We've known Karen since my oldest son's first day of kindergarten.
She was the one sitting behind the wheel of the big, yellow bus, smiling down at a nervous little boy and a teary-eyed mom.
Her smile has greeted two more of my nervous little boys on their first day of kindergarten -- and every school day after.
Karen Oprandi is more than my children's bus driver. She is their friend, confidante, ego-booster and a shining example of a job well done. (Oh yeah, she's "really cool" too.)
There is a certain fear parents feel about placing their child on a large carrier with no seat belts, 59 other children and, in our case, two railroad tracks to cross.
Karen's love for her job and my children has eased my trepidation.
I watch each morning as Bus 9 stops in front of our drive. My children don't move until Karen checks for oncoming cars and waves them across the street. She has reprimanded them for crossing before her wave.
She jokes with them as they walk up the bus steps. Her smile embraces them with lovingkindness.
She insists they hold up two fingers for silence as they cross the railroad tracks. Her sternness is filled with concern for their well-being.
She is fun and goofy, yet firm and resolute.
It's a winning combination for dealing with rowdy bus children. They simply adore her.
Time for kids
In the 15 to 20 minutes that she transports my children to and from school, Karen has managed to develop a relationship with them. It is a relationship she shares with all the children on her bus.
When a child is having trouble with friends at school, Karen gives advice.
If there are problems at home, Karen lends a listening ear.
When she sees a frown, she tries to turn it around. If a child is too bouncy, she settles him down.
I received a call from Karen one evening. She was concerned about one of my children.
"I told him to choose his friends carefully," she shared with me.
How comforted I was, knowing she cared so much about my son.
My fourth-grader walked into the house in tears one afternoon. The moment he stepped off the bus, he realized he had forgotten his book bag. Inside was a report he had to finish for tomorrow.
We went to the bus station and waited for Karen to return. She was driving for an after-school event that evening, however.
When my son woke up in the morning, his book bag was sitting outside the door.
After working all day and evening, Karen took the time to stop by our house to drop off the bag.
A child's gift
One fall, Andrew checked on the radishes he had been growing all summer. He pulled one out of the ground just as the bus was coming down the road.
He could think of no better person to share in his delight than Karen.
I watched as he handed her his precious produce, the stalk still attached at the top, dirt dripping from the roots.
She looked confused at first. Then, her face lit up, and I could hear her laughter as he explained. She graciously accepted her "present."
We outgrew our house a few years ago. The children insisted our search for a bigger home be restricted to Karen's bus route. We added on to our house.
We still have many more years of school days ahead and one more nervous little boy to ride the big, yellow bus on his first day of kindergarten.
This teary-eyed mother will stay with Karen and Bus 9 at the end of the drive when I hand over my precious cargo.
To every school bus driver who carefully waves children across busy streets, listens to torn hearts and accepts gifts of all kinds, a heartfelt thank-you from every parent whose mind you have set at ease by your love and concern for our children.