A day in the life of a Salem-Keizer school bus driver

Alan Booth checks his bus’ emergency exits before setting off to pick up his first student. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Just before 6 a.m., the Salem-Keizer School District’s south bus lot starts to wake up.

Bus drivers trickled in, checking tire pressure and outside lights before heading off to pick up thousands of children and deliver them to school.

Alan Booth’s route is scheduled to leave at 6:11 a.m., one of the earlier buses out. The veteran bus driver covers rural areas off of South River Road and Kuebler Boulevard, picking up Sprague High School and Crossler Middle School students.

Booth, a retired federal prison administrator, was happy to get that route during the bid process this year. With four and a half years experience, he had enough seniority to get his first pick.

New drivers sometimes make the mistake of speaking too enthusiastically about their assigned route, causing a more senior driver to bid for it the following year.

“Never tell another driver how great your route is,” he said.

Story: Salem-Keizer recruiting more drivers

Alan Booth inspect his bus at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 14 before setting off on Route 513. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Buses sit in the Salem-Keizer School District’s south lot before drivers head out on routes. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Booth’s route started out quietly, picking up a handful of students at mailboxes and housing developments.

His route comes with a binder listing his stops, the turns needed to drive between them and the number of students assigned to each. There’s a by-the-minute guide to where the bus should be to arrive at school on time, but Booth doesn’t need to look at the paper.

“I’ve got it all up here,” he said, tapping the side of his head.

By the time he picked up his first student, he’d been awake for two and a half hours. His chipper “Good morning!” was often met by silence from students still waking up.

His route includes two dead-end roads where he has to turn the bus around after making a stop. It’s a task that’s often daunting for newer drivers, he said. He works as a mentor, coaching drivers who have just completed training.

“After they finish this route, they have their best backing skills ever achieved,” he said.

Many of his scheduled stops didn’t have students waiting, but he always slows the bus and opens the door, just in case someone runs out last minute.

It starts to get light midway through his route.

“Isn’t daylight a wonderful thing?” he said.

Alan Booth’s middle and high school route starts before the sun is up. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Booth’s time with students is short, but he hopes to impart something positive to each as they start and end their days. He puts up an inspirational quote at the front of the bus each day, and often hears his elementary school students talking about it. On a recent morning, the sign read, “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

If a regular student isn’t on the bus one day, he might say, “We missed you yesterday,” when he sees them again. But he doesn’t ask where they were.

“I try not to get into their personal business unless they want to share,” he said.

Crossler Middle School students exit the bus. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Driver Alan Booth talks with a parent about her twin daughters’ behavior while picking up students. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

After dropping students off at Sprague and Crossler, Booth has a short break before setting out on his Schirle Elementary School route. He usually spends it at Roth’s Fresh Market on Liberty Road. It’s one of a handful of district-approved layover spots, and lets him grab coffee and use the bathroom before he hits the road again.

Booth’s elementary school students are louder in the morning, joking and sometimes yelling. He’ll ask them to stop screaming or use inside voices if they’re being loud enough to distract him, but otherwise leaves them to their conversations.

It’s a triumph for him when he hears students reminding each other to be quieter or turn around and face forward.

“They don’t want the bus driver coming down on them,” he said.

A row of binders detailing bus routes sits at the Salem-Keizer School District’s main transportation center. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Third-grader Jolene Hanson, center, teaches friends Arbay Haruni, left, and Camila Garcia, right, to read while on the bus to Schirle Elementary School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Part of Booth’s job is remaining calm and focused in the face of distraction.

“Bus driver! He’s bleeding,” yelled student Addison Miller on a recent morning.

“Okay, is it a lot?” Booth called back.

“No,” she said. Her brother, Greyson, had a loose tooth.

Booth said he would get her tissues at the next stop.

“Thanks for helping, Addison,” he said as the girl walked up the aisle to take the tissues.

He hands out pencils to students who lose teeth on the bus.

Alan Booth pulls into the parking lot of Schirle Elementary School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Students exit the bus at Schirle Elementary School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Back at the south lot, Alan Booth inspects his bus a final time before heading inside. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.