On the Road Again: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

After seven months off due to the coronavirus pandemic, most schools in my district are finally open. I’m back behind the wheel of my trusty bus Tarkus … and things are quiet. Weirdly quiet. At least for me.

For most drivers and district staff, chaos is in order: There are new and re-routed runs to work out, and kids showing up at the wrong stops or not showing up at all or getting on the wrong buses.

(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.)

After our orientation meeting, it took me a day or two to get used to doing my pre-trip inspection again and locating the switches and other goodies I need on the bus. I also had to stock up on masks and gloves and remember to spray the seats and hand rail with disinfectant after each trip.

But other than that, my first week really wasn’t what I’d steeled myself for.

All of my intermediate school hellions from last year — Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, and Jehosaphat — have graduated to another school, are staying home or are being driven by their long-suffering parents. The only holdovers are Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Guttersnipe, a little fourth-grader who is known in NHL slang as a “$#i+disturber.” But this dastardly duo rides on separate days and there just aren’t enough kids on board at any time to start a good ruckus.

With most kids in the district being driven or kept home, I have only six urchins riding on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays I’m off while the schools are fumigated. Thursdays and Fridays I chauffeur three different riders. Instead of four trips per day, I have only two with a generous mid-day window of free time. Life just feels too easy, and that’s very unsettling.

Even with Guttersnipe in their midst, my Monday-Tuesday riders were like church mice. At one kid per seat, there wasn’t much deviltry they could get up to, though Lucille, a returning fifth-grader, promptly defied my “masks on at all times; no eating or drinking” rules by leaving a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs on and around her seat. But compared to carnage of yore, this was small spuds.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

As we rolled along through the Hudson Valley’s gloriously sunny autumn countryside and down the stretch of winding, treacherous road where the kids always decide to come off the behavior spool, it felt strange not to look in the overhead mirror and see Robespierre sailing through the air across the aisle from seat to seat.

Or spot Jehosaphat scuttling about in the aisle.

Or constantly bark “Sit down back there!” into the PA microphone.

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

Or hear someone yelling “Hey Mr. Bus Driver, Brutus is annoying me!”

Or smell suspicious scents like baby powder, body spray or waffles (yes, waffles) wafting from the back.

Or drown in noise that can make your hair stand on end.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

No, there was just the hum of the engine and the crackle of the radio as drivers reported rider snafus or that their buses were having mechanical difficulties. In fact, there was so much radio chatter that our dispatchers begged for mercy. But that’s to be expected during the first few days of a school year when everyone is trying to get an armful of things right. This year is proving to be a lulu.

Of course, I didn’t make it through the week without some excitement.

On my third morning, Tarkus greeted me with a “low coolant level” message on the dashboard followed by “turn off engine.” I made it from my parking slot to the garage where Tarkus conked as soon as two mechanics opened the hood. A mad rush for another bus ensued but I managed to pre-trip it and make it to my first stop on time.

Naturally, Pismeyer wasn’t there.

After a generous five-minute grace period, I moved on to pick up Persephone, a new third-grader. No sign of her either. So it was on to get Ichabod, another newbie.

Nope.

So I radioed our dispatcher and asked her to inform the good folks at Helga Poppin Intermediate that I had nothing for them that morning. Then it was back to the compound. Easy as pie as they say in the pastry-hauling trade.

You know, after all the mayhem and tomfoolery I’ve experienced in only two years of driving, I could really get used to this. I’ve always said this would be a really great job if kids weren’t involved. I’m going to have to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts, though. The middle schoolers return next month.

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.