When Whitehorse students go back to school on August 25, many of them will be meeting Peggy Hanifan for the first time.
Many others will have spent hundreds of hours with her already, but they won’t call her Peggy.
To them, she is School Bus Driver.
Hanifan has spent 14 years transporting students to and from school, almost all on the same high school route.
She was working in the bar trade when a friend at Whitehorse Transit suggested a driving job.
“I went in and applied, and I passed and got hired,” she says.
She built up hours driving school buses and realized she didn’t want to leave, she liked the kids too much.
Hanifan is quick to dispel the stereotype that her job is a raucous battle of wills between driver and passengers.
“They’re pretty quiet in the mornings,” she says. “They get on and they put their earphones in and they go to sleep a lot of them, or they’re just listening to their music.”
“On the way home, it’s pretty much the same thing.”
In fact, Hanifan claims she has never encountered discipline problems on her route.
“I’ve never had to write a student up, or bring him into the school, or talk to the principal. They’re really remarkable kids in the Yukon.”
It helps that the Department of Education and the drivers make the rules clear.
“You have to be fair, but firm. You can’t let them run the bus. They’ve got to know you’re in charge, and you’re only going to put up with so much. Once you’ve got that established, you’ve got it made.”
Having the right personality also helps.
“You just need to be a happy person and make sure that when they get on the bus they get a big smile and a ‘Hello’, or ‘How’s your day?’ and that kind of stuff,” she explains.
“That makes a lot of difference to the kids. If you give respect, you get respect.”
Even on an urban route like hers, the driver’s day starts long before the first students hop aboard.
“In the winter it’s a very early start to the day. Not only do you have to warm your own vehicle and get the snow off, but you have to warm up the bus and make sure everything’s running properly.”
Regardless of the season, the bus doesn’t move until the driver performs a pre-trip inspection, inside and out, under the hood, and on all the tires.
“There’s no just-hopping-in-there-and-going.”
Any problem, no matter how minor, gets noted on a “cry card” and reported for a mechanic’s attention.
“The number one rule is safety first. So if you feel something’s going wrong, you use your common sense and say, ‘This school bus is not running, and I’m not taking it’, and they will get another bus started up and going for you.”
Once the bus is underway, it all comes down to the driver’s skill, experience, and instinct.
“Winter, spring, summer and fall, we drive through it all,” Hanifan says. “It could be very, very stormy, very bad road conditions. In the winter you can barely see these little bundles standing on the road.
“But you just drive slowly, you drive accordingly. We’re all trained very, very much. Every year there’s different courses that we take.”
Alas, the same is not true for all Yukon motorists.
“You’ve really got to watch the other vehicles around, because a lot of times they want to get in front of that school bus, come hell or high water. That’s always the scary part,” she says.
“But because you’ve got a load of kids, a precious cargo, you just have to be very vigilant and very cautious and aware of what’s going on around you all the time.”
While her schedule offers Hanifan the flexibility to pursue her musical interests as a singer and host of the Whitewater Wednesday music jams, her dual role sometimes results in surprises.
For example, when a former student shows up for a Wednesday jam, not realizing she is the host.
“And they give me a second look and say, ‘I didn’t know you did this, School Bus Driver.’ And I’ll be like, ‘You can call me Peggy now. You’re old enough.’”
Then there was the morning one of her songs came on the bus radio.
“I was happy and singing along when suddenly a student from the back of the bus yells up, ‘Bus Driver, can you change the station, please?’
“Needless to say, I was deflated. I turned it down, but I wouldn’t change it,” she laughs.