Monday, January 19, 2009

For Whom the Bus Rolls by Earl Staggs



Earl Staggs spent most of his life in Maryland and working as a salesman. When he and his wife gave up the cold winters of the north and moved south -- first to Florida and now in Fort Worth -- he decided to try something he’d always dreamed of. He’d always dreamed of being a fiction writer. That was in 1995, and the first step was to join a class at the local community college in Gainesville, Florida. The class happened to be about writing short mystery stories, so that’s where he started.

Over the next few years, his stories appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. One of them brought home a Derringer Award as Best Short Mystery of the Year. He joined the Short Mystery Fiction Society and served as its Vice President, then President. He also served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, a role he feels was a great help in developing his own writing abilities.

After honing his skills with short stories, Earl wrote a mystery novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER, which received twelve Five Star reviews on Amazon.com and B&N.com.


For Whom the Bus Rolls
by Earl Staggs

When School Bus 141 rolls out of the lot in Southlake, Texas, the driver is concentrating on getting to his stops on time, picking up his students, and getting them to school safely. He may also be thinking about the next story he will write. I know because I’m that driver.

“Hey, Earl, I thought you were supposed to be a hot shot mystery writer. Turns out you’re only a school bus driver.”

“ONLY a school bus driver? Hold that thought, bubba. I’ll get back to you in a minute.”

Before I deal with him, I want to explain how I became a school bus driver. A few years ago, I retired from full time employment and jumped into becoming a writer. I’d always dreamed of writing, but never had time. It was the perfect time. I wrote some short stories and even started a novel. After a while, I discovered I didn’t like retirement. It occurred to me that if you don’t have to get up in the morning, go somewhere and do something, you can get old. I was not ready to get old. There was too much I still wanted to do. The solution? A part time job.

Finding a part time job, however, wasn’t easy. I wasn’t ready to put on a Walmart vest, stand by the entrance and say, “Welcome to Walmart. Want a cart?”

After a few weeks of looking, I found a sheet of paper in my front yard. It turned out to be a flyer from the local school district saying they had job openings for school bus drivers. “Hmmmmm,” I said. “Check it out.”

So I called the number, and went for an immediate interview. The hours, I learned, were perfect for a writer. Drivers worked two hours in the morning getting the kids to school and another two hours in the afternoon taking them home. In between would be about six hours of time free for my writing. An hour after I got back home from the interview, I received a call saying I’d been hired. Okay. Now what?

The now what turned into four weeks of studying for the test required to get the kind of license needed for the job, plus actual training on a real bus. Was I nervous the first few times I got behind the wheel on one of those big things? Oh, yeah. Those babies are huge. Plus, there’s that tail swing thing.

Tail swing, you see, comes into play because the rear wheels of a bus are some ten feet in front of the rear bumper. When you turn, the tail end of the bus lags behind and makes a wide swing, easily taking out anything in its path. You have to be very careful and make sure you have enough room to make the turn. (I was careful, but in my first year of driving, I clipped the side view mirror off a parked car. Not just any car, mind you. A brand new Cadillac.)

After I was fully licensed and trained, I was assigned to a Special Needs route. We say Special Needs, not Handicapped. The kids I carried were special and they had needs different from regular kids. Some of our students were in wheelchairs, some were autistic and non-communicative, most had learning disabilities. But they were beautiful and I came to know and love them. Two people are required on these buses. In addition to the driver, there’s a monitor, who sits in the back and takes care of any immediate needs the students might have.

Not that there weren’t problems. We always had to be on the lookout for seizures, which are not uncommon. We also had to be ready for outbursts of any kind. Some of the kids would suddenly scream for no apparent reason or decide to take off their clothes. Occasionally, an outburst involved physical violence.

On one such occasion, sixteen-year-old Markeiff, who was autistic and usually quiet, undid his seat belt and attacked my monitor. By the time I pulled over, secured the bus and went to her rescue, he had her pinned against the rear door. She had a good grip on his wrists, but he was kicking at her. I managed to wrestle Markeiff to the floor and lay on top of him. He tried to get free at first, but after two or three minutes, he relaxed. After another minute went by, I let him up. He went quietly to his seat, buckled his seat belt, and looked at me as if to say, “Okay, let’s go to school” as if nothing had happened. No one knew what triggered his episodes, but they happened occasionally, and after they were over, he was fine.

We had other episodes on the bus, some physical but not violent. Tyler was a wheelchair boy of eleven and every once in a while, he would announce he “had to go to the bathroom.” Well, there are no bathrooms on a school bus. That mean my monitor and I had to swing into action. While I pulled the bus over, she undid his straps and belts. I then carried him off the bus and held him upright beside it while he “went to the bathroom.” I’m happy to say he was capable of unzipping and lowering his own pants so I didn’t have to do that.

I’ve since switched to another school district and no longer drive Special Needs. Now I have regular kids from kindergarten to eighth grade, which is a whole new adventure. But I still love the job and still think it’s the best part time job in the world for a writer.

Now where’s that guy with the “only a school bus driver” remark?

Listen up, bubba. As a writer, I may never turn out the Great American Novel, and as a citizen, I may not find a cure for cancer or a solution to world peace. But you know what? As a school bus driver, I can make sure sixty-five kids get to school and back home safely every day and, someday, maybe one of them will cure cancer or achieve world peace. To me, that means something. ONLY a school bus driver? Ha! Make that PROUDLY a school bus driver.

And by the way, about that Great American Novel thing? I still have a shot at that.

11 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

Roll on, Earl! Those kids are lucky to have you.

Auntie Knickers said...

Great piece, so true! I have fond memories of my last school bus driver, Spear Sedgley. As we crossed the bridge and headed up the hill in May of my senior year, the bolder kids would start chanting, "Spear! Spear! We want a Dairy Joy!" and he would stop the bus at the Dairy Queen with the sign "LBJ Ate Here" and we could all pile out and get ice milk. And that was when a cone was still, like, 15 cents. (Oh, and in Maine, "Dairy Joy" was the generic term even though DQ was the prevailing ice milk merchant). Good times!

Ken Lewis said...

Hi Earl!

I wish to salute you for bravely entering the maw of juvenile schooldom every week Monday through Friday, and coming out the other side a better man for it! We work closely with the bus drivers in our local school district, protecting them on their routes to and from the school zones from inconsiderate and illegal drivers who pass the buses when they're stopped to load or unload...a major traffic violation carrying a major fine. We like to think of our patrol cars as "fighter escorts" for the big lumbering "bus bombers," escorting them safely to their drop zones. But Earl, I know what goes on inside those buses and my hat...and my badge...is off to you, sir!

Jen said...

Earl, if I had a hat, it would be off to you as well. I taught high school kids for a handful of years. Despite their craziness, I loved the kids. Too bad the politics ran me off. Keep truckin' Mr. Bus Driver!

Ken Lewis said...

Earl: Speaking of hats, I'll give you ten bucks for the one you're wearing in your picture. I've been trying to get that "Plantation owner" look for years!

caryn said...

Earl,
Don't ever let anyone down play the role of school bus driver! That is one tough job. I worked as a media specialist in an elementary school for 8 years and let me tell you, I have great respect for anyone who can concentrate on something as important as driving a bus load of kids with...well a bus load of kids giggling and whatnot in the back ground.
Do you think there is a mystery in your experiences somewhere>
Caryn in St. Louis

Lonnie Cruse said...

Earl,

From one bus driver to another, it is, indeed one tough job. I drove the adult ed bus in Metropolis for a year. Mostly adults but still tough. I took out one mail box and one rooster during my career. And at one point the students pasted Post-it notes on my steering wheel with the words "left" and "right" written on them to help me remember which was which. Great idea, but unfortunately the wheel would turn all the way around, leaving the words on the wrong side. Sigh.

Your writing is terrific, when can we expect a new book?

Chester Campbell said...

Great story, Earl. My school bus experience is limited to riding one on grandson's class trip to the zoo. I admire your ability to take on the job. My retirement barely leaves time to write between all the chores.

Kaye Barley said...

Hey there! Well, I swear. Who knew so many of you would have your own "working with kids" stories to tell! I heartily applaud each of you.

Lonnie?! How could I not know this about you? One mailbox and one rooster - pfft. Must have been an old rooster, or by gum - he would have seen you coming! Shoulda been watching before he crossed the road.

Earl, bless his heart, is playing at being Mr. Do It Yourself. He's learning the fine art of tile. IF he lives through this experience he may have all the makings for that Great American Novel. And Carol will have a bootiful new bathroom. Life is good. Although, right now - I'm thinking Earl would disagree. mm mm mm.

Have y'all been watching the Inauguration? I have shed a tear or two. And oh man - I covet Aretha's hat! for real! Off to catch recaps of it all AND try to stay awake to see some of the Inaugural Ball(s).

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and thanks a Texas ton to my dear Kaye Darlin' for letting me ramble here.

Vicki - I'm the lucky one to have those beautiful children, especially the Kindergartners and First Graders. They're so darn cute and I collect a lot of little hugs.

Auntie Knickers - I loved your Dairy Joy story. Reminds me of a field trip I once drove. On the way back to school that warm summer day, the teacher said she'd love to have an iced tea. The kids joined in withwishes for cold soda and milkshakes. You shoulda seen the look on the clerk's face at McDonald's when I drove the bus up to the drive-thru window.

KenChief - Your counterparts here in Texas watch out for us, too. If cars block the bus lane, they're right there to clear the path for us. And when someone "runs our reds," as we say in the bus biz, they're on the scene quickly writing tickets.

But, Ken, in spite of how much I like and admire you, you are NOT getting my hat.

Jen - I think school teachers are grossly under-appreciated and under-paid, along with police officers and firefighters. It saddens me to see good teachers like you leave the profession for the wrong reasons.

Caryn - You are sooooo right. It can be hard to drive with so much going on behind me. I deal with it in my own way. Last week when they were loud and boisterous, I announced, "If you don't quiet down, I WILL kill some of you. Going back to prison doesn't bother me a bit. Some of my best friends are on Death Row." They enjoy my sense of humor, but they also got the message.

Hey, Lonnie! I didn't know you drove a bus. Mailboxes sure are easy prey for us. I've only had one accident since my first year, and it wasn't my fault. A lady backed out of her driveway right smack into the rear end of my bus. "I'm so sorry," she cried. "I was in a hurry and didn't see you." How can you NOT see a big, yellow, full-size bus!

Chester - I know what you mean about retirement time. You're supposed to have so much free time, but it somehow fills up. If you're like me, a lot of it goes to honey-do stuff.

And sweetiepie Kaye Darlin', I hope Carol likes her new bathroom. I also hope I live to see it finished.

Pat Browning said...

Earl,

What a lovely blog about the kids who ride the bus and the driver behind the wheel.

Must be a story there somewhere. Didn't John Steinbeck write a novel about a wayward bus? (-:

Keep on truckin' --
Pat Browning