In keeping with our namesake’s commitment to workers, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism will be running profiles of workers through the end of the year. This is the first in the series.
Wanda Alberson had a decision to make. It was 1993, and she’d just gotten a position as a school bus driver in Memphis. Now she had to decide whether she wanted to drive the larger, general education buses or the smaller buses that serve special education students. The big buses would be packed with children, often distracting the one person charged with their safety. The smaller buses would have fewer students, most with special needs.
Alberson thought her attention would be too divided with dozens of children, so she took the second option. She never looked back.
Nationwide, school bus drivers have been protesting against low wages and unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. Despite the hard work, Alberson, 55, feels she’s paid relatively well, largely thanks to her union. And she loves her job.
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For her, it’s about the children she ferries to and from school.
“A lot of my kids – it’s like their family is my family,” she said in between phone calls to union members and retirees at the Teamsters Local 667 union hall.
She’s been a school bus driver for nearly three decades and has had the same routes for 15 years. She starts her mornings in the Raleigh area. Then she’ll drive Bus 9901 down Covington Pike to pick up students in Berclair before heading to Nutbush and then dropping everyone off at White Station High School. Then it’s off to her second and third routes of the morning, generally in the same neighborhoods. The children aptly call her “Bus Driver,” or sometimes “Miss Alberson” or “Miss Wanda.”
When she speaks about the kids, Alberson – a tall grandmother of nine with burgundy hair and a quick laugh – can get emotional quickly. There’s pride in her voice when she talks about a blind student who knows the entire route by feel and can tell substitute drivers exactly where to turn. She cries describing the girl who showed up to her stop recently in short-sleeves and without socks, clearly cold. Her voice shakes recounting the little boy who had a seizure on her bus, and whom she carried from her bus to his sofa.
“It’s terrible sometimes,” she said. “So you can’t have nothing but compassion for the kids.”
The job has changed since she started 28 years ago at 26 or 27. New technology meant to detect children still on the bus is ultra-sensitive, she said, often picking up a forgotten sweater or a backpack. Three times a day, cameras record her as she performs a safety check. She walks around the bus to make sure everything is in operating order, including the wheelchair lift and the security gate. The system’s purpose is to keep her kids safe, so she loves that the buses are equipped with it.
Bus drivers are also subjected to a series of rigorous psychological and competency tests, she said, and can’t take some medications that might make them drowsy. They’re CPR-certified and experts in operating the machinery that allows wheelchair users to ride buses. And of course, there are worries about a microscopic, airborne virus and the possibility that the adorable petri dishes who ride her bus might unwittingly make her sick (Alberson is vaccinated and boosted, but she’s also a colon cancer survivor and a diabetic).
But the children keep her coming back.
“I’m like a parent to them. And so I keep my same route,” she said. “I’m high in the seniority, so now I can pick and choose my route. And I always pick my babies, because they’re used to me.”
Alberson grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in East Memphis, near those routes she now drives.
In the early 80s, when she was around 17, she became pregnant with her first child. She lived with her grandparents, and to help with expenses, she got a job at a Godfather’s Pizza where she made $2.65 an hour, plus tips. As a teen, she didn’t get many shifts, so her pay was generally around $200 a week.
She graduated from White Station High School in 1984. After a few years at Central Hardware, and a year of college before deciding it wasn’t right for her, her son was old enough to go to school. She wanted a job where she had summers and holidays off. She popped her son on her mom’s bus – her mother was also a driver – and got a job driving other people’s children around for $9 an hour.
“It gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow up with my son and to just care for other kids,” she said.
These days, she lives in Arlington with her husband of 28 years, though she drives her 17 students to Shelby County Schools through her employer, First Student. Her route takes her first to White Station High School, then to Berclair Elementary and finally to Wells Station Elementary, or sometimes to White Station Elementary. Her afternoon route changes depending on the day, though it almost always includes her White Station High School, which includes 11 students. Her days start at 5:30, with a break midday, and she’s generally done by 5:30 in the evening. Each route takes about an hour.
Over the years, Alberson has taken on a leadership role. She’s now a union rep for the Teamsters Local 667, a position she prizes because it allows her to advocate for herself and her colleagues. Since August, her pay has increased from $20 to $24 an hour. The union helped negotiate mandatory air conditioning on all buses, something she says companies contracted with nearby school districts don’t have.
The children’s safety is her priority. Regardless of the burden the many safety checks and finicky new technology can place on drivers, she will do whatever it takes to make sure the students are safe and, as much as she can control it, happy. And students want to make her happy, too.
When she paid a field trip fee for a boy who was always getting into trouble, the other kids on the bus objected.
“They said, ‘Bus Driver, don’t do that!’” she recounted. “They said, ‘You must gonna get off that bus and go and take care of him, cause he gonna tear that whole place up.’
“I said, ‘No he ain’t!’” she remembered, laughing. “I said, ‘Because I’m gonna be right there.’” On the day of the field trip, the boy had on new pants and a new shirt. He promised her he’d be good.
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“I said, ‘If you go in there and tear that place up I’m gonna be mad at you!’” she said. “He did so good.” (When they got back to school it was a different story, she said, chuckling.)
Alberson’s two children and the nephew she raised are all grown, and her daughter lives near Washington D.C., so she’d like to retire in the next five or so years to give her the flexibility to travel and spend time with her grandchildren.
Until then, Alberson will stay behind the wheel of the small, yellow Bus 9901, one eye on her kids and the other on the road.
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