1987: Avon school bus driver goes the extra mile as educator, mentor, and friend

Posted at 5:19 AM, Dec 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-22 11:28:43-05

AVON — “I would like to have been an elementary teacher, but I didn’t ever make it that far,” Helen McSchooler said.

The now 78-year-old Avon mother of two, grandmother of six, and great-grandmother of four, forged a path as an educator in a different way, from behind the wheel of a big, yellow school bus.

“This was the perfect job,” McSchooler said.

Driving the school bus came with a lot of perks for a working mom. McSchooler, like many bus drivers, could drive her morning routes and then head home to take care of housework before returning to complete her evening routes.

But McSchooler was more than just a driver.

The Christmas Express

WRTV viewers first met Helen McSchooler in December 1987 when reporter Linda Lupear profiled the 13-year-veteran Avon school bus driver. McSchooler had gained notoriety for transforming her bus into a winter wonderland on wheels.

“It kind of looked like a rolling Christmas tree on the inside,” said McSchooler.

Bus 19, or as Lupear called it, The Christmas Express, was decked out in Christmas decorations from end-to-end. It featured garland, shiny bright ornaments and twinkling Christmas lights. Even the Christmas stockings hung from the windows with care.

As it turns out, a lot of care.

“[The students] were each allowed to decorate their own seat as long as nothing hung below the windows, because I was also safety director, so I had to stay within the guidelines,” McSchooler said.

Guiding students was also important to McSchooler. Each holiday season, she encouraged her riders to donate food purchased with their own money.

“They were proud of themselves because they did it and it was their money,” McSchooler said.

The importance of giving was one of many lessons learned aboard McSchooler’s bus. And the learning didn’t stop there.

Classroom incognito

From the beginning, McSchooler knew she had a unique opportunity.

“They could be learning without realizing they’re learning,” McSchooler said. “We had new vocabulary word put up every day with a definition. I tried to find words that kids thought might be fun.”

The most popular word — tittle. It’s the name of the dot above the letter “i” and “j.”

McSchooler also dabbled in the unspoken word.

“We had sign language, the sign language alphabet all around the bus too,” McSchooler said. “The high school kids had a good time with the spelling. I'm not sure what words they were spelling back and forth, but they laughed a lot.”

Not only did McSchooler sow the seeds of sign language, she also sowed seeds, literally.

“We always grew a garden on the dashboard of the bus,” said McSchooler. “I'd take a little baby food jar and get some corn and put it in there with a wet Kleenex and secure it onto the dashboard and we'd watch it grow.”

McSchooler watched her riders grow too. She drove the same route for 31 years.

“I even had second generation [riders] riding my bus by the time I retired.”

The way it used to be

Avon had just 13 school buses in its fleet when McSchooler began driving. She says becoming a bus driver was pretty simple.

“The training involved driving a school bus around the block,” said McSchooler. “They give you a piece of paper handwritten with the roads you're supposed to go on, and if you see a child, you pick them up.”

When the first day of school rolled around, McSchooler found out she was assigned to drive bus 13. As luck would have it, McSchooler said the transmission went out the first week on State Road 267.

“We had no way of contacting anyone except waving somebody down out our window,” McSchooler said. “It was an adventure, quite an adventure.”

It was a different era too. McSchooler said a lot of the drivers at the time were also farmers, who carried and used paddles at their discretion.

“I didn't carry a paddle, but I carried a rubber hose,” McSchooler said.

Though she never used it, she said the mere presence of the hose, which was really a rubber gas line, was enough to keep her riders in line.

“I'd hit the front of the seat and make this loud noise, and I said because it's a rubber hose, it won't leave marks,” McSchooler said. “They all would laugh and that they never took me seriously about anything.”

And the kids didn’t have to, because according to McSchooler, bus drivers are uniquely positioned to be an extra set of eyes and ears in a child’s life.

“I got the raw child”

“I didn't give them grades,” said McSchooler. “There was nothing that they wanted to get from me, so I got the raw child. Kids will talk to a bus driver and say things that they wouldn't tell anybody else.”

And McSchooler wasn’t like anybody else. Her desire to connect with children seemingly came with ease.

“Every day a child rode the bus and they didn't give me a migraine headache, they’d get a token,” said McSchooler. “When they collect five tokens, they could turn them in and get a prize.”

It was a system that encouraged good behavior and while simultaneously building authentic relationships.

“Every year, those kids go back to school and they've got a new teacher,” said McSchooler. “If they see that old friend picking them up in that bus, it's good for them you know, it's a security for them. They feel like it's going to be OK, Helen’s back here picking me up again. Everything works out good that way.”

And everything worked out good for Helen McSchooler too.

While she never formally taught inside a classroom, she always went the extra mile for the children in her life, and especially the children on her bus.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think some of those were the best years of my life.”