School Bus Driver —by Jinny Batterson
(A tribute to the kind of people we can all too often take for granted, but who can make a substantial positive difference in our lives.)
Last Thursday morning, as I left our suburban condo complex, a yellow school bus was stopped at its entrance, lights flashing and crossing barrier extended. It was empty except for the driver, who was looking at his watch, checking his timing against his schedule for when school starts tomorrow. After a couple of minutes, he turned off his flashers, retracted the crossing bar, and drove off.
Over fifty years ago, I’d stood on a different corner, waiting for the school bus to take me and neighboring kids to the county high school eight miles away. Most mornings, we’d mill around under the shade of some large oak trees. When it rained, we’d crowd under the porch of the local community center next door, just big enough to shelter the lot of us as long as the wind wasn’t blowing.
Precisely at 8:04, our bus would arrive at this next-to-last stop on a route that threaded through our long-established village, now gradually being absorbed into the Baltimore suburbs. Mr. Shinneman was our driver.
When we thought he wasn’t listening, we called him “Old Man Shinneman.” His cheap haircut and heavy work shoes seemed to differentiate him from us status-conscious teens. Never one to chat or whistle while propelling his charges along the two-lane blacktop roads to school, some mornings he’d leave a lighted cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as he drove. If the decibel level of our chatter got too high, he’d take out his cigarette long enough to growl, “Keep it down back there.”
Every couple of days, he’d make a thorough inspection of all the seats and crannies on the bus. If he found a wad of chewing gum stuck to a seat or a wadded up paper crammed beside a window, he always seemed to know who was at fault. He’d threaten the miscreant with being reported to the school principal and/or being kicked off the bus, either temporarily or permanently.
In the afternoons, our bus was nearly the last one to leave school. The half dozen from our neighborhood who weren’t involved in sports or cheerleading rode it home. It was a relief to arrive at our stop without a stern look or a dressing down from Old Man Shinneman. I’d scurry down the bus steps, yell “see you tomorrow” at friends over my shoulder, and head along the short worn path to the front yard of our house. My mother, a music teacher at a nearby elementary school, would nearly always beat me home. Her slightly dinged light blue Plymouth Valiant would be parked in the driveway.
One winter afternoon, Old Man Shinneman abruptly stopped the bus at the top of the hill before ours, between regular stops. He put on the bus’s flashers, even though it wasn’t a place where anyone would normally get off. I remember the weather as overcast, but with at least an hour more of daylight. I heard my name being called:
“Jinny, please come to the front of the bus.”
I quickly did an inventory of possible transgressions—I didn’t chew gum; I didn’t think any of my papers had slipped out of my somewhat sloppy ring leaf binder. What did he want? And why had he said “please”?
Once I got close enough to the front so he could talk with me without raising his voice, he pointed to the opposite side of the road and asked, “Isn’t that your mother’s car?”
It was impossible to tell for sure from inside the bus, but there were not that many slightly dinged light blue Plymouth Valiants in our neighborhood. He opened the door and motioned me out. I raced across the narrow pavement, not checking for traffic and not making sure to avoid the ice slick that sometimes formed this time of year where a nearby spring seeped onto the road. Lucky for me, no traffic, no ice slick just there. The car was upright, but totally off the road, set at an odd angle on an embankment across a small ditch, pointing roughly back the way the bus had just come. It didn’t seem to be badly damaged, but it was not running. No sign of my mother, but some of her music teaching materials scattered around the front seat. It was definitely her car. Puzzled and worried, I returned to the bus.
“She’s not there,” I told him. “I’ve got to get home to try to find out what happened.”
I was the first one off the bus at our stop. I raced home, bolting in the front door yelling “Mom” at the top of my lungs. It took me a minute to focus on the fact that she was sitting at the dining room table, drinking a cup of coffee.
“What happened?” I blurted, too dazed at first to think of anything else to say.
“I’m not sure. I was coming home from school. There was a car coming from the other direction. I tried to avoid hitting my brakes because of the ice slick. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the car on the embankment. There were magnetic musical notes stuck to the ceiling, so I think the car must have rolled over. It all happened in an instant. I don’t seem to have any bad bumps or bruises. I walked home. I didn’t have any way to get in touch with you to tell you not to worry.”
As far as Mom was concerned, end of story.
The following morning, Mr. Shinneman asked me if my mother was all right. I never called him Old Man Shinneman after that.