It’s 3 p.m. at Freeman Elementary School when the Valley Chapel Road school bus lumbers into the loading area.
A handful of second-grade boys is doing the backpack hammer throw on the school lawn. A trio of shrill little girls is chanting, “I know you are, but what am I?” as a teenage boy dons headphones and drifts into punk-rock oblivion.
The bus door opens, and kids big and small blow through the opening like unpinched balloons.
“Hi, Mrs. Ferry.”
“Hi, Jordan,” Maryann Ferry replies.
“Mrs. Ferry, I got pictures.”
“Very nice, Patricia,” Ferry says.
She is part teacher, part counselor, part friend and all bus driver. Has been for 24 years.
She counts every child, scribbles every name in a yellow notebook as the kids funnel in. Ferry stands only 5 feet 1 inch tall, much shorter than many of the kids she’s loading onto the bus. But standing at the top of the bus steps, the 51-year-old mother of two casts an authoritative figure. As far as the kids are concerned, her first name is “Mrs.”
“I like my job,” Ferry says after everyone has been counted and the bus crawls toward the street. “I like the kids, but I have my job, and their job is following the rules.”
She counts pairs of brothers, pairs of sisters, stops the process whenever there isn’t a match but should be. It is like loading an ark for a long journey.
Most of the kids want to sit at the very back of the bus – or as close to it as Ferry will let them. “Young kids up front, older kids to the rear” is the bus rule, but everybody wants to be less of a youngster than he or she really is, so the migration is away from Ferry, who doesn’t mind.
Patricia Goldbach is an exception to the back-seat trend. The 6-year-old kindergartner sits right behind the bus driver. Patricia has a small voice, barely audible over the school bus motor’s gravelly whine. Somehow, Ferry hears the girl just fine.
Patricia endorses Ferry as her official family bus driver. Many of the kids on the bus are siblings or cousins, of which the little girl has two.
“All of the Goldbachs ride this bus except mom and dad,” Patricia says, beaming as if nothing in her short life has dissatisfied her yet.
The trio of girls from the bus stop now is chanting, “I’m not taking you.”
“Girls, quiet down,” Ferry says without raising her voice. “Thank you.”
From the middle of the bus, Ferry’s voice must sound like a dog whistle, but they hear her fine. They choose to pay attention to Ferry, over the scenic Latah Creek canyon through which the bus passes, over the cacophony of their antsy peers.
“You have to stay in tune with the kids, the way they cry, when they’re quiet. You have to be aware because it is all about them,” Ferry says.
Maryann Ferry got on the bus 24 years ago to be more in tune with her own two children. Her kids didn’t ride the bus because the Ferrys lived across the street from Freeman High School at the time. But a friend, Diane Betzold, suggested she and Ferry apply together as young moms. Both still drive buses.
“I know she’s been driving the bus for a really long time,” says Gaelen Sayres, 15. “She has to deal with a lot of stuff, a lot of screaming kids, and I think it would get on my nerves to drive a bunch of kids to school.”
Sayres has ridden the bus for 10 years. But he’s riding it less now that his older brother, Connor, drives. Eventually, all of Ferry’s relationships with her passengers end this way. Gaelen Sayres is taking driver education and should be driving himself to school next year.
When he gets off the bus for good, Sayres will be missed. Not because he talks at length with Ferry whenever he boards the bus but because of the short discussions the two have had mornings and afternoons for years.
There’s a story Ferry tells to explain how well she knows her passengers. It involves Sayres. Two years ago toward the school year’s end, Ferry led her bus riders in a math game. It was an easy way to calm everybody down.
She asked the kids how many miles Sayres had traveled on the bus in one year. And how far across the country those miles would take him.
Sayres calculated the miles at 30 a day for 180 days, or 5,400 miles.
“Now,” Ferry says as she drops off her last child and heads home. “You can go all the way to Florida and part of the way back on what we travel in one year. That’s how you get to know these kids so well.”