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People Who Zum: Denise Archer

We’re celebrating #PeopleWhoZum with Denise Archer, a non-profit administrator, artist, teen zine editor, mom and now school bus driver. She became a bus driver because she wanted to make a more immediate hands-on difference in students’ growth and emotional wellbeing. She’s not a Zum employee, yet she very much embodies our values.

Jumping in

I heard all the stories on the news about families that were unable to get their kids back to school because of the bus shortage. And then I heard the story of a mom with a neurodivergent son who had autism who didn’t have access to a bus. I was like, if I can help out and hopefully inspire other parents who have some time to get involved, then this is the way it’s going to be. I know of other parents who haven’t become bus drivers, but have become substitute teachers. Everybody’s jumping in and that feels really good.

I told the bus yard, in my interview, I was like, “Listen, I hate driving and I hate waking up early, but I’m willing to do both for the cause. And driving a bus sounds really fun.”

So that’s what I’m doing now. I get up at 5:30 AM when normally I would be getting up at eight or nine. And I’m driving kids and it’s so much fun. It kind of ties in with the nonprofit work that I’ve always done. It’s been very fun and driving a bus is very challenging. It uses my brain in a whole different way.

Playing Rookie

It took two and a half months for me to get trained, and that’s just for a part-time route. The first day felt completely overwhelming. I have my Master’s in Public Administration. I speak French fluently. I lived in Bolivia, I’ve lived in Japan. I know those languages really well. But this was just completely humbling.

The first day it was pouring down rain. It wasn’t even six in the morning and it was dark. I had a different bus than the one I was trained on, I finally found a way to wedge open the hood, but I didn’t know how to close it. So I had to run over to the mechanics and ask them, “How do I close this hood?” The whole time I’m thinking about the time and picking up these kids who are waiting in the rain.

I was very late that first day, but driving the bus was fine. That’s something that I felt comfortable doing.  But I learned that making mistakes was part of being a rookie. And this is a year of rookies everywhere in so many fields, so we’re just going to make mistakes.

Driver Initiation

I love the bus drivers. It is the most diverse group of people I have ever worked with in my entire life. Everybody gets along because we’re all unified in transporting kids.

We all know what it is to drive a bus and how difficult it can be at times, especially when you’re making those turns and there’s parked cars, or there’s cargo, or big trucks or semis, or whatever’s in the way. And everybody has hit their mirrors on something. When it happened to me, I walked into the safety office and I said, “Oh, I hit my mirror on another bus.” And they said, “Congratulations and welcome!”

I Wish School Buses Were More…

Accessible. But there’s a limited budget everywhere. Kids deserve a right to free transportation to public school, and sometimes that might require a longer route than would be helpful for them.

I think the kids who get left out of the conversation are the ones who have sensory issues and might prefer a smaller bus. The painfully shy kid who has social anxiety would probably do better with a smaller bus, or even a bully so they can be monitored more.

Call Me Pumpkin

I call myself Pumpkin to the kids, and every morning I say, “Okay, what’s my name?” And they say, “Pumpkin.” Then I say, “What do I like in the morning?” And they say, “Sugar.” And I always tell them, “Just be sweet to each other, say sweet words.”

One morning I accidentally missed the turn I was supposed to make to get to the school, so I said, “Everybody, Pumpkin missed her turn”.

The energy immediately exploded on the bus. This was now very exciting. I had to drive up the hills of Portland because I missed the turn.

I can’t legally back the bus unless I radio it in, and I had a 72-passenger bus of kids. So I tried finding a side street to go up and just make a U-turn. It was dark out and it was winter, and it was still raining. I took a left and I went up the hill a little bit and the kids were like, “Oooooooh.” And then I took another turn, and then I took a right, and I’m like, “Okay, okay, I think there’s a down street coming.” I was very relieved.

So I’m driving downhill and it was fairly steep, and the kids were like, “Oooooooh.” As I went to turn right, the tow hooks of the bus, which hang down below the bumper (they tend to get caught on the road sometimes) went, “Boom, boom, boom, boom.” The kids were like, “Whoa.” They loved it. They called it the Field Trip.

Sense of Normalcy

I think it’s just great that kids are getting some sense of normalcy that they’re able to hang out with each other, even if it’s on the bus. I know that they go to school now and they’re in their classrooms, but it’s really nice that bus camaraderie happens, and that what goes on in the bus stays on the bus sometimes. I’m pretty new and bus driving has caused me to refer to myself as a vegetable in the third person, but it’s sweet. And even the mistakes that I’ve made, like missing a turn, I recognize that’s probably the biggest excitement these kids have had in the past two years of this pandemic.

I’ve also seen parents completely fatigued by the pandemic, and they need to get to work. They say to their kids, “Can you get on this bus?” I’m glad that I can help and be there just to get their kids to school. So that’s one less thing that they have to do.

Getting sucked in

I think bus drivers love their jobs because of the kids. I think some people who get into it because they’ve been truck drivers or they’ve ridden motorcycles and they want to operate another kind of machinery. And they get there, and they fall in love with the kids.

A lot of bus drivers will continue to stay until the kids have grown through elementary school and middle school, and then maybe even high school, depending on the route that they have. So you might get sucked in, but just remember: use your mirrors when you turn, use your mirrors.

Thanks Denise for participating in our #PeopleWhoZum series. Your colorful stories about your driving experience inspired us. Good luck with your first year driving!


About #PeopleWhoZum

#PeopleWhoZum is a celebration of the unique people who are driving change in the student transportation industry. A spotlight view of those who believe, as we do, rides to and from school impact the way children learn, grow, relate, and excel. We’ll be featuring individuals who embody our values and sharing their personal stories and perspectives. Please check back weekly for great stories starting next week.

Do you know someone in the industry who would be a great addition to #PeopleWhoZum? If so, we’d love to talk to you. You can contact us at social@ridezum.com.