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.

Greetings and Grunts o’ the Day

It is often emphasized to us wretches o’ the wheel that we’re the first and last representatives of the school district that many children see each day. We’re told to always be pleasant and say “Good morning” or “Have a nice day” as our precious cargo boards or departs our 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.)

Quite often we get no response or perhaps — if we listen very closely — a muffled something that sounds like “mumpf.” 

Some kids do cheerily offer or return hearty greetings. Daisy, a delightfully perky fourth grader, almost always stops, turns, and exclaims something like, “Well, you have a nice day!” before she exits. 

Some kids will thank you for your suffering on their behalf. Some say they feel sorry for me.

Even the coldest ragamuffins warm up at least a bit during the course of a school year as they become familiar with you, but you can’t take the silent majority personally and be insulted by their ignoring your pleasantries. Tis better to content yourself with the knowledge that you did your duty without undue strife or calamity during the trip.

Being a mere mortal, I found this consolation to be a thin emotional gruel. After saying “good morning” to no avail for many weeks, I began adding “little buttercup” or “same to you” under my breath.

Fearing that I would grow old and expire before I received an actual reply, I contemplated announcing over the bus PA system that the first kid to utter as much as a “You, too” in response to one of my greetings would be the winner of a valuable prize, maybe a set of snow tires or some oven mitts. I’ve yet to decide.

However, establishing such a quid pro quo precedent is probably unseemly. And we are discouraged from handing out treats, due to the scourge of food allergies as well as possible liability for bringing on a medical emergency.

I have to say it is amusing when you startle a kid with your greeting and they suddenly stop and look at you like you’re nuts.

“What?!” they ask, as if I’d just accused them of a high crime or stated that an alligator is loose on the bus.

One morning I greeted Oswald, a fretful third grader. He suddenly locked his horrified stare directly on me. I have to imagine he was even more alarmed when I cackled loudly and said, “What?!” 

He quickly fled to his seat.

You gotta love the Eddie Haskells. If you are of a certain vintage, you likely remember the character from the old Leave It to Beaver sitcom. Haskells are kids who assume an angelic demeanor and pleasantly hail you en route to or from wreaking havoc.

I’ve observed them doing headers over seats, uttering hoary oaths and epithets, blatantly eating and drinking despite my repeated warnings about stuffing their faces on the bus, and engaging in crimes against the soul. But whenever they’re near me, they act like nothing undue happened.

Then there are those cherished moments when a child offers a sweet, spontaneous salutation:

One afternoon at Helga Poppin School, Oswald came up the bus steps with a green cube in his hand.

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

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

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

Yes, it’s always good to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

“Student management” is an art and science that only some of us school bus jockeys truly master.

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

The halcyon days of being able to grab an unruly urchin by the scruff of the neck or evict him (or her) from the bus wherever you can stop or at least slow down a bit are long gone. Sadly, requests, pleas, warnings, frank chats with parents, disciplinary write-ups, and visits to the principal’s office have only limited effects.

See: The School Bus Justice System

My dear wife regularly and happily declares that the daily aggravations and insubordinations I suffer are karmic payment for my playing the “good cop” role with our kids while she was left to be the heavy and do the grunt work of actually disciplining them. (My book “The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life” contains the details of this stark human drama.)

Those of us who do not naturally command unwavering respect must always be mindful of legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel’s rule about the importance of keeping those who hate you away from those who are still undecided.

We also resort to something kids often despise: assigned seats. 

Alas, coming up with effective seat assignments is harder than solving a Rubik’s Cube. I’ve spent many nights, days, weekends and months scribbling and erasing and re-scribbling and re-erasing and re-re-scribbling names on a seating chart in painstaking and maddening attempts at a containment scheme.

You continually rearrange the pieces of the puzzle with the goal of breaking up blocks of obstreperous kids, separating the ones who annoy each other, and keeping the firestarters away from tinder. Inevitably, though, if you move Rollo to put him beyond spitting distance of his nemesis Brutus, he’ll surely start mixing it up with Robespierre, and perhaps even Hortense Prunella or Maude, two demure lasses who surprised me by revealing that they don’t suffer fools gladly, especially fools of the male persuasion.

The hyperactive Beetlebomb annoyeth everyone, but their requests that I keep him back 500 feet from their seats are impossible to accommodate.

Tarkus, my bus, is 40 feet long, but it’s not long enough by any stretch. Even parted by six or seven rows of seats, separated rowdies still engage in loud, long-distance taunting and chicanery or simply sneak closer to their targets while I’m not looking.

I’ve repeatedly asked my superiors if I can put the worst offenders in the storage compartment under the bus or affix them to the roof with bungee cords, but I’ve been told such things are against district policy. I have also inquired if the district will order some London-style double-decker buses so the miscreants can be assigned to a level apart from the solid citizens. 

I can only hope.

Blessedly, several Helga Poppin Intermediate students (all gals, mind you) have eagerly offered to serve as spies and keep me informed of mischievous doings. Two sit directly behind me and another is planted in the back. The dirt they provide keeps me busy re-assigning evil-doers to new seats.

No matter how many seating changes you make, guilt (your own) is always in the mix. If you have even a shred of conscience, you can’t help asking yourself, “Do I really want to visit this dreadful plague upon undeserving urchins?” by seating a raging Visigoth near the quiet and innocent, although some ladies can be just as rambunctious as the alleged gentlemen.

Quite often, I am paralyzed by remorse and stand alone on Tarkus in despair, gazing at my seating chart, Scotch tape and name tags in hand, realizing there is no way to be fair or completely end the madness.

Sometimes the best you can do is employ a zone defense: consigning groups of like-minded hellions to specific areas of the bus, moving kids you need to keep an eye on (e.g. Pismeyer the Projectile Specialist and Jehosaphat the Wanderer), and creating buffer zones with empty seats and popular kids who get along with everyone. Having a no-nonsense tough girl (“Moxie Lady” Maude) or two is helpful as they can serve as enforcers to keep the yobs in check. (Lads dislike being shown up by lasses and usually steer clear.)

In one of my first attempts at containment with the Helga Poppins, I put the gutter-talking fifth graders in the back; a group of loud, squealing girls in the rows in front of them; noisy, rowdy fourth-graders in front of the girls; a buffer of two empty rows, and then three kids who were trying to flee the insanity behind them but ran out of room. 

Peace reigned for about 15 minutes.

For my Bubblefish run, I made a strict “no sixth-graders in the back” policy that was heartily seconded by the eighth-graders who reside there. The infamous Lucifer was remanded to the middle of the bus with an empty two-row buffer zone around him. Cowering refugees sit in the front, close to me. 

My Poppin forays have been made a little more peaceful by forbidding males to enter the last four rows … ever again.

So far, pretty good, though I still sweat blood over the seating chart every day.

School Bus Driving 101: The Dreaded Road Test

(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.)

Oh, the queasy anticipation.

I felt fairly confident despite knowing that parallel parking would still be a crapshoot. There was also constant unsettling talk among us trainees about an infamous road test examiner who barked commands and insulting criticism with the intent of rattling all who took the wheel under his curdled gaze. Most of those poor souls failed the test. 

“Pray you don’t get him!” I was told.

The night before my hour of judgment, my trainer offered some advice: Do some touch-up studying. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Beseech the deity of your choice.

On a cloudy June morning outside Dutchess Stadium in aptly-named Fishkill, I sighed with relief when I was directed to two pleasant female examiners. After duly impressing them with my knowledge of the crap under the hood, they cut short my soliloquy on the rest of the bus and told me to conduct the static brake test. 

Taking the driver’s seat, I turned the key to right without starting the engine, began pumping the pedal, pushed the parking brake knob in … and was horrified when it refused to stick.

I stabbed at it again. And again. No stick.

“Do you know what you did wrong?” one of the examiners asked as I sat flummoxed.

“If you don’t engage the parking brake first, how will you know if there’s a leak in the system while you pump the pedal?” asked the other.

Fair question.

Somehow, I’d managed to do the static test incorrectly all along without my trainer noticing. The brake knob had merely picked a fine time to finally betray me. So I was sent away to schedule another $40 road test. 

My trainer was gobsmacked. “This has never happened before!” she said.

Taking consolation in having made district history, I went back to the bus yard feeling much shame. The news of my epic failure preceded me.

“What happened?” I was repeatedly asked.

“Brain cramp,” was all I could say.

The rest of the day was fraught with anxiety. The end of the school year was three weeks away. If there were no open test dates until summer, I’d have to wait until fall with no way to practice. Fortunately, there was one date left, across the Hudson River in Kingston.

Two weeks later, in the bright sun outside Dietz Stadium, my examiner turned out to be a grumpy geezer but not the legendary scourge who, rumor had it, had been remanded to sensitivity training.  

I got through the inspections and brake tests without a hitch, but made a heavenly hash of parallel parking. The cones were much smaller and arrayed in a slightly different configuration on an uphill slope, which disoriented me. When I backed into the box, the examiner immediately shouted “Stop!” and threw up his hands in disgust. 

Clambering out of the bus, I saw I’d gone over the side line of cones, but was stunned when he told me to try again. And again. 

Invariably, my back bumper grazed or crossed the side line as I cut into the box. My third attempt left the bus somewhat askew in the box. I climbed out and resigned myself to more ignominy only to be shocked (shocked!) when the examiner groused, “OK, that’s good enough. Let’s go on the road.”

By then, my trainer couldn’t bear to watch anymore and had ducked into a nearby Rite-Aid for a sedative only to be stunned upon emerging to see my bus passing by on the way to the highways and by-ways of Kingston. 

I was instructed where to go and had to call out everything I saw (such as nearby vehicles, signs and signals, pedestrians and other potential hazards). All went well until I failed to call out an overpass. After an agonizingly long wait back at the test site, the examiner returned to the bus and informed me that I would be unleashed upon the public. I very nearly gave him a tearful hug.

I was qualified at last to enjoy all the wonders and aggravations of this noble profession.