Twenty years ago, on October 14, in a far-off century, I was hired as a bus driver by the Austin Independent School District.
I had been working part-time as a musician, scrambling to find gigs performing, recording, and writing music. I was also working a myriad of other odd jobs to pay the bills. My thirtieth birthday had passed and I felt a shift inside. I wanted a little more stability in my life (but not too much) in the form of a day job.
I applied for ten jobs in ten different fields; mechanic’s helper, carpenter’s helper, window washer, etc. I was qualified for and had experience in every one of those fields except for one. I had never driven a school bus. It’s also the only one I got excited about. Twenty years later I’m still enjoying the day job.
When I started driving a bus we didn’t have GPS, cameras, cell phones, or air conditioning. Most of the buses didn’t have seat belts for the students. The few belts that did exist were more effective as weapons than as safety devices. They were the old style lap belt, a sling with a metal buckle on the end. In my early days of driving, a six-year-old girl defended herself against an older boy who was bullying her. She whacked him right in the noggin with that buckle. He never bothered her again.
For my entire first year, I didn’t even have a two-way radio. I didn’t know I needed one. I guess I was lucky the bus never broke down because I didn’t have a cell phone back then and neither did the kids.
At the beginning of each school year, we handed out index cards to the kids. They were to have their parents fill out the name, address, phone number, etc., and hand them back. That’s how we knew who was riding the bus. We didn’t get computer printouts. Same goes for the route. We were given a list of stops and it was up to the drivers to figure out how to get to them and to write down the directions.
Now we have directions similar to google maps, but even more convoluted. Go straight 37.6 feet. Veer left 13.2 feet. Turn left .0016 miles. Continue to turn left 117 feet. Go straight .014 miles, when instead, it could have read, “Take a U-turn.”
Some of the routes, instead of listing specific stops, would simply say, “Pick up as needed.” I would drive down the road listed and stop when I saw kids and hope they were the kids I was supposed to pick up.
Today we have specific stops that we have to make. It’s all tracked by GPS. They can see where we are, how fast we’re going, how long the engine is idling, and when and where the door is opened. Cameras are constantly monitoring the driver and students. I didn’t like the idea of all the Big Brother stuff and still don’t but it’s for a good reason. It’s for the safety of the children. The camera and GPS saved me a lot of trouble one time. A kid was bleeding from his head. He claimed that I was going so fast around a corner that he fell out of his seat and hit his head. My supervisor called me in to watch the video. At the time I was supposedly speeding around the corner, I was actually driving in a straight line at 17mph when the boy jumped across the aisle, fell, and hit his head. Somebody lied and it wasn’t the video.
Back in the old days, if I had a problem with a kid on the bus I would get the name and phone number from the card and call the parents when I returned to the base. The effect was immediate and the parents always thanked me for letting them know what was going on. Often, the kid was sitting right there with the parent when I called.
Later on, they added a lot of “middlemen” to the process. I’d write the report and submit it to a coordinator. They would type it into the computer, often incorrectly, and submit it to the school. A school official would talk to the child and parents. Sometimes I would hear about it, most times I wouldn’t. The process could take up to a week. They have it more streamlined now but I miss the direct approach.
A big turning point for me was when I was driving a group of middle school kids home. Two kids were talking about a video game.
“I love that game!”
“We should hang out after school!”
I pulled up to the bus stop. As one boy exited the bus he said to his friend, “See you online!”
The world was never the same after that moment.
The buses have also gone through some changes. All the newer buses are equipped with three-point retractable seat belts for everyone, just like in Mom’s Odyssey minivan. The really new buses have Air Conditioning! I have not had the pleasure of driving an air-conditioned big bus yet.
The vast majority of our buses are still powered by diesel. One year I was given a brand new propane-powered bus to drive. It burned a lot cleaner and quieter and it had plenty of power. The problem was that it used a LOT of propane. I had to fill the tank every day from the specially installed propane fueling station. That bus is now used as a spare.
When firing up those old diesel buses, we had to cycle the glow plugs several times in order to warm up the cylinders enough to start the engines in the winter. The mechanics often drove around with a can of ether and jumper cables to assist with the more stubborn buses. When they did start, the cloud of acrid black smoke was thick enough to obscure the stars.
That’s all in the past now. The buses mostly just start.
The diesel buses have gotten cleaner and more powerful over the years. There were certain hills on my route where the bus would max out at 12mph. I’m taking those same hills now at 25mph.
I guess I have also changed in two decades. I’ve reached the half-century mark, I’m married, have a kid in college, and own a home. My hair has lost most of its dark brown, but I’m still a musician playing old guitars and driving old cars.
Aside from the fact that they often have their faces and attention buried in little screens, kids are still kids. They are still our future and I still feel privileged to be a part of their education.