seats with my heavy duty staple gun. Jehosaphat, a particularly mobile fourth-grader, was told after many, many, many warnings and a conference with his father that he would be receiving the hammer-and-three-penny-nails treatment. I have yet to make good on these threats, mind you, but kids push me at their own risk.

SEE: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

ALTERNATIVE SEATING: After constantly moving the seats of expert firestarters to no effect, I announced that I would be putting them on the roof or in the luggage compartment under the bus.

Sometimes the old ways work best.

“You can’t do that!” Robespierre cried.

“Not yet,” I replied. “But I’ve asked my boss. I think he’s starting to come around.”

SEE: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

EJECTOR SEATS: It only takes one bad apple to ignite a behavioral conflagration, so having the ability to push a button on a grid and send the bad fruit into orbit a la James Bonds’ famous Aston-Martin would be a godsend.

TRANQUILIZER DARTS: To borrow the immortal words of the Beach Boys, wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, to have these at your disposal so all you have to do is pull over, take aim and restore calm to the bus?

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

RIOT GEAR: One raucous afternoon I pulled up to Fiends ‘n Fun Day Care and informed the lady at the door that a re-enactment of the 1886 Haymarket Riot was in progress on my bus and I had called for tear gas, but the district had yet to respond. I still think a cloud agent would help … along with a few flash-bang grenades to get the kids’ attention.

“I want the entire arsenal,” I insisted yet again while visiting the Head Bus Driver’s office to press my case. “If that’s my legacy here, I’ll be happy.”

“For the kids or for you?” she asked.

For me, certainly, but our router thoughtfully suggested a little something for our entire staff: “We need valium salt licks.”

No, this isn’t a profession for the faint of heart, so I heartily salute all those who can handle it without resorting to the wonders of technology and chemistry.

School Bus Driving 101: Learning From Mistakes

Some days in this gig you can feel like an athlete having a miserable game. Try as you might, you can’t do anything right.

You keep hitting the curb when you make a right turn. You cut off other vehicles or run a light (especially with a cop in your rearview mirror) that you thought would stay yellow until you at least got through the intersection. You forget to signal for a turn or trigger your amber flashers or turn them off, or close the door before you start to roll.

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

It was always something, and it’s the bus driving equivalent of having toilet paper stuck on your heel at a black tie event. It’s embarrassing to have other drivers radio (everyone can hear) or signal you by pointing at something wrong (like your lights) or to have your head bus driver secretly following you in her car while all this wonderment is taking place. You don’t want to get the dreaded “See me” call on the radio.

See: The Dreaded Road Test

When a new stretch of road was added to one of my runs, I just couldn’t get it right for the first week. I kept messing up crossing one girl by approaching her house too damned fast (it always seemed to come up sooner than expected) and having to hit the brakes. Then I’d forget to open the door (which triggers the red flashers and stop signs) before I crossed her, or I’d stab at the door button on the steering wheel but the door wouldn’t open while she stood there waiting.

A change of bus has a way of bedeviling me. Tarkus, my regular ride, has a button in the back to deactivate the no-student-left-behind alarm. While Tarkus was in the shop for a week or two, the replacement required lifting the back door handle instead. When I finally got Tarkus back, I forgot about the difference, lifted the handle instead, and the alarm went off with a repeated blaring of the horn outside Bubblefish Middle School that morning and again in the bus yard that afternoon.

Nothing like a little spectacle to attract attention to your shortcomings …

For some reason, it always happens at a school.

My biggest lulu of a screw-up was when my two-way radio fritzed out as I began my afternoon run from Helga Poppin Intermediate. Robespierre and Guttersnipe, two of my most “challenging” riders, were at each other’s throats and the full bus was the usual nuthouse. While trying to fix the radio, I sailed past a turn for Fiends ‘n Fun Day Care, where I was to unload about a third of my precious cargo.

Bedlam ensued.

“You missed the turn!” the student body cried.

With my PA out as well, all I could do was yell in vain, “I know! We’re going back!” But by then Guttersnipe was crying (he’d been hit in the nose by Snodgrass, who’d gotten in on the action). Mortimer was in tears too because of the unexpected break in his routine. (For all he knew I was hijacking all of them to parts unknown).

With my radio out, I couldn’t call base to explain and didn’t want to stop and use my phone because the bus was too noisy. I just kept dropping off tearstained kids, and two parents called the office to complain. Near the end of the run, Hobbestweedle started singing “Baby Shark” to complete my mental torture.

The next day I was called on my boss’s carpet to explain. He was actually amused and he reminded me that Fiends ‘n Fun is in a big building that’s hard to miss.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

I’ve never missed that turn since. Nor have I failed to look both ways multiple times after nearly having an accident. The morning sun was in my eyes and the intersection seemed quiet, but there are bushes down the road on the left and cars can appear suddenly, which is what happened. The driver then cut me off, stopped, got out and asked “You got kids on board?” When I sheepishly nodded, he snapped a photo of my bus and left.

To my astonishment, he didn’t call my boss.

The worst way to learn from your mistakes is by nearly hurting a kid. One of the biggest challenges is concentrating while picking up or dropping them off, especially if you have to cross them. One day I was distracted by Prudence asking me questions and I crossed Robespierre without triggering my reds. (The master switch was off.)

Then there was the time Oswald suddenly disappeared in front of my bus. He’d stopped to tie his shoelaces. Fortunately, I was watching him while Ocarina and Lucille chatted me up, but you just never know what a kid will do.

Another time, I was distracted by a blizzard of requests and popped the parking brake, intending to roll. Thankfully Prudence cried out from the seat behind me, “Wait! Calliope is still there” in front of us.

Those times really drove home that nothing matters more than focus. Thankfully I’ve not made mistakes like that again.

As one of my sage colleagues said after telling me of the time she sang loudly off-key without realizing her two-way mic was on, “You only need to make some mistakes once.”

Classic Mysteries: A New School Year

Expect the unexpected.

That was one of the first things I was told after I signed on for this gig in 2018. I can certainly say that 2021-22 looks like it’s going to be loaded with surprises.

Ordinarily, a new school year feels like Christmas morning. What dear, sweet new riders has our router gifted to me? Will the old villains behave any better? What changes were made to my route? What new issues will I be wrestling?

(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.)

At our annual orientation meeting we discussed timeless basics, such as defensive driving in intersections, how to avoid accidents when picking up or dropping off students, and some new wrinkles like our pandemic procedures. Masks must still be worn indoors and on buses, which won’t please some parental units. Seats must also be assigned, which our precious cargo surely won’t like.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

I wondered how crowded my bus will be. After our delayed start in October last year, I had as few as three or even one lonesome urchin on some trips. When things returned to some normalcy in February, I had 20-25 hellions rather than the 45 I’ve been given this year.

With an entirely new route and brand new kids (only dreaded middle schoolers!), I definitely needed to do a dry run, which turned out to be a wet one. The sky opened with a Hurricane Ida downpour as I crept along streets and squinted at house numbers while angry motorists honked behind me.

Some streets weren’t marked and I got lost, in one case on a dead end where I had to back up my 40-foot bus unassisted. (Note ominous foreshadowing.) I wisely surrendered about half-way through my route and tried again a few days later.

Required to produce a seating chart for contact tracing, and having no idea who should not be seated near whom, I had the bright idea of doing a first-aboard, first-seated from back to front plan. This was blown out of the water when my opening day run sheet had even more kids and some route changes. All the numbered name cards I’d lovingly crafted were no good. So I let the buggers sit where they wanted and hoped for the best.

The biggest surprise of all awaited.

I was absolutely gob-smacked at how well behaved the kids were. They were quiet and said hello or have a nice day or thanks for a safe run. Even the two charmers I had during my summer school stint were amazingly pleasant.

In all honesty, I never thought I’d live to see (in my overhead mirror) the sight of middle schoolers (middle schoolers!!!) all sitting peacefully for an entire trip. Frankly, I thought I was hallucinating. And after my first 14 runs with this alarming new crew I was still waiting for them leave some trash on the bus.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Some of the kids had been browbeaten into polite shape by their previous driver, who runs a tight ship. I will surely remember her in my Last Will and Testament. But the rest, mostly sixth graders who are naturally prone to going over to The Dark Side upon entering middle school, have also been angels. That’s a very good thing because there are several impossibly tight turns onto busy streets in my run. The last thing I need is insurrection in the back.

See: A Fraction of the Distraction, Please

Otherwise, the first week or so turned out to be a nice big box of chaos.

Many parents were late registering their kids for transportation, so their angels weren’t in our routing system or on run sheets. Our dispatcher had to tell us to pick up anyone we saw along our routes. Many kids got on wrong buses and drivers had to call in for addresses and other info. Our phones were jammed by schools and parents wondering where their children could be found. The usual delays that occur as we master our new routes were also compounded by the customary breakdowns of a bus or two.

See: The School Bus Slayer Strikes Again

Pressed into spot service after my usual morning and afternoon run, I took a busload of K-2 kids on a merry tour of Dutchess County thanks to an unfamiliar route and a road I’d never been on.

“I’m your substitute driver,” I’d told the 20 or so wide-eyed ragamuffins. “But don’t worry. I have the address for your houses. I know where to go.”

Famous last words.

The fun began when no parents were waiting at my first stop and the three kids who were supposed to get off there did not respond to my calls over the PA. After waiting five minutes, I continued on only to have my dispatcher call on the radio.

“Did you leave Huey, Dewey and Louise DeFungus at Recrimination Street yet?” he asked.

Told no, he informed me I had to get them back there post-haste … no, hold on, another bus would meet me further on up my route and take them back. Unfortunately, that route included no indication of where one street turned into another. A key turn-around point was also unmarked. I ended up going miles out of my way only to be trapped behind slow-moving bicyclists on a narrow country road after I’d corrected course.

By then, the world was inquiring of my whereabouts. My relief driver was pursuing me and running late for her next scheduled route. My next stop was an unmarked house, which, of course, I passed.

My dispatcher was now urgently and repeatedly asking for an ETA for the first three urchins, so I had to pull over to take stock. My relief driver appeared at the door to ask for Huey, Dewey and Louise and she was soon joined by a concerned cop, who wanted to know if everything was OK and see my run sheet.

Meanwhile, I spotted a mother braving traffic as she walked down the road in search of her wayward child.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to get her killed…”

Pleading for Huey, Dewey and Louise to make themselves known and come forth, I was informed by my dispatcher that my soliloquy had gone out over the two-way radio instead of the PA.

“I have to say you’re as good a public speaker as you are a writer,” he noted. I could only give thanks that I hadn’t called the kids stooges, knuckleheads and numbskulls as I had done with the intermediate schoolers I used to drive.

See: Now Hear This! Rocking the School Bus PA

Once back on the road, the remaining kids asked, “Where are we going now, Mr. Bus Driver?”

“I don’t know. Staten Island?” I wanted to say but keeping them calm was paramount. And as I pulled up to my final stop, I muttered, “At least no one has left the bus in tears.”

Famous last words.

Awaiting me was a smoldering mother who responded to my apology for being an hour late with “They missed their gymnastics!”

“Gymnastics” was all the two kids heard. So they exclaimed, “Are we going to gymnastics, mama?”

I was given a look of contempt as she told them, “No. Your bus was too late. We’ll go next time.” Which, of course, induced tears.

“Maybe that was your cue to break down and cry,” my wife later suggested.

Maybe.

With my new schedule, after school activities run, and role as an occasional wandering fill-in, I have to believe that “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” are probably going to be the biggest mysteries this year.

Curses! From the Mouths of Babes …

Nothing warms the heart quite like the sound of children telling each other to shut the F up in the morning.

No matter how many times I hear it, it’s always jarring to listen to a grade schooler drop the F Bomb like a seasoned dock worker. The forbidden novelty of the word and others like it is catnip to kids, and the peer pressure to swear is high, particularly in middle school where proving how tough you are is part of life.

(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 may be a fossil but I still remember the thrill of cursing and getting a rise out of adults when I was a kid. My memories aren’t of doing it on the school bus, though. I vividly recall sitting in my neighbor’s bushes with friends and slinging some hair-raising language. We were under an open window and easily heard inside. Mr. Kohart came out and sternly told us to stifle ourselves as there were ladies in the house.

Now, even though I occasionally drop a choice oath when I’m angry away from the job, I’m the one trying to make kids clean up their verbal act.

Complaints about F Bombs and MF Bombs in the back reach me at the wheel. Sixth-grader Sassafrass has a mouth on her that could make the saltiest sailor blush but I’ve heard third graders using the P word and racial or sexual slurs. No matter how many times I scold them or remind them that everything they say and do is being recorded, they are often surprised to find themselves in the principal’s office after they’ve been caught in the video review of another crime.

See: The Camera on the Bus Sees All

During one memorable trip, seventh-graders Coggins and Ethel were unleashing a blue barrage of F Bombs, S Bombs and B Bombs. So I got on the PA and said, “Can’t you please watch your language? You sound like you’re possessed. Should I call for an exorcist?”

That stopped ’em, at least for a while. But cursing seems to be a contractual obligation for middle schoolers. When Lucifer, my prime purveyor of obscenity, went on vacation, fellow seventh-grader Butch stepped up to fill the void.

Sometimes I’m just not sure I’m hearing what I think I’m hearing. The engine is roaring, the two-way radio is blaring, and I’m pretty far away from the action. For all I know, my precious cargo could simply be talking about trucking and floral sets and I don’t want to look like my mind is in the gutter if I wrongly accuse them of smutty utterances.

And they like to keep me guessing.

One day on my Helga Poppin Intermediate run, Jehosaphat and Robespierre kept shouting words that sounded like curses: “Duck!” and “Ship!” in particular. The whole crew also took to shrieking the popular song “Old Town Road.” I looked up the lyrics and found a few dicey words like, “Cheated on my baby/You can go and ask her/My life is a movie/Bull riding and boobies/Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty.”

It’s just unsettling to hear that stuff coming from tender voices, and sometimes I’d rather not know what is being said, like when a smirking Coggins passed me while getting off the bus. When I told him to have a good day, I could have sworn I heard him mutter, “Up yours.”

Of course it was possible that he was merely talking to his friend Jethro, who was right behind him. I’ve just been conditioned to expect the worst.

See: Picking Your Battles With Kids

And if they can’t rise to your level, they can always drag you down to theirs.

It is with much shame that I confess I’ve let a D Bomb slip on occasion. The first time, while quelling an intermediate school riot during an especially aggravating week, I quickly added “Pardon me” over the PA but no one seemed to notice. They certainly did the time time I blurted “Stop sticking your damn arms out the windows!” a few days later.

The bus suddenly grew silent and I heard one kid say in a stage whisper, “The bus driver said the D Word!”

In a Can-You-Believe-It? tone, another said “Damn!” … as my head slumped onto the wheel.

So much for the moral high ground. It certainly doesn’t help to lose it when you need to have your trip video reviewed because of a disciplinary incident.

The road in question.

My least shining moment occurred (of course) on the treacherous stretch of road where my riders always come unglued. It had been one of those weeks and my patience was gone. When the ever-challenging Robespierre spilled Esmerelda’s makeup all over the aisle and began wrestling with his frenemy Beetlebomb, I eventually pulled over and marched back.

See: The Roadside Lecture Series Rolls On

After letting them have it with both barrels (“What part of sit down don’t you understand?”) they gave me a few smirks and a giggle or two.

“It’s not funny!” I barked. “Behave!”

And with that I marched back to the wheel only to have Robespierre chime in with “I’m not laughing.”

Without thinking, I turned and snapped, “Don’t be a smart ass!”

Then came the Dark Night of the Soul: wrestling with the temptation to deal with this incident by myself and hope the video gets lost unseen in the mists of time. But someone had to tame Robespierre, who’d been up to no good all year. So I gritted my teeth and wrote him up, expecting a “See me” note from my boss after Principal Diesel had viewed the video.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I was sure Robespierre and his cronies would see to it that I was hung out to dry for cursing. Amazingly, I heard nothing.

My first thought was, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

I wisely kept it to myself.

Roadside Lectures Roll On

After a long, peaceful stretch of few riders due to the pandemic, I finally gave my first Roadside Lecture of the school year in mid-April.

Actually, it was a Schoolside Lecture delivered outside Helga Poppin Intermediate one morning while waiting to let the kids off my bus.

The topic: A refresher on my job and the two video cameras on board.

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

“OK, people,” I said, standing in the aisle before the suddenly quiet congregation. “I saw some stuff yesterday afternoon that I didn’t like.”

I then mentioned the seatbelt trip wire (a timeless prank) I found stretched across the aisle next to notorious fourth-grader Guttersnipe’s seat. I didn’t mention him (he’s a firestarter in training) by name. I just said (while watching his smug expression turn into a cringe), “Whoever did it, you know who you are … and so do the cameras. In case you forgot, everything you do and say is being recorded.”

See: The Camera’s Eyes Have It

I then explained (for the umpteenth hundredth time) the importance of not climbing on seats or standing in the aisle because “if I have to slam on the brakes and stop suddenly, you’ll go flying. You aren’t watching the road like I am, so you won’t know if a car or a person or an animal darts out in front of us … and they can and do.”

Pausing for dramatic effect, I added, “Kids have fallen on buses and gotten hurt. It hasn’t happened on my bus yet, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way. My job is to keep you all safe.”

Somehow I don’t think they were impressed.

Finally, having seen fifth-grader Clementine play peek-a-boo-duck!-peek-a-booduck! with me during the entire ride home — a sure sign that she was up to no good — I continued:

“I see you ladies in the back are having a grand old time with the windows. Please don’t throw stuff out or stick your arms and hands out. I don’t mind you opening them on a warm day but there’s a phone number on the back of the bus. So if you’re going to toss stuff or greet the public as you’ve been doing, be nice or they will call and complain. Then we’ll pull the video and you’ll end up in Principal Diesel’s office. As some of you know, the Principal’s expression can turn a man to stone!”

My audience’s silence lasted well beyond my brilliant, vaguely ominous closer: “Thank you. We’ll catch you later.”

You’ll often find me pontificating here.

See: The School Bus Justice System

I started my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series not long after I began driving my big yellow institution of learning. When warnings, threats and shrieking over the PA failed, it dawned on me that I had no choice but to find a safe spot to pull over, put my hazard lights on, and “educate” my precious cargo.

(I must admit I get a kick out of their reaction: eyes widening as the bus slows to a stop, silence growing as I rise from my seat and turn towards the back…)

Some of my topics: Why distracting the driver is dangerous (“Trust me, you don’t want us to end up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree”); the hazards of moving around while the bus is rolling, jostling in the aisle or using seats like gymnastics equipment (see above), and a scary thing called “black ice.”

It’s there (in the photos) that I can set my clock by the kids suddenly coming unglued after they’ve been little angels for the first half of the trip.

I often rehearse speeches (in my head) and have had plenty of practice actually delivering them. Sadly, I’ve had to repeat them many times. My most frequent site for lectures is a particularly treacherous, winding stretch of hilly, wooded road that’s loaded with hidden driveways, wandering animals (including a wayward cow) and other hazards.

“No matter how many times I tell you how dangerous this road is, you just don’t get it,” I keep saying. And it’s true.

Of course, within minutes of getting back on the road they are usually back at it. In that case, I resort to the unoriginal but classic move of pulling over, shutting off the engine and announcing over the PA, “OK, we’re not going anywhere until you settle down. We’ll sit here all day and all night if we have to. I get paid by the hour so you’ll just be helping me pay for my yacht!” Ha Ha.

See: Rocking the School Bus PA

That always gets their attention and inspires a few cries of, “He’s kidnapping us!” and “Call the cops!”

“Go ahead and call the cops,” I tell them. “They’ll take my side as soon as they see the video!”

I’ve had guest speakers before. Teachers, principals and other school officials have come aboard to deliver a few choice remarks and pointed suggestions. Maybe law enforcement personnel will be able to teach a lesson that finally sinks in.

School Bus Life’s a Gas

Not to be crude, but is anything more universally funny than the humble fart?

Rare is the person who doesn’t chortle at the sound or even the mere thought of a fanny beep. Doesn’t matter who or how old you are, a cheek squeak will likely raise at least a smile if not a crinkled nose.

Pardon me for going all pop psychology on you for a second, but it’s said that misfortune and indignity are the essence of humor. Think of a classic slapstick bit like someone falling down an open manhole. Trouser toots are a social manhole, especially in a dignified setting like a school bus.

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

The timeless appeal of seam splitters was demonstrated by the mad-libs that my passengers Rollo and Calliope did during their ride to Helga Poppin Intermediate School one morning. They dutifully filled all of the blanks in the text with “fart” and that old favorite “poop” the way my kids used to do when they were young and getting endless hours of fun from making our boxy Apple computer’s voice say “Poop poop poop poop poop.”

Oh, the hilarity!

Asked by Rollo to read the ad-lib opus aloud over the PA — not quite the level of material our Bus Driver of the Year award winners typically share with their passengers — I was relieved when the call to release the kids came before I could get started destroying the last shreds of my professional dignity. But I’m sure it would have been good for a laugh.

One individual, a seventh-grader I’ll call Methane Man, has been a reliable source of thunder down under. He’s even reveled in his reputation for sparking gusts of laughter and howls of revulsion with a robust rump roar. Uncannily (pardon the pun) able to detonate a bootie bomb on demand by his pals, Methane Man was a source of daily amusement in the ranks until he experienced an unexpected gas shortage at the pump, if you will.

“I haven’t farted in a month. Is that bad?” I overheard him ask one afternoon during the ride home.

Unable to resist chiming in, I got on the PA and replied, “I thought it’s been a little too quiet around here.”

“I’m waiting for an explosion,” said Oscar, a fellow seventh-grader who sits perilously close to Methane Man.

An explosion was a distinct possibility given that humans typically backfire 14 times each day. In the meantime, ever-mischievous eighth-grader Coggins brought a whoopee cushion on board to help break the boring silence if not the actual wind.

“This is what my life has come to,” I thought as I was serenaded by rude noises all the way to Bubblefish.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Air biscuits aren’t the only things on the menu, mind you. From time to time there are pleasant sounds and aromas floating about my bus.

Kids have busted out their instruments and played a tune, though the temptation to simulate a tush tuba eventually overcomes them. Being the good influence that they are, I was tempted to put on a tape of “Our Song” by Roger Waters and Ron Geesin, a collection of syncopated flatulence, belching, wheezes and other bodily noises set to a bouncy piano, but decided against it when I envisioned being browbeaten by scowling parents and school administrators, not to mention my boss.

On the aromatic front, Heloise the middle schooler often boarded in the morning redolent of fresh bread or cookies. Exotic scents sometimes waft from the back, making me wonder if someone is making waffles or baking potatoes. After some runs, I expected to find evidence of a cooking fire, but fortunately haven’t … so far.

The remedy for a gas attack is always at hand.

One morning during the usual rollicking ride to Helga Poppin, I noticed something especially fragrant and was moved to grab the PA mic and ask, “Who’s using aftershave? What are you lunatics doing back there?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jehosaphat replied, giggling and looking guilty. Then I noticed his pal Beetlebomb spraying what turned out to be deodorant.

Deodorant would have come in handy the time I noticed all the windows were being frantically opened by my passengers.

“Someone cut the cheese!” Beetlebomb informed me, so I told him I would turn on the fans in front to blow the fumes away. (Those fans were frequently requested after that.)

When the kids kept complaining that Brutus and Hogshead were continuing to produce breezers, I was tempted to radio in that my bus was under a serious gas attack. Instead, I went on the PA and told my precious cargo, “Hey, thanks for the back drafts! I was afraid we were going to run out of gas. And cheese, too. I just wanted to say I appreciate anyone who helps us meet our daily quota.”

When they went silent and looked confused, I said, “I bet you didn’t know there’s a New York State law that says there must be at least one fart on a school bus during every trip.”

“Really?” someone asked from the sea of puzzled faces in my overhead mirror.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “You could look it up!” (Though I didn’t say where.)

I actually had them going for a bit, but it’s no joke that my bus runs on gas in more ways than one.

How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

It helps to have a sense of humor in this job.

That said, I’m blessed to be amused by how kids are forbidden to eat on the bus, yet their schools still send them home with armloads of candy, cookies and cupcakes after class parties. They’re sneaky little buggers when it comes to filling their faces, so my bus ends up looking like Times Square after a New Year’s Eve celebration — a kaleidoscope of wrappers, lollipop sticks, crumbs, and sprinkles.

“If you need Fruit Loops, just let me know,” I told my colleagues after my middle schoolers tossed cereal all over the back. “I’ve got plenty.”

(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.)

Mess just comes with this yellow turf. No matter how often I told my precious cargo to throw garbage in the boxes at the front and back of the bus and not on the floor, they kept doing it and no one would fess up. When I was told the district brass wanted drivers to sweep out our buses each day, I asked if we can make the kids help.

No such luck, but my plight inspired me to take action.

I created a “Trash Back Bonus Rewards Program.”

I wanted to call it “Live Clean or Die” or “Give Me Cleanliness or Give Me Death” but those names seemed a bit heavy-handed if not dire and threatening. The basic idea was to collect the garbage on the floor and give it to the litterbugs the next day as they got off the bus at school. (Thanks to the wonders of seating charts, it isn’t hard to trace trash back to its source.)

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It seemed to work. Eighth graders Otto and Coggins were the first recipients and they looked shocked when I handed them baggies of ramen noodle crumbs that had been scattered around the back. The bus was much cleaner after that, at least while my middle schoolers were on board, and my messy passengers got better at using the trash boxes. Unfortunately, a raccoon in the bus compound didn’t get the memo (see photo).

One day, fourth graders Calliope and Ocarina asked me which school’s students were the messiest on a scale of 1 to 10. Thanks to its class parties, Helga Poppin Intermediate rated a solid 9 and I sang the praises of how neat the Bubblefish Middle Schoolers had been.

Naturally, the next day the Bubblefish brigade left a blizzard of Wheaties all over the back. I discovered it after I pulled in to pick up my crew at Helga Poppin. Clearly it was time for another round of rewards, but it was a Friday afternoon, so I wouldn’t be able to present prizes to the perpetrators until Monday.

That gave me time to come up with the idea for an official “Big Bag O’ Crap Giveaway.”

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

After we pulled in to the parking lot at Bubblefish on Monday, Coggins and his pals Otto, Herkimer and Jethro were each given a large plastic bag stuffed with cereal flakes and other valuables such as crumbs, bread crusts, soda cans, water bottles, yogurt containers, candy wrappers, half-eaten lollipops, gum wads, fruit rinds, apple cores, popcorn, tissues, pencil shavings, paper wads, pencil stubs, and pen caps — much of it bonus “value-added” material from Helga Poppin.

The lads were silent and a little contrite as they received the mementos of their work, and that afternoon I delivered an inspirational speech to the entire cast:

“You’re not supposed to eat on the bus, but being the fine, upstanding young citizens you are, I know you will do it anyway,” I said. “On Friday, some kind souls left me one sweet mess to clean up, so I strongly suggest that you aim the food at your mouths and not at the floor or each other. If you do not obey this command, you will continue to receive gifts like the ones I gave out this morning.”

For dramatic effect, I paused and added: “I may even show up at your house and dump the stuff on your living room floor. I’m sure your parents will be thrilled.”

The rest of the year went reasonably well, though Bubblefish did beat out Helga Poppin for the coveted “Bus 631 Big Bag O’ Trash Award for Excellence in Mess Making.” It was presented on the next-to-last day of school.

“It’s the end of the year and the school is giving out awards and honors,” I said as I stood before the winners with a huge white trash bag stuffed to bursting with the finest refuse I could collect in the final weeks. “So I thought I would give out one of my own.”

Seeing how enthralled they were, I continued. “No individuals were the clear winner. I’d say the residents of the last four or five rows are the most deserving for the sheer number of messes and their magnitude during the school year. This was a team effort and there’s plenty of credit to go around.”

And with that I handed the ceremonial bag to Mildew, an athletic eighth-grader who just happened to be the first person down the aisle after we got the signal to let ’em off the bus.

“It’s a team award! Think of it like carrying the flag at the Olympics,” I told her before giving each of her teammates a slap on the back and a hearty, “Well done! You don’t see this kind of commitment to excellence every day!”

And I don’t see as much trash anymore.

I’m now working on an award for the raccoon.

Chomping at the Wheel to Get Going

At this time of year I’m usually back at the helm of Tarkus, my trusty school bus. After a summer of dragging a wet vac around a school as I (theoretically) help the custodial staff prep it for the coming year, I’m shaking mental cobwebs off my daily procedures and routines, and regaining the feel of a big yellow building full of squalling urchins.

There is anticipation in seeing the kids again — the old favorites, even the ones who drive me crackers, and the new additions. Getting your run sheet at the staff orientation meeting can feel like Christmas. What wondrous surprises await this year? Last September, I received Sassafrass, an alarmingly potty-mouthed sixth-grader who kept my middle school run bubbling over until school was shut down in March by the pandemic.

(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.)

There’s also a sweet melancholy in realizing that some kids have moved on to other schools. It brings a dewy tear to my eye to know I will no longer have Robespierre stirring the pot. That rapscallion was a classic agitator, for sure, a constant challenge who actually made me threaten to assign him a seat in the luggage compartment. But he had a good — if often misguided — heart and could be contrite on occasion, as the document below shows.

Fortunately, Brutus will be back with his charmingly insolent salutes (when I lecture him and his misbehaving fellow travelers) and the glacial pace at which he moves from his front door to the bus when I’m trying to be on time.

Unfortunately, this year will be a matter of hurry up and wait … until October as the COVID-19 pandemic has led my district to go with a mostly remote learning approach. Some schools will host a few classes, but only the most senior drivers will be given routes. With only two years on my ledger, I’ll be off the road a while.

Fortunately (very!), I will be paid for my downtime, a blessing that resulted from my qualifying as a part-time salaried employee a few weeks before the March shutdown. If I were still a per-diem (hourly) driver, I would be looking for work. So I sympathize with the plight of laid-off or furloughed drivers, many of whom work for private companies that are going under in the pandemic. It’s a national problem and a serious one.

When I finally return, I’ll be required to keep the little dears two rows apart (more do-able when you have 18 middle schoolers and 12 rows separated by an aisle; a tad problematic when 51 intermediate schoolers come aboard and the district forbids lashing them to the roof) and make sure they keep masks on their sweet faces. Based on my efforts to make them stay in their seats, I’m willing to bet it’s easier to get ferrets to perform precision marching drills.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

I’ll also have to figure out a way to keep my eyes on the road and on the overhead rearview mirror that is called the most dangerous piece of equipment on the bus for a very good reason.

And I’ll be asked to give frequent talks on how to properly wear a mask, maintain social distance and spot the symptoms of COVID-19. Given the hardly rousing success of my roadside lecture series on how it’s really not in the best interests of safety to run around the bus and distract me (particularly by nailing me in the back of the head with a football), I expect yawns, blank stares and salutes.

With COVID-19 now on the bug menu, we drivers will have one more malady to worry about catching. If we start dropping in even modest numbers, the district will be in tough to replace us. As it is, there’s a national shortage of drivers (for obvious reasons) and qualified mechanics and office staff are often pressed into service as fill-ins during the best of times.

See: Getting Down With the Sickness on the Bug Bus

The smart money says schools will probably open and close again in a week or so after teachers and kids start testing positive or causing alarm with high temperatures caused by colds or flu. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Fasten your seat belt, as the old saying goes. I just wish that is what I was doing in good ol’ Tarkus right now.

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 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: How I Won the Garbage War

For instance, after not driving since mid-March due to the pandemic lockdown, I returned in June 2020 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.

I didn’t get back behind the wheel until October. At least I had enough pencils to tide me over.