Riding the Big Yellow Bus

Hank and Chuck

By Hank Manz

I am getting used to the fact that much of the world views me as an Old Guy.

All the signs are there. Kids I know mostly call me “Hank,” but young women—and at my age that means they are under 45—almost always call me “Sir.” The clerk at Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t even look twice before giving me the senior discount. And the Lexpress bus driver doesn’t start the bus until I have taken my seat.

So it was interesting to return to my childhood a few days ago when Judy Crocker, long an advocate for getting school kids out of cars and off to school by bus, bike, and foot, arranged for me to make a morning school bus run. There I was at 7 AM, along with fellow Selectman Norman Cohen and School Committee Member Jessie Steigerwald, outside Lexington High School, waiting for Chuck Trombly who drives bus #7 for C&W Transportation.

Right off the bat I was impressed with the reaction of a bus driver when Jessie asked him which bus he was. He immediately said that he could not take any riders. That’s good. The drivers are trained in security.

But then the #7 showed up and I waved goodbye to the other two and met Chuck who was finishing his first of three runs for the morning. I took a seat up front, once again reminded that while I am taller than average, I would have trouble seeing over the padded seat backs which are built high for safety in the event of a crash.

The high school run was over, but the second run of the day was for Diamond Middle School. This may surprise a few parents, but the kids were mostly quiet and when they got off the bus many thanked Chuck. They knew his name, but even better, he knew theirs and he also knew the names of many of the parents.

I had prepared for this trip by watching 16 Candles, the movie which was the breakout for Molly Ringwald. The one where she climbs on the school bus with a friend, looks at all the riders acting out, then turns to her friend and says “I just loathe the bus.” Someone has posted a video clip of that scene on YouTube which you can see at:

I found that the school bus in Lexington is nothing like that. The kids were mildly interested in why someone my age was riding the bus. Several of them greeted me by name. If I recognized them, then I probably knew them from Boy Scouts or baseball. If I didn’t, then it was probably hockey where I don’t recognize anybody unless they have on a helmet.

Shower shoes as school footwear are still in style even with winter approaching as are T-shirts with questionable slogans on them. Backpacks look incredibly heavy. One of my Scouts told me that he carries a backpack that weighs one third of what he weighs.

They chattered away about all sorts of things but only had to be reminded to use their “indoor voices” a couple of times by Chuck.

We were on time to Diamond and then immediately started a Fiske run. The riders were a little louder, but once again Chuck knew their names and the names of the adults waiting with the kids at each stop. There was one tough moment when it turned out that a cul-de-sac was almost completely blocked with construction material, but Chuck managed to get the bus turned around in a space that looked small for the Mini I drive. I was impressed.

We were a few minutes late pulling into Fiske, but with the street blockage and the traffic I wasn’t surprised.

But that wasn’t the end because now it was bus evacuation drill day back at Diamond. Once there the bus was the scene of several simulated accidents. After a short talk about safety systems and means of egress from a crashed bus, the students opened the back door and practiced getting out quickly.

Sounds like an enjoyable morning, right? As it turned out, inside the bus everything was great. Chuck not only knew his route, but he knew the people on his route. He knew which kids were going to be late out the door. He checked the bus for lost items and possible sleeping students after we unloaded at each school. He had obviously made friends with his passengers so they paid attention when he spoke.

Outside the bus was another story. Some parents were late getting their kids to the bus stop and were not shy about keeping the bus waiting. Automobile driver were reluctant to let the bus into traffic. Car drivers resented stopped school buses and thought nothing of beeping and yelling and making that hand sign which could mean “You’re number one” but which I think means something else. The glut of automobiles near each school slowed traffic and made it hard to get to the bus lanes.

There was the National Grid truck whose driver, talking on a cell phone, almost drove past the bus, but stopped. He was well into the danger zone, but at least he stopped, something I cannot say about other drivers.

While the automobile traffic at each school wasn’t a complete showstopper, it was clear that we are at, or at least close to, a point at which something will have to be done to move personal vehicles out of the way so that buses can do their job efficiently. Moreover, there were some almost heartstopping moments when parents let students out of a car so they could run across traffic to get to the school.

There were volunteers and school staff helping at each school to move things along and they were not only working hard, but were working effectively. They, too, obviously knew the students.

I made a mental note to come back on a rainy day to see how many more cars would be added to the queue.

The bottom line is that if you are a parent wondering how safe the bus is, I found it less stressful than my rides on the T. The drivers are skilled, the buses are in good shape, the ride is smooth, and I can’t say enough about the atmosphere on the bus. My bus ride was nothing like the rides I remember from my youth to which I can only say Thank You! But I hope that more students will start to ride the bus and I fervently hope that parents who do drive, will exercise caution when letting their kids out of the car. What I saw outside the bus was, frankly, too often a bit scary.


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