Gilbert Sargent is a jolly, loquacious 74-year-old. For nearly everybody in the small suburb of Versailles, Ky., he goes by "Sarge."
For 25 years, Sarge has been working on and off as a school bus driver. Today he drives for Woodford County Public Schools, a district just outside Lexington. Sarge was meant to drive a school bus, he says, because of his love for children.
He drives bus No. 7.
2:35 p.m. Sarge heads out for his first afternoon pickup at Simmons Elementary School.
When he pulls up, teachers and students are waiting for him. He greets them with high-fives and hugs.
Over the years, Sarge has taken on the role of surrogate parent, teacher and counselor. People know each other in Versailles, he says. He reaches out to Mom or Dad or Grandma if there's a problem that needs fixing. The morning and afternoon rides are for many students a welcome ritual. Some kids ride with Sarge until they graduate.
He maneuvers past tight corners and busy intersections. He's always on the lookout for drivers who fly past his bus when he's dropping off kids.
2:53 p.m. He stops at the Arbor Place apartments on Clifton Road.
Parents wait by the road to collect their children — many know Sarge by name. Some of them had him as their bus driver.
When Sarge was younger he drove a race car, even wrecked a few. Now, his top speed is 50 mph, and he says he's never been in a bus accident.
3:05 p.m. Sarge turns left onto Shaw Avenue and right onto Spring Run Road.
He often navigates the tall cliffs along the riverbanks, taking preschoolers home. On some roads, his bus brushes up against big branches, leaving inches between his wheels and the edge of the road. He likes the challenge, he says. He takes pride in his routes.
3:28 p.m. Sarge makes his last afternoon drop-off at Jackson Street.
But that doesn't always mean his day is over. Maybe there's a track meet in a rival district, or an after-school field trip.
He's protective of bus No. 7, because he has to be. It's up to him to maintain the vehicle and to make sure the bus is safe for the 50 or so students who ride it each day.
3:45 p.m. Sarge is back in the bus garage lot.
"I'm a school bus driver no matter where I go," he says. "I want people to be able to look at me ... and see respect for my job."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some people work hidden in plain sight. School bus drivers, for example, do their job in virtual anonymity - until there's a problem, of course. On assignment in Kentucky, NPR's Claudio Sanchez came across a school bus driver with a story to tell. He's often a surrogate parent, teacher and counselor all rolled into one.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Gilbert Jacob Sargent is a rotund, joyful, loquacious 74-year-old - Sarge, to strangers and friends alike.
KAY TEGETHOFF: Hey Sarge. How are you today?
GILBERT SARGENT: Oh, look at here. Look at here.
SANCHEZ: When Kay Tegethoff, director of school transportation in Woodford County, Ky., first introduced us, I had a million questions for him - what's the worst thing a kid has done on your bus? And what's so hard about driving a school bus, anyway? Oh, and have you ever had an accident?
SARGENT: No, no. Drove a race car for years and wrecked them, but I've never been in a bus accident or automobile mobile accident.
SANCHEZ: Wait a minute. You were a race car driver?
SARGENT: We would run 70, 80 mile an hour around a dirt track. My mama would say I'm going to break my neck, and my wife would look at her and say, you can't break rubber, and as hard as his head is, it'll bounce. (Laughter).
SANCHEZ: Sarge's top speed these days - 50 miles per hour. The most treacherous part of his route?
SARGENT: Cliffs, great big cliffs. And you have a drive along the river taking preschoolers home.
SANCHEZ: This afternoon, under a light rain, Sarge slowly maneuvers his bus around tight corners, past busy intersections, always on the lookout for careless drivers. Sarge writes down their license plate number and reports them. He drives up to Simmons Elementary, where teachers and students are waiting for him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. Jose (ph), Alex(ph) and Matthew (ph).
SARGENT: Here come my baby. Woo-hoo. Hello, buddy.
SANCHEZ: Twenty-five years - that's how long Sarge has worked as a school bus driver, on and off. He once ran his own small construction company and still does odd jobs for teachers and friends, but he was meant to drive a school bus, says Sarge. Maybe because of his love for children, no matter what they do on his bus.
SARGENT: One boy, a high school freshman, seemed like about every other morning, he would vomit on the bus and I'd have to clean it up.
SANCHEZ: The boy told Sarge he was throwing up because he was hogging down his breakfast.
SARGENT: And so I called his mama. I said, Mama, I said, I cannot take this anymore. And sure enough, Mama goes along and she started monitoring his breakfasts. She started watching his breakfasts, and the vomiting stopped.
SANCHEZ: Not every problem that kids board his bus with has such a simple solution. But Sarge says children who are hurting and have no one to talk to know they can talk to him.
SANCHEZ: At the school bus compound where he spends time with other drivers, Sarge has a reputation for wearing his heart on his sleeve. Art Maloney, a retired Coca-Cola plant manager who's been driving for six years, says if you really want to know what makes Sarge a good school bus driver, it's simple.
ART MALONEY: You have to have a love for these kids, or you would not do it. Have you seen what we make? We don't make any money.
SANCHEZ: Starting pay is $12 an hour, four hours a day, although drivers do get full retirement benefits and health insurance. But as far as Sarge is concerned, it's the children who make it worthwhile.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, hello.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi.
SANCHEZ: Sarge says he can't imagine doing anything else.
SARGENT: I'm a school bus driver no matter where I go, no matter what I'm doing. I want people to be able to look at me and see respect for my job.
SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.