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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    Teacher’s Circle: Bus drivers always wave

    Two generations with their bus drivers, "Mr. Brendan" (Merrill) on the right and "Ms. Charlene" (Maurer) on the left. Photos submitted

    What is it like to be a bus driver?

    Think about it for a minute. Getting up earlier than most to start your daily route(s), picking up children across miles of road. Imagine the responsibility of driving these massive vehicles, managing the sharp curves of those back roads, the treacherous weather conditions, not to mention the regular appearance of the mentally deranged other drivers.

    Who are the people who drive school buses? Would you want to do this job?

    As we open up another school year of K-12 education, let’s give a toast to the school bus drivers. I begin by remembering my own….

    Every single school day of my K-12 life, I took the bus, and let me tell you, that bus was an education all to itself. If it’s true when they say that “it’s a jungle out there,” then the school bus is a cage at the zoo.

    Or you might prefer to call it the wild, wild west. Either way, what do you have? A large (up to 50?) group of children ranging in age (5 - 14; 14 - 18, roughly), thrown together in the early morning and the late afternoon, with little more supervision than a single adult looking back at the largest rear view mirror known to man.

    My entire experience of school, day in and day out, l began on that moving caravan, and so much depended on the role of that driver. Was I safe? Was I secure? Did anybody have my little back in this mixed-up mayhem?

    If anyone did, it was the bus driver.

    I was lucky. Over the course of elementary school, I had two wonderful drivers. The first, Mrs. Wild, was a redheaded mom whose daughter, Penny, attended the same school as me and also rode the bus. Mrs. Wild took care of her charges as best an overloaded and big-hearted mom could do. She probably drove me back and forth to school for at least five years.

    Then there was crusty old Mr. Barker, who was actually Mrs. Wild’s dad, and who took no nonsense from his charges and made sure we all knew the rules. While at the time he was gruff and rough (his nickname was “Ripped Pants Parker”), I still remember being grateful for the care and firm rules he brought to the job.

    Fast forward to Preston, 1991. It’s now my daughter who’s climbing on the bus for the first time, greeted with a smile and kind eyes. Caron Wunderlich drove the bus for kindergartners for many years, and her gentle warmth was felt by countless small children who were just beginning their school experiences.

    In addition to Caron, “Miss Patti” (Daniels) was everybody’s favorite driver, but who could top Eddie Fleming, with his radio tuned to Kool 101, teaching all the kids the greatest oldies of all time?

    Eddie would also buy the kids popsicles on the last ride of the year, and never failed to take all the graduating eighth graders out for breakfast on their last morning on the bus. What a lovely man! What a positive difference all three bus drivers made in the lives of my three daughters.

    Currently, there are approximately half a million school buses in this country transporting 25 million students. However, across this great land, in every state, there is a driver shortage. As districts work to fill the critical need to provide transportation, consider the critical role the driver serves in the lives of small children.

    Bus drivers are entitled to a living wage, benefits, and the respect of the community.

    It’s my belief that every single adult whose job puts them in contact with students must be given full respect, support, and encouragement. If we are truly committed to the children who are in our care, this must be our promise.

    Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, social workers, cafeteria workers, security guards, coaches, tutors, and teachers - I know I’m leaving too many out because there are so many! - all must be seen and appreciated as we begin again. And yes, this is a love letter to the drivers, but let it also serve to expand our understanding of everyone who teaches.

    Over just the past few days, we once again began seeing these marvelous yellow machines moving though our towns, reminding us all that another school year is upon us. So slow down and take just a moment to think about who’s inside that bus. Give them a wave, and wish them all well.

    Bus drivers always wave back.

    Take care, drivers, and have a great school year!

    Gay Collins, a retired teacher in the Waterford system, lives in Preston.

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