FOR WHOM THE BUS ROLLS

by Earl Staggs

Photo by CAROLE RYAN


When School Bus 141 rolls out of the lot in Southlake, Texas, the driver is concentrating on getting to his stops on time, picking up his students, and getting them to school safely. He may also be thinking about the next story he will write. I know because I’m that driver.

“Hey, Earl, I thought you were supposed to be a hot shot mystery writer. Turns out you’re only a school bus driver.”

“ONLY a school bus driver? Hold that thought, Bubba. I’ll get back to you in a minute.”

Before I deal with him, I want to explain how I became a school bus driver. A few years ago, I retired from full time employment and jumped into becoming a writer. I’d always dreamed of writing, but never had time. This was the perfect time. After a while, I discovered I didn’t like retirement. It occurred to me that if you don’t have to get up in the morning, go somewhere and do something, you can get old. I was not ready to get old. There was too much I still wanted to do. The solution? A part-time job.

Finding a part-time job, however, wasn’t easy. I wasn’t ready to put on a Walmart vest, stand by the entrance and say, “Welcome to Walmart. Want a cart?”

After a few weeks of looking, I found a sheet of paper in my front yard. It turned out to be a flyer from the local school district saying they had job openings for school bus drivers. “Hmmmmm,” I said. “Check it out.”

So I called the number, and went for an immediate interview. The hours, I learned, were perfect for a writer. Drivers worked two hours in the morning getting the kids to school and another two hours in the afternoon taking them home. In between would be about six hours of time free for my writing. An hour after I got back home from the interview, I received a call saying I’d been hired. Okay. Now what?

The now what turned into four weeks of studying for the test required to get the kind of license needed for the job, plus actual training on a real bus. Was I nervous the first few times I got behind the wheel on one of those big things? Oh, yeah. Those babies are huge. Plus, there’s that tail swing thing.

Tail swing, you see, comes into play because the rear wheels of a bus are some ten feet in front of the rear bumper. When you turn, the tail end of the bus lags behind and makes a wide swing, easily taking out anything in its path. You have to be very careful and make sure you have enough room to make the turn. I was careful, but in my first year of driving, I clipped the side view mirror off a parked car. Not just any car, mind you. A brand new Cadillac.

After I was fully licensed and trained, I was assigned to a Special Needs route. We say Special Needs, not Handicapped. The kids I carried were special and they had needs different from regular kids. Some of our students were in wheelchairs, some were autistic and non-communicative, most had learning disabilities. But they were beautiful, and I came to know and love them. Two people are required on these buses. In addition to the driver, there’s a monitor, who sits in the back and takes care of any immediate needs the students might have.

Not that there weren’t problems. We always had to be on the lookout for seizures, which are not uncommon. We also had to be ready for outbursts of any kind. Some of the kids would suddenly scream for no apparent reason or decide to take off their clothes. Occasionally, an outburst involved physical violence.

On one such occasion, a burly sixteen-year-old boy who was autistic and usually quiet, undid his seat belt and attacked my monitor. By the time I pulled over, secured the bus and went to her rescue, he had her pinned against the rear door. She had a good grip on his wrists, but he was kicking at her. I managed to wrestle him to the floor and lay on top of him. He tried to get free at first, but after two or three minutes, he relaxed. After another minute went by, I let him up. He went quietly to his seat, buckled his seat belt, and looked at me as if to say, “Okay, let’s go to school” as if nothing had happened. No one knew what triggered his episodes, but they happened occasionally, and after they were over, he was fine.

We had other episodes on the bus, some physical but not violent. Tyler was a wheelchair boy of eleven and every once in a while, he would announce he “had to go to the bathroom.” Well, there are no bathrooms on a school bus. That mean my monitor and I had to swing into action. While I pulled the bus over, she undid his straps and belts. I then carried him off the bus and held him upright beside it while he “went to the bathroom.” I’m happy to say he was capable of unzipping and lowering his own pants so I didn’t have to do that.

I’ve since switched to another school district and no longer drive Special Needs. Now I had regular kids from kindergarten to eighth grade, which is a whole new adventure. But I still love the job and still think it’s the best part-time job in the world for a writer.

Now where’s that guy with the “only a school bus driver” remark?

Listen up, Bubba. As a writer, I may never turn out the Great American Novel, and as a citizen, I may not find a cure for cancer or a solution to world peace. But you know what? As a school bus driver, I can make sure seventy-five kids get to school and back home safely every day and, someday, maybe one of them will cure cancer or achieve world peace. To me, that means something. ONLY a school bus driver? Ha! Make that PROUDLY a school bus driver.

And by the way, about that Great American Novel thing? I still have a shot at that.

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