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Roll Call

Hail to the bus drivers, who help students get ahead

Illustration by Taylor Callery

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the frame of a small school bus sat rusting in our neighbor’s pasture. I asked my mother about it, and she told me that in the late 1930s, the neighbor, John Christian, had bought the bus.

So it was his. My mouth dropped in awe that an African American man in our rural Cherokee County community had bought a school bus.

That triggered my interest in school bus history as I watched bright yellow buses, large and small, coming and going, picking up and dropping off children as the school year began. They were headed home, to school or to their extracurricular activities.

I found out that in the second half of the 19th century, students who lived beyond walking distance of their school were typically driven in the family wagon or a horse-drawn repurposed farm wagon with a tarpaulin stretched above the passenger seating.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that buses operated by private drivers were widely replaced by district-owned fleets.

During the 1940s, many rural schools only went through the eighth grade. Beyond that, students often had to travel longer distances to their nearest high school. Very few families in rural communities had cars at that time. People like Christian—who made sure the school-age children in their farming areas had transportation to school—were so important.

“Oh yeah, Mr. John Christian bought a school bus, and he hired my father, Matthew Allen, to drive the bus to pick up the kids in the Green Chapel area,” Evelyn Allen, a former resident of the community, told me. “They all knew Mr. Christian.”

While the buses themselves have improved over the years, the experience is much the same. Schoolchildren—then and now—wait and anticipate the rumbling bus coming to their stop during the early dawn hours.

The bus rides to and from team sports, competitions and performances are the source of many friendships, laughs and arguments among the riders. Most riders can recall favorite drivers who stand out in their memories of their school days—like those who made them feel special or let them have safe fun.

Even the strictest drivers can be fondly remembered. Like one of my favorite drivers, J.C. Jones. My cousins and I knew he did not play. He’d look up in that wide rearview mirror and yell back to us in a commanding tone: “Y’all better set down back there.” And we’d immediately flop down in our seats.

Much gratitude is due to those bus owners, faithful drivers, mechanics and all who keep the buses rolling. Your work is important.