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 — an 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 and no matter how often I ordered my precious cargo to not throw garbage 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 “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 Bubblefish Middle Schoolers were on board, and my messy passengers got better at using the trash boxes in the front and back. 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 Bubblefishers 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.

Why Driving a School Bus is a Lot Like Marriage

As an inmate of the Great Institution of Holy Acrimony for nearly 35 years, I couldn’t help noticing that it’s not much different from the job I’ve had for less than three.

For example, while my beloved wife regales me with tales of fabulous things other husbands do — build extensions on their houses, fix their own cars, rustle up gourmet meals, and plan exotic trips (instead of sitting on the sofa and cussin’ at the New York Football Giants) — the kids on my bus tell me how great other drivers are.

(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.)

“Miss Beulah gives us candy!” I am told.

“Mr. Roscoe gives us presents even if it isn’t Christmas!” I am told.

“Mr. Hobart says funny stuff over the loudspeaker!” I am told.

“So do I,” I reply.

“Yeah, but Mr. Hobart says funny things!” they say.

Kids tell me they like other drivers better because those drivers play the radio. When asked, I always say mine is broken. Hey, I have enough noise as it is and the radio just makes kids even louder because they yell over the music. I also have another good excuse: My boss wants me to keep the din down so he can hear the kids’ cussin’ and other deviltry on the video.

“Miss Harriett doesn’t scream like you do!” I am told.

Adding indignity to insult, Brutus, my most “challenging” rider, told me he likes Mr. Titus better because “Mr. Titus is strict, but he’s good strict.”

“Oh, really?” I replied with a wild roll of my eyes. “I’ll have to ask him how I can improve the way I write you up, won’t I?”

See: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

For Better or For Worse

As in marriage, you can count on being promptly reminded of your screw-ups.

“You sure miss a lot of people’s stops!” grumbled Mortimer, the fifth-grader who sits directly behind me, during a particularly bad week when nothing went right (largely because of all the distracting foofaraw in the back).

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

“I don’t want to upset you but this bus seems to get slower every day,” groused Hobbestweedle the blunt fourth-grader as we approached his stop one afternoon.

“Gee, Hobbes, I’m pedaling as fast as I can,” was all I could say in my defense.

And just as one’s spouse will fawn over an old flame or someone they think you should adopt as your role model, so the little buggers on your bus will excitedly wave and yell at a beloved driver they had before they got stuck with the sorry likes of you.

“Hi, Mr. Stew! Hi!! We miss you!!!”

“Hi, Miss Beverly! We love you!! Please come rescue us!!!”

Like marriage, driving a school bus lets you discover just how dumb you really are. For instance, one day I put up signs about not touching or moving the name tags over the seats. Of course, the kids took one look at the signs and immediately started touching the tags. Even Louise and Calliope, two of my most angelic passengers, went over to the dark side and moved them.

Lest you think I’m serving only lemon juice in this bar, I must admit I’ve gotten very nice notes of appreciation from kids just as I get kind words and cards from my wife. I’m not at sword’s points with her and I get along well with my riders, even the ones like Brutus who drive me crackers. But I am humbled by what other drivers do, especially the ones who have earned our county’s Driver of the Year Award: read to the kids, play games with them, wear Santa suits, and turn every trip into a heartwarming Hallmark Special.

Heck, it’s all I can do to get the little rascals to and from school without triggering an international incident.

One day a big roll of paper towels fell out from behind my seat and bounded down the steps to the door. So I pulled over in a quiet spot and went to get it. As I schlepped down the stairs I heard a kid ask, “Hey, where’s the driver going?”

Unable to resist, I yelled, “I’m leaving! I’ve had enough of you numbskulls!”

Wouldn’t you know it, they burst into cheers and applause.

By golly, I sure was tempted to spout the old line my grandpa used to lay on grandma: “If you can get someone better than me, you go right ahead and get ’em!”

One of these days …

Route Hypnosis: Zoning Out Behind the Wheel is No Way to Go

Have you ever been driving and suddenly felt like you just awoke from a dream?

There’s an electric jolt, a moment of panic when you realize you zoned out and aren’t quite sure exactly where you are. It’s scary, especially when you’re at the wheel of a school bus.

Welcome to “route hypnosis.” Anyone can fall into it by getting lost in thought while not much is happening or the scenery is boring.

(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.)

Zoning out is one of the biggest challenges of this job. We school bus drivers are vulnerable to it due to the sheer familiarity of where we go each day. A kind of muscle memory takes over when you’ve been along a route many times. You do things by habit and that can really mess you up when your schedule has changed and you’re on automatic pilot.

And when you have a long stretch of clear sailing, you can easily start thinking about things that worry you or an aggravating political argument or your favorite team’s latest galling, bonehead defeat … until you realize you cruised by a turn or you hear that dreaded, “Hey, you missed my stop!”

You do it without realizing it and it can happen even when the little dears on the bus have your full attention.

One afternoon, Lucifer, my most accomplished middle school hellion, was loudly taunting and roughhousing with other kids. I stopped once to give him the evil eye and I also issued several warnings over the PA, but the obnoxious shenanigans continued. I began thinking about how I couldn’t wait to get him off the bus … and drove right past his house, damning myself to another five minutes of grinding my teeth while I found a place to safely turn around and go back.

On another memorable day, I was thinking about how I could possibly rearrange my already re-arranged (many times) assigned seats to restore some semblance of sanity when I hung a right and heard, “Hey, Mr. Bus Driver. Why are we going this way?”

I’d turned one road too soon at an almost identical corner and was now doomed to going about ten minutes out of my way.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

It’s mortifying when you have to radio in to let your dispatcher (as well as your boss and every other driver) know you’ve screwed up and are running late, but radio in you must because heaven help you if something bad happens while you’re off your designated route on the sly while trying to protect your pride. And you sure feel guilty when your mess-up means a kid will be late getting home for an appointment.

This job can humble you in a hurry, and rude awakenings are particularly humbling. During a half-day when I had to be at the middle school early for afternoon pickup, I automatically took my full-day route. That made the trip about 10 miles longer. I was praying I’d make it on time when I heard our dispatcher bark on the radio, “John, where are you? Your kids are waiting outside and all the buses are ready to leave.”

Gulp.

During my two years in this stirring profession, I’ve learned (the hard way) to prevent these unfortunate events. You have to leave everything, especially all worries and disputes, behind when you start a run, so it helps to think about the consequences if you don’t. Practicing mindfulness — consciously staying in the moment — also helps. You can train your brain to behave differently by staying focused or quickly snapping back to the present, but it does take some time and repetition of a conscious trick.

For example, if I suspect I may zone out, I’ll think about the way to my next stop. Or I’ll pretend I’m taking a driving test and have to point out hazards and road signs to an inspector while making surgically clean turns, lane changes and stops. Focusing on your driving is vital for safety anyway.

I have found that what works best, though, is the lasting sting of shame.

After Bumpus, the third-grade critic who sits directly behind me, drily said, “You sure miss a lot of people’s stops” I haven’t missed any again. Now, every time I approach the site of a gaffe, I am instantly reminded of my less-than-stellar moment there.

As one of my colleagues said after telling me about the time she started loudly singing Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” without realizing her two-way radio was on and everyone could hear her, “Some mistakes you only need to make once.”

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.

School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels

In February 2018, I began my new endeavor … 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.

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

My 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 a lovely scrape and land me in the boss’s outhouse.

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 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, we were taught to perform mandatory daily 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 pushing in the yellow parking brake 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.

Sadly, this test would be my Waterloo during my first road test.

Exterior inspections required 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, hamster wheels, and thingamabobs and hoses under the hood, as well as parts of the brakes and suspension. 

See: School Bus Driving 101: Shake Hands With Slack-Adjusters

“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