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Observations

The Sit Safe Rap

My year of driving a school bus

The lovable little hellions are at it again. Charlie, a kindergartner who should know better by now, is sitting in the aisle and spitting on Zachariah. I know this not because I saw it clearly in my rearview mirror as I was driving, but because Carter, bless his 6-year-old heart, is snitching on Charlie.

Just then I see something flash in the corner of my eye from where Abraham sits. The third-grader, kneeling and facing backwards, has thrown something. Other students are sitting astronaut-style, upside down with their feet up in the air.

“I didn’t do it!” Abraham says, after I pull over and walk to the back to rein in the chaos. Just as I’m trying to figure out what it is, I hear Charlie’s voice over the speakers: “Mr. Charles, you’re mean!” he says, having picked up the driver’s on-board mic. He giggles, and the students roar with laughter as I turn and storm back to the front. “Charlie! Return to your seat!”

This was just another day on the school bus, part of one scene I recorded in a notebook during the 2008-09 school year when I drove for a school district in Central Texas served by Pedernales Electric Cooperative.

As students, teachers and parents gear up for another school year, my thoughts are with that bus, and the some 450,000 men and women drivers at the heart of the nation’s school transportation industry.

For me, it took only a couple of weeks before I began to feel confident sitting high up behind the big wheel, commanding the 20,000-pound, 40-foot-long, 72-passenger yellow land boat. I had seating assignments for all the students, had memorized each of their names and learned my routes.

But while some parts of the job came easily, others proved more difficult, not the least of which was enforcing the first rule of the road: Remain seated.

According to bus safety officials, kids are less apt to be injured if they are seated and surrounded by the protective padding afforded by the bench seats. Also, they are less likely to distract the driver. (I remain astounded that school buses, at least in these parts, don’t have seat belts. But that may be finally changing starting this month: A new Texas law requires all school buses purchased after September 1, 2010—and all school-chartered buses used after September 2011—to have three-point restraints for passengers. The caveat: The requirement was contingent on the Legislature appropriating the funds, which has not happened.)   

My two routes were very different. The combined middle and high school run was relatively tame, though there were pranksters. Many were content to listen to iPods en route.

In contrast, the elementary bus was a kettle of jumping beans, especially in the afternoons when the bus was most crowded and kids were ready to let off steam. The amount of time a kid left his or her seat was generally in inverse proportion to the student’s age and/or height. The littlest ones did stand up. They craved attention.

I can’t say this wasn’t a surprise: I was much the same at that age.

Drivers were given laminated fliers to post inside buses with the “sit safe” rules: Put your bottom to the bottom (of your seat), your back to the back and your backpack on your lap. To make the rules fun, I wrote a rap. Excerpt:

We know you’re smart
You’re no fool
So just sit down
On your bus to school
Bottom to bottom
Back to back
Backpacks on lap—
It’s the SIT SAFE RAP!

I chose students to recite the rap before the bus left the schoolyard in the afternoons. We clapped and tried to mimic rap sounds. Soon enough, though, as the bus moved, so did the kids. At times, I felt as if I were training a litter of puppies. Sit! I tried anything to keep them engaged. I told jokes (Knock, knock: Who’s there? Boo. Boo who?) and made up impromptu quizzes (who has the biggest shoe on the bus?). I resorted to bribery: yogurt-covered pretzels or the promise of turning on a popular radio station if they piped down and stayed in their seats.

I cracked down: I sent home conduct reports and warned that infractions could result in the loss of bus-riding privileges. I separated friends and moved unruly kids. I reminded them about the video camera that recorded their actions.

Even so, I was less than consistent in my enforcement. Sometimes, I just couldn’t help but laugh—or at least smirk—at the clever shenanigans, until things again got out of hand. Following the advice of veteran drivers, I increasingly pulled over, turned on the emergency flashers and called in a “Code 45” (a delay for discipline) to the dispatch office and vowed not to move until they settled down.

Bus management is what they call it. Can you manage the kids on your bus? Do you discipline them when necessary? At midyear, I sensed I had lost control.

I wasn’t the only one. At the end of one day, I found Sheila, a woman in her early 60s who had driven a bus for years, sitting on the picnic bench outside the bus barn.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said, exasperated. She worried she’d wring some kid’s neck. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this,” she said, shaking her head. We commiserated. We agreed they were good kids, but sometimes they got out of hand, and we felt powerless.

As the end of the school year neared, I began to feel a sense of relief, but also of sadness. I wondered what would happen to my kids in the future. I had become attached to them despite it all. Many students gave me parting gifts—cards with heartfelt messages, gift cards  and hugs. Some asked me to sign their yearbooks. One boy told me I was the best bus driver he’d ever had—though I never felt I truly mastered the course.

On the last day, Charlie left without saying goodbye as his mom picked him up, and Abraham gleefully snatched most of the remaining Twizzlers I was handing out. Before he bolted out the door I shot him with the water pistol I was packing.

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Editor’s note: Names in this story were changed to maintain the students’ anonymity.

Charles Boisseau is associate editor for Texas Co-op Power.