SHOREWOOD – I’ll do it for just five years.
That was the message Barb Gray of Shorewood gave to her husband John when he decided to form his own bus company and wanted Barb to drive for it.
Fifty years later, Barb is still happily driving for Troy School District 30-C.
“I could never find a reason to quit,” Barb said.
Lucy Feeney, who for the past four years has been transportation director for Troy School District 30-C, knows why.
“The driver’s seat of a bus has a mystique,” Feeney said. “Honestly, until you sit in that driver’s seat ... it puts you under a spell and Barb is under that spell of the school bus seat and has a difficult time giving that up.”
That “spell” is a combination of skill and heart – competency in driving and deep care for the young lives Barb regularly transports. Feeney said all of the district’s 62 drivers have both those qualities, with Barb epitomizing that “heart.”
“She’s our queen bee,” Feeney said.
Training – then and now
Barb didn’t take the wheel of a school bus until John – a former employee in the transportation at Troy School District 30-C – began Gray Bus Service. Those first lessons were simple and straightforward.
“My husband took me out in a bus and explained the situation to me,” Barb said. “I had a bus that was not automatic and it did not have power steering. ... I got stuck on Route 6 and another bus had to come get me.”
Barb recalled taking a driver’s test for the state and a class several years later that mostly covered basic first aid. Current training, Barb added, addresses everything from appropriate interaction with students to blood-born diseases, allergies and special needs.
School bus drivers in the 21st century must maintain their CDL status, with the state of Illinois randomly requiring drivers to retake their written or skill set tests, Feeney said. The district continually provides additional training and updates, Feeney added, and the communication system for drivers is vastly improved.
Gone are the days, Feeney said, of bus drivers sending a student into someone’s home to use a rotary phone during an emergency or sitting stuck in a snowdrift for help to arrive.
Barb’s son David Gray, director of support services for Joliet Township High School District 204 – which includes overseeing transportation – listed some of the safety features now in place on school buses: padded seating, extra lights, reflective tape and escape mirrors.
But the drivers also must meet higher standards, including passing a drug test and a physical.
“It’s much harder for people to become school bus drivers,” David said. “We’re always recruiting people.”
The main objection David hears from people who might make fine drivers is, “I could never drive a bus with 40 or 50 kids.” Their concerns, he added, range from the noise level to operating a large vehicle, but concerns usually dissipate once drivers receive training.
“They’re usually very happy about driving,” David said.
It’s still about the kids
As a boy, David rarely rode a bus since he lived within walking distance of his schools, even though buses were parked at his house during the early years of Gray Bus Service.
But David is proud of his mother’s dedication to providing that service to the same district for her entire career. When John retired in 1984, the district hired Barb.
“To do any job for that long takes a lot of commitment,” David said. “She watches those kids – and has watched them – from kindergarten to the time they graduate and move on. She still talks about the kids who used to ride her bus.”
It’s not just buses, training and standards that have changed. Barb said the kids have changed, too, and so have discipline methods. Whereas Barb’s mother used “four fingers and a thumb,” time-out is now preferred.
Furthermore, children today seem older than their counterparts of past decades, Barb added. Feeney pointed to the greater use of technology well as higher educational standards at an earlier age – many children now entering kindergarten can read – as possible explanations.
“I can see where Barb might miss that innocence of years past,” Feeney said.