Debbie Proctor starts her mornings at 6:15 a.m. with a pre-trip check of her No. 14 school bus.
Leaving by 6:25 a.m., it can be foggy, but by the time the sun rises, she enjoys how it glistens through the trees.
Green Mountain School District 103 is located down miles of winding roads, buried among tall Douglas firs about a 45-minute drive north of Vancouver.
Proctor started her 34th year driving a bus on Aug. 26 at Green Mountain, a secluded school for kindergarten through eighth-grade students outside of Woodland.
But Proctor does not only drive a bus. In between her morning and afternoon routes, she also serves lunch to get a full work day.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Proctor, 65, and her lunch coworker, Lorraine McNeal, were working to clean up after serving pasta Alfredo, veggies and corn to the 160 students at the school. The lunchroom still echoed with the high-pitched chatter of dozens of students as they scooped leftovers into containers and sprayed down bins in the sink.
“It’s been interesting to get to know her as an adult, versus how it was when I was a student. It’s been fun,” said McNeal, who attended the school from 1994 to 1998. Like Proctor, McNeal drives a bus in addition to serving lunch.
Bus drivers often work odd hours, early morning and late afternoon — part of the reason for the high turnover and reported shortages nationwide.
“We end up trying to get on in the day as an aide, a lunch person or doing recesses to (supplement) the drive time,” Proctor said.
The Woodland area is truly Proctor’s world as she lives a five-minute drive from the school. Her father brought the family to Washington from California in 1961 after getting a job at the old International Paper Co. near Chelatchie. They later moved to Fargher Lake, where she grew up. Proctor met her future husband through their parents, who were in the same saddle clubs.
“We grew up in the horse world together, ropings and rodeos. I went to Battle Ground (High School) and he went to Woodland,” Proctor said. The two later built their house near the school, which her children attended and her grandchildren currently attend. At the urging of her “horse friends” who had summers off, she thought she’d give bus driving a shot, especially when — pregnant with her third child — she wanted to spend more time with them.
“So I said ‘I’ll go to that class in Battle Ground and see what happens.’ Then I started driving. I was like, ‘This is a cinch; I can drive a bus.’ Then came the kids. I did have kind of a panic attack at first,” Proctor said.
For many years, she was the only driver at Green Mountain. But following an expansion on the school in the 1990s that allowed for more students, the school hired a few more.
“I always said, ‘When I start driving grandkids, I should be done.’ But I’m still here. And I’m driving grandkids,” she said. Her “last” grandchild, she said, will start in two years.
‘Spice of the routes’
Around 2:15 p.m., following a lunch break and a period of “unpaid free time,” Proctor goes to the bus for another pre-trip check, which includes checking the oil, lights, seats and emergency exits. The students run out to load onto the bus at 2:50 p.m. That day, she fielded seating requests from students while reminding others who couldn’t sit together. She’s known as Ms. Debbie.
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“She’s cool. Me and Sophie usually sit in the back,” said 9-year-old Amaya Keller, who that day was sitting with Sophie Manus, 9, in the front. “She really cares and has lots of manners.”
The bus, completely full, with three students to a seat in some cases, rolls out at 3 p.m. Around 4:30 p.m., she meets a Woodland High School bus on Horton Road to take high school students home.
The winding rural roads can pose unique challenges compared to city bus driving, but it’s something Proctor enjoys.
“The roads are not a city block. They’re not very wide to where sometimes it’s challenging wondering if you’re going to meet that truck on the corner. Is the road big enough to fit both of us? I think that keeps the spice of the routes going, the challenge everyday of driving up that hill,” she said.
Much of the job is overhearing interesting tidbits from students, some of which she doesn’t exactly ask for, including overhearing conversations from high schoolers about sex.
“Like, high schoolers; really, how do you know all this stuff?” she laughed, but added she hears not-so-funny things, too.
“I think you hear little things about their home life that may not be as… what we would hope,” she said.
She noted that it’s not an easy job, either, keeping students safe and well behaved. Proctor said when the federal government mandated a seat-height change to 24 inches for buses made after 2011, it made it harder to see the children from her mirror.
But she still makes a point of greeting them all when they hop on, watching them grow a little more each day and as the years pass.
“Yeah, there’s been plenty of days that I’m thinking, ‘What the heck am I doing? This job sucks. These kids are impossible,’ ” Proctor said. “But my heart has always been at this school. Plus, my kids went here. But then you go back to your groundings of where your heart’s at and it’s always been here.”