It’s mid-day at the Bus Barn located on a hill overlooking downtown Globe. The parking lot is beginning to fill up with drivers coming in for their afternoon run.
I’m here to do a ride-along with Marsha Cowan so I can get a better feel for what it’s like to be a bus driver. Cowan, who is a transplant from North Carolina and now lives in Globe, has driven for the district for the last year and a half.
Her route, which takes her out to San Carlos and back in the afternoons, is one of the longer ones. It requires nearly two hours to get everyone home from school. I learn that every route has its own special set of challenges. This one includes the occasional San Carlos bull crossing the highway (it is free range for the cows), and drivers who pass in a no-passing zone.
“We are taught to always go right, “ says Cowan. Luckily, there have been no accidents, just close calls avoiding bulls and bully drivers.
The district, which is currently short two drivers, does its best to accommodate every child who needs to ride the bus to school or get to a sporting event, field trip or other school sanctioned event. However, with just eight full time drivers and two special events drivers−it often means drivers are asked to double up on runs or do extra bus duty for special trips. And, it means picking up some kids up when the sun is barely over the horizon in the morning and getting them back home some twelve hours later.
At 5’6, with salt and pepper hair, an athletic demeanor and a quick smile, Cowan seems perfectly suited for the role of teacher, educator or even contractor (all of which she has been in a career spanning nearly forty years); yet here she is confidently striding through a forty five foot bus like the mechanic she has become: checking the transmission fluid and oil levels, the air brakes and idle times, tire pressure and running lights, radio and intercom systems. All are part of a pre-check, which every driver performs both before and after their runs.
“When I drove a bus in North Carolina,” Cowan says, “all I had to do was drive. Here we do much more. We have to know every inch of our bus, and we’re responsible for the maintenance and the cleanliness of the bus.”
Cowan’s fellow driver, Carol “Crash” Covington, has been driving for twenty nine years and now trains drivers for the district and serves as one of the special event drivers.
She drills the basics into her drivers, including this mantra:
When in doubt… Don’t.
If you don’t know if you should pull out into traffic… Don’t.
If you don’t know if you can make that corner… Don’t.
And always go right.
There was an accident on the highway where a driver had drifted over into the bus driver’s lane. Thinking she would avoid a head-on crash, the bus driver shifted over into the left lane. Except the other driver realized their mistake and swerved back into her lane at the last minute. They hit head on, but luckily no one in that instance was hurt. But the bus driver was the one cited.
It’s times like these that drivers are thankful that their busses are built like tanks. Designed with heavy-duty bumpers and frames, a school bus can survive many crashes and mishaps that will destroy a lesser vehicle. And instead of seat belts, which might impede an evacuation or trap kids inside, the seats on all busses are designed to protect kids from flying about in an event like the one above, with extra high backs and padding on both sides.
Hence the three cardinal rules you’ll hear from every driver:
Stay behind the seat in front of you
If anyone is caught standing on a bus or hanging out in the aisles, it is grounds for a bus driver to lose their CDL, so these rules get enforced without exception. Even for the occasional adult who may think the rules don’t apply, they do.
Covington’s nickname “Crash” was given to her on her first day as a driver nearly three decades ago when she took out a small reflector light on the ground while backing her bus through a cattle guard using her new bifocals. She hasn’t taken out a reflector since, but since the district had several Carols at the time, her nickname stuck and helped her stand out among the Carols. Today, if someone refers to her as Carol, no one knows who that is.
Today, she takes would-be drivers through a fourteen-day, hands-on training program teaching them how to make corners, back through tight spots and drop off children safely.
“Ninety percent of all fatalities happen as drivers are picking up or dropping off children,” she says. “We try to design our routes so we are always dropping off kids on the right, but it’s not always possible… especially in Miami.”
As a grandmother and a driver, she is both road-savvy and streetwise. While she is not bothered by loud noise on her bus, she draws the line when it comes to foul language.
“I give them my little pre-game speech,” she says. “This is my home away from home, and home rule applies. No one speaks dirty on my bus, or I will be happy to turn around and bring you back.”
Carol says she has always liked kids and driving, and has never been one to sit still.
After thirty years, she has a wealth of stories and memories to share, including this one about a
little drama queen who boarded the bus one day and confided in Carol she was worried. Really worried.
“ About what?” Carol asked.
“We’re going to have a test today,” the girl replied.
“Oh? What is it on?” Carol asked again.
“On paper of course!” said the exasperated kindergartener.
Most drivers see their kids every day, twice a day and sometimes on the weekends, and over time will often find themselves playing the role of coach, Commander-In-Chief and confidant.
“Kids don’t always get a good deal of guidance or discipline at home, and they’ll talk to me, “ says Carol. “And while I can’t give them advice, I do try to tell them what I would do… or what I wish my grandkids would do.” She points out the consequences of their actions and tries to get them thinking about the future repercussions.
Sometimes kids tell her things she is sure she shouldn’t know, like the kid who happily boarded the bus one morning and announced to Carol in a voice no one else could hear, that she couldn’t tell anyone else because it was supposed to be a secret; her uncle was visiting from another state, where he was “… what they call a bail jumper.”
These days, Carol no longer drives the regular routes, having shifted over to driving for special events and sporting events, and training other would-be bus drivers. She has taken ex-Marines and former school teachers under her wing to teach them the rules of the road and skills needed to drive, but that isn’t always enough.
The Marine she trained ended up quitting after his first week as a driver, saying he couldn’t hack it. The “it” being the actual live beings on the bus commonly known as kids. On the other hand, Marsha, the former school teacher, took to driving with kids onboard like a duck to water.
“It’s like my classroom, only I don’t have the kids as long, so I have to get to them fast,” she says.
According to both Marsha and Carol, men often have a tougher time than women dealing with the stress of managing a bus-load of kids. The reason, they say, is because men often want to do something physical to stop the chaos, when a little diplomacy or counseling will result in a better outcome with less drama.
Marsha tells of an incident on her bus where one of her students was vandalizing the seats. The other kids on the bus confirmed who it was, but wouldn’t corroborate these details to the principal, who could then have taken district action.
Instead, Marsha handled it her way and kept the kid on the bus one day to confront him about the vandalism. When he denied any wrongdoing, she told him it was okay.
“You don’t have to tell me,” she said. “ I just want you to know the consequences are going to get worse from here. I don’t know who you are angry at or what’s going on, but you need to go and talk to a counselor and get it off your back. If someone is giving you trouble in your life, she can help make it stop.“
Soon after that heart-to-heart talk, something changed for the better, according to Marsha, and there have been no more problems.
When problems can’t be solved by the drivers themselves, there is always the home office at the Bus Barn which is just a call away. If there are any discipline problems a driver needs help with, all they need to do is pull over and call in to the Bus Barn, where Lee Kinnard, the director, or Cece Aguilar, the administrative assistant, will be able to tell a driver what to do and assist in any way to resolve the problem quickly.
“They always have our back,” Marsha says.
Kinnard, who joined the Bus Barn as it’s director two years ago, left a twenty-five year career in law enforcement where he served as an officer with the Globe Police Department, and later as its police chief. After a heart attack and being on one too many crime scenes, he says he decided it was time for a change in careers and applied to the school district.
At the time, the Bus Barn was struggling with just four drivers and an array of problems.
But, there were no dead bodies, so Kinnard was in.
Since arriving, he has worked to improve the bus routes, added drivers and installed ZONAR, a new software program that tracks busses in route as well as the maintenance on each. And soon, he says, the system will be used to track when and where each child gets on and off the bus.
Currently he has eight route bus drivers, and two special events drivers to handle all the demands the district throws his way. Spring is an especially busy time with all multiple sporting events in full swing; baseball, basketball, track and volleyball, in addition to school functions and field trips. He would desperately like hire two more full time drivers, but in the meantime, he says many of his route drivers take up the slack by signing on for extra trips mid-day, or filling in on a route if a driver is out sick.
The job pays approximately $15,000 a year for drivers who put in five to six hours a day, four days a week, during the school year. Others can make up to $25,000 a year if they add on extra runs or special events and school functions. All this and summers off, too.
Still, the low pay and above average responsibility of driving a school bus means this job isn’t for everyone. It requires much more than just the ability to maneuver a forty-five foot bus over hill and dale. It includes being the sole person responsible for a passel of sixty-plus children every day and getting them to and from school safely, listening to their chatter, doling out guidance and addressing discipline as needed.
Yet, there is much to love about the job…for the right person.
“There is no homework and no lesson plans,” Marsha says smiling. “Plus, we get holidays and summers off, work a few hours in the morning and afternoons, have weekends off, and get full benefits.”
What’s not to love about that kind of freedom and flexibility in a job?
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.