Commentary

Saunders: I fought the school bus course – and the school bus course won

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2013 

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Ben Matthews, Director of School Support for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction laughs as News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders takes part in the annual State School Bus ROADeo. The annual event, held at the North Carolina fairgrounds Tuesday May 21, 2013 featured 48 drivers. They participated in events that graded the drivers on nine different "obstacles" including parallel parking, railroad crossing protocol and negotiating tight fitting barriers. Saunders broke so many rules they stopped counting during his turn at the wheel.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Yippee-ki-yay, y’all.

Greg Barksdale, the DMV instructor who met me at the finish line when I completed the State School Bus ROADeo on Tuesday, was smiling when he extended his hand. “Congratulations,” Barksdale said. “You hit seven of the eight. … You want to go back and get that last one?”

Since I was the first driver in the annual competition among the state’s top school bus drivers at the State Fairgrounds, I thought that meant I’d set the bar pretty high for the other 48 drivers.

Proud? You bet, especially since prior to Tuesday the largest thing I’d ever driven was an eight-cylinder 1978 Mercury Marquis that got minus-3 mpg, and I’d prepared for the competition by practicing the different ways to maneuver a bus and simultaneously yell “SIT DOWN BACK THERE, YOU LITTLE #$@!^&” or “DON’T MAKE ME TURN THIS BUS AROUND!”

It took only a few seconds to see that Barksdale was not smiling – he was laughing, as was everyone else.

Turned out that the object of the test was to not hit the orange cones, and he informed me that I’d broken about 12 state regulations while traversing the course. I was invited to participate in the bus ROADeo, which has been held annually for more than 20 years, so I could see just how difficult driving a bus is.

You really shouldn’t have to drive a bus to know that it is a hard and thankless job and that the drivers deserve our respect. The state’s 40,669 certified bus drivers are a lot like basketball referees. You only notice them when they mess up.

One who didn’t mess up on the course was Charles Mantie of Jones County, who was named the top bus driver in the state and won the $500 first prize in the competition. Mantie will represent the state in July at the international competition in Tulsa, Okla., Division of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman Margaret Howell said.

Local drivers who finished in the top 10 and also got some cash were Byron Lanier and Jeffrey Meelen of Wake County and Michael Cunningham of Durham County.

My few passengers

When they drive, they have to contend with scores of screaming kids, impatient motorists and traffic signals. I had to contend only with James Horton, the DMV instructor patiently telling me how to maneuver the bus, and Benjamin Matthews, director of the state Department of Public Instruction’s School Support Division.

They, along with our intrepid photographer, Chuck Liddy, were my only passengers, so whenever I turned and screamed “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!” it was gratuitous and just because I felt like it.

Up until 1990, when federal law decreed that any driver carrying more than 16 passengers had to have a commercial drivers license, high school students drove school buses. In high school, our bus drivers always seemed more mature than we were, and seemed to all have mustaches, cool cars and cooler girlfriends.

As elementary school pupils, my buddy Mark and I used to sneak onto Leak Street School’s blue and yellow athletic bus and pretend we were driving the team to a game in Hamlet, Ellerbe or some other far away place.

One day I’d pretend to be Kenny King and he’d be Lee Jesse – two student-bus drivers we idolized – then I’d be Lee Jesse and he’d be Kenny King.

We’d travel all over the globe without ever cranking up the bus.

Charles Mantie’s driving skills won’t take him all around the world, but they will take him to Oklahoma.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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