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Precious cargo: the life of a Terrace school bus driver

Veteran bus driver Tony Sousa drives the longest school bus route in the Terrace, B.C. area – we go along for the ride

It’s 7:06 a.m. on a foggy, early October morning when the school bus pulls into the turnout at the end of a long driveway just outside of Rosswood.

Veteran bus driver Tony Sousa has been up since 5 a.m., and driving Hwy113 north from Terrace for over an hour when his first riders – who have been patiently waiting at their designated bus stop atop the family quad with their mother – burst through the bus door.

“Tony, I lost my tooth!” says eight-year-old Natasha. She’s clearly been waiting to share this big news.

She plops comfortably onto her seat, two back from Tony, her younger brother taking the seat across the aisle. It’s her ninth tooth lost, she says. The tooth fairy gave her $2.

Over the next hour, just over a dozen more students will fill the seats, picked up at various stops on the winding route back to Terrace – the longest route of the 16 Coast Mountains School District bus routes in the area.

The buzz and giggle of inside jokes between the kids will rise on course with the sun – tempered by the last of the early morning yawns, and, of course, Tony, who doesn’t let things get too out of hand.

“Kids are kids, eh?” Tony says. “They want to play, they want to have fun – that’s what they do. So we need to understand that, but you have to know when to say, okay, it’s going to get carried away and we need to separate them or whatever it might be.”

He’s a stickler for the rules –  no standing being a big one – and for good reason. His job isn’t just to drive them to school, he says, it’s to look after them and make sure they are safe.

“Whether they like me or dislike me, my job is to get them to and from school safely, that’s my job,” he says. “I know some of the kids they go, ‘Oh, that bus driver’s a mean guy’, but you know, I’d rather have a safe bus.”

This is Tony’s second year driving the Rosswood route – Run #10. He was coaxed out of a brief retirement by First Canada bus lines, the school district’s contract transportation company, following a 37-year career with the school district that saw him drive the same route in town for 15 years when the district ran its own service.

“You get to know the kids quite well because you’re driving them every year,” he says. “You see them growing up throughout the years and then they graduate, and it’s amazing because after so many years you’ll be walking down the street and they’ll go, ‘Hi, Tony!’ It’s really something.”

Needless to say, driving this rural route – which clocks in at 230 kilometres a day, round trip – was a bit of a shift from a route within the city.

“By far it’s a bit more challenging,” Tony says. “It’s not only the distance.”

The Nisga’a Highway, Hwy113, is a busy highway, he explains, noting the high amount of logging trucks and commuter vehicles. There’s also wildlife to look out for, fog, and a climate that fluctuates with the rolling hills, especially in the winter.

“I’ve got to get up early in the morning, many times I have to chain up,” Tony says.

The brand-new 2014 bus – an automatic with impressive visibility – should help this winter, as does knowing that if the roads aren’t safe, he can make the call to turn around – or his boss, a veteran truck driver, will make the call for him.

Tony could have applied for a different route this year, but decided not to on account of the fact that by now, he’s gotten to know the kids on the route – and them him.

“They’re pretty good kids, I must say. They’re very respectful,” Tony says, noting the initial adjustment period – the last bus driver, who was very well liked, held the route for five years – seems to have passed.

“They really liked her, she was very good with the children and all of a sudden this guy comes along changing things … they’re going, ‘Who’s this guy?,” he laughs. “They know me by name now.”

And do they ever.

“Tony, you must get up realllllly early,” notes one tow-headed rider, as the bus snakes its way closer to town.

“Tony, is it hard to take care of us all?” asks another.

Tony glances up at the rearview mirror, says, no it isn’t that hard.

But it is a bit more challenging now than it was when he first started driving years ago, he says to me.

“They’re asking more questions – if you tell them to sit and behave, they want to know why,” he says. “But that’s a good thing.”

But at their essence, children haven’t changed that much.

“Their fads, their styles, the things they listen to, yes, that’s changed,” he says. “But they’re still the same kids of yesteryear as they are today.”

Ask the kids about their experiences on the bus, and you’ll get a whole range of precocious, thoughtful answers.

“Write about how nice it is when you’re on the bus in the wilderness looking at the mountains,” says Natasha.

“I was scared to take the bus, but now I love it,” Lily pipes up, grinning widely.

And Natasha again: “I hate, hate, hate the rule no eating.”

The no eating rule is a tough one, especially for a bus ride as long as this one. But the kids all nod and say yes when they’re asked why it’s an important rule.

“Allergies and choking,” they sing, practically in unison. Young Ottis puts his hands to his neck and sticks his tongue out, pantomiming for his peers.

The conversation turns to goats, flowers, roads in the mountains, Kermode bears, and Halloween as group by group the students are dropped off at their respective schools, the decibel level falling with each stop.

And just before 8:40 a.m. the last riders shrug their backpacks onto their shoulders and depart the bus at Ecole Mountainview, the end of the line. All of the transfers used to happen at Skeena Middle School, but that was changed this year because of congestion. Now, drivers drop students at as many of the individual schools as they can, with the remaining students transferring at Ecole, meaning fewer transfers overall.

The silence of the empty bus is almost louder than the kids as we make our way through Terrace to park back at the bus depot. Tony checks for any forgotten items and gives the cab a sweep before taking his break – he watches his two-year-old granddaughter during the day. He’ll be back early-afternoon to fuel up and chat with the other bus drivers before the trip back to Rosswood.

Overall, not a bad gig, he says.

“I do enjoy driving the bus and the children. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s the wrong job for you,” he says. “And come the summertime, the springtime, it’s an awesome drive. I’ll leave early and just sit up by the lake there, and I’m going, they pay me for this?”