Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Fallbrook High students on the bus. “When you’re steering a bus, you’re steering the back."
On the first day of kindergarten, Ricky Reed woke up at 6:15. An hour later, after picture-taking on the lawn, his mother drove him up Fallbrook’s Alvarado Street to the place he calls, in admiration for his older brother, “Michael’s School.” He carried a backpack like his brother’s, a Power Ranger lunch box that he’d been saving since Christmas, and a new set of colored pencils, which he was finally old enough to use.
Ricky’s friend Brittani King was ready to start kindergarten a full week ahead of time. By the last Wednesday in August, she knew exactly what she was going to wear (black dress and tas-seled flats), what the rules were about chewing gum on the bus (you can’t), and which bus she was going to ride (the pink one).
“I don’t think it’s the kindergarten that’s kicking in,” Brittani’s mother Tori said. “It’s just the bus. That’s the first thing that comes out of her mouth: I’m going to kindergarten and I’m going to ride the bus."
Brittani’s bus isn’t really pink, but she rides on the pink route — she carries a pink laminated bus pass, wears a picture of a pink bus around her neck, and watches for the pink metal square on the side of a whale-sized, hornet-colored bus. On the first day of school, she put on her new dress, walked up the road with her mom, and waited with a dozen children and their parents until the bus came groaning and hissing up Hillcrest Lane. Then, for the very first time, she sat on one of its vast, rubber-scented seats and rode to Maie Ellis Elementary School.
Brittani’s bus driver is a woman named Renee who got out of the real estate business to do something with children. When she drives the pink route, she wears a white visor and shorts that make her seem calmly athletic, like the directress of a tennis camp. Twenty-four of the 27 drivers who steer the Fallbrook elementary buses are women like Renee, Sherry, Sharon, and Nancy, who must stop food fights, comfort sobbing children, clean up after motion sickness, and move a 40-foot, 10-gear, 97-passenger bus through crowded school parking lots and around tight, hilly curves.
Sometimes they also have to prove themselves to male relatives. When Sherry — who is smaller than you might expect. and the sort of woman who could play Mary in a live Nativity scene — decided to become a bus driver so her husband wouldn’t have to work such long hours, her father was horrified. “Oh, Sherry, no!" he said to her. “Anything but that!” Sherry has now been driving for eight years, and she can double-shift like a Teamster.
Her colleague Sharon doesn’t drive buses because she needs the income. She drives school buses as a hobby—a hobby, she said, as in diversion — and she’s been at it so long that she can point to a junior high boy on the sidewalk and tell you what he was like in third grade. She learned to drive on a John Deere tractor when she was ten, and she says she never had any trouble shifting a bus until her husband got on board one day last summer. Now that, she said, was stressful.
Sharon was at the bus barn by 6:00 a.m. on the first day of school, inspecting her bus the way NASA checks a shuttle before a launch. By sunrise, Sharon had checked the modesty panel (that low wall between the first seat and the bus steps), the emergency exits, all the windows, all the lights, the lug nuts of seven tires, the oil, coolant, jake brake, foot brake, air compressor, windshield wipers, both horns, and both radios. At 6:40, we were ready to roll. I was riding the pink route to Potter Junior High.
While Sharon steered the bus out of the lot, I scanned the fleet for a driver named Nancy, who has raised two daughters without child support for 11 years. Her youngest is now in eighth grade at Potter, but “when they were younger," she told me,“we all had to wake up really early in the morning. I’d have to get them dressed, brush their hair. We’d get a bowl, we’d put cereal in it with a glass of milk, they’d get on my bus, and they would pour the milk in their cereal and eat on the way as we were driving. And then, when they were real little, they'd fall asleep. I had one on this side, one on this side.... They’d both fall asleep and the next thing they knew, they were at school, waking up, and the bus was totally full."
I didn’t spot Nancy, though, and soon we were tunneling through oak trees and oleander bushes that Sharon said were going to have to be trimmed now that buses were back on the road. Then we eased into the gravel at the first stop and picked up a boy Sharon knew by name.
We passed silent, staring dogs, white chickens, vineyards, rvew shoots of com, rows of lettuce, dead avocado trees, live avocado trees, and an owl on a street sign. We climbed hills and took curves as tight as paper clips. Horses kept their backs to us, and the houses seemed uninhabited. We climbed more hills, and Sharon wheeled the leviathan around more curves. “When you’re steering a bus,” Sharon told me, “you’re steering the back."
The air wasn’t hot yet, or sunny. The sky was overcast, a moody, first-day-of-school sky that was just damp enough to make your hair flat and your blemishes more distinct. Junior high kids in black-and-white sneakers, knee-shorts, and damp hair showed their bus passes and t romped to the back of the bus. Here and there, a mother stood at the bus stop and waved, trying to look hopeful and encouraging, but looking as worried as a mother of anyone in junior high has a right to be.
By the time we passed the same tractor for the second time and went around the 80th paper-dip curve, I was thinking about Vomasorb. It was Nancy who first told me about Vomasorb because she used to drive the De Luz route, which is famous for motion sickness. “It’s like cat litter kind of stuff,” she said. “You put that on the vomit, and it —” here she paused and laughed, “absorbs it.”
All drivers carry Vomasorb. Sherry said it was like a cross between bird seed and Kitty Litter, and it works so well that she forgot, on one occasion, to sweep out the mess after the elementary school route. Junior high kids — like the angelic, wet-haired persons behind me — had been so fooled by the magic of Vomasorb that they picked it up with their bare hands and began throwing it at other kids outside the bus.
“And I’m kind of ornery, you know,” Sherry said, “and I look, and I see those kids who have their hands in the stuff, so I get on the radio...and I [say], ’Do you guys know what that stuff is?"
It was, perhaps, the greatest moment in Vomasorb’s history, and as we pulled into James E. Potter Junior High School, I could only be grateful that I had not become the second most memorable incident in the annals of Vomasorb.
The clouds burned off by late morning, and the second half of the first day of school was sweaty hot, but not as hot as the high desert, where Renee, Brittani’s driver, learned to drive a school bus. Even in Victorville, Renee told me, where it was 110 degrees outside, only the special-ed buses were air-conditioned.
Renee and I were waiting for Brittani and the other pink-route children to exit Maie Ellis after their first day of school. Although the morning of the first day can be traumatic, and a young rider may cry if she learns, for instance, that her father can’t ride to school with her, the afternoon ride is the hardest for five-year-olds.
As Nancy explained to me, “Kindergartners are used to taking naps, so they get in the school bus, and they fall asleep instantly, and you’re driving along...everybody gets off at their bus stop, and pretty soon the bus is empty...and when you get back and start cleaning your bus out — Oh my God, there’s this little kid sleeping.
“So you’ve gotta wake ’em up, tell ’em their name. Half the time they don’t know their last name, [or) they don’t know how to spell their last name. They live ‘in the little blue house with the tree in front.’ ”
Brittani was nearly the first one on the bus, clutching her lunch cooler and some official-looking papers to her black dress. She had spent five hours with a bearded teacher, a mass of unfamiliar children, and a monkey puppet named Max, and she had only cried once — when her parents waved goodbye after orientation.
The seats on the Maie Ellis pink route have gigantic green vinyl backs, so Brittani’s blond and frazzled head came only halfway up the side. It was like sitting in an adult armchair, only hotter. Windows of buses that carry five-year-olds can only be lowered to the first notch, so little finger-widths of air blew into the bus while we waited for the first bus in the line to accept its last child, let out a great hissing sound, and head for the big road.
Along with Brittani were a number of other first-timers, one of whom was crying when his teacher helped him on the bus, saying, “This is Kevin, who misses his mom.” Kevin sat in a miserable stupor three seats back, his cheeks stained with dirt and tears, his black eyelashes stuck hotly together, his pink-laminated bus pass limp around his neck. A week earlier he had probably been like Rrittani’s friend Ricky Reed, ready for the big boys’ school and his own set of colored pencils. Maybe, like Brittani, Kevin had known exactly what he was going to wear.
No one looked, in those first five minutes, on the verge of falling asleep. My freckled seat-mate accepted my compliments on his Spiderman backpack and told me that his full name was Stevie Ray Vaughn Burford the Smithmeyer.
“Stevie Ray Vaughn Burford the what?” I asked, unable to hear much over the roar of approaching buses.'
He told me again, and it still sounded like Smithmeyer. “That,” I told him,“is the greatest name I have ever heard,” and he nodded soberly.
Brittani blinked thoughtfully about her, as if she were in a museum of foreign artifacts. The bus began to smell like child sweat, a strangely metallic and sweet smell, like coins in a nervous hand. Finally, the first bus headed out, and we began to move through town like a conquering army in a victory parade. Crossing guards waved to us, and all the children walking home from school seemed very small down below, as did the cars and parents. It was a grand moment despite the heat, and it seemed unlikely that anyone could sleep through such a bouncy, roaring, sunlit ride.
But we had only driven three blocks when I felt a little tremor beside me. Stevie Ray Vaughn Burford the Smithmeyer's head dipped toward the aisles, then forward, then back to the seat, then forward again. I offered him his backpack, and he drooped onto Spiderman. Twenty minutes later, when we had picked up our second load of children, he was still too drowsy to keep his eyes open. We were headed for bus stops, and nobody knew which was his.
“Do you know where you live?” 1 asked.
“In my home,” he said, and his eyes closed.
A few minutes later, we climbed a hill. We passed a field of wild fennel. Brittani’s eyes closed halfway, and then she leaned her head against the window. Stevie Ray Vaughn Burford raised his head and looked about him. He studied the road we were approaching, and I asked, “Do you live up here?”
“Yes,” he said decisively.
At the first stop, he and Brittani stepped down into bright sunlight and completed their first day of school.
In accordance with school policy, the last names of children have been changed.