Election (and Lunar Eclipse) Day ‘22

Greetings and Happy Autumn!

I know it’s been a while since my last entry. I’ve gone through some pretty big life changes but I’m back and I’m pretty happy.

Are drivers catching on or was it luck of the draw? I hope it’s the former.

Last week, I went three days in a row without a single car passing my bus illegally. This should not be cause for celebration. It should be routine but unfortunately, it’s the exception.

Please watch out for the kiddos. They may be running late and crossing the street in a hurry to catch the bus. That’s why we have the flashing lights and laws that support them. The flashing ambers don’t mean speed up. Someone’s child may be getting ready to cross the road. Please pay attention. I’m probably preaching to the choir but there it is.

Well, unfortunately I spoke too soon. On the fourth day, I lost count of the number of cars passing my bus while I was loading students in the morning. There were at least eight or nine, maybe ten. The next day, four. The day after, five or six. If the $300 tickets by mail don’t make make drivers pay attention, what will?

Next stop, Easy Street

For the first time in 24 years of driving a school bus I don’t have an elementary school on my route. I have two magnet schools. The kids are quiet, polite, and well behaved. It’s a dream route. Occasionally I’ll find a gum wrapper on a seat and that’s the extent of the trouble on my route.

I love my route and the students. However, I really miss the loud, rambunctious, playful, creative, brutally honest, snot-nosed, lovely, bratty little ones. They are the most work and the most fun. I miss driving to other planets and traveling through time with the help of a cosmic dwizzle bazimperator. I miss quiz time. The older kids have grown out of that magic. (sigh) At least I haven’t. I anxiously await the next time travel mission. It will begin three days ago.

It’s election day and I’m sitting at home. Why am I not at work? We have the day off and I voted early.

It’s great that we have the day off to recognize Election Day but the truth is that the decision was made for safety reasons. Many schools are used as polling places and school officials fear for the safety of students and staff due to our current political climate. Dang. To quote my neighbor Stan from a long time ago in a far off city, “What do think this is, America?”

If you haven’t already, get out and vote!

I wish everyone a safe Election Day and we’ll see you Wednesday morning looking out for the children.

ps- the next episode of School Bus News will return to the fun and goofy stuff, I promise!

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Spring Break ’22

It’s Spring Break and I’m enjoying sleeping ‘til the crack of noon.

A lot has changed in a short time. Austin, along with many other school districts, has dropped its mask mandates and other covid protocols.

I didn’t recognize them. The kids. I’ve only ever seen their eyes and ears in most cases. Add noses and mouths and they look very different from the picture in my mind.

The students are no longer required to use “handitizer” in the bus. They made up the word handitizer. They no longer have to endure the words, “Put on your mask!”

I used those words on a middle school kid when masks were still required.

He reached into his pocket for a mask and said, “My bad.”

The kid behind him said, “His bad.”

It’s nice to know these kids have each others’ backs.

By the way, I still wear my N95 to shield myself from the radioactive cloud that the high school kids call cologne.

I asked the kids if they were happy about Spring Break.

As expected, they were very happy. One kid said excitedly, “I get to be bitten by a dragon!”

I said, “Good for you. I hope it’s everything you’ve hoped it to be.”

There’s not much current school bus news to report because we’re on Spring Break! But we had a lot of fun in the weeks leading up to our mini vacation.

80s Day

One girl said, “It’s 80s day! I’m wearing shoes from the 80s!” She put her foot up and I stole a glance at her Converse Chuck Taylors.

I said, “I had shoes like that in the eighties!”

She said, “You weren’t even alive in the eighties!”

Mr. Dancer

One afternoon on the ride home from the elementary school, a boy said, “Mr. Dancer (I’ll get to that name in a minute) we need sugar. Take us to the candy store!”

I said, “You don’t need sugar. You need Broccoli. I’m taking you to the broccoli store!”

He said, “There’s a broccoli store?”

I said, “Yes, it’s called a farmers market!”

I didn’t take them to the farmers market. I dropped them off at their bus stops. Maybe their parents will take them to the broccoli store this weekend.

Back to ‘Mr. Dancer.’

When each school year begins I say, “My name is Mr. Jimmy Joe but you may call me Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir for short.”

These kids are sharp. They noticed that the latter is not shorter than the former.

One day a clever brother and sister team decided to give me a new shortened name that rhymes with Man Sir, hence my latest moniker, Mr. Dancer.

If they ever saw me try to dance they’d probably come up with a new name.

Yesterday, Tomorrow, or Yestermorrow?

A few months ago I asked,”Is it tomorrow yet?”

The kids all said, “No!”

I said, “Okay, I’ll ask again tomorrow.”

This went on for a few days until a boy said, “It can never be tomorrow! It is always today. Tomorrow is just a concept!”

I said, “Good answer. I like the way you think!”

Recently I asked, “When is yestermorrow?”

A little girl shouted, “Today! ‘Yester’ brings us to yesterday and ‘morrow’ brings us back to today!”

It’s been getting harder and harder to stump these kids so I asked, “What is one plus purple?”

A boy said,”I cannot answer that! The greatest scientists of the world cannot answer that!”

Latest score:

Children: Eleventy nineteen

Mr. Dancer: one (plus purple)

Olena

I’ve been thinking about a girl from my high school route years ago. Olena was an exchange student from Ukraine. A sweet, pretty girl with a nice smile. She’s probably close to thirty years old by now. She might have kids of her own. To me, Olena is the face of Ukraine.

One day I said to Olena, “I know a Ukrainian song.”

I picked up my guitar and played a tune called Schedrik.

Olena’s eyes widened in surprise.

“How do you know that song?!”

I said, “Everybody knows that song. We call it Carol of the Bells. It’s a very popular Christmas song.”

All I can do is hope for the best for Olena, her family, and fellow Ukrainians.

SBN Winter 2022

Ice Day!

We have a four day weekend thanks to Winter Storm Landon. The school districts and universities preemptively canceled classes Thursday and Friday. Good move. Central Texas is a huge ice skating rink at the moment.

Quiz Time!

Quiz time has become popular on the bus. It’s more challenging for me than for the kids. I have to come up with new questions nearly every day!

Here are some excerpts from recent quizzes:

Me: What is zero plus zero?

Most kids: Zero!

One kid in the back: One if you count the tax for the stupid government!

Me: If a snowman is made of snow, what is a reindeer made of?

Kid: Meat!

Me: Does a school bus have a) Wheels, b) Wings, or c) Feet?

All the Kids chanting in unison: FEET, FEET, FEET, FEET!

Me: What is the square root of all evil?

Kids: Huh?

The King of All Masks

I recently started wearing N95 masks on the bus due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. There’s a shortage of bus drivers and teachers. We’ve had supervisors, dispatchers, and mechanics all out driving routes (yes, they’re all trained and certified to drive a bus.) The superintendent was seen teaching a math class.

So I upgraded to the N95 and they work! How do I know they work? Every afternoon a pack my bus with 47 high school students. Since I’ve been wearing N95 masks I CAN’T SMELL THE COLOGNE! For those who don’t know, I can’t stand cologne, perfume and most scented products. I don’t like being in the same room with someone wearing clothes washed in tide. My olfactory sensors are way too sensitive.

I Love my N95 masks!

Cruelty to animals?

One afternoon a middle school boy asked me if I wanted to see him throw cheese at his dog. Before I could say ’no thanks’ he held his phone in front of my face. The video showed an excited dog and a boy’s hand holding a slice of unwrapped cheese. He called the dog as he flung the slice of cheese. The cheese landed on the dog’s head. Try as he might, the poor dog could not reach the cheese with his tongue.

Let’s Dance

Two kids were singing a song one afternoon so I asked them about it. They said it was from a video game called Let’s Dance. They both liked the game and the singing and dancing. One of the kids said, “It tricks us into exercising.”

Kids today…

A middle school girl said, “Excuse me Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir, can I charge my phone?”

I said, “Charge your phone? On the bus? You mean, does it have a charging port? No, sorry. But it does have a CD player!”

The girl and her friends chuckled.

I said, “Seriously, it’s the latest in school bus entertainment technology!”

I couldn’t hear what they said after that but I think it was something like, “Don’t talk to him and maybe he’ll go away!”

Every year when I choose a bus route I make sure I have an elementary school. Those kids are the most work but also the most fun. When school lets out in the afternoon the teachers bring out the youngest ones first. Kindergarten and pre-k. One little girl was having a bad day and her teacher was losing her patience when she wouldn’t walk up the steps of the bus. I told her to leave her with me and that we’d be fine.

I picked up my guitar and started singing, “RayLynn, getting on the bus, RayLynn, she’s gonna ride with us”

The girl put a foot on the first step. So I kept singing. She eventually climbed to the top step and even cracked half a smile!

A day or two later RayLynn put her little arms around me and squeezed.

Another one of my little ones walks up the steps every day, then turns around, calling each of her classmates by name. “Bye, Charlie! Bye, Maria! Bye, Saanvi!”

Her classmates return the salutations with enthusiasm.

I said, “Who are those people?”

She said, “They’re my friends.”

I said, “Wow, you have a lot of good friends.”

She said, “Yeah.”

I said, “Maybe it’s because you’re such a good friend to them.”

She said, “Yeah.”

Bus Driver Appreciation Week!

School Bus News

It’s School Bus Driver Appreciation Week so show your appreciation to your favorite bus driver!

Last year Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir became Mr. Hot Spot Man Sir when I was driving a mobile hot spot bus, providing internet service to kids during school hours for online learning. The program was discontinued before the start of this school year as kids went back to in-person school.

My elementary kids were disappointed when they tried to log in to the bus wifi on their ipads and chromebooks.

“Where’s the wifi?,” one boy asked.

I said, “We don’t have wifi anymore.”

A girl said, “If you don’t have wifi, how do you listen to the radio?”

The boy asked, “Why don’t we have wifi?”

I replied, “The kids didn’t like wifi so they got rid of it.”

“What?!?!?! We LOVE wifi!”

Cruel? Maybe, but I couldn’t resist. The poor kiddos had to talk to each other. Now that’s cruel!

So, what do little boys do in the school bus when they can’t get online? They check out cars.

One little guy said to another, “That’s a Ferrari or a McLaren! The black and red one!”

I looked to where the boy was pointing at a very nice vintage red and black Chevy El Camino. We used to call them car-trucks when we were kids. This El Camino was a fine vehicle, but a far cry from a Ferrari or McLaren. I had to google McLaren. It’s a high end sports car that sells for $300,000. No wonder I hadn’t heard of it. I’ve never paid more than $3000 for a car.

As part of the covid-19 protocol, all students and staff are required to wear masks, we keep windows open, and we make seating charts for each trip for contact tracing purposes. To make this process quick and easy I pass the blank chart with a pen and clipboard to the kids in the front seat. They write their names in the corresponding seat number and pass it back. When it gets to the back they start passing it back up front. The kids have their own middle school way of doing this.

They’ll pass the board over the seat and wait for someone to grab it. If that doesn’t happen they’ll give ‘em a whack on the head with it. They in turn whack the head of the next kid if they don’t respond right away. Last week they returned the seating chart attached to half a clipboard. It’s a middle school version of paying it forward.

Speaking of middle school, those kids are full of surprises. I few months ago, in my home town I saw two middle school age kids riding bikes singing Frank Sinatra. More recently in my school bus two middle school kids were singing Oh, ho, ho it’s Magic, ya know, never believe it’s not so! It’s not the easiest melody but those kids nailed it!

Technology overload?

I started this school year with a brand new bus. It has AC and all the bells and whistles. It has a thing called Collision Mitigation. In theory it detects objects that are too close and gently applies the brakes to avoid a collision. In practice it’s not quite so subtle.

I was driving ‘round a bend when the bus detected something on the side of the road. Maybe it thought I was going to veer off the road and hit a tree? Halfway through the bend the bus slammed on the brakes! They released before I came to a stop and I was able to continue, albeit with my heart pounding.

Another time, I was in a line of buses leaving the high school in the afternoon with a full load of students. It’s slow, stop, and go traffic for a while until we hit the open road. Well, my bus had another panic attack and slammed on the brakes. We were going pretty slow and this time it did stop completely. The kids screamed and were thrown forward. Thankfully the seats are padded, unlike the buses I remember from my childhood where the back of each seat had a metal bar with exposed rusty bolts.

After the route I saw the driver who was behind me at the school. She thought a kid ran in front of my bus prompting me to slam on the brakes. I said it wasn’t me, it was my nervous bus acting up again.

I told the shop foreman what was happening and he had the bus sent off to reform school or rehab or wherever it is they send buses to learn how to cope with normal traffic.

Stay safe out there and watch out for kids (and nervous buses)!

My Birthday Blog

To celebrate my 53rd trip around the sun I’ve decided to add an entry to my blog.

Last Thursday marked the end of a very unique school year. For about six months after the onset of the pandemic I drove a school bus but I didn’t see any kids. Try to explain that to a school bus driver who just stepped out of a time machine from 2019.

Austin schools resumed in October 2020, but not like before. Most kids were learning online and very few attended school in person. Even fewer rode buses. We had our safety protocols to follow. Face masks, shield, gloves, temperature checks, open windows whether it was 100 degrees or 23 degrees, and no more than one child per seat unless they were siblings. I might have trouble recognizing some of my students if I saw them without a mask.

Gradually, more kids started riding the bus. By the end of the school year I was transporting 26 elementary students (far fewer for my middle and high schools.) It felt like a lot after starting the year with five or six, but I haven’t forgotten the days of calling for an overload bus because we exceeded the 71 passenger limit.

The upside was that I knew every kid’s first and last name. It was like we had our own little secret school bus society.

My elementary kids enjoyed the field trips to outer space and to Jurassic times. I had a six year old co-pilot name Slaid. That wasn’t his name but one day he declared his name to be Slaid and I couldn’t call him anything else.

For six months I pulled double duty. I drove my morning route, then went straight to my wifi post (okay, sometimes I’d stop for a breakfast taco) where Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir transformed into Mr. Hot Spot Man Sir for the next few hours. Then it was time to take the kids home via Saturn or Jupiter or 77 million B.C.

Sadly, we skipped the guitar signing ritual that normally happens the last few days of school. I hand the kids my guitar and a sharpie and they do what they will. I couldn’t think of a way to do it without breaking safety protocols. My idea came a little too late. I could have started a month before school ended and had one student sign the guitar each day. I’d be able to hand them a sanitized guitar and pen. Sigh.

I received a card from the parents of a young boy from my route. They said their son will miss the music and quizzes.

Playing my guitar in the afternoon has been part of my being a school bus driver almost from day one. An eight year old girl who started riding later in this school year would demand (with an implied ‘or else’) that I play my guitar. I’m always happy to oblige (especially when faced with the wrath of an eight year old girl!)

I like to give quizzes once in a great while. They usually consist of three questions. For example:

1. How do you spell HEB? (for non-Texans, HEB is a Texas based grocery chain that proved to be a champion early in the pandemic.)

2. What is the phone number for 9-1-1?

3. What color is an orange?

This year the kids were constantly asking for the next quiz. Three blocks from the school, thinking I got away, the kids would shout, “What’s the quiz?! What’s the quiz?!”

I had to come up with more questions on the spot.

What color is a blue jay?

Is a catfish a cat or a fish?

How many layers in a 7 layer cake?

Sometimes I would throw in a curve ball.

Which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of bricks?

Overall, we had fun and every kid scored an A++ and a half, and graduated to summer break.

For the next few weeks I’ll be wearing the Mr. Hot Spot Man Sir hat until they retire the school bus wifi program. Wifi will continue by other means. Time will tell what the next school year will look like. In the mean time I’ll be broadcasting summer school signals, then traveling to see family I haven’t seen in too long.

Be safe and health and enjoy this world as at reopens.

Jimmy Joe

aka: Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir

aka: Mr. Hot Spot Man Sir (for now)

One Year In

I had my last field trip a year ago today. There was talk of the coronavirus that was wreaking havoc in other parts of the world and the Pacific Northwest but Texas didn’t seem particularly concerned.

I ran my morning route that Thursday morning, as I would any day. After my last drop off I drove to an elementary school to pick up my field trip group. I had a pretty full load, somewhere between fifty and sixty humans, including kids, teachers and chaperons. The destination was the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, where they would be sharing breathing space with several groups from different schools. After the trip I proceeded to my afternoon route to transport my 120 or so students home. Later that evening I had a gig at a local bar that wasn’t well attended. People were beginning to get freaked out about the new coronabug.

I’m horrified to look back and think that I might’ve been a key cog in a super spreader event, but what did I know then? Some people knew a lot more because school was closed the next day, the last day before spring break. We went into spring break with a sense of fear and foreboding, thinking this kind of thing doesn’t really happen here and now. We thought it might blow over in a few weeks but we all know how that played out. No need to go into what we’ve all been experiencing for the past year all over the globe.

It’s a year later and the face mask has become as ubiquitous as socks and our hands are a lot cleaner than they used to be. It’s Friday and I clocked out a little while ago, entering spring break with a tired old fear humming in the background, but also with a sense of hope on the horizon.

For now, we take field trips of the imagination. My copilot is a six year old boy who sits in the front seat. As we leave the school yard every afternoon I ask him where we’re going. He says, “Dinoland, to see the Brontosurus and T-rex!” I say, “I forgot to charge the Cosmic Dwizzle Bazimperator! We can’t travel back in time without it.” He points to a compartment above the door and says, “There’s a generator in there. You can charge the Cosmic Bazimperator there!” I say, ” What are we waiting for? Plug it in!” And we’re off to Dynoland, simple as that.

Some days we go to other planets, other days to parallel universes. Today we went to the land of Milkweed and Metalweed. Milkweed, according to my copilot, has an acid strong enough to melt a bus. Metalweed is, of course, metal that grows out of the ground and can destroy a bus if we hit it. Then there’s the snowcat. It eats snow and school buses. We were okay for a while since it snowed twice this season, but now that it’s warmed up, the snowcat is hungry and looking for school buses to eat. It’s dangerous work but I’ll gladly rise to the challenge, at least until we can return to museums, parks, and the like.

Stay safe and healthy out there. We’re not out of the woods (or Dinoland) yet!

Did you see that?!

I turned the corner and activated the loading lights as I do every day. This morning something was different. I opened the door as the student approached. I got the sense I was seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing.

Her face! I had never seen her face below her eyes before. I said, “Where is your mask?”

She looked up at me, waiting for me to check her temperature. I started to repeat myself but thought better of it. She can’t hear me talking through a three layer cotton mask and a plastic face shield. I lifted the shield and pointed to my own mask. She had a moment of shock and embarrassment as she patted her pockets.

I raised a finger in a “Wait a second” gesture. I pulled a box of masks from my PPE kit and handed one to her with gloved hand. She put the mask on. Her temperature was fine. She boarded the bus and all was well.

That moment of seeing something I shouldn’t see sparked a memory from several years ago.

I had just left the school in the afternoon with a busload of middle school students. We were stopped at a red light next to a minivan. I looked up at the mirror when I heard a ruckus in the bus. The boys were hootin’ and hollerin’ and getting out of their seats to get a good look at something outside the bus. I looked out the window to see what captured their attention. In the back seat of the minivan was a girl of about 11 or 12, apparently one of their schoolmates, taking off her shirt to change into her soccer uniform. I turned my attention back to the boys, trying in vain to get them to sit down. They were too busy giving themselves whiplash as they worked at getting a better look at the topless girl before she pulled her jersey on.

The girl got dressed, the boys settled back into their seats, and the light turned green. We drove on. For the next mile or two I could hear them saying, “Did you see that?!”

Stay safe and healthy this holiday season so we can celebrate together next year.

Space Bus is Back!

I got home from work the other day at 6:41PM, just in time to climb up on the roof and watch the International Space Station fly over at 6:49. It’s amazing to think that humans are inside that speck of light traveling at roughly 17000 miles per hour and 250 miles above the earth’s surface.

Speaking of Space Stations, Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir has officially resumed space travel in the bus for the first time since early March.

As we were departing the school parking lot I checked with the dozen kids in the bus to make sure they had their face masks in place, seat belts fastened, and space suits on and secured. They confirmed all three.

We were scheduled to visit the International Space Station but it is suddenly too crowded and it would be very difficult to keep our social distance in that confined space.

So I asked where else they’d like to go.

“PLUTO!” they shouted.

“Pluto it is,” I said, “but wait, I had to loan my cosmic dwizzle bazimperator to another bus driver who had a field trip to the moon.

A little girl said, “I have one in my backpack!”

I said, “Great! Let’s plug it in and hit the sky!”

She saved the day! I explained that the cosmic dwizzle bazimperator enables the bus to travel through time and space. We need the time travel element to get back to earth right after we left so their parents don’t have time to worry.

“Before we get to the traffic light we’ll hit a worm hole, which takes us through a ripple in the space time continuum and drops us off just a few miles from downtown Pluto.” The road seemed to get really bumpy and BLAM!, we were in the wormhole!

I said, “Welcome to Pluto! Oh, I didn’t realize it was so developed out here. It looks a lot like south Austin.”

The kids marveled at all the Pluto cars, Pluto trees, and Pluto dogs. We turned onto the Pluto Highway headed toward downtown Pluto. After a mile or so we came to a locked gate.

“So sorry kids, downtown Pluto is closed for cleaning today. We’ll have to turn around and head back to Earth now.”

There was a collective disappointed sigh from the group. We caught the other end of the wormhole at the dip in the road and were transported back to Austin.

I said, “Welcome back to Earth! Only a few earth minutes have passed but you’re all now 73 years old.”

They gasped.

I said, “Don’t worry, you still look the same. Space and time travel can be weird like that.”

I dropped them all off according to schedule and their parents were none the wiser.

Happy, safe and healthy Thanksgiving to y’all!

22 Years!

My friend Ida Collins recently celebrated 44 years as a bus driver for AISD.  Ida, I just reached the halfway point. 22 years! I started on the 14th of October, 1998. That was in another century! Before that I never held a job for more than a year. I would get bored and move on. After twenty two years I’m still not bored; kids have a way of keeping it interesting. And this year it all got a lot more interesting.
This is my original school bus guitar. I call it Charlie after the late Charlie Fischer, my hometown neighbor who fisched it out of the trash in 1986 and gave it to me. (It looked a lot nicer back then.) I brought Charlie out of retirement because my second school bus guitar, the baby Taylor is falling apart. Both guitars have many layers of kids’ signatures from the past two decades. It’s an end of school year ritual which, like so many other end of school year rituals, was thwarted by a pandemic.

School shut down on March 13, 2020. I had a field trip on March 12. In addition to my 120 regular route students, I hauled fifty or so kids from another school to a museum where they mingled with hundreds of kids from other schools. It is difficult to comprehend that now. Did that really happen? I’m pretty sure it did. The date is still in my calendar.

After a month or so of isolation, I went back to work driving a wifi bus. The buses are wifi hotspots for students learning online who don’t have internet service. Typically in the summer, we’re out touring to the west coast or east coast playing music. This year I stayed home and drove the wifi bus during which time I changed my name from Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir to Mr. Hot Spot Man Sir. The wifi bus isn’t quite as exciting as driving through the Rockies, visiting with good friends, and performing on the Oregon coast while watching the waves of the Pacific crash against the shore across the street from the venue, but it’s a job that I’m very thankful to have. We lost a lot of gigs like every other musician I know but I’ve had steady income doing something that helps out some kids in these challenging times, even if it felt like I was doing nothing at all. Every so often a parent would come out and thank me from behind a mask, reminding me that it wasn’t nothing.

Last week I started hauling kids once again. It’s a far cry from the past. I wear mask, gloves, and face shield when I point my laser ray gun temperature checker at the students before they board the bus. Then I tell them to sanitize their hands and go to the back of the bus. All 25 windows are open to keep fresh air circulating. I spray the seats down with disinfectant after each route. So far I haven’t had more than eight kids in the bus at one time. And that seems like a lot these days. Sometimes it’s just one student. It’ll change over time but I feel like we’re in a delicate balancing act. I asked my lone middle school student haw many kids were in class with her. She said six. I’ve seen masked teachers with as many masked children going through their lessons under an oak tree in front of the school.

Interesting times. There’s certainly no room for boredom.

Stay safe and be well