Arrive alive

The real rules of riding the school bus

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Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

Hail to the bus driver:
In Chico, kids have to pay to ride the school bus--nearly $300 a year--although there’s an exception for those with low incomes. To get a ride, students in kindergarten through sixth grade must live more than two miles from school, and older students more than three miles. The longest routes are those carrying students who live in Nord, Cohasset, Mud Flat or Forest Ranch.

When I was a kid, the hugest injustice in the world of school bus riding came when the bus stopped, not at the front of the line where the sequence of arrival was carefully marked by lunch boxes and backpacks, but at the rear of the line. He who was first became last and vice versa. It set the entire universe out of balance.

Like the playground and lunchroom, the school bus is a microcosm of social growth and tyranny during key years of a child’s development. Friendships are made and broken, secrets are revealed and coping skills are mastered—all in the space of a half-hour or so a day.

Today—as in P.E., where teachers no longer yell at you but rather foster noncompetitive exercise—school bus-riding is a kinder and gentler sport.

In the Chico Unified School District, asserts veteran bus driver Phil Cushman, kids don’t get away with the kind of evil, self-esteem-killing sadism that prevailed in my day. Most drivers are attentive, managing their young charges with a variety of progressive techniques while paying attention to the road at the same time.

Cushman, who also trains new bus drivers, has trained himself during his nine-year tenure to keep one eye on that cool mirror that sees all the way to the back of the bus. “Whenever something unusual happens, my eyes glance up there to see what’s going on,” he says. It could be a lot of things.

I’ve compiled a list of rules, by the book and my own 20/20 street smarts, on how to survive that daily bus ride.

1. Respect the line.

Lord of the Flies-style, each geographical area or “stop” will devise its own elaborate system governing how to wait for the bus. The official rules say to stand 10 feet back as the bus approaches. Beyond that, it’s up to the students to decide how to line up and in what order. Generally, it’s first-come, first-on. Don’t make a move until the doors open; you could get hurt or in trouble. Above all, don’t go bending down and picking up things or walking around the bus where the driver can’t see you. That’s how kids end up on the nightly news.

2. Don’t miss the bus.

First, your folks will clobber you. Second, it’s a huge pain that can end in tears depending on the rider’s age and emotional stability. You’re supposed to be there five minutes before the bus arrives.

“If they miss the bus, they miss the bus,” Cushman says. He’s not being heartless but rather thinking of the common good. “If we stay and wait for them, it’s going to have a domino effect. I’ll usually give them a minute past their time, especially if they’re [usually reliable]. But if I see them running, I will wait.”

3. Note the seating hierarchy.

Seniority and popularity are usually the governing factors. The prime seating is in the back of the bus; the farther front you are the worse off, status-wise. No one really wants to be on the “hump” (over the wheel), but this is more key during field trips. Window is better than aisle. Sitting alone can be either a status symbol or a sign you are being shunned. If someone doesn’t want to sit next to you, he or she will indicate this by flinging a leg, arm or personal item over the exposed portion of the seat. This is often accompanied by the proclamation that the seat is “saved.” The bus driver has the power to assign seats.

A popular form of punishment among bus drivers, including Cushman, is to move troublemakers to the maligned front seats: geek locale. “Most of the unruly kids tend to drift to the back,” he says.

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

4. Be wary of peer-inflicted dangers.

Your fellow students may engage in one of more of the following activities: tripping (look downward as you walk the aisle), lunch-stealing (a lesser offense being fruit-damaging), esteem-tearing, spitball throwing and boyfriend-kissing.

One of the CUSD rules orders riders not to “tease, chastise, annoy or make fun of others,” the very things that constituted the bulk of bus-time activity when I was in school. (My Filipina best friend spent her formative years being called the “N word” by an older rider named Brad; the driver told us to “settle it ourselves.") Perhaps kids today are kinder, but I doubt it. To avoid being teased, chastised or annoyed, I would advise conforming at all costs.

“My rule of thumb is you keep your hands off other people,” Cushman says. “Calling people names and teasing—I don’t like it.”

He doesn’t like tattletales either, “but I do investigate,” he says.

5. Be aware of the different species of bus driver.

The role of school bus driver, along with that of the venerable hair-netted lunch lady, has been stereotyped most recently on The Simpsons. Otto, his jacket smelling strongly of sweat and marijuana, regularly careens the school bus off cliffs and bridges.

You might get the “sweet” bus driver, who cares how you’re doing but misses the signs of a class struggle six feet behind him or her. You could get the “mean” bus driver, barking orders and enforcing the rules verbatim. Most popular in my day was the “plastic” bus driver, a disinterested entity who seldom spoke and whose function was solely to steer the bus.

Nowadays, you aren’t supposed to speak to the bus driver. Cushman readily admits that he breaks that rule. “I talk with them quite often,” he said. “I trying to know everyone’s name, and I try to greet them by their first name when they get on the bus.” When they’re in trouble, he’ll roll out the last name, dad-like, so they know he means business.

6. Note the rules.

In the CUSD, various objects and activities are forbidden on the bus, including but not limited to: glass containers, chewing gum and eating or drinking (unless the driver says you can drink, like Cushman, who encourages water bottles when it’s hot).

Besides obvious no-no’s like damaging the bus or throwing things or possessing weapons, riders also must not “talk or laugh in an unusually loud voice,” “crowd or push,” “scuffle or wrestle” or “use profane language or vulgar gestures.” Furthermore, don’t put anything—including your body parts—out the bus window, and don’t stand up or change seats.

Violations mean a citation, and four of those gets you thrown off the bus for the year. By law, riding the bus is a privilege, not a right.

A sure way to silence every kid on the bus—almost worse than your teacher sending you to the Principal’s Office—is to threaten to “stop this bus” and then actually do it. “I’ve done it,” Cushman says. “When I stop the bus, all I have to do is turn off the engine and stand up in the front.” They know they’re busted.

7. What happens on the bus stays on the bus.

Between kids, anyway. It’s a long time between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and by the time you get back on there’s a chance that Billy the Bully has forgotten his early-morning promise to beat the crap out of you. Hope for the best.

I rode the bus, and I turned out OK— didn’t I?