Great Misadventure: A Salute to Relief Drivers

There’s a reason why bus drivers in my district are asked to do a dry run of new routes before school opens. Some of us (mainly, me) are unfamiliar with much of the area we service and we need to familiarize ourselves with its highways and byways lest we go horribly astray.

I live 40 minutes away from my district, and for my first three years I drove regular, unchanging runs. But because of the driver shortage, I’m now being pressed into service on short notice, handed a run sheet (or just some general directions I quickly forget) for a totally strange route, and told, “Good luck and Godspeed.”

Now, some drivers (we call them “floaters” or relief drivers) do this kind of thing every day. They know the turf down to the last blade of grass and can tackle a route, any route, without advance warning, no freaking sweat. I marvel at how they got to that point.

(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.)

Just before the 2021 holiday season, I was assigned an afterschool run out of Runnynose Elementary, hauling 30 or so kindergarten-through-third graders. I didn’t know the route, but I thankfully had a run sheet because kids that young are rarely of help in finding your way to their homes.

SEE: Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

The bus was barely loaded when a little girl declared she had to use the bathroom.

Fortunately, a teacher was on hand, checking on a lad who was in tears because his beloved regular bus driver had been replaced by my grizzled, forbidding presence. After the young lass returned from the pissoir, we pulled out of the parking lot only to have another girl declare that she, too, had to use the facilities. Now.

I started to ask her how far away her stop was but realized that was a waste of time. She insisted that her back teeth were floating. So I radioed base that I was returning to the school … but not until after I mistook the two-way mic for the PA and assured every bus driver in the district that they could make a wee-wee if they wanted.

“No thanks, I don’t have to go,” one replied.

Apparently kids are required by law to load up at the water fountain before boarding a school bus. I used to get bawled out by the security guard at Our Lady of Dismay Elementary for bringing my precious cargo back to let it do its business, so returning to Runnynose was likely to be an act of raw courage.

SEE: School Bus Life’s a Gas

No sooner did we pull up to the school’s front door than half the bus declared that they, too, had to tinkle. The teacher was stunned by the lengthy procession, which took a good 15 minutes to complete its ablutions.

“Water is either going in or coming out of kids,” I told her with an ingratiating smile and chuckle, though she wasn’t amused.

Expected to leave at 3:30, we finally pulled away at 4. The ride was chaos from the get-go. Despite my constant orders to sit down, urchins kept coming up the aisle to ask questions and report on crimes in progress.

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

“Fescue is choking my brother,” one somber lad informed me, only to return moments later and say, “Fescue is hitting everyone with a seat belt.”

So I grabbed the PA and ordered Fescue to the Honored Student Seat in the front of the bus. He replied that he’d be there as soon as he established a Wi-Fi connection. “What’s the password?” he asked.

SEE: Crowd Control Measures I’d Like to See

The quickly setting sun left me squinting in the glare of oncoming headlights as I tried to read my run sheet and street signs. Sometimes there were none, or no numbers on houses. Kids kept screaming that I was going the wrong way or had passed their houses. I kept messing up turns. Other drivers kept radioing me with directions. The dispatcher kept inquiring about my ETA to various destinations.

“When do you think you’ll complete your run?” he finally asked.

All I could honestly say was, “I’ll have them all home for Christmas if only in their dreams.”

Two kids (one of them Fescue, of course) didn’t get off at their stop, forcing me to stop several turns later and try to figure out how to retrace my path in a dark, unfamiliar neighborhood. I was hopelessly confused, soaking in flop sweat, and sitting at the intersection of Tears and Despair when the dispatcher radioed to tell me parents were trying to find me.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“From what I can tell, I’m at the corner of Surrender and Quitting,” I replied.

SEE: Bus Driver’s Wish: A Fraction of Distraction

Fortunately, the parents in question drove up moments later though the mother was less than pleased with the course of events (and my bus) that evening.

I was then left alone with Fescue, who had taken the seat directly behind me. Our conversation went like this:

“I’m hungry,” he said several times.

“I’m hungry, too,” I finally replied.

“What if I don’t get home?”

“You’ll get home.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“I’ve been driving a bus for almost four years and I’ve never failed to get a kid home.”

“Are we going to spend the night on the bus?”

“No.”

“But what if we do? Do you have a blanket?”

“We’re not going to spend the night on the bus.”

“Everyone else got home safely. How come?”

“Because you are the last stop. You’ll get home safely.”

“But what if I don’t?”

“You will.”

“What if we have an accident?”

“I’ve never had an accident and I’m not going to start now.”

“But what if we do and I don’t get home?

“You’re going to get home!”

“But what if I don’t?”

“Kid, I will get you home if it kills me!”

I finally did, and lived to tell, but not until after I’d made a wrong turn that took me all the way to the town of Fishmeal, about 15 miles from where I needed to go. Thankfully, Fescue’s parents were understanding even though their dear son was two hours late.

When I returned to base, I discovered that the back of my bus was a riot of crumbs, wrappers and other trash. I worried that I would be locked in the yard while I fueled and cleaned up and went to the wee-wee room in the drivers trailer. That would have been a most fitting end to the day.

SEE: How I Won the Garbage War

So I tip my hat to relief drivers who fly by the seat of their pants with skill and steely resolve without letting neither snow nor pee nor gloom of night prevent them from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. How they achieved that state of grace could not have been easy.

As my Sainted Mother used to tell me, “You only learn by bitter experience.”

I’m getting plenty of that these days.

Unreliable Sources: Directions and School Bus Tall Tales

One of the charming things about our precious cargo, is that they often want to assist us in our daily rounds.

Lifting the rear door handle or pushing a button to deactivate the bus alarm after arriving at school is seen as a great privilege by the younger ones. Beetlebomb, one of my noisiest and most “active” fifth-graders, redeems himself by informing me whenever I’ve left my flashing amber lights on. Other kids happily serve as spies for the sake of maintaining discipline.

See: The Rat Patrol

(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.)

Of course, there are times you need them to help and they can’t, especially wide-eyed kindergartners who stare or shrug when you need directions and ask them where they live. Sometimes even older kids can’t tell you.

One day a teacher brought a sixth-grader to my bus and said, “He doesn’t know where he’s going. Let me give you his address. He doesn’t speak any English.”

Oh, goody.

I at least knew the way, but he had to get off at the end of a street I couldn’t go down and just walked away. Naturally, the next morning he wasn’t at his stop. I can only assume he got home.

“If he didn’t, you probably would have heard by now,” my wife says.

But I’ve learned (the hard way) to be skeptical of the information my passengers provide.

For instance:

They’ll say someone isn’t on the bus and then yell that they are … as soon as I’ve passed or pulled away from the kid’s stop. Beetlebomb, who seems to be up on everyone’s business, tells me when someone won’t be needing a ride on any given day. Sometimes he’s right.

“He went in early for chess club,” he’ll say as we approach Hobbestweedle’s house in the morning. But one day he claimed that Hobbestweedle had a dentist appointment and it turned out that he was merely late getting down his long, winding driveway to our pickup point. The lad was left behind to his mother’s, and my, dismay.

Live and learn … to take anything you are told with a grain of sodium chloride. Which is why I didn’t freak out the morning Brutus and Robespierre yelled from the back, “Hey, Mr. John! Beetlebomb is dead!”

“Well, that will keep him quiet until we get to school,” I cooly replied over the PA.

See: Now Hear This — Rocking the School Bus PA

Those kids, they’re always joking.

The Big Three: Robespierre, Beetlebomb and Brutus

The infamous Robespierre, one of the most rambunctious of intermediate school hellions, got everyone’s hopes up when he announced that he was moving to Arizona. I thought it was too good to be true, but when was gone for a few days I dared to believe though I wondered why our router hadn’t told me he’d been taken off my run sheet.

Then Robespierre showed up one morning with a big grin on his face and turned the grin on mine upside down.

Like Charlie Brown convinced that Lucy will actually let him kick the football, I also bought into Brutus (one of Robespierre’s partners in crime) informing me one Friday afternoon, “This is my last trip on your bus.”

“I’m sure you’ll make it a memorable one,” I said.

“I’ll be taking another one. My mom says you get me home too late.”

“Did you tell her that might be because you keep forcing me to pull over and make you sit down and be quiet?” I asked with a flinty squint.

See: The Roadside Lectures Roll On

Lo and behold come Monday morning Brutus wasn’t on and I rejoiced.

Turned out he was only riding in the afternoons. I thought I’d have a good cry but there was an unexpected blessing: Rollo, yet another rider of ill repute, was removed from my bus and assigned to a small one after repeated scrapes with Brutus and others.

A few days later I learned from Rollo’s new driver that Brutus was being added in the afternoon. Apparently, his mom had prevailed in her request to have her dear, sweet son delivered to her door more promptly.

I could only chortle at the thought of how thrilled Ol’ Brutus would be to find out he’s been reunited with his nemesis Rollo (I had to keep them separated) and that he will actually be getting home later because Rollo’s stop adds time to the new driver’s run.

I must confess that sometimes I can’t resist turning the tables, like when I had my riotously flatlulent middle schoolers convinced that state law requires at least one fart on the bus per trip.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

One morning after my “lively” crew was surprisingly quiet, I told them over the PA as we pulled up to Helga Poppin Intermediate School, “Hey, great ride today, people! I didn’t have to call in the National Guard or change anyone’s seat!”

“He’s pranking us!” I head someone say.

“It’s April Fool’s Day!”

It wasn’t and I wasn’t. Truth is, there are times when I can use the Guard’s help. Maybe some of my well-behaved riders will enlist some day.

Who’s Who: Losing the Name Game

When I was the age of the kids I drive, I could remember on sight the names of every model of car on the road. Now, remembering the names of the kids I drive? Fuhgeddaboudit.

To be honest, as an adult I’ve always had trouble with names and faces. Until I see someone often enough for them to sink into my skull, they’d best wear a “Hello! I Am ___” tag. Seeing them out of context — in a store instead of at work, for example — forget it. They might as well be total strangers.

(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.)

A busload of kids is a mind-wracking challenge, especially at the beginning of a new school year. Oh, some will stand out immediately for their charming habits, such as wildly cavorting about the bus, shrieking at the top of their little lungs, or uttering bloodcurdling profanity. But the quiet ones who rarely speak to me require time to attach their names to their faces.

See: It Only Takes One to Drive a Bus Wild

And I’m not much better with street names. Once I know where I’m going, I’m going to need my run sheet to tell you where I’m going. And it’s always a moment of sweet panic whenever my dispatcher radios me to ask about a student and an address I do not have in the front of what’s left of my mind.

“Base, can someone tell me who these kids are?”

The dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Base to 631. Did you drop off Fescue McSwiggin yet?”

“Uh …”

“At 53 Balderdash Street.”

“Uh …”

“The parent says you were supposed to be there 15 minutes ago.”

“Uh …”

“What’s your 20 (location)?”

“Uh …”

I’m every bit as eloquent when I radio in to report that a student asked to get off at a friend’s house and does not have a bus pass.

“What’s the child’s name?” my famously crusty dispatcher asked the first time I did.

“Uh … uh … uh … Mildred.”

“What’s the last name?”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“The last name.”

“Uh … uh … uh …”

“What. Is. The. Child’s. Last. Name?”

“Uh … uh … uh … Wood. Like my head.”

So you can imagine the hives I sprouted when I found out I would be hauling 20-or-so units of precious cargo from Helga Poppin Intermediate School to Fiends and Fun Daycare each afternoon. Not only did most of them basically look alike, they had names like Morton, Norton, Horton, Duane, Dwayne, DeWayne, Sean, Shawn, Deshaun, DaShawn, D’Shaun and Holly, Molly, Polly, Lolly, Dolly, Brittany, Brittney, Hannah, Hanna, and Anna.

And there was more than one of each in some cases.

They boarded and left the bus like a herd of sheep, almost impossible to differentiate, leaving me to pray I didn’t leave anyone behind or lose track of someone. As far as I know, and it’s been three years, they all got to where they were supposed to go.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

Assigning seats with name tags above them eventually helps. And in times of faulty memory, I try using a mnemonic device, such as giving each kid a nickname based on their most memorable characteristics. Unfortunately, I end up remembering only their nicknames … and I don’t dare utter some of them aloud.

Frankenstein, Ma Barker, and worse do not speak well of them … or of me.

Bitter Lessons Pay Off in Summer School

After spending the last three summers driving a wet vac at an elementary school, I’m behind the wheel of a bus for this one. As they say, there’s no rest for the wicked.

The disrupted school year and shortcomings of remote learning created a glut of kids in need of summer school to inflate their grades. So I’m hauling three saintly high schoolers followed by a group of rambunctious sixth-graders who have given me no break from flying projectiles, rough-housing, standing in the aisle, yelling, cussing and the other usual mayhem.

(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.)

Driving a small bus for the first time, I must admit I’ve had to get used to it. The commotion is on your back. You can’t miss it in the rearview mirror, which is in your line of sight. You hear every salty word you wish you hadn’t heard. And with new controls and different blind spots to master, you need your concentration to be sharp.

Fortunately, I’m now a crusty, battle-tested veteran. I used to come off challenging runs vibrating with frustration. Now I stay as cool as a proverbial four-star cucumber, cackling with confident satisfaction as I lower the boom, which is good because my middle school run is an uncanny mix of my first three years of driving. That was a raucous Baptism by Fire.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am and Meet the Hellions.

I am blessed with a Robespierre/Wisenheimer hybrid who spouts foul language and seizes every opportunity to get up to no good, even from his assigned seat in the very front. I also have a new Beetlebomb/Jehosaphat blend who won’t stop standing, moving around and getting in other kids’ faces. Some of the ladies remind me of Sassafrass, Lulubelle and Esmerelda from my old run thanks to their potty mouths and eagerness to go along with the lads.

I even have a new Methane Man whose daily farts cause a mighty uproar in the smaller confines.

See: School Bus Life’s a Gas

In a small bus, objects in the rear view mirror are closer (and louder) than they appear.

The rest of the kids are tinder. It all adds up to pulling over every other run or so. But without a PA system for my thundering commands, and having to get out and come in the passenger door to deliver one of my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lectures, I just yell at the top of my lungs. Thankfully, I am getting them to quiet down at least for a while.

Yes, nothing beats the benefits of bitter experience, which my mother used to say is the only way you really learn in this life. The first day, I gave the kids a choice: mellow out and sit together as you are or keep acting like stooges and end up in assigned seats. Just like my Helga Poppin Intermediate crew of yore, they ended up in assigned seats.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

My precious cargo still gets rowdy and particularly salty, but I know how to regain control pretty quick.

“Do I need to have your principal look at the video?” I yelled during one particularly nasty trip when they forgot, as kids always do, that everything they say and do is recorded.

See: The Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All

“No” they replied with wide eyes.

“I think I do.”

That threat earned me hearty handshakes, a “Thank you” or two, and some “Have a nice weekend” wishes as they departed. But it wasn’t long before they were at it again, forcing me to pull over and deliver on another warning. I wrote them up by composing a kind of $#i+ List letter to the assistant principle (an ace at backing up drivers) about who deserves a stern warning of parental notification.

See: The School Bus Justice System

That move worked like a charm. After that, I was I driving church mice.

Best of all, I discovered I’m now good at improvising my route so I can drop the loudest kids off first, which usually quiets things down. Fortunately, my run is in a grid of streets that makes it possible to change the drop-off order without going off my designated route.

My summer gig is only six weeks, but it will keep me in fighting trim for the fall when I’ll be given new routes. Fresh (so to speak) adventures surely await, but I’ll be loaded for bear. I’ve been getting tips from one of my fellow drivers, a wily gentleman who taught me a trick:

Deliberately pass an obnoxious kid’s house and when he yells, “Hey! You missed my stop!” tell him, “Hey! You distracted me! Now I have to drop everyone else off.” Then simply radio in to let your dispatcher know in case the kid’s parents call to inquire about the whereabouts of their angel.

“Once was all it took to get that kid to stop,” my wily colleague said.

I’m saving that one for fall when I’ll surely need it.

Now Hear This: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

Of all the tools available to us pilots of pandemonium, the public address system on the bus is by far my favorite. Sure, using it for the sake of crowd control is often futile, but there’s just something about the way it fills the cabin with my commands that makes me feel like I have some authority.

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

OK, I confess that I feel drunk with power whenever I seize that black microphone on the dashboard and make a thundering pronouncement in my best Voice of The Almighty.

See: They Ain’t Makin’ Drivers Like They Used To

“Attention! Will the congregation please be seated!” I intoned to my milling passengers as we were about to leave Bubblefish Middle School. “Please find a pew so we may depart. Bless you.”

Based on my experience driving kids who are between the ages of 8 and 15, it’s best to keep your messages clear and simple. Sarcasm and irony are lost on them.

“Hey, Robespierre! I didn’t know you had a seat allergy,” I declared as the energetic fourth-grader ran amok one afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

“What?” he replied amid a sea of similarly curious faces.

“Do seats give you a rash on your caboose?” I inquired. “You never sit on them!”

“Huh? What?” he asked, looking genuinely mystified like his peers.

Driven to order my middle school hellions to sit down for the hundred-and-umpteenth time, I went on the PA and cheerfully said, “You probably haven’t heard, and I know this will seem hard to believe, but the school district has a rule about leaving your seat while the bus is in motion. Yep, it’s true! And just in case you do leave your seat, I’ve been given some nifty forms to fill out so you can visit the office and have a nice chat about it with your principal.” 

See: The School Bus Justice System

Needless to say, they started to tune me out about halfway through this vital public service announcement and were back to cavorting in a jiffy.

My intermediate schoolers were baffled when I told them, “Hey, I just want you to know that the seats are free! We won’t charge you to sit on them. Best of all, they don’t bite. Try one today!”

Naturally, they did not.

On the last day of school, I plan to say: “Hey, I want you all to do something you haven’t done all year. Take a seat. Try it! You may even like it!”

See: How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

I confess that frustration occasionally gets the better of me and soils my professionalism. After several tries at commanding fifth-graders Ignatz and his pals Stitch and Satch to plant themselves in their assigned seats, I grabbed the mic and demanded, “Will you stooges in the back sit down! Come on!”

Gales of laughter ensued — “The bus driver called them stooges!” (I later nicknamed them: “Ignatz & The Stooges”) — but lo and behold the offenders did park their posteriors … at least for a few minutes.

Not that I condone the use of force, mind you, but I have threatened to seize my heavy duty staple gun and fasten rowdy children to their seats by their pants. I’ve also informed perpetually wandering fourth-grader Jehosaphat that I happen to have a handful of three-penny nails and a sturdy hammer and will be coming forth to affix his wagon, so to speak.

Being a man of immense dignity, I can say it is deeply rewarding to bark orders over the PA, get no reaction, and be told by the kid sitting behind you, “You’re holding the mic backwards.”

Likewise, it inflates the old self esteem to bellow furiously without realizing that the PA’s switch has been flipped to “External.”

One morning while waiting to unload the bus at Helga Poppin Intermediate, I thundered, “Settle down back there! I’m sick and tired of telling you knuckleheads to stop jumping on the seats!” … only to be informed by Principal Diesel that my anguished cry had been trumpeted to the mob of students and teachers outside the school as well as the other drivers. 

Sadly, my PA system has died, probably from overuse. Integrated with the AM/FM radio, which also conked, the entire unit must be replaced. While I wait for a new one to be ordered and installed, I’ve been reduced to asking a cooperative student to relay my commands — “Hey! The bus driver says you numbskulls have to stop running around!” — or screaming myself hoarse whenever I see dancing in the aisles, things being thrown, arms sticking out windows, and steel cage wrestling matches.

Of course, miscreants far in the back are out of earshot no matter how loudly I shriek, so I’m thinking about getting a bullhorn … with a siren on it.

By golly, I’m going to make them listen to me one way or another … or expire trying.