ABINGDON, Va. — Terri McCroskey never set out to be a trailblazer.
The Bristol, Virginia resident landed a job in August 1973 as one of the few women driving a school bus for Washington County Public Schools.
And she’s still behind the wheel of a bright yellow school bus No. 85.
McCroskey, 68, celebrated her work anniversary in August, marking her 49th year as a school bus driver for the county.
“It’s hard to tell how many kids I’ve hauled,” she said. “I now have the children and grandchildren of some of those first students.”
Some of those children went on to become school teachers, and a few have already retired.
“And here I am, still driving,” she said.
Kathie Johnson, a teacher at Wallace Middle School, fondly remembers riding McCroskey’s bus when she was in high school. Boarding her bus for the first time, Johnson was excited to see a young female behind the wheel “breaking all traditions.”
“She was always so kind, just as she is now,” said Johnson, who has taught school for 30 years.
“I have a great deal of respect for Terri, and we have a unique friendship and bond.”
McCroskey, affectionately known as “Ms. Terri” by her students, isn’t sure what prompted her to apply for the male-dominated job nearly five decades ago. Her interest was piqued when she went with her sister-in-law to answer an ad in the paper for school bus drivers in Washington County.
“I had never driven anything bigger than a car,” said McCroskey, who tooled around town in a Volkswagen bug just two years after graduating from John S. Battle High School. After graduation, she married her high school sweetheart, Butch, and found a job at Bristol Auto Auction.
McCroskey, who was hired on the spot after applying for the bus driving job, still remembers how her parents reacted when they learned the news.
“My mother said, ‘I don’t think you can do that.’ My daddy said, ‘Just turn the front wheel, and the back wheels will follow.’”
McCroskey took her father’s advice and accepted the challenge. At that time, the school buses had manual transmissions and no power steering.
She applied for a chauffer’s license, completing both written and driving tests.
“I don’t remember being nervous, but I’m sure I was.”
McCroskey didn’t have the extensive training that is required for new drivers in the county now, but she has completed additional training in the past few years, qualifying her to train new school bus drivers.
Her first assignment was a high school bus route for John S. Battle High School, transporting students who were only a few years younger than she was. When Wallace Elementary became a middle school in 1991, she began transporting middle and high school students. Since then, Wallace Middle School has become her home base.
Averaging thousands of miles each year, the driver has had the same bus route for most of her career. Behind the wheel each day, she has learned about the community she serves, an opportunity she probably would not otherwise have had. “I see people each day on my route, and we always wave.”
‘Proud of my job’
Not everyone is cut out to drive a school bus, she said. McCroskey credits God-given talent for helping her to pick it up so quickly.
Many people have asked her if she grew up on a farm, driving tractors and backing trailers.
“I didn’t do any of that. It must be a gift I was given.
“You have to learn how to use your mirrors — that’s the trick right there,” she said.
When she first started driving the bus, someone told her she was working “a man’s job.’”
“But I don’t ever remember being criticized for being a woman school bus driver. I always tell people I drive a school bus for Washington County because I’m very proud of my job. I love what I do,” she said.
COVID-19 is an added source of stress for all bus drivers, who must make sure students adhere to seating charts and wear masks while on the bus. Every day, she disinfects her vehicle to help keep risks of transmitting the virus as low as possible.
“We’ve got to do everything we can. We don’t want anyone to get sick,” she said.
McCroskey said driving a school bus has served her well all these years.
“It’s a good career for women who want the same schedule as their school children. And it’s a good supplement to a family’s income.”
She’s seen many changes in the past four decades.
When she was hired nearly a half century ago, McCroskey started out at as little as $9 a day. Now, new drivers and substitutes earn a little more than $72 a day, she said.
School buses have come a long way in the past decade or so.
“All buses have automatic transmission now, but in the past, drivers had to know how to drive a manual transmission in case they were asked to use one,” she said.
“We have much better heaters on the buses. Many times, I’ve seen ice form on the inside of the windshield.”
Most of the newer buses are equipped with Onspot chain systems, a set of chains attached to the suspension that may be needed for traction in winter weather. A flip of a switch in the bus automatically releases a chain wheel that starts rotating and continuously throws chain strands under the tires.
Years ago, she said she often had to stop the bus and install chains on the tires by herself just to be able to finish a bus route.
Going the extra mile
Despite changes in the way school systems operate, she believes students are not a whole lot different today.
Her recipe for maintaining order on her bus is simple.
“You gain respect by giving the students respect. I always tell them good morning and to have a good day,” she said.
On the first day of school, she lays out the rules and lets the students know what is expected of them. Sometimes, she’s had to act as a disciplinarian; other times her motherly instinct helps her console a student. Her giving spirit has nudged her to pay for lunch or field trips for children when they didn’t have enough money.
“It’s important they know I am interested in them. I’m the first one to see the kids in the school morning and the last one to see them in the afternoon.”
McCroskey often goes the extra mile and attends the students’ extracurricular activities after school.
“I go to their ballgames and plays. They appreciate I’m there,” she added.
The veteran bus driver said safety is a number one priority for her.
Throughout the years, her bus has broken down many times during a route, forcing her to call for another bus to transport the students, but she doesn’t recall any major mishaps.
“Terri is 110% devoted to the safety of every student in Washington County — not just those on her bus,” said Tom Williams, transportation supervisor for the county system.
“Terri is very devoted to her job as a school bus driver and takes it very seriously. In our safety meetings, I can always call on Terri — or she will volunteer — to give real life experiences of things that have happened on her bus over the years that we all can use to be safer drivers.
“She is very devoted to her job as a school bus driver and takes it very seriously. She’s just a great person to work with.”
McCroskey seldom missed work, a testimony to her passion for her work and love of the children.
She said it’s nice to be appreciated.
“I’ve received many gifts from students over the years — mostly gift cards, but I did get a teddy bear one time,” she said with a grin.
She will keep on driving the big yellow bus as long as they let her, she said.
“I’m nowhere ready to retire as long as my health holds out. I really enjoy my job — not only being with the kids, but I also enjoy the camaraderie with the other bus drivers.
“This is not just a job — it’s a way of life.”
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.