Monday, April 2, 2007 | In a quiet parking lot one crisp morning before sunrise, hundreds of long yellow school buses stare at each other from perfectly aligned stalls. The vehicles bathe in the glow of the moon and the lamps that light the way for the drivers as they prepare for work. A few minutes past 5:00 a.m., at bus No. 8423, Darrin Harian begins his pre-trip test of the bus’s horn, tires, lights and air brakes. The hope is any glitches will be detected now, rather than with dozens of adolescents on board.

Harian turns the key, bringing the bus to life. He coaxes the groggy yellow bus out of the parking lot and, seeing a lineup of his colleagues already outside the nearest 7-Eleven, heads to the next convenience store, where he once worked as a 19-year-old. Now, he’s friends with the owner and a regular fixture there during his midday downtime. The workers greet him by name when he walks through the door for his daily coffee — to which he adds a few pumps of vanilla syrup and creamer — and a newspaper.

Harian is a bus driver for San Diego Unified School District, one of nearly 500 drivers who spend their mornings and afternoons delivering students to and from their homes and schools, crisscrossing the city to integrate students of different ethnicities and to allow parents to send their children to schools with better test scores. The bus routes span a region stretching from just south of Poway to the border of National City. Some students catch the bus before 6:00 a.m. in order to make the miles-long journey to school in time for classes.

“In the morning, they just stay quiet,” he says. “They’re half-asleep, looking straight ahead, like they’re just mesmerized by traffic, or something.”

When the bus is devoid of students, Harian is warm, friendly, full of stories. He is the youngest of five siblings, grew up in Encanto, lives now in North Park, and is especially close to 85-year-old Granny. His khaki pants are pressed and spotless, matched with immaculate beige suede shoes and a designer short-sleeved collared shirt printed with a yellow and green pattern. In his nose and ears, he wears several diamond stud earrings — a feature that once earned him the nickname “Pimpin’” among some of his riders. He smiles easily, especially when he remembers kids who’ve made him laugh over the more-than 10 years he’s worked as a bus driver.

‘I Call It Being Cool’

But when he pulls up to a bus stop, Harian’s smiles are over. The students enter the bus, single-file, silent, flashing their ID cards. Harian greets each with an emotionless nod.

“I enjoy my job, but I don’t want them to see me, you know, too happy or too relaxed, because then they kind of lose their respect for me, to a certain level,” he says.

The most he allows is a quick greeting, usually initiated by the student. Once, his grandmother told him kids can tell if you’re a good person, and he trusts that.

“I don’t smile too much,” he continues. “With kids, if they see you crack a smile, they think they got you.”

Being “got” is the worst nightmare of any adult who works with high school students. For rides that can stretch more than an hour at a time, the drivers are responsible for the kids’ safety, as they maneuver the bus through rush hour traffic. And, on the bus, kids express themselves loudly, sometimes violently. Harian says he hasn’t had to break up any fights this year on the route to Point Loma High School he’s had since September. When he starts a new route, Harian says he spends the first week like an anthropologist — observing, but not meddling.

“I sit back and just watch what’s happening. I call it being cool,” he says. “Who’s going to be an act-out, the joker?”

Once he’s got a sense of who the kids are, he may start interacting with some of them. He teases the ones who perpetually forget their bus passes, and sometimes whips out his own old one from 1982.

“I tell them, ‘I’ve had this bus pass for 25 years, and you can’t even keep yours for one week?’” he says.

Rarely does he have problems getting along.

“When you’re on the bus, you’re all my kids,” he says. “They like me, so we’re cool. I know how to relate to them. I’ll ask [the troublemakers], ‘Why are you doing that?’ If they know I’m kind of interested in them, we’re cool.”

When he’s alone in the bus, Harian listens to 92.5 FM, an old-school radio station. But when the students are on-board, Harian sets the bus’s radio dial to Blazin 98.9 FM, a hip-hop station. “It keeps them calm,” he says.

‘You Can Tell What Parent Takes an Interest in Their Kid’

Despite his no-nonsense persona when the kids are on the bus, Harian watches them through compassionate eyes. Every once in a while, he’ll spot a threadbare t-shirt in the winter or holes in the bottom of a kid’s shoes. He looks almost sick to his stomach when he describes some of the neglect he’s seen evidenced in the clothes of his riders.

“You can tell what parent takes an interest in their kid,” he says.

Once Harian identifies a student in great need like that, he gets his sisters and his friend, the 7-Eleven owner, and others together to buy clothes and shoes. He sees the counselor at the student’s school and asks how he can get the gift to that student.

“If I ever see a kid be harmed, man, I always rally around that kid,” he says. “But it doesn’t happen every year, because some of the kids dress better than I do!”

Harian is single, and he says he knows from this job what kind of parent he’d want — or not want — to be. Some parents drop their kids off a couple of minutes late nearly every day, blocking the bus into the stop with their cars to keep the driver from pulling away on time. And sometimes, the parents yell at the driver for something that happened on the bus the day before, Harian says. But they don’t always understand their own kid’s involvement in whatever situation took place. The kid learns to tattle instead of working out the problem with the other students.

“That empowers the kid to say, ‘I’m gonna tell,’” he says.

A Childhood Dream, Fulfilled

After riding the bus himself for seven years, Harian says his job now fulfills a childhood dream of being the bus driver, though he once thought he’d become a social worker, like his aunt.

“I was just curious; I would sit by the driver, talk to them,” he says. “When the substitute driver would come, I’d help him with the route.”

Harian had a couple of memorable school bus drivers as a kid. One even requested permission from the parents of a handful of her students, and had them over to her house to hang out. And Harian says he loved the experience of busing to school. It brought him out of Encanto, largely populated with black and Latino households, and into classes with white and Filipino and other students.

“If you just stay in one area, you only get that one set of mind,” he says.

Between the morning and afternoon shifts, in downtime that stretches between five and seven hours usually, some drivers bring musical instruments and practice in the parking lot. Others bring golf clubs and head to a nearby driving range to practice their swing. Perhaps most notable is a driver who plays the trumpet. (“Not while he’s driving, of course,” Harian clarifies.)

“He’ll be right there in the (bus) yard, blowing his horn,” he says.

Zen and the Art of Driving a School Bus

Harian usually uses his downtime to run errands, pay bills and hang out with his family or at 7-Eleven. On the weekends, he drives the shuttle for a rehabilitation program at Paradise Valley Hospital in Chula Vista.

“Sometimes I end up being their counselor. They tell me all their problems,” he says of the program members, chuckling. “I get paid to drive, but the counseling part is volunteer.”

Over the years, Harian has adopted the calm exterior he keeps even in rush hour on the freeway.

“Driving this bus is kind of like watching TV. Everything’s going on around you,” he says, gesturing to the cars frantically passing him, left and right. “Sometimes someone will cut me off and the kids say, ‘Hey, Bus Driver, did you SEE that?’ And I’m angry as heck inside but outside, I’m cool.”

When a gaggle of teenaged girls squeal from the back of the bus, Harian gets on the intercom and says, “I don’t need to hear that up here.”

“Sorry!” comes the response from a few of them.

Harian says he used to be a lot angrier when the students acted up.

“They’d do something, and I’d yell,” he says. “Once I caught my reflection in the mirror when I was mad. You have to remember, you’re the adult and they’re the kid. Now I just stay calm, and pull them aside at the end. It usually works.”

“As soon as you lose your cool, you’re done,” he adds.

On this Friday before Spring Break, Harian is working his last day on the morning route to Point Loma he’s had since the beginning of the year. He doesn’t make a flashy announcement or let anyone know, except a couple of the last students to exit the bus.

“When I leave a route, maybe I’ll let one or two of them know,” he says. “Other times I just fade away.”

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