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Zen and the Art of School Bus Driving

by Thomas Wolfson,
copyright 2001

This time of year the parking lot next to the Nauset Middle School playing field and track is dark and cold at  6 am. Flat-nosed, 36-footlong, 15-and-a-half ton yellow beasts

— animated Twinkies — belch to life one by one. Their awakening eyes glare, cutting through the darkness before them.

Finding Number 1, I climb aboard to my eight-foot high vantage point, poke my key in the ignition, and bring ‘er to life with a quick clearing of her diesel throat, followed by the well-muffled purr of a powerful International T444C rear engine.

I begin the twice-daily safety circle check of my school bus, one of 44 busses owned, operated, and maintained by Laidlaw Transit, Inc. for the Nauset Regional School District . The Christmas-like festoon of clearance lights, amber warning and red flasher, stop-arm, head, tail, four-way, brake, interior and back-up lights are inspected; tires are kicked and examined for bulges and cracks; the body and undercarriage are scanned for irregularities. After all operating systems on my DOT (Department of Transportation) mandated list have been checked off, I am ready to go pick up the early-rising youngsters who ride the “music bus” to practice their budding art at school before regular classes begin.

Before exiting the parking lot, I stop at the dumpster to empty my wastebasket, filled with debris from the previous late afternoon — Skittles wrappers, broken pencils, hardened wads of bubble gum, an empty Fruitopia bottle, a crumpled quiz with a lousy grade, and lots of Cape Cod sand. I let my kids eat and drink on the bus as long they don’t make a mess and use the wastebasket. They don’t always comply.

Driving a school bus can be a tortured experience, but for me those days have for the most part receded. I now view the job as an imperfect meditative practice which demands that I “be here now,” a sort of Zen and the art of school bus driving. I try to be still inside, emotionally nonattached, while remaining utterly attentive, practicing with the students and public an attitude of loving kindness while being one with the bus, its dimensions, power, and capabilities.

Of course I feel at times like wringing the neck of a troublemaker or throwing the overpowering weight and size of my vehicle at an irritating Sunday driver; but I remind myself with deep breaths, “Be still and attend.”

I know the names of each of my 90 or more music, elementary, and middle school riders. I greet each with his or her name and a “good morning,” and bid each by name a “good day” as he or she exits. We all prefer an expressive joyful ride in peace rather than a repressive fearful one. Most rides are neither heaven nor hell, but a balance between the two.

Dawn is breaking over Route 6 and the auxiliary heater fans blow on high speed when I turn ontoHarwich Road heading toward Brewster and Route 6A. An eighth-grade flutist waits outside an idling minivan at Great Fields Road . Turning down the fans, I press another button on the control panel and the amber pre-warning lights come on. The bus slows to a stop, and when the door is opened with a switch, the red warning lights automatically flash.

“Good morning, Megan,” I offer up and she politely repeats the salutation while stepping into the warm, darkened interior. A blast of chilled air follows her.

The run winds for an hour through Brewster. Past leafless deciduous trees, I see gray wafts of pond “smoke” rise off of Walker and Slough Ponds. I have seen deer leap through the underbrush and bushy, rust-colored foxes trot across the road. Knowing every turn and vista of many beautiful back roads is one of the pleasures of school bus driving on Cape Cod .

Twenty or so students later, and as many differing instrument cases, we arrive at the Middle School. The chattering, the laughing, the somber, and the sleepy pile off the big yellow bus into the now-bright morning sunshine. I then head back out 6A to Millstone and Freeman’s Way to begin my elementary school route.

The little ones, kindergarten through fifth grade, are as innocent, testy, and cute as rambunctious puppies. Many of them need constant reminding to stay seated, to keep their hands to themselves, to not scream or argue. Remaining still inside, I practice the “broken record” method — “Billy, sit down. Sit down, Billy. I said sit down.” This repetition technique usually works. Occasionally, however, I succumb to aggravation and resort to high volume commands, threatening consequences such as being written up with a bus report, or ordering a rowdy fourth grader to take an embarrassing hike down the aisle to sit near me for a few days. This must all be accomplished while continuing to safely drive the bus.

If elementary children present the greatest challenge to my serenity, they also bring moments of joy and pleasure at being alive. At Governor Bradford and Freeman’s Way, I feel privileged to observe the tenderness and longing in the parting of a mother and her five-year-old boy in a new red baseball cap; at Beach Rose, kisses repeatedly blown from an eight-year-old girl’s hand through the window to her smiling father remind me of walking my little girl (now a high school senior) to the school bus a long time ago.

These parents, in their vulnerable smiles and eye contact with me, convey a special trust and yearning. They have charged me with the safe passage — both physical and emotional — of their precious loved ones. It is an awesome responsibility, and I am honored.

From Stony Brook Elementary School I proceed down Tubman, picking up the first of 40 to 50 middle school kids. These 11- to 13-year-old boys and girls, many blasted with hormones and brimming with electric energy, are generally more subdued in the morning. But after the school day, the middle school bus can take on the semblance of a Hawaiian long board surfing big waves.

Morning or afternoon I have to be nimble and assured. As always, I greet each and every student coming aboard by name and with eye contact — mutual respect and courtesy, stillness inside, utterly attentive outside. I can’t fight the waves, but I can constructively channel their energy, as a good surfer or a person adept at Tai Chi. While there are some drivers who might crush their students’ youthful enthusiasm with an iron hand and have a bus with an unhappy air, I allow for joyousness (talkative noise) within safe limits.

On Great Fields Road , I stop for a pack of kids congregating on the corner of Pine Bluff . One boy is hurling himself headlong into a small spruce tree, undoubtedly finding his attention-grabbing antics great fun.

“Good morning, Alan,” I say to him when he climbs aboard. “Sit down by me today and we’ll visit a while.” He protests, but I command, “Sit, Alan, here.” We then head back up to Tubman via 6A, picking up many more students along the way.

The world these days is too dangerous and unhappy a place, and life is too short, for these moments on my school bus to be other than happy and safe. When we arrive at the middle school at 8:50 am, I say to each and every departing student, by name, “Have a good day!”

I mean it.