Expect the unexpected.
That was one of the first things I was told after I signed on for this gig in 2018. I can certainly say that 2021-22 looks like it’s going to be loaded with surprises.
Ordinarily, a new school year feels like Christmas morning. What dear, sweet new riders has our router gifted to me? Will the old villains behave any better? What changes were made to my route? What new issues will I be wrestling?
(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.)
At our annual orientation meeting we discussed timeless basics, such as defensive driving in intersections, how to avoid accidents when picking up or dropping off students, and some new wrinkles like our pandemic procedures. Masks must still be worn indoors and on buses, which won’t please some parental units. Seats must also be assigned, which our precious cargo surely won’t like.
I wondered how crowded my bus will be. After our delayed start in October last year, I had as few as three or even one lonesome urchin on some trips. When things returned to some normalcy in February, I had 20-25 hellions rather than the 45 I’ve been given this year.
With an entirely new route and brand new kids (only dreaded middle schoolers!), I definitely needed to do a dry run, which turned out to be a wet one. The sky opened with a Hurricane Ida downpour as I crept along streets and squinted at house numbers while angry motorists honked behind me.
Some streets weren’t marked and I got lost, in one case on a dead end where I had to back up my 40-foot bus unassisted. (Note ominous foreshadowing.) I wisely surrendered about half-way through my route and tried again a few days later.
Required to produce a seating chart for contact tracing, and having no idea who should not be seated near whom, I had the bright idea of doing a first-aboard, first-seated from back to front plan. This was blown out of the water when my opening day run sheet had even more kids and some route changes. All the numbered name cards I’d lovingly crafted were no good. So I let the buggers sit where they wanted and hoped for the best.
The biggest surprise of all awaited.
I was absolutely gob-smacked at how well behaved the kids were. They were quiet and said hello or have a nice day or thanks for a safe run. Even the two charmers I had during my summer school stint were amazingly pleasant.
In all honesty, I never thought I’d live to see (in my overhead mirror) the sight of middle schoolers (middle schoolers!!!) all sitting peacefully for an entire trip. Frankly, I thought I was hallucinating. And after my first 14 runs with this alarming new crew I was still waiting for them leave some trash on the bus.
Some of the kids had been browbeaten into polite shape by their previous driver, who runs a tight ship. I will surely remember her in my Last Will and Testament. But the rest, mostly sixth graders who are naturally prone to going over to The Dark Side upon entering middle school, have also been angels. That’s a very good thing because there are several impossibly tight turns onto busy streets in my run. The last thing I need is insurrection in the back.
Otherwise, the first week or so turned out to be a nice big box of chaos.
Many parents were late registering their kids for transportation, so their angels weren’t in our routing system or on run sheets. Our dispatcher had to tell us to pick up anyone we saw along our routes. Many kids got on wrong buses and drivers had to call in for addresses and other info. Our phones were jammed by schools and parents wondering where their children could be found. The usual delays that occur as we master our new routes were also compounded by the customary breakdowns of a bus or two.
Pressed into spot service after my usual morning and afternoon run, I took a busload of K-2 kids on a merry tour of Dutchess County thanks to an unfamiliar route and a road I’d never been on.
“I’m your substitute driver,” I’d told the 20 or so wide-eyed ragamuffins. “But don’t worry. I have the address for your houses. I know where to go.”
Famous last words.
The fun began when no parents were waiting at my first stop and the three kids who were supposed to get off there did not respond to my calls over the PA. After waiting five minutes, I continued on only to have my dispatcher call on the radio.
“Did you leave Huey, Dewey and Louise DeFungus at Recrimination Street yet?” he asked.
Told no, he informed me I had to get them back there post-haste … no, hold on, another bus would meet me further on up my route and take them back. Unfortunately, that route included no indication of where one street turned into another. A key turn-around point was also unmarked. I ended up going miles out of my way only to be trapped behind slow-moving bicyclists on a narrow country road after I’d corrected course.
By then, the world was inquiring of my whereabouts. My relief driver was pursuing me and running late for her next scheduled route. My next stop was an unmarked house, which, of course, I passed.
My dispatcher was now urgently and repeatedly asking for an ETA for the first three urchins, so I had to pull over to take stock. My relief driver appeared at the door to ask for Huey, Dewey and Louise and she was soon joined by a concerned cop, who wanted to know if everything was OK and see my run sheet.
Meanwhile, I spotted a mother braving traffic as she walked down the road in search of her wayward child.
“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to get her killed…”
Pleading for Huey, Dewey and Louise to make themselves known and come forth, I was informed by my dispatcher that my soliloquy had gone out over the two-way radio instead of the PA.
“I have to say you’re as good a public speaker as you are a writer,” he noted. I could only give thanks that I hadn’t called the kids stooges, knuckleheads and numbskulls as I had done with the intermediate schoolers I used to drive.
Once back on the road, the remaining kids asked, “Where are we going now, Mr. Bus Driver?”
“I don’t know. Staten Island?” I wanted to say but keeping them calm was paramount. And as I pulled up to my final stop, I muttered, “At least no one has left the bus in tears.”
Famous last words.
Awaiting me was a smoldering mother who responded to my apology for being an hour late with “They missed their gymnastics!”
“Gymnastics” was all the two kids heard. So they exclaimed, “Are we going to gymnastics, mama?”
I was given a look of contempt as she told them, “No. Your bus was too late. We’ll go next time.” Which, of course, induced tears.
“Maybe that was your cue to break down and cry,” my wife later suggested.
With my new schedule, after school activities run, and role as an occasional wandering fill-in, I have to believe that “Where am I?” and “Where am I going?” are probably going to be the biggest mysteries this year.