The bus stops here

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Riding high in the driver’s seat. Your gaze through the windshield is aimed high. Noise embraces you, from the roar of the diesel engine working its way through the gears to the scores of voices behind you merged into a cacophony of chatter.

You’re a school bus driver. You’re on the clock. Your eyes keep moving from mirror to mirror, never straying far from the street surface and the next intersection. Nothing feels better than an empty bus at the end of a run. That’s because you made it through another trip unscathed. You safely delivered scores of kids to school or back home.

It’s a job where you can succeed six times a day, yet garner little notice until the nightmare you don’t want – an accident.

I was a school bus driver in Minneapolis for a mere six months while between writing jobs. I worked for a school district contractor as a part-time driver, similar to the vast majority of school bus drivers in the metropolitan area.

My morning routes were to Seward Elementary, Washburn High and Folwell Middle School. In the afternoon, I took a different group of Seward kids home, then headed to Dowling elementary and ended the run with a busload from Sanford Junior High.

It’s hardly an easy job. The stress of it often required a nap between the morning and afternoon runs. Yet, the more you succeeded, the more comfortable you became with the big rig, your place on the road and even the daily unpredictable drama provided by the precious cargo you’re responsible for.

Who does this kind of thing? Men and women working multiple jobs; some who’ve retired but need that extra check to make ends meet and single parents (predominantly women) who find school bus driving a fairly good fit with life’s many other responsibilities. The crew of drivers I worked with included Latino, African-American, Somali, Ethiopian and Asian men and women. That’s a huge factor in a city where we take the melting pot to school.

A driver’s pay starts ridiculously low for the responsibility of the job but can move to $15 an hour and up, depending if one keeps at it. The most experienced drivers get first pick on the routes and an opportunity to drive charters for after school activities and field trips. It’s a job that will help you pay the bills, but offers little wealth accumulation. The drivers who are school district employees are likely covered by union contracts providing higher pay, job security and far more benefits.

It’s hardly a cakewalk to land a job. You must pass a physical and a drug test before you even set foot in a training class. An OK from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is also required. In my case, as a one-year Minnesota resident, I was finger-printed and had to pass a criminal record check from my former home in Michigan. Federal law allows the employer to randomly screen drivers for drugs and controlled substances.

My training covered about 50 hours (at $6/hour), most of it on-the-road with an experienced driver. A couple of days in the classroom reviewed state regulations, rules of the road specially written for the school bus and bus driving etiquette. It takes constant practice to learn how to safely maneuver those big yellow taxis on city streets and freeways; how to park; how to safely pick students up and drop them off; when to use the four-way and eight-way signals; backing out of a parking lot and basically using your head to avoid TIGHT situations.

The Major Cardinal Rules: You never back up on a street; never turn right on red; always have your lights on and always come to a full stop at a railroad crossing with flashers on and the passenger door open.

State law requires that the driver daily pre-inspect the bus under the hood, around the outside, under the chassis and inside the coach, as well as all the vital engine fluid and electrical gauges on the dash board and the air brakes, if the bus is so equipped. Believe it or not, in about six weeks you can become accustomed to knocking off a 100-plus item inspection by memory.

If you don’t do the inspection right on your road test, you fail.

Are you trained on what to expect from the students? Not really. You learn from the other drivers, as well as daily experience. You quickly rely on a character trait that comes in handy in this line of work: p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e.

Mornings were easy. The Seward run required a school arrival by 7:25 am. Picking up a bunch of grade-schoolers at 7 in the morning guaranteed a degree of tranquility, save for the sibling rivalry that occasionally traveled with you. The Washburn high schoolers had little to say, yet every once in a while muttered a “thank you” upon arrival at the “Home of the Millers” by about 8:20 am. The route to Folwell, primarily through the Powderhorn neighborhood, was so short the middle-schoolers saved any planned transgressions for later. These kids got to sleep in. They didn’t have to be to school till 9:20 am.

Afternoons were a different world. The Seward group I took home would occasionally have friendly turf battles over the back row – the preferred school bus seats. Thankfully, a diplomatic teacher often stepped in with assigned seats in mind. The Seward kids sang a lot – at least when the bus was full. My favorite was “Yellow Submarine.”

The Dowling kids, though few in number, led the way in seat hopping – a big no-no usually settled by a disciplinary write-up – the bus driver’s main tool of enforcement.The form makes its way back to the school. You usually learned that your write-up was delivered via a snarling comment from the student a day or two later.

The busload from Sanford – my last run of the day – provided the most drama. Sixth-to-eighth graders. Raging hormones. Defiance unlimited. Some of these kids were rather nasty. We had smoking episodes, fights, debris flying from the windows and seat “leaping” rather than hopping. The only way to address it was to pull to the side of the street, stop the bus and just sit there. It didn’t really matter what the driver said – no one was listening. Eventually a chorus of “SHUT-UP, I WANT TO GO HOME,” led to enough “order” to complete the run. My favorite school official was a vice principal at Sanford. Not one of my discipline write-ups went unheeded. Suspensions from the bus would calm things relatively for maybe a week before the cycle would resume.

But allow me to do something I didn’t get a chance to a few years ago. The 90 percent of the Sanford kids who just wanted to get home – THANKS! I’m glad we made it.

And all those parents that regularly went to the bus stop with your kids – you were outstanding!

Tom Lonergan is a freelance writer who lives in Powderhorn.

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