Text by Lucia Amieva-Wang, Jenny Tseng and Courtney Kernick
Photos and videos by Lucia Amieva-Wang

At 6:43 a.m.,

Wanda Caldwell maneuvers Bus #31 out of the Palo Alto Unified School District bus lot and toward her first stop of the morning: East Palo Alto. She then drives her bright yellow school bus to five other stops before dropping students off at Greene Middle School.

Though her students begin their day by boarding the bus at 7:00 a.m., leaning their heads against the window and thinking of the school day ahead of them, Caldwell’s day starts many hours before she leaves the bus yard. It is still dark when she wakes up at 3:50 a.m. in Antioch, a city around 70 miles away from Palo Alto. On most days, Caldwell is home by 7:30 p.m. but on the nights she works overtime driving sports teams to games or students on field trips, she will arrive home as late as midnight. Her commute to and from the bus yard accounts for at least five hours of Caldwell’s daily driving.

Last issue, Verde Magazine documented the journey of two Palo Alto High School students on their daily bus ride home (read more here). This issue, we delve behind the wheel with a bus driver’s story.  

Bus #31

This year marks Caldwell’s 33rd year of driving for PAUSD and her 12th year of driving the Tinsley route, which is part of PAUSD’s Tinsley Voluntary Transportation Program. The VTP, created in 1986, gives students of color from different districts the opportunity to attend school in PAUSD.

On my bus

On Caldwell’s bus there are a couple ground rules. The most important one, Caldwell explains, is that everyone is treated with the same respect.

“I kinda let the kids do what they want, but to a certain extent,” she says. “They can talk, they can laugh, they can joke with each other, but no momma jokes … You give me respect, I give you the same respect.”

Though her rules for her kids on the bus have stayed constant, due to management changes, regulations regarding kids getting on the bus have evolved.

“With our supervisor the other 20 years, our motto was ‘no kids are ever left behind’,” Caldwell says.

Now, bus drivers are not allowed to do “honeydews,” or drop kids off closer to their houses so that they don’t have to walk as far home. To make sure none of “her kids,” as she calls them, are left behind, Caldwell tells them to be at the bus stop five minutes before the scheduled time.

Sharing wisdom

As the most experienced driver in the bus yard, Wanda is a valuable resource to other bus drivers.

“They ask me about kids or our bus stop or how do you handle a certain situation,” Caldwell says.

From personal experience with her first supervisor, Caldwell learned “sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth closed than argue with your supervisor.” She was on the verge of quitting her job because of her supervisor, but her “auntie”, who was a more experienced bus driver and mentor to Caldwell, convinced her to stay.

“My auntie was like, ‘you’re not there to be your supervisor’s friend, you’re there to work and get your paycheck.’ So you go to work and do your job and let that be it,” Caldwell says.

“Take care of yourself. You got to take care of yourself because they ain’t gonna take care of you. All they want to know is you were here and you moving this yellow bus. That’s it.”

8th Grade Speech

At the end of every school year, Caldwell stands at the front of her bus and delivers a speech to her 8th graders.  

“I just want to see them make it through high school,” Caldwell says. “I say [to them], ‘Before I was a bus driver, I was a mother. So that’s the way I look at you guys, as part of my family. You guys are the first, well the second people I see in the morning, but I have to make sure that you guys understand what you are here for. This is your job. You’re not just going to school, this is your job, you got to reward your parents.’”