I’ve been driving a school bus for more than five years now. There’s a certain comfort in slipping into my old routine and observing the back-to-school rituals I remember from my own youth. During the first few weeks of class, I see the same anxious expressions of new passengers looking for a seat. I hear the same raised voices of kids desperately trying to impress one another as they seek out their own little tribes.
Every year, there is always a girl wearing boots that are too warm for the first few days of September. I can almost hear her mother calling after her as she leaves the house to board my bus: “Aren’t you going to be hot in those?”
Of course she will be. She knows it and she doesn’t care. These are the new boots she bought when she went back-to-school shopping last week. Now she’s back at school and she wants to wear them, 70-degree weather be damned. I know this, because I felt the same way when I was fifteen.
Driving a busload of high-school students is much like carting around a troop of drunkards. Most of my passengers are alternately elated, miserable or comatose, and are prone to the same fulminant outflowings of enthusiasm or despair I remember feeling when I was a teenager. I remember the high of first love, the sting of first heartbreak, and the raw intensity of a thousand other virgin experiences. I also remember the adults around me saying that my emotions didn’t matter, that it was only puppy love, or that whatever was upsetting me was nothing to be upset over.
This is the short list of comments I make a point of never saying to my passengers. I still remember what it felt like to be a teenager. It was love, and it was something to be upset over. Regardless of what the adults in my life thought, these feelings were real to me. I try to remember that my passengers are growing and changing daily, and that they deserve as much of my patience as I can give them.
I also remind myself that some of my kids will face situations far more difficult than anything I had to endure at their age. Two weeks ago, I overheard a kid explaining that he often cares for his parents, both of whom are in poor health. Another passenger has a parent in jail. At the end of last year, one of my seniors handed me a letter thanking me for making my bus feel “welcoming.” The note went on to say that he would begin the first phase of transgender surgery that summer. It turned out that “she” identified as “he.” I had no idea.
I have also learned never to take a kid’s behavior personally. I once had a girl on my bus who ignored me for an entire year. Every day, I would say “Good morning,” and every day she would avert her eyes and slink past me. On the last day of her senior year, she presented me with a box of home-baked treats, a smile, and six words: “You’re a really cool bus driver.”
I had always thought of her as rude or oblivious. She was neither. What she was, quite simply, was shy. I wonder how many adults had the same impression of me when I would crumple under the embarrassment of being 16.
I try to keep stories like these in mind when I’m having a tough day. Keeping my cool doesn’t always come easy. Driving a 15-ton vehicle while keeping watch over 40 teenagers using nothing but an overhead mirror could be a challenge on one of those weird Japanese game shows.
Last month, I read a newspaper article which reported that a nationwide shortage of school-bus drivers had forced a local district to restructure some of its routes. I know why. I’m up at 5 a.m. I’m subjected to random drug tests and below-freezing temperatures.
And of course, there’s the kids. Kids fight. They scream and throw things and puke and invent curse words that make me wonder if I’ve led a sheltered life. They make me wonder how long I’ll be able to do this job and still maintain my sanity. And then, I see her: the girl in the too-hot boots. The boots are black leather ten-hole Dr. Martens. Her mother is frowning at her through the screen door. She boards my bus, one careful step at a time.
“Nice boots,” I say.
She nods and smiles. I smile back. My Docs were red.