The wheels on the bus, as generations of gleeful children have told us in song, go round and round, round and round, round and round.
But those school bus wheels don’t go anywhere unless there’s somebody behind the wheel at the driver’s seat.
On a recent Saturday, I was that somebody. Oh, don’t worry. There were no kids on the bus and I was not allowed to leave the bus parking lot or exceed 5 mph. But, lured by a clever announcement, I was that somebody.
“Want to drive a school bus??” said the notice from the Lake Travis school district. “Don’t be afraid to try!! Let’s go for a ride. Test drive one!!”
So there I was on at the Lake Travis district’s transportation center on Texas 71. We started with a classroom session, as district personnel touted the benefits and joys of driving a school bus. Like many districts, Lake Travis is recruiting bus drivers.
“Lots of people say, ‘Oh, I could never drive a school bus (and) I certainly couldn’t do it with bunches of students on board,” veteran Lake Travis driver Ben Mewis told us. He’s a former career airplane pilot. “You can do it. It’s quite easy, and we’re going to give you all the help you need to get ready to do this and have fun doing it.”
Fun? Can there be fun involved in an activity that includes a prominently displayed “Bodily Fluid Cleanup Kit”? We’ll get back to that because Mewis later said a bus driver always does.
Rhonda Davis is the district’s transportation director and lead evangelist for school bus driving.
“You have to be able to multitask. I will say that,” she told the small corps of potential drivers. “I’m not going to candy coat it: It’s tough. You get out there and you’ve got to deal with all the other maniacs on the road and their driving and the craziness. Then you’ve got these 50 to 60 kids behind you.”
“Precious cargo” is what she called those kids. And please be assured that the whimsical nature of my self-assigned assignment to see what it’s like to drive a school bus was tempered by the fact that two days earlier there was a horrific school bus crash in New Jersey in which a student and a teacher were killed. Precious cargo, indeed.
Davis said safely delivering that cargo becomes a passion. “We always say we bleed yellow. We love it that much.”
“When you’ve had a tough day and you think, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ and they have just worn you out. And you come in and the following day somebody gives you a little note that says, ‘You’re the best bus driver’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘I picked a little flower friend for you,’ it’s just like, oh my gosh, it’s so worth it,” Davis said.
And then it was bus time. We split into small groups and climbed aboard the 40-foot vehicles.
“So who’s ready to drive?” Mewis asked.
Allana Riesenberger was. She’s got two kids in Lake Travis schools.
“It feels like driving my minivan,” she said as she drove. “But bigger.”
Riesenberger did great, including parallel parking the behemoth between cones set up for practice.
“How long you been driving a bus?” Mewis, impressed with her abilities, asked Riesenberger. The correct answer was about 10 minutes.
He did, however, have one bit of criticism.
“Are you a hooker?” he asked in what seemed a questionable question until he explained that “hooking” is bus-driver lingo for holding the wheel from its underneath side, a practice that can cause problems in an emergency.
“You’re supposed to keep your hands on top of the wheel,” he told her.
Riesenberger told me the $18-per-hour, six-hour-per-day job is attractive to her, because she’d “be able to be home with my kids more and still have a job.”
Next up in the air-cushioned driver’s seat was Barbara Fagan, who is a Lake Travis High School mom. She also did great and had the one-liner of the day. It was in response to Mewis’ question about something you never should do while driving a school bus.
“Put makeup on?” Fagan joked.
Yes, but the answer Mewis was looking for as he continued to make a point about how the multiple mirrors are a driver’s best friend was never turn your head away from the road.
I asked Mewis what it’s like driving a bus full of kids. He said the noise level varies dramatically depending on time of day, time of year and caloric intake.
“In the mornings, it’s generally always quiet because they’re still asleep,” he said. “In the afternoon, it varies. Frankly, it depends on what they have eaten in school. If they’re full of chocolate at Easter time, we’ve got a problem on the bus because they’re hyper. And Fridays are generally always louder than any other day of the week.”
Halloween also can be challenging. It’s all a matter of earning the kids respect, something Mewis says he does by always referring to his passengers as “ladies and gentlemen.”
“If I yell at the kids, as the driver, all I’m doing is making the problem worse,” he said.
So I probably didn’t score any points when, after a few minutes behind the wheel, I yelled, “Hey you kids, quiet back there.”
The bus was surprisingly easy to drive. The power steering is great, and I can see how you’d get the hang of scanning the mirrors to see what’s going on around you. I, too, successfully parallel parked the bus. (But 96 percent of the credit goes to Mewis for telling me exactly what to do. I can’t parallel park my Honda Element.)
And just when I was pretty impressed with myself, my confidence was shattered when American-Statesman photographer Ricardo B. Brazziell took the wheel and did well enough to earn this question from Mewis: “You want to take it out on the road, see what it’s like on the road?”
“Sure,” said Brazziell. “Let’s go to Schlitterbahn.”
Mewis hit some magic buttons and the gate opened, freeing us for an impromptu field trip. Brazziell did great behind the wheel and we all enjoyed a pleasant afternoon at the New Braunfels water park. No, we didn’t. We just drove around a nearby neighborhood for about 10 minutes and returned to the bus parking lot.
“See this lady that’s walking up here. Honk your horn and wave at her,” Mewis told Brazziell. “That’s my wife.”
Now, let’s talk about the readily accessible “Bodily Fluid Cleanup Kit.”
“It’s sure to happen about once a year,” Mewis said. “The driver calls in and says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a mess all over my bus.’”
No big deal, he says. The kit features a kitty litter-like absorbent substance and a spatula.
“You take that spatula and mash it all around … ,” he said.
Still interested? Contact the Lake Travis school district transportation folks at 512 533-6070. Look forward to extensive training and testing, including getting the state license needed to drive a school bus.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and not be driving the one day a year when the cleanup kit is needed.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com