It Only Takes One … to Drive a School Bus Wild

I’m jazzed to say life behind the wheel has been a sea breeze lately. My first two years were a gale of nerve-jangling mayhem, but blessed peace has prevailed for five months and counting.

Though the pot is bubbling a bit now that spring has sprung and riders are reuniting as schools return to normal schedules, the kids on my bus have been mistaken for church mice. I discovered what a pleasure this job can be as I motor through beautiful Hudson Valley countryside, the sun rising through mist on a field, my ears filled with the heartwarming sound of children talking and laughing instead of shrieking and complaining. Good times.

Unfortunately a dark cloud hovers over these shiny, happy proceedings: the return of Sassafrass.

(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 potty-mouthed middle schooler, Sassafrass used to incite bitter conflict on my bus every day. She hasn’t been back this year, but I got a note in my key room mailbox that she’ll be riding again soon.

I’m bracing myself. I’ve gotten a little rusty with the discipline thing. The most I’ve had to handle this year is one cereal event and a grade school annoyance problem I squelched by enforcing my “Girls Only” rule in the back. With fewer kids on board (3-15 instead of 15-30), good behavior naturally prevails, but some of Sassafrass’s old targets and recruits in deviltry are still around. I know all too well how one bad apple can get the whole barrel riled up.

Most drivers know that special feeling of trying to get “The One” to their stop or to school as quickly as possible so some semblance of sanity returns to their bus. As soon as The One comes on, the noise level rises, horseplay ripples through the rows like brushfire and pretty soon someone is in tears or calling for our help.

There’s a reason we call these pieces of precious cargo “fire starters” and I used to have four of them on my intermediate school run. Any one was capable of sparking an uproar in a peaceful group.

There was Rollo, who pestered anyone he was near. The time he came aboard with a pointy Harry Potter wand made my hair levitate. His mere presence always ignited his nemesis, Brutus, and vice versa. They constantly baited each other with insults, and their school told me to separate them but that only created two problem zones as they mixed it up with their new neighbors.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Brutus always made his presence felt.

Brutus could start a brawl while alone in an empty room. Constantly written up for teasing, taunting, cussing and getting into physical scrapes with anyone who sat near him, he was frenemies with Beetlebomb, who was always in everybody’s grill, changing seats while I wasn’t looking, and forcing me to stop the bus.

One day while repeatedly popping up from behind his seat back and roaring at two girls, Beetlebomb got himself smacked by Petunia, a quiet, sweet, fourth-grader. “Petunia hit me in the eye!” he cried to me. Not that I condone violence, mind you, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Good for her!” Petunia is so meek that Beetlebomb really had it coming if he got her fired up.

After being dragged to the principal’s woodshed, Beetlebomb was good and stayed in his seat … for one day. Then it was back to tussling with Brutus and Robespierre, who needed little to rev him up. When Robespierre took off his shoe and threw it at Beetlebomb, they were both remanded to the Honored Student Seat in the very front.

See: The School Bus Justice System

In that kind of high-octane situation, removing even one firestarter from the mix can help the way a burned out bulb can darken a whole string of Christmas lights. I rejoiced the day I learned that the fourth graders were going on a field trip and would not be back in time for my afternoon run. That meant no Rollo and Brutus, which meant a (at least a little) calmer Beetlebomb and Robespierre, who were promptly separated by half a bus.

It was always heartbreaking to have a fire starter not show up in the morning and drive off in great relief with a quiet bus only to pass them and a parent going the opposite way, then have them reappear in my rearview mirror and chase me to the next stop. There the fun started with complaints coming fast and furious.

I gave thanks when schools and parents have finally stepped in decisively. Rollo was removed to another, smaller bus with closer supervision and fewer sparring partners, a fate that also befell Lucifer on my middle school run.

A factory showroom of foul language, Lucifer was forever taunting other kids, putting seatbelts across the aisle as a tripwire, and drawing threats of revenge. “Just wait and see what happens,” grumbled Otto, a much larger eighth-grader after he nearly fell. I, for one, didn’t want to find out.

In-school suspensions had no effect on Lucifer. Fresh out of one, he immediately stole Fartinhausen’s football, setting off a wild wrestling match after Fartinhausen leapt over the seat to grab Lucifer by the neck.

See: The Rat Patrol

Lucifer unexpectedly leaving on a family trip made my usually bonkers Bubblefish run much easier for a couple of weeks though his pal Butch gallantly tried to fill the void. He, too, got suspended and I sighed with relief when he moved, taking with him his maniacal cackle and vocabulary that would shame the most vulgar dockworker.

Not Wanted: The Notorious Sassafrass Gang

Now Sassafrass looms. The first time around, she formed a gang with three other riders who didn’t know each other: Zoot Horn, Lulubelle, and Wisenheimer (who sat in Lucifer’s old seat; maybe it’s possessed).

While Sassafrass filled the air with bloodcurdling profanity, they stuck their arms out windows, jeered at pedestrians, gleefully left a mess of Pop Tart crumbs (earning my first Big Bag O’ Trash Award for the year), and got into such a beef with other kids that I called a meeting with their guidance counselor to lay down the law.

See: How I Won the Garbage War

Whenever Sassafrass was aboard, she and her crew were in the thick of any mocking and mischief. When she wasn’t, they were much better though Wisenheimer became a first class fire starter in his own right. A constant threat with the broom stored behind my seat, he was given the finger by Spud the eighth grader. I was relieved when he too didn’t return.

It pains me to think that Zoot Horn and Lulubelle, who no longer even sit together, may return to the dark side if Sassafrass comes back. Some of my seven newbies could be drawn into her orbit, too. The veteran riders won’t be thrilled, but I’ll give her a chance, or course. A year can make a big change and difference in a kid.

Let us pray.

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.

The Back of the Bus: Where the Action Is

It’s a school kid’s Promised Land, their El Dorado. A seat there is the Holy Grail. It’s where the fun and food and shenanigans are, the talk is coarse, and the facts of life are learned and debated.

It’s the famous back of the bus, the coveted last two or three rows that attract kids the way a shiny object draws horse flies.

(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, they think the old fart at the wheel can’t see what they’re up to, but I can certainly hear them. They also keep forgetting there’s a video camera on them and that I can see them in my overhead mirror — scuttling about, rough housing, doing headers over the setbacks, throwing stuff around and out the windows, yelling snarky things at pedestrians …

On one trip, I spotted the always mischievous Coggins waving and hooting at a big truck behind us.

“I hope he’s being cool,” I thought. “The last thing I need is an irate 16-wheeler driver chasing me.”

Even during these days of plague, with only eight or 10 riders on each trip, they all head straight to the back. Sometimes it’s a stampede for the very last row after school lets out.

In an uncertain world, it’s comforting (I guess) to know that you can always count on mayhem in the back, especially when males are in the mix. I learned that the hard way.

See: Meet the Hellions

During my first two years of driving, the back of my bus was a combination three-ring circus and uncanny recreation of the Haymarket Riot of 1886. It was all I could do to not keep looking in the overhead mirror at the horror going on. That was how my famous Roadside Lecture Series was born.

Oddly, Coggins and his fellow eighth-graders weren’t all that bad, other than the occasional header or water fight. Most of the trouble was between the sixth graders, who were trying to prove how tough they were, and the other kids who found them highly annoying. Some semblance of order was preserved by the seniority system I adopted from the driver who used to have my run: eighth graders in the back four rows, seventh graders in the middle four, and sixth graders in the front four.

The intermediate schoolers were another matter.

Dear Brutus, always respectful.

I had at least six certified firestarters among my 25 or so passengers, and until I wised up and assigned everyone seats, Brutus, Beetlebomb, Robespierre, Ignatz and his sidekicks Stitch and Satch were moved up and back like yo-yos. Wherever they went, mayhem followed, but it was somewhat more containable the closer they were to me.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

Believe me, I gave those rascals every chance to prove they could behave.

What a fool I was.

“If you don’t behave this time,” I said in a fiery speech after yet another outrage, this one involving cereal, “I’m going to move you all up for good and you won’t like it.”

They didn’t.

I finally went nuclear after a stream of complaints from other kids about cursing in the back, Brutus whacking Ophelia with a book bag, and Esmerelda slugging Brutus in the gut.

My “Girls Only” rule for the last four rows created peace in our time — girls are generally more civilized than boys at this age — but only after it sparked a loud protest by the lads, who chanted, “We want to sit in the back! We want to sit in the back!!”

I stifled their uprising with a question: “Hey, why would I let you sit in the back again when every time you’ve been there you’ve caused me problems? I may look dumb but my mama didn’t raise no fools!”

Apparently they thought otherwise because after they were moved up, they attempted a devilish ploy.

“Can we move back?” Satch asked me one morning after we arrived at his school. “The third graders are attacking us.”

“They’re cracking our spines!” Ignatz added with a most serious expression.

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “Well, if anyone cracks your spines again, you tell me and I shall have Principal Diesel assign them to the stocks!”

See: The School Bus Justice System

Of course, they were the ones assigned to the stocks a few days later … for tormenting the kids in the middle of the bus. But Assistant Principal Carnage later told me Ignatz had said during his Star Chamber hearing that he was relieved things were much calmer on the bus since I’d moved him and the Stooges out of the back.

I have noticed that as the school year progresses, the front becomes more appealing. Where once I was radioactive, the seats near me are now a sanctuary from the madness in the rear. Even Brutus and Beetlebomb asked if they could move up at one particularly crazy point.

Still, the lure of the back is eternal.

“Mr. Bus Driver,” Stitch asked me one afternoon months after he and his gang had been permanently planted in the middle and front of the bus, “when will we be allowed to move to the back again?”

“Maybe when you’re in high school,” I told him with a big grin. “Most likely when you’re in college.”

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 …