As the executive director of an independent living community for older adults, Dorcas McGurrin spent time with people approaching the end of their lives.
Now, as the driver of a big yellow school bus, she’s surrounded by those who are just getting started.
“I’ve always loved kids,” says McGurrin, 70, who lives on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, and drives six routes a day for the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District, which serves two towns. “I was the oldest of nine and always around kids. I thought: I learned to drive in a Ford Country Squire station wagon with eight young siblings in the back. How different could it be to drive a 40-foot bus with 50 kids in the back?”
McGurrin began her career in hospital administration, but for 27 years she was executive director of Heatherwood at Kings Way, a 235-unit complex in Yarmouth Port that offers condominium apartments along with services such as meals, transportation and activities for older adults. She managed a $4 million budget, as well as 65 staff and 285 residents, and was on duty pretty much 24/7, including through several blizzards and one hurricane. When she retired in 2016, she thought she’d enjoy the slower pace. Instead, she got bored — “drifting,” as she describes it. When a friend suggested driving a school bus, she was skeptical but decided to give it a shot.
McGurrin’s been driving a full-size school bus since October 2019. Every school day, she navigates three routes to and from the district’s schools, starting at 6:20 a.m. by inspecting her bus and then doing the high school pickups. That’s followed by the middle school and elementary routes, which she usually wraps up by 9:45 a.m., giving her until 1:20 p.m., when she’s back on the bus running the same three routes and taking students home. She finishes about 4:45 p.m., having driven roughly 70 miles.
“The little kids are the last ones on the bus, so in November, December, it’s not uncommon for me to have to wake up kids when we get home because we’re getting home in the dark,” she says.
On a recent school day, McGurrin took a few minutes in between routes to answer questions about what it’s like to drive a bus full of kids.
What was the hardest part of learning to drive a school bus?
Backing up. It took me forever to learn how to back up that bloody bus. That’s scary. One of the things you have to be able to do is alley docking — you need to back the bus up and then turn to the left, turn to the right and back it right into a parking spot. I just thought, looking at that 40-foot bus, 10 feet wide and 12 feet high, there’s no way on God’s green earth I’m ever going to be able to do this. And I did.
What are the most important qualifications for a driver?
You have to like kids. If you don’t like kids, find something else to do, because that’s key. And then, patience. And being able to put up with noise, because there’s definitely going to be noise.
How do you keep things under control?
There’s a lot of yelling “knock it off.” There’s literally stopping the bus and giving them an icy glare in the mirror, which works probably better than anything else. Sometimes I’ve had to actually return to school. I just tell them, “OK, we’re going back. You don’t seem to know how to behave today, so we’re going back and have the principal talk to you.” That, to me, is a defeat. I’d rather be able to take care of it myself.
One of the first things that I try to do at the beginning of the year is to learn all their names. Now, remember, there are 50 kids on the bus. But the quicker you learn their names, the better in control you’ll be, because if you look at them and yell out “Robert!” that has more of an effect than “Hey you, sit down.”
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How does the ride vary with age groups?
The high school kids are pretty quiet. The middle school kids are sometimes quite naughty and always very interesting. And the elementary kids are cute as a button. I’m getting pictures from them; I get hugs from them. Today one of them gave me a lollipop — thought I needed a lollipop! I’m known as Miss Dorcas, and I just love it.
What do caring for older adults and driving a bus have in common?
The people skills, people management skills. Basically how a senior citizen wants to be treated is how a kid wants to be treated. They also want respect. They want to be heard. They also want to be counted. I want to make sure they know I see them, I know them and I respect them.
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.