OZARK, Ala. — Nearly 30 school bus drivers and the director of transportation from Florida’s Escambia County School District drove to Alabama on Sunday to attend the funeral of a driver who was shot and killed while protecting his children last week.
The Escambia transportation staff members boarded a school bus and headed to Ozark, where the funeral for Mr. Charles “Chuck” Poland was held. Their intention: giving their respect to a community and family who have lost one of their own.
It is a reflection on their character that they wanted to show respect to a school bus driver whom they have never met. The bus drivers said, “It is the right thing to do,” “He was one of us,” and, “We want to go to share condolences and respect.”
As they arrived at the service held for Mr. Poland, a state trooper said, “The Dale County school bus drivers would be honored to have you in the procession.” The Florida drivers were proud to be included. They didn’t come for that; they simply wanted to show their respect.
As they entered the building, the usher said, “Sit here.” They were seated in the section with the local drivers. They didn’t want to impose, but they were humbled that they were asked to sit there, with Mr. Poland’s school bus family. They really just wanted to show their respect.
During the service, they heard how kind Mr. Poland was — not only to his family and community, but to the students on his bus as well.
Three letters written by his students were read. They contained words like “love,” “kindness,” “caring,” “respect” and other such sentiments that spoke volumes as to the person their bus driver was to them. What resounded was the repeated statement that he taught them that these things are not just words, but important traits that they should have as well. The students on Mr. Poland’s school bus will never forget him.
One speaker stated that Mr. Poland would reject being called a hero. He was a simple man who didn’t wear a tie, who drank coffee with his wife every morning after his run, all the while talking about how much he cared for and loved his students.
All who spoke of Mr. Poland said that it was no surprise that he put himself between the children and the gunman. He did not “flinch in the face of adversity.”
The school bus drivers from Florida said, “Mr. Poland is a hero.”
In the procession, the Florida bus followed the Dale County buses throughout the town. About every quarter of a mile, there was a school bus parked, lights flashing, drivers and students standing with their hands over their hearts. The Florida bus was silent, with quiet tears and the knowledge that they are a part of a calling that is bigger than they could have ever imagined.
As the drivers from Escambia County School District left Ozark, Ala., they reflected on the words, sights and thoughts they had shared with the loved ones of Mr. Charles "Chuck" Poland. They had traveled to pay respects to the family of a fallen comrade, knowing that this tragic event could have happened to any one of them, at any time, on any yellow bus, in any school district.
However, they left with the respect of people who had never met them, because they were school bus drivers, too.
No matter what part of the school bus industry you are in, you are part of the respected calling to protect the most important cargo that America transports: the nation’s children. You are valuable and important to the students. You are respected. You directly or indirectly touch the lives of the students who ride school buses.
On Monday, in Ozark, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla., school bus drivers cranked up the big, yellow buses and drove routes to pick up their students — with a little piece of Mr. Poland’s brave, kind and caring legacy riding with them.
Lori Riddles is special-needs route manager for Escambia County School District in Pensacola, Fla.