WOODSTOCK, Va. — If you drive a school bus for half a century like Hilda Vann, you’re bound to have at least a few close calls with other vehicles on the road.
For Vann, the most frightening moment was when she saw a tractor-trailer careening toward her bus.
She had just stopped and was preparing to let students off when an oncoming car came to an abrupt halt. A tractor-trailer that was following the car began to stop and jackknifed, then corrected and jackknifed again.
As Vann looked ahead, she thought the massive truck was coming right at the bus, and she was hit with the realization that she had no control over what was going to happen.
“God was in control,” she said.
And “by the grace of God,” as Vann put it, the tractor-trailer missed the bus and came to a stop off of the road.
Vann, who has been driving for Shenandoah County Public Schools in Virginia for 51 years, has made student safety her top priority for her career at the wheel. She has also shown a keen ability to manage student behavior, which is a key factor in safety.
“Hilda has expressed a deep respect for the families she serves and goes out of her way to contact parents to resolve small issues in behavior before they escalate,” said Martin Quigley, transportation supervisor for Shenandoah County Public Schools. “She is a superior performer whose approach to student interaction and discipline has not changed over her career.”
That approach entails treating students with respect, working to understand them, and teaching them valuable lessons and life skills.
“She assesses each student’s nonverbal communication as they approach her bus during dismissal and works to assign students to an area on the bus that will result in a peaceful ride home,” Quigley said.
One example of Vann’s skill with children was when she was picking up a kindergartner who didn’t want to go to school. The boy got in front of the bus, put his head on the bumper, and started to cry.
Vann motioned for the boy’s mother, who was on their front porch, to come over, but the woman didn’t move. So Vann secured the bus, got off, and talked the youngster into getting on board to go to school.
“This is just one situation of many that makes her so special,” Quigley said of the seasoned school bus driver.
Vann began as a substitute driver for Shenandoah County Public Schools in 1965. After a year on the job, she was offered a full-time driving position. The pay: $5 a day.
Of course, the salary has grown substantially over the years, as have the benefits, which include health insurance and a retirement plan.
Initially, it was the schedule that enticed Vann to become a school bus driver: She could be at work when her own children were in school, and at home when they were at home.
The opportunity to interact with kids and to be a positive influence in their development has kept Vann going in her career over the years. The camaraderie with her fellow drivers and other coworkers has been another perk of the job.
Vann said that she hasn’t given much thought to retiring. For now, she plans to keep at it as long as she knows she can safely operate her bus.