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Let's Take A Ride With A Kentucky School Bus Driver

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.

Driving around 1.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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.

Kids board the bus.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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.

Ride along.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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.

Bus decorations.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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.

The road.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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.

Checking the bus.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Done for the day.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.