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The Story of My First Day as a Professional School Bus Driver

November 2, 2012

Yesterday was my first day as a school bus driver and by far the most stressful day of my life. I had been training for nearly five weeks prior, mostly in an old basement in Portland watching long drawn out videos, listening to long drawn out lectures, and taking long drawn out quizzes in a room full of other, much older and anxious trainees. If things had gone according to plan, yesterday still would have been my first day driving my route. However, that plan included my new trainer for the week, who I had been riding along with for the past two days, to also be on the bus and running ten minutes late thanks to heavy rain and crawling traffic that filled my typically half hour commute, I showed up to the bus garage so that Christy, the dispatch lady, could drop the keys of my bus into my hands and say, “You’re on your own today. Lisa (my trainer that week) is going to have to cover another route. Good luck.”

Because I was running so late, I didn’t have time to process my situation, but I was still overcome with anxiety as I hustled out to my bus and sat down it the driver’s seat where the gravity of the situation proceeded to hit me with full force. I started my bus and realized that I had no idea where any of the controls were because the bus I trained on in Portland was a brand new bus and therefore different in nearly every way aside from function and shape from the bus I was required to drive around that day. But I was already running late and dammit these kids weren’t going to drive themselves to school, it didn’t matter if I was not at all familiar with the area aside from a few of the street names on my route and the directions from the interstate to the bus garage.

As I pulled out of the yard, my windows became covered in fog. I glanced down at my control center and hadn’t the faintest clue which button controlled the defrost. So, at my first stop sign, to the frustration of the cars around me, I took my time only to find in the dark the button controlling the defroster for the left side of my window. There was no time to defrost the right side of my bus. I drove down in my yellow spaceship on wheels without any visibility at all on its right side, with only my route’s out-of-date turn by turn directions in one hand (since I had left my updated version at home that day), the other hand on the steering wheel and as far as my headlights lit up to direct my path.

One thing I have noticed about Portland, and apparently Oregon in general, is that the street signs are often extremely difficult to see or make out. Many of them rest behind or in the branches of a well-leaved tree, and many of them are nearly impossible to see until you are right next to them. So, I reached my first stop, and looking around for a street sign to tell me where I was, I failed to stop. Thankfully though, I drive a route that loops around a neighborhood and was able to make my first stop with already a half-filled bus later on in the route.

“Sorry,” the kid said when he got on a bus that was going the opposite direction and on the opposite side of the road it normally is for pick up. “Was I late?”

“That’s okay,” I said, not able to comprehend my responsibility for his ten minute overtime wait outside in the pouring rain.

With only one stop left, I read my directions wrong and turned where I shouldn’t have. I was officially off the map, because when all you have for navigation is a specific set of turn-by-turn instructions, there is nothing outside of those turns to orient yourself with and if you make a wrong one, you might as well be floating in space.

“This isn’t where we’re supposed to go,” a group of terrified sixth and seventh graders wined behind me.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Do you know how to get to where we’re supposed to go?”

“No.”

With a thin stroke of luck, however, the boy sitting direction behind me did and was able to lead me in the opposite direction of where I was going, back to my last stop and then the school. I then had a forty minute layover to gather myself and study my Elementary school route, which featured a bunch of kids too young to know street names or directions to the school, too young to help me if I got lost. At 8:33, seven minutes before my first scheduled stop, I started my bus and rolled away from the Junior High and back into the world. At only my second turn before my first stop, I reached a confusing six-way intersection and took the wrong road.

“Oh,” I said to myself. “Good think I gave myself plenty of time to get there,” which was not all true because seven minutes would be cutting it close even if it was flawlessly executed. I managed to make it to my first stop and though I was five minutes behind schedule, I ran my route nearly without error and dropped the kids off at the school in front of the lone umbrellaed teacher left waiting. I apologized for my tardiness and the teacher, thankfully kind, told me not to worry about it.

After I backed my bus into its parking space, able to somehow fit it tightly between two neighboring buses, I spent the afternoon doing more repetitive and drawn out “orientation” where I learned hardly anything new and of use, leaving me very little time to calm down and gather myself from the morning’s trauma.

For my afternoon route, I am required to start in a line of other buses who all line up together at the Junior High. I’m second in line, but yesterday the first bus took off before anyone else was ready, so when I took off I was the leader with about seven other buses following behind me. Looking down at my directions, I was able to make my way to the school like a seasoned veteran, only to pass right by the school. Calls on the radio began to sound questioning my disappearance and if route five was going to be there that afternoon.

“This is route five” I said into the radio. “I missed the turn into the school. I’m making my way back around.” The problem with that statement was that I had no idea how to go about “making my way around” because you can’t really turn off into a side street and pull a quick U-turn in a giant yellow spaceship on wheels. I took a chance and turned down a road and made the first two lefts I could, hoping they would lead back to Country Club Road, the road leading to the Junior High. It miraculously did, but only after anxiously leading me to a winding narrow road with heavy tree overhang. I’m still afraid to look at all my indicator lights on the top of my bus because I’m sure there has to be some sort of damage from all the branches they came in contact with.

When I reached the Junior High, I heard the other drivers organizing themselves over the radio to line up so that room was left for me in the narrow, Mitsubishi-filled parking lot. Since I was second in line, they couldn’t pull up until I was there practically touching the nose of my bus to route twenty’s bus. As I went by, pulling a miracle out of my ass by squeezing in and around the buses, I felt the eyes of every other driver on me. Fortunately, they knew it was my first day, and several came over to my bus and joked with me and/or gave me words of encouragement.

And then the Junior High kids got on my bus and all hell broke loose.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I knew immediately that the little punks were going to test me. I already had several asking me to play the radio and one particularly loud and obnoxious giant of an eighth grader named Griffin shouting about democracy and yelling about how awesome their new bus driver was. I knew I was only awesome because in their eyes I am one of them.

“How old are you?” several kids kept asking me.

“I’m sixty-five,” I said. “I’m a real life Benjamin Button.”

“Haha, that’s funny. You rock, bus driver!”

While I was having Emily, a quiet and responsible eight grader, guide my every turn and stop, kids were yelling, blaring music on their iPads, crawling over seats, walking down and across the aisle, and who knows what else. I tried using my intercom, basically my only mode of communication at that point thanks to my far-too-quiet yelling voice, but it was broken as far as I could tell. If I was going to get these kids home safely on that day, I had to let them go wild as passing busses called into the radio, telling me to get control of my bus because kids are hanging out my windows, because all I could do was focus on one turn and one stop at a time since that is all my sense of direction was able to comprehend.

Then, “Route 5, this is dispatch. Where are you?” came over the radio at such great timing. I was on on my longest stretch between stops, the closest intersection hardly visible ahead of me and I had no idea what the name of the road I was on was called.

“I’m just finishing up my Junior High route,” I said.

“You need to get to Forest Hills Elementary as soon as you can. But as safely as possible.”

I looked down at my watch to see that I should have already been at Forest Hills to pick up my load of Elementary School kids ten minutes ago.

“How many stops do you have left route 5,” dispatch called.

I looked back at Emily. “How many stops left?” I said.

“Like, three or four, I think,” she said.

“Like, three or four,” I said into the radio over ten yelling prepubescent voices. I looked down at my directions and lost my place, perhaps letting out a quiet “shit,” which I pray no one heard. Stressed and overwhelmed, I turned into a dead end.

“You don’t usually let me off here,” a kid name Evan stood up and said. “It’s usually at the bottom of the hill. But I live right there, so you can just let me off.”

So, I let him off and performed a poorly executed four-point turn, breaking about every backing safety rule I had learned in training. I then got back onto the proper road, rounded the curve, reluctantly let Emily off as Griffin the overly loud and obnoxious giant of an eighth grader and his sidekick Milo ran to the front and started complimenting me.

“Let me know when you’re at your last stop, route 5,” dispatch commanded in the radio.

I took a few turns, let a kid off in front of a house I hope was his and Milo and Griffin told me that it was my last stop, which I promptly reported to dispatch.

As I made my final turn into the Elementary School where Milo, Griffin and two other kids are let off, everyone in the bus yelled that I had just missed my last stop.

“I thought that was my last stop,” I said.

“It was your last stop before this one,” someone said. I pulled the bus over just before Forest Hills and apologized to the small, stressed looking girl whoever was exiting the bus. I pulled up to Forest Hills and let off Milo, Griffin, and whoever else was still on the bus, for some reason thanking them for their help as they went down the steps.

A teacher then lined up the kids for my bus from playing on the playground and loaded them on. I apologized and she said not to worry about it and I took off, somehow pulling off a speedy and efficient route so I could pull into the garage, without any forgotten kids only five minutes behind the normal time and somehow backed my bus tightly into my parking spot. I turned the bus off, put the key in the on position and went back to push the button in the back for my “Child Check Mate.” As soon as I pulled the keys out of the ignition, my ridiculously loud alarm sounded and two other drivers came running to my rescue. Turns out, I have to lift the handle all the way to my emergency exit door before I can leave the bus – something that was not required on the bus I was trained on. I did this twice and my bus told me that I had just activated “Charter Mode,” which usually means that for three hours, the motion detector used to make sure no one is left on the bus for the “Child Check Mate” is deactivated.

I went to the dispatch office, turned in my keys and started filling out my paperwork before realizing that I had been warned earlier that day to not let the book I had in my hand leave the bus.

“Good thing my bus is in charter mode,” I thought as I walked back across the yard and opened my bus door. As soon as I stepped foot inside the bus a voice sounded from my bus speakers, “Please sit down. Someone will be here shortly,” and again my alarm went off as I sprinted back to get my keys. Apparently my bus was not in charter mode as it had told me and it thought I was a missing child. When I solved my second alarm, third of the day since the same thing happened after my morning route, I was able to meet with my trainer, who had finished her own route and was waiting for me to see how it went. I told her and she said, among other more encouraging things, “The car radio has to be turned on for the intercom to work.”

Finally, after filling out and then correctly refilling out my paper work, I was able to head home. I walked out of the yard, across the street, and into the church parking lot the drivers are allowed to use and realized my keys were still in the break room where I had filled out my paper work, which meant I had to have one more passively grouchy interaction with the dispatch lady who was extremely annoyed with me because of my failure to live up to the standards of driving a bus I had never driven before on a route I had never driven before, in an area I didn’t know at all, with kids who thought I was in high school, and who I had never picked and dropped off before and didn’t know anything about. I was just thankful it wasn’t dark again yet.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. warero permalink
    November 29, 2012 8:25 am

    Reblogged this on Javmode.

  2. May 17, 2013 9:35 am

    Not only will this drive him crazy and make you look psycho to his friends,
    co-workers i want him back and loved ones. Again with quotes on i want him back Why are some i
    want him back more honest than others? Aged 14, she is one of the warning signs
    that I’m getting sarcastic as I talk with my brother. She had little in common with the wily socialist. Builders are renowned for jacking up prices on last-minute things that crop up.

    • May 17, 2013 10:54 am

      You know what really bothers me? Using comments on others’ blogs to promote your own blog.

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