Riding the school bus is often one of the highlights of most children entering Kindergarten. They are in awe of the size, the bright color, and the number of large seats and windows that they encounter when they first take those big steps up into the bus and down that very grown-up aisle.
That wonderment soon wears off, however, after they make the trip back and forth to school day after day, and year after year and then, like anything else, it becomes more or less mundane and part of their same-old, same-old everyday routine. (Just ask the high school kids!)
The students only face their route to school as one round trip, but the bus drivers and monitors get to enjoy the ride for a total of three round trips — five days a week. It takes a special, hearty soul to embrace that many treks back and forth each day, and in the case of Narragansett’s Bus # 17, Lorraine Jennings was that and much, much more!
Jennings was the driver for Bus #17 for 11 wonderful years, retiring just last week. Her route in the northern end of town included the West Passage, River Dell, Banfield Estates, Forest Lakes and a few miscellaneous stops along Boston Neck Road. As soon as those doors opened to welcome students from any of the three Narragansett schools, they were always guaranteed one of Jennings' warm and friendly smiles - no fail!
If you had told her back in 1996 that she was going to become a bus driver, she would’ve never believed you, not for a second. She recalls vividly how her second career came to be, giving her husband, John, much of the credit.
“My husband and I owned a construction company in upstate NY for 25 years, and retired for the first time in 1996. After we finished some projects on our home, John and I began looking for something to keep us busy. He came across an article about the school department needing bus drivers, and when he asked me about it, I thought he was out of his mind! I tried to imagine driving 150 students of all ages to and from school each day, and knew it was impossible. But after some prodding, he talked me into getting trained to be a school bus driver, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made!”
She started out on one of the mini buses, bus #25, driving pre-school children, and she filled in on bus #17 every time the driver was out. When bus #17 became available a few months later, she immediately wanted it and says she has never had so much fun and learned so much as in the past 11 years.
Jennings said that the best part of driving a school bus was not knowing what would happen each day or what the children were going to say.
“I've been taking notes for 11 years and hope someday to write a book about my experiences,” she said.
One of her best memories was something one of the kindergarten children said to her.
“The third and fourth grade children were studying the presidents, so I would take my microphone and give them a year and they would tell me who was president then. Finally, one of the fourth graders asked what year I was born and of course, they figured out how old I was. The kindergarten boys looked up at me and very seriously said, 'Gee Lorraine, you must be getting ready to die soon!' You just never knew what going to come out of their mouths.”
Playing the President game was just one of the many ways Jennings made the ride back and forth to school fun and educational. She loved to decorate the bus for all the holidays and treated the kids to thoughtful and cool gifts no matter what their ages.
She also had a soft spot for a kid having a tough day that maybe didn't want to be on the bus headed to school and she was happy to stop in front of a child's house that had forgotten something important he was supposed to bring to school.
Parents loved her as well.
“I know my kids are in the best of hands when Lorraine is at the wheel,” Sherri Flynn said, smiling. “All of us — kids and parents alike are really going to miss her!”
Safety was always Jennings first and foremost concern. When asked if it was difficult to learn to drive a bus, she said it wasn’t as hard as it looks, but the one thing you have to remember is that the back end of the bus does not follow the front, so you have to make very wide corners.
Before she drove students home on the last day of school, she took the time to pass along a little sage advice for the new driver who will take over in September.
“Enjoy the children! Remember, you too were a child once, and know that you'll come away with a lot more than you gave.”
Driving her charmed bus was not just a job, it was something Jennings truly cherished and enjoyed. In past years when the town threatened to outsource transportation to private companies in order to save money, Jennings could be found at every meeting, touting the exemplary services that Narragansett’s own bus fleet had been offering to families for so many years.
“The children and the parents in Narragansett are THE BEST. I can honestly say that if I respected all my families and students and had their complete cooperation. This town is so small and it is such a tight-knit community. Everyone knows everyone, and we all try and look after one another.”
Now that she’s retired, again, she looks forward to spending time with her husband, who recently retired from driving bus # 6. She enjoys cooking, gardening, playing golf, oh, and watching baseball. (She is a die-hard Yankees fan, but we Boston fans still love her anyway!)
She and John have two sons, Edward, 40, and John Jr., 38, and two granddaughters who live in Saratoga, NY.
“They're growing up way too fast. Megan just turned 8, and Kaitlin will be 10 in August. Now we’ll have more time to spend with them.”
When the new school year starts up next fall and those wheels on the bus start going round and round once again, Jennings said it will definitely be bittersweet. Until then, she has the summer ahead to get used to some new-found time on her hands and says she thanks God every day for the wonderful experience and for this community of Narragansett.
“Thanks for the memories,” says a heartfelt Jennings.
On behalf of all the students and families that Lorraine has carefully transported back and forth "all through the town" these past eleven years--we wish you a very healthy, happy and joyous retirement!
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