Janet Turner clocks in at 5:55 a.m. and starts her pre-ride check.
The bus depot at the Greater Albany Public Schools Transportation Office is loud, with no clear path from one destination to the next. Buses sit shoulder-to-shoulder; noses on some poke out and the flat faces of others provide a bit more room to pass. And the blacktop that spans the yard bounces back the heat that often accompanies the school year's waning days.
But Turner, 66, knows her route, zigzagging from the transportation office past the buses, nosed and flat, her cane hitting the blacktop on the off beat of her hurried, practiced steps. All the while she talks at a volume just loud enough to float over the noise.
She starts the bus and closes the doors so the air conditioner cools the cabin. Then she rounds the bus, checking the undercarriage for loose wires and strange noises. She doesn’t thump the tires, though. She’s spoken to people at the Oregon Department of Education who have told her there’s just no use in doing it. By the time she could feel a difference, she’d be able to see it was flat.
It’s a process she’s been through nearly every school day for 28 years, and while she’s humble, there’s no escaping how good she is at it. Just look at the trophies in the office — most have her name on them. It’s a process she’s learned, taught and depended on through two hip replacements, two knee replacements and hundreds of students.
On Friday, May 10, she did it for the last time.
“I have good kids,” she said, standing at the head of the bus aisle like the captain of a ship checking the masts before setting sail.
Turner handles the special education route. She has seen children climbing the four steps up into her bus for kindergarten to walking across the stage at their high school graduation.
“You get to know them and their families,” she said. “If you treat them with respect and you treat them like people they treat you the same way.”
Turner started driving a school bus, as well as working in the district’s kitchens, in 1991. In the late 1990s, she swapped her kitchen job to teach driver’s education at Linn-Benton Community College. She started driving the special ed students in 2000. Even in the job shuffle, she always held onto her bus route, putting off retirement for a year. On the eve of having to say goodbye, she’s worried.
“When you see them every day you get to know when they’re sick, when they’re in a bad mood, a good mood, you get to know them,” she said of her riders. “You worry will the (next) driver yell at them, be rough with them? Some people treat them like robots, which they’re not. Will they get to know them?”
Jed has a loud voice but doesn’t like when people yell. Davis like his certain seat. It’s hard to understand what Erica says. Jordan doesn’t wear glasses so when he climbed the bus stairs with a pair on his nose Thursday, Turner noticed—an observation that sent the boy scrambling back down the stairs and into the school.
“I’ve never seen him with glasses; he’s probably supposed to leave them in class,” Turner chuckled, buckling a kindergartner’s seatbelt—a kindergartner she says comes from an immigrant family, was diagnosed with Down syndrome and sometimes falls asleep so deeply in the bus seat that she lets his brother or mother onto the bus to carry him off.
“I just hate to shake him awake,” Turner said.
“Janet can tell you the history of every student she’s had,” said Russ Buttram, GAPS Transportation supervisor. “She knows her kids very well and can anticipate their changing transportation needs.”
Cindy Moran, who has worked with Turner at the transportation office for 26 years as the operations supervisor, said Turner is a mentor for all drivers.
“If anyone is a bus driver, you want to be like Janet,” she said. “She’s loving, safe, and her kids are her kids, she will tell you that.”
On Thursday, Turner made sure let her kids’ families know she had reached the end of her line, leaving the bus doors open a bit longer to make sure parents, guardians, siblings and caretakers knew the following day would be her last on the job. She made sure students knew too.
She tells Erica she’ll have to give her a hug tomorrow, and when Erica asks why, she reminds her of her impending retirement. But rather than mourn the coming goodbye, Erica smiles and reminds Turner it’s her birthday. She’ll be 17.
“I’ve been telling her for weeks and she always says, ‘Oh, that’s my birthday! It’d be nice if you left me something for my birthday.’ I might, if I remember, get her a card,” Turner says.
Whether or not to bring a little something for all the kids was a question Turner had gone back and forth on all week. She said she brings candy on Easter and Halloween, a little something on Christmas, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, too.
How her retirement is going to shape up, Turner isn’t quite sure yet. First on the list was getting through Friday.
“I said we might have to get someone else to drive the bus because I know it’s going to be emotional,” she said.
Then, it was surgery on her right foot this week, followed by a few weeks of recovery. After that, she said she might come back to substitute for drivers now and then or mentor other drivers as a bus aide. She’s already met her replacement.
“The kids will like him,” she said. “They’ll be fine.”