Have you ever wondered why anyone would want to drive a school bus? How they could willingly spend hours in a confined space with 50 or 60 kids, maneuvering a vehicle that costs about $100,000?
"It isn't an easy job, but there's a feeling of satisfaction," driver Jennifer Smith said on a recent Friday afternoon, shouting to make herself heard above the roar of a busload of junior high school students. "When you've successfully run 50 kids home, you feel like you've done something."
Smith's bus, No. 23, was looking exceptionally clean that day. (Mechanic Pete Logee had just spent an hour with a can of lacquer remover, cleaning off the gang name somebody had painted on one side.) As the vehicle chugged up the hilly part of Encinitas Boulevard, going 10 miles an hour, the kids began stamping their feet and yelling, "Get us home!" A broken yellow pencil whizzed through the air, narrowly missing Smith's left ear.
These, she explained, are not "bad" kids (although a few might be classified as "mildly rotten"). Some are charming. Some are endearingly helpful. The majority are just kids; full of energy and life, and Friday afternoon nuttiness.
"They're so much better now than they were when I started," she said.
That start wasn't very long ago. Smith, a former Peace Corps worker in her early 40s, finished her bus driver's training in November--20 hours in the classroom, 20 hours behind the wheel, culminating in a test run with a California Highway Patrol officer.
Her first day driving children was one she believes will be engraved in her memory forever.
"I thought the elementary children would be much easier to handle than the junior high," she said. "But they were worse. They made so much noise I didn't hear the siren of an ambulance behind me. Then they imitated the sound of a siren so well that I was fooled into pulling over twice."
When she gave the kids a lecture, along the lines that they must shape up or be suspended from riding the bus, they retaliated by smearing the windows with Vaseline.
"But not the back window," she said. "They taped a sign saying 'EAT POOH' onto that, and pointed it out to passing cars. I could tell something was going on, but they were 40 feet away from me back there, and I couldn't keep turning my head around while I was driving. All I could do was glare at them in the rear-view mirror."
Not By the Book
In training, Smith explained, a lot of time was devoted to mechanical and medical emergencies. She read dozens of "What to Do If . . . " pamphlets.
"But nothing you learn in class quite prepares you for the feather-light tap of little fingers on your shoulder and a 7-year-old voice saying, 'Bus driver, Eric hit me in the privates.' "
San Dieguito Transportation Cooperative--for whom Smith drives--is funded as part of the San Diego County Office of Education. The county does get some of its money back. Children who ride the bus pay $37.50 for a semester pass.
To Smith, on that first day, it sounded like a simple matter to check passes as the kids boarded the bus. She was unprepared for the aggression displayed by some of them--particularly on the junior high bus--when told they must have a pass or walk home.
"One boy about 13 leaned down close to me and hissed, 'I'm going to get my mother to take care of you. ' I had an instant vision of a mother who looked like the Godfather," she recalled.
The 40 drivers who mill around the bus lot behind San Dieguito High School are a friendly bunch. Perhaps it's a defense mechanism--created by the pressures of their job--but they go out of their way to be helpful to each other. When Smith walked shakily into the driver's lounge after her first day on No. 23, her bangs still clinging damply to her forehead with perspiration, everyone she spoke to was encouraging.
"They told me the job would get easier. And it has," she said. "The main problem is that you're driving with all those kids behind you. You're locked in there with them. The only adult. Totally responsible. You can't ever let your guard down. It's helped me a lot that I'm driving the same kids five afternoons a week. I'm getting to know them."
Making Her Way
Smith has two children of her own: 15-year-old Cece and 13-year-old Josie. Since she became a single parent seven years ago, she has also been the financial support of an elderly sheepdog named Edgar and a house in Cardiff's Poinsettia Heights.
"Well-paid work, when you've been out of the job market for awhile, is hard to find," she said, explaining why the $8 an hour, plus time-and-a-half for field trips, paid to school bus drivers looks attractive to her.
When she first started looking for work (armed with a degree in English and the ability to play soccer and quote Shakespeare) she ran through a series of minimum-wage jobs.
"I've scrubbed toilets and sliced salami and worked in McDonald's," she said. She also typed term papers, tutored high school kids, took class notes for a handicapped person studying Spanish, and sold a dozen articles to the San Diego Union. None of these tasks, however, offered her a feeling of security.
"That's the great thing about the transportation cooperative," she said. "They treat you as if you are valuable. They give you the feeling they really want you."
They don't "want" everybody, though. Only the healthy and law-abiding.
Prospective drivers are fingerprinted. They have to turn in their driving record. They undergo a complete physical for a health certificate, and it must be renewed every two years.
A Full Day
Smith's day usually begins at 6:30 a.m. She gets Cece and Josie off to school, goes for a run, has a fast shower, and then is off to her part-time office job. (Although she just last week took on an early-morning bus run before heading to the office.)
At 1:15 p.m., in T-shirt and jeans, she's down at the bus yard, clambering over No. 23, checking for anything that might be troublesome.
"It's the law that every driver who takes the bus out does a safety check first," said Smith. "It takes a bit of time to cross off every item on the safety check list. There are 83 of them."
By 2:15, she and No. 23 are waiting at Diegueno Junior High, a new school planted in the still-raw earth behind Encinitas' rapidly growing Village Park area.
After all the junior high students have been dropped off, she drives over to Pacific View Elementary, which has been in Encinitas for 33 years.
"I'm growing fond of some of them now," she says of the elementary kids. "You can't help but be touched by a little girl who turns in the doorway and whispers, 'They say you're mean, but I think you're nice.'
"I can't emphasize too strongly, though, how loud elementary kids can get. They can go from voice tone to scream in a single breath. And they don't even know they're doing it. The first time I pulled over and told them, 'I'm not going on until you all stop making such a loud noise,' they looked at me in astonishment and said, 'What loud noise?' "
Her route with the elementary children winds through Leucadia, along narrow back roads where thickly drooping trees obscure the street signs, and the corners are not easily navigated with 40 feet of bus.
"Instead of pavement, two of the stops are in a bank of iceplant," she said.
Part of the school bus driver's responsibility is to be alert for any sign of trouble at the stops. They carry two-way radios to call for help if they see a gang fight about to break out.
"I've never seen any signs of one," Smith said. "One time, in Leucadia, there was a teen-age boy standing across from the stop with a large snake draped around his neck. He was staring at the bus, obviously waiting for us. I hung around because I thought he might be planning to scare the smaller children. But all he wanted to do was show his pet around."
Little Things Count
Driving a bus, Smith said, is beginning to increase her self-confidence. At the last monthly drivers' meeting, she raised her hand instantly when the director of transportation, Stan Ross, asked for volunteers to rewrite the Bus Drivers Handbook.
"The frustrated writer in me was rising as fast as my hand," she said. "I thought 'A chance to write something. I'll take it!' "
By 4:30 Smith is back at the bus yard. She's keyed up then, full of adrenaline from several hours of intense concentration, from having to make constant judgment calls. She still has to fill in her mileage and clean No. 23 before she goes home.
On a recent Friday, as she moved, broom in hand, between the battle-scarred green seats, she discovered that someone had rippled up part of the floor linoleum.
"You learn to be grateful for little things," she said with a shrug. "When I first started driving, they were eating on the bus. The seats were sticky with crumbs. The floor was a mass of gum and broken candy and shredded coconut. I've managed to get them to stop doing that. They are getting better."