The first day of school is always exciting, even for school bus drivers like me. Buses are repaired, adjusted and tested; they are cleaned inside, polished outside, ready to go.
I am starting my eighth year as a driver in the Locust Valley Central School District. Early in the morning, I pick up high schoolers; later I drive band, chorus and orchestra members to practices before classes; then I pick up little ones in kindergarten through fifth grade. In the afternoon, I'll take many of them back home.
The youngest ones are amazing to watch, especially on their first day. At the steps, they raise one tiny foot at a time with a hand on the rail, and then pull up another foot beside the first. Family members take pictures. The youngsters move cautiously into seats in the front and buckle up, usually smiling and curiously looking around.
When the bus starts to move, they wave goodbye to their families. Of course, they don't know they're waving away their babyhood, too, starting a long journey of schooling.
At the beginning of the school year, they will sit in the front row quietly like rabbits, but by the end of June, I will need gentle cat-herding skills to stop them from roaming on the bus. In time, all children will grow like bean sprouts, in length and width, in form and content. Restless kids turn into scholars. Timid children become leaders.
Noise always accompanies a school bus. Lower-grade classes whisper and giggle. Upper-grade students shove, joke and laugh. Before the bus moves, they are asked to quiet down and behave as if in a classroom. When a school bus is in motion, safety regulations are in place.
Drivers take our responsibility seriously. We must attend continuing education courses on regulations and technology twice a year. We must pass the annual physical examination, and random drug and alcohol tests.
Our passengers are confined in a limited space, and safety is always the first concern. Any violent behaviors, bullying of any kind, physical and verbal abuse, profanity -- any factors that would jeopardize the safety of the ride -- are prohibited.
Occasionally there is shoving and punching. On very rare occasions, I'll park the bus, turn off the engine and walk to the back. Everyone is suddenly quiet.
"What's the problem?" I ask.
Someone might say, "He hit me."
I talk to them nicely and listen with patience. Those at fault usually respond with an apology and a promise not to repeat the behavior. For the first offenders, I consider such trouble a misstep, not a crime, therefore forgivable. After all, trial and error is a process of learning. But repeated offenses must be reported to the school authorities.
The job offers different experiences. A field trip is always interesting. On the return to school, I often have a funny feeling that the load is heavier, because the students have more in their heads.
A trip to a sporting event is always special. Players' spirits are high, energy abundant. The school name is on their uniforms. Their honor is at stake. Later, I will hear the jubilant roars after a victory, or feel the silent agony of a loss.
A school bus is hardly a luxurious touring vehicle. It lacks air conditioning and plush seats; windows open less than halfway. But the spirit and curious minds of students make the daily routine enjoyable. Best of all, I never take my work home.
Reader Chao-Sheng Cheng lives in Glen Cove.