School Bus Lessons

If you were a junior high or high school student in Bonita Springs In the 1960’s and 70’s, chances are you went to school at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers. Depending on where your bus stop was (mine was at the Dome Tavern) it was a good 45 minutes each way, basically adding an hour and a half to your school day. Because of this, it was next to impossible to participate in after school programs or sports. Not that participating in typical high school sports was in the cards for me, because my after school activity was working for my dad. But although I learned a great deal working for my father, the hour and a half on the bus every day taught me very little. The trip to Fort Myers was awful. It was hot, loud, bumpy, and boring, making it impossible to do homework or even read. Besides, most of the time everyone on the bus was either tormenting someone, (flicking the guys ears in front of them, focusing a magnifying glass on their neck or just bopping him in the head with their math book) or defending themselves from attack. There was never any of the real fighting or violence that you see sometimes on the internet these days, but some of the younger students did spend a lot of time stuffed under a bored senior’s seat or being passed around like a Frisbee at a rock concert. There was plenty of really interesting and bizarre behavior, so I spent a lot of time just observing the weirdness, pulling friends out from under seats and sweating. I don’t think you could consider this time well spent or constructive in ANY way… but you had to get to school somehow.
Six years of Junior High and High school added up to a LOT of time on the bus, especially for the poor bus drivers. Through the years I noticed that some handled the stress of the job a lot better than others. As a general rule the ones who tried to maintain order via vigilance and discipline, their eyes continually darting up to the big mirror, their sweaty faces red from perpetually yelling, emotionally melted down within a few months. Generally, their tour of duty would end with them pulling the bus over, quickly standing up (usually banging their head on the mirror) and facing the back of the bus. They would then stutter, shake and scream for a while before they flung the door open, got off and walked around the bus for ten minutes, hands waving as they talked to themselves. Some of us felt bad for them, but others just jeered. It was pretty awful. But then there was one driver who no one trifled with…

Billie Gunn drove us to school for three years, cigarette hanging from her mouth, never looking at the young terrified faces in the mirror as she drove at ten miles an hour over the speed limit, hitting bumps so hard that it flipped us all like pancakes and taking corners so fast that you either slid out of your slick plastic covered seat onto the floor or were crushed against the side of the bus by the two other kids in your seat. I’m not sure that she meant to keep order this way but we were all so busy holding on for dear life that we had no time for anything else. Then, as exhausted well shaken and stirred kids gathered their scattered books and made their way off the bus, Billie, with her cigarette still wagging on her lip, would pop the door open and with her gravely yet happy southern voice say “Bye Babies!” I think she actually cared about us… maybe even liked us! And despite having a bit of a lead foot, she was an excellent driver… tough and unfazed by anything or anybody!

One year, I suppose because the trip wasn’t long enough, the school system rerouted us through Fort Myers Beach. Billy threaded the needle through heavy traffic over that dangerous bridge day after day until our luck ran out and she met an oncoming semi-truck in the middle of the narrow span. There just wasn’t enough room and the buses outside mirror vaporized on the side of the bridge. As she pulled over and stopped the bus, cursing under her breath, no one said a word. After she had sat still for a moment, she looked up in the mirror and said, “I’m sorry babies!” Then, she cried.

I suppose you never know what’s really in someone’s heart until they show you.

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