Pearlie Able has been driving a school bus in Rock Hill for 32 1/2 years. She’s been named “Bus Driver of the Year” twice, knows the names of hundreds, if not thousands, of students and doesn’t pay much mind to things like “National School Bus Safety Week” or “Bus Driver Appreciation Week,” both of which are this week.
She doesn’t need these events to remember the job she does is fun and important, because if it weren’t either of those, she wouldn’t be doing it.
“I just like driving a bus,” she said. “I like the kids, and every day is different.”
Able, who everyone knows as “Miss Pearl,” began driving a bus when she was in high school in Lewisville in the late 1960s. Until the 1980s, it was common in the area for high schoolers to do that work.
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When she left school, she worked in a textile mill for Springs and 15 years later started driving a bus part time. It soon became her full-time job.
Able spent years at Belleview Elementary, Lesslie Elementary and Ebenezer Elementary schools. Now, she works as a reserve driver, picking up other drivers’ routes when they’re out. She doesn’t get to know the students as well as when she had a regular route, but she said it’s nice because she gets to change her routine.
In the transportation department, Able has made quite a name for herself, said director Bernard Gill. Not only is she a dependable driver, she also helps the district with mapping and reports. And she has nearly every route in the district memorized.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Gill said. “She’s here every single day, and I can’t remember her taking a day off in the two years that I’ve been here.”
The children and other drivers love Able because of her sweet nature, Gill said.
“She’s a friendly people person – it’s her personality, her attitude,” he said. “She’s nice and easy to talk to.”
Able said the only thing that makes her job tough is the pay. Drivers don’t get paid if they don’t work, so on holidays or during the summer, there’s no money coming in. Most drivers have a second job or are on Social Security, and if the school district didn’t supplement their pay, which comes from the state, they wouldn’t be making much more than minimum wage, she said.
Over the past three-plus decades, Able has seen her share of changes, especially in technology and communications.
“It used to be if you broke down, you had to wait for someone to come by and ask if you were alright, and then they’d have to go get help,” she said.
Now, she has her cellphone, plus a radio, and the buses in Rock Hill are equipped with GPS, so the central transportation office always knows where they are.
But some things never change, she said, and one of those things is children.
“There’s really not a difference (with the kids),” she said. “Sometimes they get on and they’re happy, and other times I’ve got to ask them what’s wrong.”
And while Able said she has lots of memories of interactions with students, there is one that stands out in her mind, when she was a driver for Belleview Elementary.
Able’s sister was in the hospital, in need of a heart transplant. She wasn’t doing well, but Able pulled herself together enough to do her morning route. When the bus was emptied at the school, one little girl turned around, got back on the bus and gave Able a big hug.
“I hadn’t said a word about what was going on,” Able said, but something sent that little girl back to make her morning brighter. “That’s why I love kids, because even the meanest ones can be so sweet,” she said.
Over her career, Able said she’s seen all kinds of children and all kinds of send-offs. One time, she said, she gave a parent a piece of advice she’d figured out after countless morning pick-ups.
“Always put your children on the bus with love,” Able said. You never know what the day may bring, and you want them to know they’re loved, no matter what.