It is 6:35 a.m. and Mark MacDonald is walking across the Amphitheater Public School's bus barn parking lot in the pre-dawn darkness. He's carrying a backpack in one hand and guiding 7-year-old Alexia Bell with the other. Alexia's mother is also a bus driver for Amphi, but Alexia's school is on MacDonald's route, so many mornings she rides with him.
"Cold today, isn't it?" MacDonald says to a bundled-up Alexia. He bends down to make sure the zipper on her jacket is zipped and then they continue toward Bus No. 87, Alexia hurrying ahead as they get closer to their destination.
It takes 15 minutes for the heat to circulate on the 40-foot-long, 38,000-pound yellow school bus, during which time MacDonald, 50, runs safety checks on the bus' tires, brakes, lights, door and instrumentation. There have been times he's had to run to the garage to get air in his tires or replace a headlight, and other times when he's deemed his bus unsafe and had to use one of the district's other 102 buses for his route, but not this morning. Today everything checks out fine, and by 6:55 a.m., MacDonald is on the road, doing what he's done for the past 20 years in Tucson - driving kids to school.
By the end of the morning, MacDonald will have ferried about 35 students - including Alexia - to LuLu Walker Elementary School, 1750 W. Roller Coaster Road, and about twice that number to La Cima Middle School, 5600 N. La Canada Drive. At day's end he'll reverse the pattern and bring his charges from their schools safely to their doorsteps.
MacDonald is one of two bus drivers who have 20 years of accident-free driving for Amphi. His coworker, Richard Jagodowski, drives routes for Harelson Elementary School, 826 W. Chapala Drive, Canyon Del Oro High School, 25 W. Calle Concordia, and Donaldson Elementary School, 2040 W. Omar Drive. As the senior drivers for the 116-driver district, Jagodowski and MacDonald get the pick of the buses and routes, and they readily admit they have the best of both.
Neither man planned on being career bus drivers, but both now feel it is the perfect job.
Jagodowski, 52, said he put his wife, Theresa, through school from 1972 to 1977 by driving buses for Amphi, then quit that job so he could return to college once his wife got her teaching job. He received a degree in early childhood education from the University of Arizona in 1980.
"A week after I graduated, the economy took a downturn and people were being laid off all over," he said. "It was really hard to find a teaching job."
So, at the request of the Amphi transportation department, he returned to bus driving in March of 1981, thinking it might help him get to know the school principals and help him find a teaching position. He discovered something else.
"I just finally figured out I really like this job," he said. "It gives me the same schedule as my wife, I'm around kids that I love and I find it fulfilling."
MacDonald started driving buses in the early 70s attending college in Long Island, N.Y.
"It was something I could do between classes to help with bills," he said.
He received his degree in English education in 1976 and started teaching in the N.Y. public school system.
"To put it mildly, those kids ate me alive," he said. "I grew up on the east end of Long Island and we were basically known as 'hicks.' The kids in the city were a different breed. I decided I wasn't meant for teaching."
The part-time job he had driving buses became full-time for the next five years, after which he moved to Tucson and drove for Tucson Unified School District for two years before starting with Amphi.
Jagodowski said that kindergarten children are his favorite - like MacDonald, he does a kindergarten run in the middle of the day - but he enjoys all ages and finds that "high school kids get a bad rap."
"Maybe 5 percent of all teenagers are a bad lot, but I've found most are very pleasant," he said. "They always talk to me and are polite."
He admitted that he might have a skewed view "because I do have the best high school route," but recalled that even when driving some of the more "difficult" areas in the district "most kids are good if you just set limits."
"I've been doing this so long, I just don't have any trouble on my buses," he said. "I set boundaries right away, but you have to be careful that there's a balance - they can't be too loose, but they can't be too tight. You can't jump on these kids all the time."
MacDonald said controlling riders was easier 27 years ago when he first started driving buses in Long Island, N.Y.
Back then, drivers had leeway to take action when kids disrupted the bus and were allowed to use their common sense, he said. Now, in a society rife with litigation and overrun by politically-correct rules, drivers are not supposed to even stop fights on buses - discipline matters are handled at the school level by assistant principals who receive referrals from the bus drivers concerning misbehaving bus riders. When MacDonald started at Amphi 20 years ago as one of 33 drivers, bus drivers were an integral part of kids' lives, hearing about their days at school and their nights at home. Now drivers are discouraged from talking to their charges because "the emphasis is on safety and they think we can't drive and talk to the kids at the same time … in general, we're not supposed to talk to the children, but I think that would be the biggest crime."
So, on the record, the veteran driver will say he doesn't talk much to the kids, but when an older elementary child boards while ranting to the child behind her to "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" MacDonald tells her, "Hey now, settle down and sit down." When they arrive at school, everyone gets a "Take it easy," and a certain few get an emphatic, "Be good today." One child shows him a torn jacket she has, another jokes with him about having pictures taken. MacDonald knows the names of everyone who rides bus 87 and uses those names frequently. The elementary kids call him Mr. MacDonald and for some unknown reason, the La Cima students call MacDonald, "Mr. Happy."
"I have no idea where that came from," he chuckles after answering a request from the back of the bus preceded by the moniker.
Jagodowski recently figured out - during the down time between routes when he often does crossword puzzles and MacDonald plays his guitar - that he has driven around the world eight times while navigating the district's 110-square miles. During that time, no one has ever been hurt on his bus and there have been no fights. There have been, however, a couple of memorable moments.
"About 15 years ago, I was sitting in front of Cross waiting to pick up my kids and a woman got out of her car with a bunch of chains and chained herself to the front of my bus," he said. "I asked what was wrong and she said, 'Your district won't transport my kid, so this bus isn't moving!' "
The woman told him that her child lived just a block too close to school to ride the bus. She eventually un-chained herself - after police cars and television crews arrived - and privately Jagodowski told her how she could solve her dilemma.
Another time, when Jagodowski was taking students home one afternoon, someone shot a pellet gun while the bus was driving down Riviera Road and the pellet flew in the driver's window, brushed passed Jagodowski's ear, and hit the dashboard of the bus.
"I just yelled at the kids to get down and got out of there as fast as I could," he said. "It was probably some kid shooting out in a field, not knowing a bus was going by. I don't think it was on purpose, but it was scary."
A few years ago Jagodowski was sitting in the drivers lounge at the Amphi bus barn and a new driver came up to him and reminded him that she had taken her to school when she was in elementary school.
"That was kind of neat that I drove someone who now drives school buses," he said. "They grow up. When I think about the kindergarten kids I had my first year here, they are now 35. It's kind of amazing."
MacDonald said there have been no major fracases on his buses during his years with the district, either, but that he's had a few "problem" kids. They don't stay that way for long, however.
"I'm pretty hard and fast on discipline and the kids know that right away. If I even hear them swear, I come down on them right away," MacDonald said. "What I'm constantly amazed at is that the kids who are the hardest, the ones I have to come down on the toughest, usually become my dearest friends. I think that once they are subjected to some rules they see the benefit. What I've seen, driving for different schools and routes, is that the children's behavior (on the bus) has everything to do with who's in charge of them all day. It depends so much on the principal, the teachers, the atmosphere at the school. With guidance, the kids are fine; without it, they flail."