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: 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.

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.

School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

(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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mean Streets and Tough Brakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, I memorized it all and got cocky. 

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

See: The Dreaded Road Test

School Bus Driving 101: Shake Hands With Slack Adjusters and Livestock

(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.)

Getting a CDL seemed simple enough. Until I got into the process. 

The first step was landing a permit for a Class B (bus) license with S (school bus) and P (passengers) endorsements. So off I went to my friendly Department of Motor Vehicles in Poughkeepsie. After forking over $22.50 to the requisite scowling clerk, I was told I needed to pass three written tests.

I spent a fretful month scowling at nine sections and 132 pages-worth of the New York State Commercial Driver’s Manual, filling my spinning skull with the intricacies of air brakes, hauling cargo (including livestock, which, it turns out, was quite apropos), and emergency evacuations.

“What’s taking so long?” my wife kept asking as the weeks rolled by and I continued to scribble copious notes in preparation for my day of reckoning. “Anyone can drive a bus! Our kids’ driver wasn’t a rocket scientist!”

“I have no experience with this stuff and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” I kept replying. “Did you know that if a brake’s slack adjuster moves more than one inch where the push rod is attached, it probably needs adjustment?”

“So do you. Hurry up!”

Much to my relief, I passed the tests, oddly acing the air brakes and passenger safety parts while muffing several questions on the basic rules of the road for all drivers. I was also chuffed to pass a required state physical, actually managing to provide evidence of a pulse. I then strong-armed three former colleagues and/or friends to vouch for my character in writing and applied for a gig at what I shall call Fishmeal Falls Central School District. 

The main advantage to the approach I took to getting my CDL is that, if hired, I’d be paid while I trained for my bus road test, a substantial savings over the driving school route, which can run well over $1,000. But getting hired, aye, there’s the rub.

“So you want to drive a school bus, eh?” one of the Fishmeal Falls Transportation Department’s directors asked during my interview. “Why?”

As a refugee from the wonderful world of media, I felt like an odd duck, but other applicants had also washed up on the shore of bus driving after being cast adrift by big corporations. I explained that I enjoyed driving and had a passing familiarity with children, being the father of three and stepfather of one who were the basis of a family humor column I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal for 16 years (and now available in my book “The Goose In The Bathroom”). No stranger to challenges and aggravation am I, sir!

The glad tidings of my hiring came in a phone call cheerfully informing me that I’d been scheduled for a physical performance test at the Fishmeal Falls bus compound. It involved huffing and puffing up and down bus steps three times in 30 seconds, racing from the driver’s seat out the rear emergency door in 20 ticks, and dragging a 125-pound sack 30 feet in 30.

Being in Pillsbury Doughboy shape and possessing a morphine addict’s reflexes, I trained like I was facing an audition at the NFL Scouting Combine. I stomped up and down my porch steps and hauled bags of sand around my driveway for a week. The actual test turned out to be far less taxing than toting the folders full of regulations, district procedures and employee conduct manuals I was given.

Next step: Coughing up $104 for the privilege of being fingerprinted. Then it was time to learn how to pilot a bus without terrorizing the community.

FUN BUS REGULATIONS TO KNOW AND TELL

1. Combustible materials are not to be carried in the passenger compartment (17 NYCRR 721.4A 8). Apparently, this does not apply to temperamental children.

2. Not withstanding the provisions of any law to the contrary, every driver of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary (VTL 1146). The laws to the contrary must be interesting. 

3. No driver of a vehicle shall sound the horn when approaching or passing a horse on a public highway (VTL 1146 a3). Carrots are much safer and more effective.

4. Fuel tanks shall not be filled while pupils are in the bus (8 NYCRR 156.3 d5). A vehicle shall not be fueled while the engine is running and no smoking or flames shall be permitted in or about the vehicle during fueling operations and until all fumes are dissipated. (17 NYCRR 721.4A 7). The days of cigar-chewing drivers pumping gas while students enjoy a butt have been legislated, if not blown, out of existence.

5. No person shall operate a motor vehicle without having at least one hand or, in the case of a physically handicapped person, at least one prosthetic device or aid on the steering mechanism at all times when the motor vehicle is in motion (VTL 1226). Rest assured that the “Look Ma, no hands!” style of driving is frowned upon in respectable states and school districts.

6. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to enter or leave the bus while it is in motion (8 NYCRR 156.3 d1). Although we’d occasionally like to do so, especially the leaving part. Alas, our requests for ejector seats are routinely denied.

7. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall not allow pupils to thrust their heads or arms out of open windows (8 NYCRR 156.3 d3). As much as we’d sometimes like to thrust certain pupils out of open windows …

8. Drivers shall not exceed a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour on any road within or outside of New York State while their school bus is being used for the transportation of pupils. The 55 mph limit applies to any size bus as well as Suburbans, Grand Caravans and school cars when kids are on board even if the posted limit is greater than 55. Nothing — and I mean nothing — shall prohibit a school district from imposing a more restrictive speed limit policy. Tailgating to goose us along is futile!

9. Drivers, monitors and attendants shall check the vehicle to ensure that no child is left behind on board unattended at the conclusion of the school bus route (8 NYCRR 156.3 e4). This one was apparently the goal of the national No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

10. Every motor vehicle with a seating capacity of more than seven passengers, and used primarily to transport pupil or pupils and teachers to and from school, shall be painted the color known as “national school bus chrome” (VTL 375.21). Now you know what that shade of yellow is called.

Fun Popular Myths About Bus Laws & Regulations to Know and Tell

1. A bus ride cannot exceed one hour. No law restricts the length of a student’s bus ride, although the State Education Department recommends a one-hour maximum when possible. Unfortunately, many rides feel much longer than an hour … usually to the driver.

2. Bus drivers could be sued if a child isn’t wearing a seat belt in an accident. School bus drivers and attendants are protected from liability so long as belts were available and in working order, and all other laws and local policies were complied with. Unfortunately, most children refuse to acknowledge the presence of seats, so lots of luck getting them to use the belts for anything other than smacking each other with the metal latches or connecting them to form tripwires across the aisle.

3. Bus drivers over 65 (or 70) need more frequent physicals than younger drivers. The same standards apply to old farts as whippersnappers. Any driver can be required to undergo additional tests, due to specific medical issues, but not based on how many rings are in their trunk.

4. School buses must make a full stop at yield signs, regardless of traffic conditions. No state law or regulation requires school buses to routinely stop at all yield signs. And we still refuse to make a right turn on red no matter how long you lean on your horn or wave your middle finger. 

5. Emergency vehicles do not have to stop for a school bus’s flashing lights. There are no statutory exceptions, but school bus drivers should make every effort to allow emergency vehicles to pass. Everyone must stop unless they’d like five points tacked on their license and their wallet relieved of at least $250.

How I Got Here: The Deal Behind the Wheel

The horn alarm is blaring in repeated honks. Twenty-five kids are in a panicked uproar. The stench of tracked-in dog doo fills the bus as it sits outside … let’s call it Helga Poppin Intermediate School.

So how did I get here?

(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.)

“Here” is behind the wheel of that unfortunate vehicle, in a state of frazzled despair. For three decades I’d been a writer, editor and website producer at Time Inc. Much of that time was spent at Sports Illustrated For Kids, but catering to urchins has never been one of my ambitions, though I am the father of three and stepfather of one. 

After I was downsized in late 2016, my wife told me that an acquaintance — a driver for a school district near our home in New York’s Hudson Valley — had said her employer needed intrepid souls to man the wheel and would train as well as pay me a modest sum for my suffering.  It seemed like a sensible, practical idea and quite possibly a lot of fun … at the time.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to be a bus driver,” a principal later told a gathering of my new colleagues. 

People, especially teachers and school administrators, often express admiration and amazement at the job we do on a daily basis. I never dreamed I’d end up doing it.

This gig requires you to be part parent, teacher, medic, psychologist, referee, chauffeur, and janitor. Our responsibility for the safety of the children we transport is enormous. Our daily challenges are potentially catastrophic, and we are routinely subjected to the most jarring mayhem and insults that little hellions can dish out while we try to concentrate on not driving into trees, ditches, pedestrians or other vehicles.

Ironically, you couldn’t pay us much less: In the neighborhood of 20 bucks an hour before taxes. Some benefits, such as overtime, health insurance and retirement savings plans, can come with the gig after enough time served.

Then again, we get to enjoy the arts (children shrieking “Baby Shark” and “Old Town Road” off-key) and nature (urchins making loud animal noises) for free. 

In order to gain these privileges, we must get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) for school buses, and pass background checks, random drug tests and yearly physicals. We are fingerprinted and required to get testimonials to our good character from reputable people. We must take physical performance tests and specialized safety courses and train for months in order to pass a road test that enables us to pilot a 40-foot-long, 29,800-pound madhouse. Refresher courses and tests are mandatory.

See: Bus Driving 101 (Training Wheels)

“If you don’t like being around kids, you’re in the wrong business,” we trainees were told. “Some people quit as soon as they find out what’s really involved.”

Small wonder there’s a national shortage of school bus drivers.

So why do we do it?

I must admit I had my doubts about what I was getting into. Despite being a dad with a background in writing for kids, I’ve never really felt comfortable with children other than my own. Driving a bunch of middle schoolers weirdly forced me to revisit one of my earliest terrors.

I was relentlessly picked on in seventh, eighth and ninth grade. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to confront the kinds of bullies who made my life miserable. Would they listen to me or laugh in my face?

Then again, when had my own kids ever listened to me?

Surprisingly, after only a few months I found I actually liked the job despite the best efforts to persuade me otherwise by some of the rascals on my bus.

See: Meet the Hellions

I now have enormous respect for my colleagues in school districts all over the land, many of whom have been driving for years and somehow managed to preserve their sanity as well as their sense of humor.

It was no small task. Here’s to them!