At the wheel with 'our future' in her hands

Bus driver Diann Benson watches as students leave her bus at Fort Mill Elementary School last week. Below, Benson at the wheel of her bus.
Bus driver Diann Benson watches as students leave her bus at Fort Mill Elementary School last week. Below, Benson at the wheel of her bus.

FORT MILL -- Brittany Gionakis, 10, has ridden on smelly school buses, dirty school buses, school buses whose drivers were "mean."

That was before she moved to Fort Mill. Now Diann Benson, a 47-year-old woman with a round, maternal face, is at the helm of the school bus that transports Brittany to Fort Mill Middle School each morning and home each afternoon.

"This is like the cleanest school bus I've ever been on like ever," Brittany said of Benson's carriage. "She keeps the bus in control, and she says 'good morning' every morning and 'have a nice night' in the afternoon."

"She keeps the kids in line," added Brittany's classmate, Mallory Grieve.

Brittany summed up the job evaluation: "She's a great bus driver."

Benson this year became Fort Mill's school bus driver of the year.

Fellow Fort Mill bus drivers voted for her, then she underwent interviews. She will vie this year for the state contest sponsored by the S.C. Association for Pupil Transportation. Another Fort Mill driver, Gladys Sanders, took the top state award two years ago.

District transportation manager Bernard Gill believes Fort Mill is the only York County school district to sponsor a Bus Driver of the Year contest.

"They're more than bus drivers," he explained. "They're carrying our future."

In Fort Mill, drivers work six-, seven- or eight-hour shifts and earn, on the average, $10 an hour. Beginners start at $9.28 an hour.

This is after several days of classes and more training behind the wheel before they can take a state written and on-the-road test. They must complete an additional 10 hours of in-service training each year to retain certification and must renew certification every five years.

It's a job that begins before dawn and ends at about 5 p.m. with lots of free time in between. Benson never catches a late-morning nap. She enjoys cleaning her school bus.

Dawn to dusk

She's been rising in 4 a.m. darkness ever since her four children were in school. She wakes at 4 even in the summer. She uses the time to cook breakfast and makes sure her three grandchildren are ready for the day.

She lives in York and arrives in the Fort Mill High School bus lot at 5:30 a.m. even though her bus is not scheduled to depart until 6:30.

"I just like to get there early," she said.

She's never been late for work, Gill said. Even more remarkable, not one parent complained about her last year.

Fort Mill school buses hit the road in the darkness at 6:30 a.m. The only sound beside the school bus engine is a stream of radio conversation telling drivers where regular stops are being omitted today and where others are being added.

A 20-year veteran, Benson remembers when far fewer buses lined up each morning to depart the Fort Mill lot.

She had worked in her children's school cafeteria for awhile before taking the driving class when she was 25. Then her children rode her bus to and from school.

As her children grew, so did Fort Mill. Many lonesome, winding school bus routes now are sprouting housing developments, she said.

When she weaves through such a development to board her first group of Fort Mill Elementary School children, she moves slowly, works her flashing lights and opens the stop sign flaps.

She holds her right hand up to prevent the children from moving toward the bus while she checks an entire battery of mirrors on both sides, outside over the windshield to reflect an area invisible to the naked eye in front of the bus and yet another that performs the same function behind the bus. Then she opens the doors, checks her mirrors again and motions the children forward.

"Good morning, guys," she says as bleary-eyed children with bulging book bags find their way to seats. When they are all completely seated and the door is closed, she checks her mirrors again. A warning horn sounds and she rolls forward.

"You wait and make sure there aren't any kids running," she said. "It's a big responsibility. There's a lot to learn. Loading and unloading is where the most kids get killed. Sometimes they can come running to the bus, and it's dark and you don't see them."

Another problem is that cars whose drivers are sometimes running late cut in front of the bus.

"They don't realize we don't stop as fast as they do," she said.

By 7 a.m., the bus windows are steamy with more children aboard. There's no air conditioning, but there is heat for winter. Summer heat is worse in the afternoon.

Chitter-chatter fills the bus, but Benson is unperturbed.

"Girls, girls, turn around," she scolds as she glimpses into her rearview mirror.

"Guys, don't be pushing. Settle down."

Her tone is not threatening, and the children instantly obey the woman who holds safety in her hands.

"As long as they're being safe, I don't say too much to them," she said.

First- and third-graders also give her rave reviews.

"She obeys the rules," said one third-grader.

"She's nice to people," a first-grader said.

"She likes pretty stuff," another first-grade girl said. "Dresses and high heels and stuff."

Elementary school children safely deposited, she returns to her route to pick up middle-school children.

The middle-school children are more subdued. It is because middle school is more difficult, Brittany explains. "We're tireder," she said.

At the conclusion of the middle-school run, one child with a physical disability takes extra time to exit. The children wait patiently.

"One thing I won't have on my bus is making fun of kids," Benson said. "I tell them it can really hurt."

Its own rewards

One benefit of being School Bus Driver of the Year is that she got a brand new bus. Last year, she drove a 27-year-old one that still had a hand brake. "But it drove good," she said.

There are unseen rewards, too.

"Helping the kids grow up and being part of their lives," is one, she said. "I just really enjoy this. You have to stop and think how you would want your kids to be treated."

About five years ago when her husband died, her job was her ally.

"The kids on the bus got me through it," she said. "They don't know it, but they did."

High school students who rode her route when they were younger wave as she pulls up to a stop.

"I cried when the eighth-graders graduated last year," she said. "I can remember when they tried their best to get up the steps and their little knee would touch their little chin."

Fellow bus drivers laud her experience, how clean she keeps her bus, how she provides a role model for them, how she looks after their own children who ride her bus. She can be found in the bus yard even on Saturdays washing, polishing and waxing. Despite running two routes on a hot summer morning in a bus filled with children, her bus still smells fragrant.

Whether or not she wins the state title, Benson expects she still will be rising at 4 a.m. each day next year to do one of her favorite things: drive a school bus. She deems her job an important one.

"We're the first face they see in the morning and the last when they leave in the afternoon," she said.

In 2006, 5.022 S.C. school buses operated daily, with the typical bus traveling 15,680 miles for the year. Those buses:

• traveled 79 million miles

• transported 696,591 students daily

• experienced 6.17 accidents per 1 million miles, most involving backing into mailboxes, breaking low-hanging tree limbs and mirrors broken by large trucks