I completed bus driver training. I passed the test and now had my CDL with school bus and passenger endorsements. Before transporting kids the district had one more test for me: the solo drive. I'd spend one day looking at the district map and mapping out a route, writing it down turn by turn, taking me to each of the 24 schools in the 110 square mile district. I had to remember from my training all the "no turn" intersections, streets our buses were not allowed on, and have my prospective route reviewed and approved by the routing department.
Here's Little K with the district map. It is posted on a wall and I couldn't get far enough away to get it all in the picture.
The next day, after getting my route approved, I checked in at the dispatch window. I gave them a photocopy of my route and they gave me keys to a bus to use. The bus was the oldest bus in the fleet, the one that rattles and bounces so much that I really should have worn a sports bra to drive it. It was the first time I'd be alone in a bus, driving by myself. The test was not only to see if I could bring the bus back to base in one piece, but also if I'd get lost, drive off the road while reading my route instructions, and respond in a timely manner when called on the 2-way radio.
In the photo above you can see how my eyes are above the top of the side window and just at the level of the top of the windshield, and my head way above the headrest of the seat. It may be a big vehicle, but the driver's compartment is not designed for a big person like me. As a bus driver you have to do a lot of "rocking and rolling" in the seat to see around vision blockers like the side mirrors, but I had the added fun of "hunching" to see traffic signals and signs above, when stopped at intersections.
Thankfully the newer buses (like #52 above) have larger windshields and better sightlines than the older buses (like #13 above). Eventually I'd no longer have to hunch, but for the next couple years until I worked my way up the seniority ladder, I'd likely be stuck in the old buses.
The solo drive took place over two days, between the morning and afternoon transport times. I made it to each school, didn't hit anything, didn't get lost, didn't go in the ditch, and answered the radio calls, but I was going a bit too slowly, and had to stop at several schools and go in to use the restroom, because my bladder was both nervous, and irritated by the rattling of the old bus. The driver trainer who was to check in on me via radio was not happy at how slow my progress was.
I was supposed to be back to base long before the drivers came in for the afternoon shift. I pulled in as they were streaming in in their cars, and of course I was blocking their path as I tried to back the bus into its parking stall. Somehow I miscalculated my angle, and after three attempts, backwards and forwards, I couldn't get it in the stall. The line up of bus drivers in their cars, anxious to clock-in for work, was now backed up out onto the roadway. Talk about embarrassment and pressure. Hadn't I scored 100% on my backing maneuvers during the test? Why couldn't I park this bus? A driver in the car nearest me got out of her car and tried to give me hand signals and help back me. When I still couldn't get it, she boarded the bus, told me to get out of the seat, sat down, and zipped that bus back into the stall in half a second.
It turned out that the reference point I'd been using to begin my turn was only good if there was 50' or more of "run-out" room. This stall was across from the buswash, and therefore I needed to adjust my reference point 5' beyond the usual, and crank it at a sharper angle.
I post-tripped the bus and went into the base to give the keys back to dispatch, and there were all my soon-to-be co-workers, who I had made late for work by blocking the driveway while trying to back my bus. I was so ashamed, but everyone was cheering me on, assuring me it would get better, and being supportive. I'm so fortunate to have such kind co-workers. I was told that becoming a bus driver in our district was like joining a family, and I was feeling the truth of this today.
142 drivers and more than 150 buses.
After completing my solo driving I was paired with a mentor driver whose route I would drive for a couple weeks. The first few days the mentor would be on board with me, coaching my interactions with students, refining my driving techniques, and teaching me things that aren't taught in the classroom.
The first thing I learned was that there are all these areas the drivers refer to on the radio, and despite my living here all my life, I had no idea where they were. "Accident at substation... backup at the teardrop... dead deer on roller coaster...signal out at 5 Star..."
There was more than just the CB lingo to learn, beyond "Copy," "10-4," and "Over." Some of these places were named after things that weren't there anymore, that only the old-timers would know about, such as long-gone buildings and businesses. Another complicating factor was that our district spread out over 7 cities and towns, and a large unincorporated area. That meant duplication in street names, so if a driver said "accident on 148th," that could have been in three different cities. Most drivers recognized the other drivers by their voices, and knew if "John" was talking about a round-a-bout, since he drove the plateau, he was referring to that one, and not the one on the east side of the lake, or the one near the freeway in the north end. There was so much for me to learn!!!
Route Books. There are about 200 of them -- these are at the main base, there are more at the satellite base. There is NO GPS allowed on the bus.
Monday morning I was at base at 6am, ready to meet my mentor. She had called in sick, so one of my driver trainers drove the route. My very first day on the route the mentor driver was to drive, and the next day I would begin. I sat in the first row with the route book and observed. I was grateful to see my driver trainer, who had not only been driving for years but was an instructor, make a few little errors as he tried to find his way on an unfamiliar route in an unfamiliar bus. This was very comforting to me, since I was so worried and nervous about how I'd manage. You see, after the mentor driving phase, which put me on 6 of the 200 or so routes, I'd then be thrown into the sub pool. It could be a year or more before getting my own route, and until then I'd be doing different routes every day.
The route was one of the easier ones in the district: a high school / middle school run with 2 stops, loading about 30 kids at each stop, then dropping at the two schools. 15 minutes layover at a school (bathroom break), then off to get 70 kids from 5 stops and deliver them to an elementary, then back to base. Repeat in reverse in the afternoon.
The next morning my mentor driver was back to work with a hacking cough, sitting behind me in the front row as I drove the route for the first time. Several miles of winding rural roadway on the way to begin the route was in the process of being repaved, and had not yet been striped. It was pitch dark at 6:30am. It was impossible to see the edge of the road, and the dropoff was severe. The speed limit was 40, but I was terrified and could barely bring myself up to 30. I was unfamiliar with the road and it was very curvy, there were no streetlights, it was dark, and I was slowing down the traffic behind me. My mentor driver spent the next few days urging me to drive faster, and I tried to obey, but I was scared out of my wits every morning until the sun rose and I could see.
Here's a stretch of that roadway just after they striped it (and in the daylight!). You can see that on the first pass at painting the fog line they couldn't even keep the paint on the roadway, that's how narrow it is. Imagine dropping a tire off the edge... you'd surely flip over.
My first weeks of driving our area experienced an unusual weather pattern: thick fog that never burned off during the day. I was actually giddy when I came upon road construction because it gave me permission to drive slowly. Despite her constant ribbing for me to drive faster, I loved my mentor driver. She knew all her students' names. She lived in their neighborhood and knew many of their parents and siblings. She attended most of the high school sports events and cheered on the kids who rode her bus.
The freeway at 5:30am as I head to work. Most of the day it is solid with traffic.
Walking into "the yard" from where I parked my car, 5:45am
I've never been a morning person, but somehow I adjusted to getting up at 4:30am. I didn't sleep well, had vivid nightmares of bus crashes when I was asleep, and had nervous stomach for weeks (and lost 8 pounds in the process!).
These are the images that fill my dreams at night.
This happened in Seattle a few years ago. Our very steep hills don't mix well with ice and snow. Please let it be a mild winter this year!
Despite the stress, I was in love. I loved when the kids boarded the bus in the morning, the defroster heaters intensifying the way they smelled -- of curry, strawberry shampoo, or aftershave. Some had obviously worked hard on styling their hair, others had serious bedhead. They were bundled in their puffy coats and curled up in the seats, bent over their glowing handheld devices in the darkness. A few of the teens came aboard with fresh Starbucks (thanks, Dad!) or hot tea in a travel mug. The rules say no food or drink on the bus, but the regular driver allowed the teens to if they kept the bus clean, which they did.
I loved talking with the kids as we waited to leave the school in the afternoon, hearing about their day. They were so full of energy and excitement for the afternoon hours ahead, even if they did have far too much homework.
Sitting and waiting for 10 minutes because road workers have just painted a new stop line at the T intersection up ahead, and we buses are too long to maneuver fully around it, so we're "waiting for paint to dry."
My first week driving students I got to write my first "student conduct violation," and unfortunately it was a serious one, ending up in a suspension. Our district has a person, or shall I say a "saint," who spends most of her day talking with parents and school principals about students who misbehave on the bus. She reviews video tapes from the buses when there is an incident, works with the driver to help them manage students, listens to concerned parents of kids being bullied, talks in a non-threatening way with defensive parents who deny that their child misbehaved, and even rides along on routes that have student conduct problems. It is a very difficult job and I have great admiration for her. I was grateful for the support and guidance of this woman, herself a veteran bus driver who has likely "seen it all," or at least dealt with the aftermath of some very bad situations, from students with guns, to drivers that "lose it" and do regrettable things. In fact, we're only 5 weeks into the school year and already a driver has been "given the opportunity to resign."
In the weeks that followed I learned to "pick my battles" with certain students, and had to pull over the bus several times (which isn't easy, because many of the roads are narrow, with no place to stop). One time a bunch of middle school boys were throwing a banana around the bus like a football. Luckily I found a place to pull over and was able to confiscate the banana before it exploded from its peel. In three weeks I wrote 3 tickets on the elementary route, and gave many more verbal warnings. Part of learning to drive a school bus... student management.
One afternoon when I got back from my run there was this perfect heart-shaped cloud above the bus base.
I felt it perfectly captured my feelings about my new career. Despite the challenges some days, I LOVE my new job as a school bus driver!