May 7, 2020

“Learn Every Child’s Name” & Other Lessons from a Schoolbus Driver.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” ~ Nelson Mandela


For six months, I drove a school bus.

I needed work. The school district needed bus drivers. Paid training. Decent wage. I went for it. When I passed my commercial driver’s test at the DMV, the clerk said something like, “Better you than me; you must be a saint.” I felt a stab of dread. What was I getting myself into?

I got my commercial driver’s license and was assigned a route. My ride was a 40-foot, yellow transit-style bus. My morning route was first to an elementary school, then to a junior high. Same with my afternoon route.

There’s more to being a school bus driver than I’d thought. It was quite a different kind of job than any I’d done before. Rising in the wee hours. Getting my hands dirty. Dealing with rambunctious youngsters. There was occasionally puke to clean up.

Surprisingly, it was a better job than I’d expected it to be. It beat being stuck in a cubicle behind a computer. Rolling ’round the town and rural surroundings, negotiating all manner of traffic and some inane driver behavior. Never, ever let my guard down!

Every day with the kids was a new adventure. I found it interesting and heartwarming to be part of young people’s lives. And yes, I needn’t mention that the job could be fatiguing.

The fact is, this is no longer my job, but I’ll recount it here in the present tense.

I’m not a parent. Never had kids. I’ve been a babysitter. I did a stint as a substitute teacher. And for a couple years, I was a social worker at a huge day care agency. So, I came into this job knowing a thing or two about kids.

I enjoy getting to know the personalities on my bus. From the start, I made it my goal that my brief time with these small people be of benefit to them—besides getting them safely to school and back home. It seems like a way to shine some light every day. To be a trusted person and friend. To be a fun and cool adult. (At least for the elementary kids. By middle school…well, they’re on their own path, and mostly, I’m just the old lady bus driver. Mind you, the relative quiet is blissful.)

It often occurs to me that children are far more perceptive, astute, and emotionally tuned in than adults often give them credit for. I try to frame my interactions with them keeping that in mind.

The kids refer to me as Ms. T. And I choose to refer to them with an honorific Mr. or Ms. before their names. As in Good morning Mr. James. And Ms. Sasha, can you please get back in your seat? It allows for a tone of respect to infuse our communications.

It took me a while to get to know the kids by name. For a few weeks, I embarrassingly mixed up three blonde-haired girls. Corrections could be fierce: I’m Annabelle—with blue eyes, not Marcy; hers are brown! Oh, silly me! And turns out the kid with long, black hair who I thought was a girl for a few weeks isn’t. Oops. It’s okay, I think. Builds resilience.

I made it a point to get their names right and to greet them by name as they boarded and got off the bus.

For a given route, I am with each group of kids for a total of about 38 minutes, give or take. The morning route is usually calmer, a bus full of sleepy children. And the afternoon route, well…the concept of circus bus comes fully into bloom.

My bus is often raucously noisy. The incessant roar of the diesel engine—nested underneath its “doghouse” cover beside my seat, the heaters on full blast, at least on the coldest days. And the staticky chatter of the dispatch radio to which I must remain attentive.

At each stop, the red stop octagon snaps open. Cars back up behind the bus; the impatience of the drivers is palpable. Some kids lollygag their way down the aisle. “Come on, you guys! Cars are waiting.” Then, inevitably: “I forgot my backpack/stuffie/coat” and the retreat to find it. Ai, what’re you gonna do?

Other than following the rules of the road and ensuring general bus protocol, I’m my own boss. If I want to assign seats, that’s my prerogative. I rarely do, though. Except for that I let fifth graders have exclusive rights to the coveted last two rows of seats. That caused some pushback from a few younger kids who found it unfair, but it has been grudgingly accepted. Hm, that interesting resistance to someone getting special treatment. Even if you don’t really care.

Kindergarten through fifth grade—that six-year range in age. It’s remarkable how humans develop in those years. And how fast humans grow up. Also, how slowly we do.

Fascinating species, humans.

The youngest kids tend to cluster—sometimes three to a seat—in the forward most seats. Sometimes they manage to keep their hands to themselves the whole way to school. Often three or four kids tell me their story—simultaneously. Yes, four babbling voices at once. They seem to think I possess the means to listen to and hear them all. I actually do try to isolate the story strands, but with the noise of the engine and heaters mixed in, it’s not really possible. Interesting exercise, though.

Always exude calm, I remind myself. No need to raise my voice. I don’t like to, and it’s not effective. There can be—usually is—chaos, though, especially in the afternoons when everyone is wound up and full of beans.

Storage racks run the length of the bus. The kids love to hang from them. Monkeys. I let them until it’s time to roll. Then everyone needs to sit down. And stay seated. It’s hard for them.

There’s a commotion. In the rearview mirror I see kids spilling into the aisle. Something about a popped balloon. “It’s leaking!” Time for the microphone: “Everyone in your seats now!” At a stop light, I glance down. Purple sparkly ooze is rolling down the floor of the bus under the seats. I have to keep my eyes on the road. Cleanup for later.

The kids are a varied lot. Most are American but there are some from Jamaica, India, Mongolia, and Mexico. I have stops in wealthy neighborhoods, at rural farmhouses, trailer parks, and grad student housing.

One little girl often reminds me she has two moms. To which I reply that I know of many stripes of family—one mom, two dads, a great grandma, red fish, blue fish. I learn she has two pet rats, two siblings, and her mom from Germany speaks English funny.

The kindergartener from India has a voice like some kind of darling wind-up bird. He wants to be an airline pilot and often wears a pilot cap and totes a book on airplanes. He likes to sit behind me and chatter away, an eighth of which I understand. Sometimes he informs me a coconut is falling on my head, and I’ll feel a gentle fist bop on my noggin. I remind him not to distract the bus driver. I often wish I could adopt him.

The tears! They so easily flow. I’m always a tad alarmed. But it’s most always minor. To me, that is. One teary first-grade boy on his way out of the bus at school: “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my stuffie (stuffed animal) today.” I beckon him to me and give him a sideways hug, the only kind we’re allowed to do. “Why not keep your stuffie safe in your backpack?” It seems enough.

A kindergartener hands me a scrawled note as she gets off the bus: Dear Ms Tina, you ar the best bus dryver. Love Talia. Straight to my heart. I call out my driver’s window and give my signal to let her know the road is safe to cross. She capers over to where her mom is waiting at the door. Mom and I wave. I drive on, a couple more stops to wrap up this route.

Forty-nine kids. A full and lively bus. We refer to our bus as the magic school bus. My occasional suggestion that we go to the mountains instead of school today is greeted with pure enthusiasm. It would be fun and super crazy. There is a streak of joy to be had in making imaginative mischief with the youngsters.

One morning a little girl got off the bus, put a band around her ankles, and hopped up the sidewalk to school. I watched her in my mirror as I drove off. Would that I were carefree enough to arrive at work in such a way! Another time, a wee kid donned these whacky, huge, bouncy shoes, unbeknownst to me until she was about to descend the steep bus steps at her stop. OMG, no! I kind of panicked and beckoned an adult outside the bus, “Please, can you help this child.” Thankfully, the adult did.

Afternoons at 2:25, I’m parked in front of the school. I like to stand outside the bus to greet the kids. It’s amusing how they careen out the school doors. Kindergarteners get to board first. The older kids chomp impatiently at their bits. And complain about the unfairness.

I see that little guy with the squeaky voice and enthusiastically call out his name. Which elicits, “Why are you always so happy to see me?” Laughing, I say, “Why in the world wouldn’t I be happy to see you?”

I hear their conversations. A few chatter about their ski vacations. One little guy says that he didn’t get any Christmas presents because his parents don’t have enough money. The little boy from the farm family says he’s never gone hiking. The younger kids, especially, of course, don’t have much reference for how their lives are, how some of them lucked out being born into privileged families.

Things I found to be good practice:

>> Remember each child’s name. Say their names as they get off the bus at school. Let them know I see each one.

>> Be light-hearted. But sincere. Listen. Let the silliness be; sometimes partake. 

>> Pick your battles.

>> Figure out the edge of permissiveness, and operate as much as possible from there. For example, I consider it entirely okay to let kids sit in the driver’s seat when the bus is parked at school. (But I trust you not to touch the controls.)

>> Re: tattletaling; try to fix it yourselves.

>> Connect with parents. “Wave goodbye to parents,” I say as we drive away from the morning stops. Then I get: “But they’re not your parents.” So literal, jeez.

>> It is amazing to see how quickly tears could come and go. Always check in. Avoid overreacting.

>> Always thank kids who act responsibly and cooperatively.

Like most any bus driver, I felt a giant sense of responsibility and guardianship for “my kids.” It was kind of interesting to me. They’re not my own kids, after all. I don’t even have children. One (evidently worldly) second-grader advised me: “You should get a kid. There’s no other experience like it.” LOL!

On our last day before the winter holiday break, I get on the speaker to wish the kids a merry, fun, and safe holiday, and I tell them that I think they’re cool and that I like being with them. That makes a special cloud of good feeling in the bus.

I bonded with my group of elementary school kids. That age—the kindergarten through fifth grade age—is generally one where people are still so new to forming social relationships and so open to imagination, so full of curiosity. In some ways, I felt privileged to be with the kids. I think probably this is one of the reasons people like being parents; you get to experience the magic of childhood once again.

I hoped that in some small way, the kids’ lives were enhanced by their bus ride.

I no longer have the job. I was actually fired due to two little accidents, both minor hits (that extended tail swing!) to parked cars. One of those cars was parked illegally, but still, the bus driver must not ever hit a car. Two accidents made a bus driver uninsurable.

I miss the kids—radical rainbow unicorns that they are.

“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means.” ~ Fred Rogers


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