“I don’t think there’s an unimportant job in the world that someone gets chosen for,” Mike Mason, retired FBI agent of 23 years said. “I used to preach that when I was in the FBI. The FBI didn’t have any charity checks. So, every job mattered, whether you were a special agent, whether you were an undercover agent, whether you were a secretary or an admin clerk. All those jobs mattered.”
He noted that for other retirees who are considering getting back into the workforce, there is nothing more important than contributing to the education of children. “So, I think this is really important work,” said Mason, 63, of his new job as a school bus driver for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia. He added that sometimes people look down at certain jobs, and he encouraged communities to take a different approach.
Editor’s note — Since School Transportation News celebrated its 30th year in print in September, and the pearl is the traditional gift given for such anniversaries, throughout the year we will share stories and pearls of wisdom from student transportation professionals across North America.
Mason added that there’s often an assumption that all students have access to high-speed internet or even a device to complete virtual assignments. “And that’s simply not true,” he explained. “I think of all the teachers who positively impacted me, and I can tell you story after story, all of those impacts were done in person. … In my mind, teaching is one of those things that it’s hard to replicate all of it virtually. So that’s why I wanted to do this. I felt like wow, this is important, and I wanted to contribute something to our post-pandemic recovery.”
He noted that there are plenty of people who didn’t have the luxury to work from home during the pandemic, such as police officers, firefighters, grocery store workers and hospital staff. Therefore, he said, that as the nation focuses on coming out of the pandemic, he wanted to do something that mattered.
“I wanted to be one of those people who got up, went to work [and] did something that mattered every day, and so that’s why I’m doing this,” he said.
Mason said he formulated his career goals early on in his life. In seventh grade, he shared, he dreamed of joining the FBI. And in ninth grade, he said he dreamed of being an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. “And I I’ll be grateful to the day I die that I was able to realize both of those dreams,” he said.
He added that his father and grandfather ingrained in him from an early age to live a life that matters.
“Do something that you enjoy doing, but do something that matters, do something that’s important,” he recalled hearing. Mason added that neighbors would come up to him and tell him that he was going to be something when he grew up. Being a 13-year-old boy, he didn’t and still doesn’t know why they said that to him, he admitted.
“But more than one mentor, teacher or coach told me that,” Mason recalled. “I don’t know what they saw when they said [that but] I’ve always felt like I was responding to expectations to some extent. My neighbors, for example, I was raised by a village and a really strong village comprised of really, really good people. So, this is really my homage.”
He added that educators are his heroes. “The teachers and the aides and the other drivers I get to work with, honest to goodness, I consider that a privilege,” he said. “These are all people who care about their work, they care about what they’re doing. I mean, after all [school bus drivers are] not delivering packages, we’re delivering people.”
He said he knows all the children on his bus by name. He added that being a special education bus driver, he is also sometimes learning a second or third language. “I need to know what makes these children happy or sad or angry,” he explained. “I need to know that so I can anticipate what their behavior might be like on a particular day on the bus, and try to work with them to get them someplace different. I’m loving this, I really am learning something new every day. And isn’t that what school was all about? I’m literally learning something new every day.”
For instance, he said his capacity for empathy has grown exponentially.
Mason explained that early during his commercial driver’s license training he was asked if he would drive a special education route. He said he was willing to work wherever he was needed. He added that he has friends who have children who have special needs or in special education programs. Those services, like the Faison Center in Richmond that he drives students on the autism spectrum to, didn’t even exist when he was growing up.
“I’m really happy to be a part of something that helps these young children self-actualize,” Mason said, adding that for some of his students that means they learn to dress and feed themselves. “The young counselors who work at this center are just some fantastic people. They come to work in an environment where progress is measured in tiny little increments, and yet they get up every day. Every day they meet the students that I drop off at the door of the bus, and they’re enthusiastic every day. They have something upbeat to say to these kids every day, and I just I am motivated by them. I’m impressed by them, and I feel fortunate that I get to play a role.”
Mason Throughout His Career
Mason started his FBI career as an investigating agent. He worked undercover general criminal cases. From there, he rose through the ranks, becoming a supervisor and finally commanding his own field office. There are only three offices in the FBI’s inventory of 56 field offices that have assistant directors assigned to lead the office. Those three offices are in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.
“I was a special agent in charge in Sacramento [California] and then I was an assistant director in charge of the Washington D.C. Field Office,” Mason said, adding that from there he became the executive director where he had responsibilities across the FBI. “I was responsible for the criminal cyber response and services branch of the FBI. So, about half of the operational resources of the FBI fell under me.”
He retired from the FBI in December 2007 He had two boys getting ready to attend college at the time and he wanted to try his hand working in the private sector. In January 2008, he joined Verizon and served as the senior vice president as well as the chief security officer. “I was fortunate enough to be hired by Verizon, a truly dynamic wonderful [company,]” he said. “I love the people I worked with there. It’s a dynamic industry. We’re doing things today that didn’t even exist five years ago, never mind 20 years ago.”
He said that while working for Verizon, he also felt like he learned something every day. “If there’s a common theme that I need for any kind of job I do, it’s that it offers the opportunity to teach me something new every day,” he said.
He added that one commonality between all of his careers: the Marine Corps, the FBI, Verizon, and now a school bus driver is that the work is important. Secondly, he said, it matters to him how the work gets done.
“I keep my bus very clean,” Mason explained. “I pay attention to the COVID cleaning protocols. So, all those jobs, including this one required a certain attention to detail. But more than anything, I love the esprit de corps that exists among bus drivers and aides and teachers. I just love that. It’s sort of like we’re all here serving, ultimately a single purpose, and that is the education of young Americans. And that’s how I felt in my job in the FBI — not that I was educating people, but I felt like I was part of the law enforcement community not just the FBI, but the larger law enforcement community focused on addressing common adversaries and criminal matters across the U.S.”
Mason submitted his application to become a school bus driver in February. He started training in March and had his own route in April. “The training was amazing,” Mason said. “I saw things during training, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, please don’t ever let me have to make that maneuver.’ And those are maneuvers I make every day now.”
He added that his friends called him the most overqualified school bus driver when he first started training. “I said, what are you talking about? I’m not even a qualified bus driver, let alone overqualified.’”
He advised that for anyone who is considering driving a school bus, who has maybe done other things throughout their career, is that learning new skills keeps someone young.
“Nobody minds being called young,” Mason said. “People get a little upset about being called middle-aged, and nobody really wants to be called old.” He noted that he was trying to define the meaning of old with his brother and decided that old to him means, “when you cease to evolve and when you say that’s just who I am.
“I’ve evolved from last year to this year transporting these children,” he continued. “For example, to give you a tangible example, if I see a kid really acting out, beyond just normal bratty behavior but really acting out at a restaurant or in a grocery store. My first thought is not going to be, bad parenting. My first thought is going to be, I wonder if that kid is dealing with some issues that aren’t immediately visible to all of us.”
Related: Transportation Director of the Year Smith Spent Half His Life in Pupil Transportation
Related: Iowa Farmer, School Bus Mechanic Shares the Importance of Working Hard
Related: Former Thomas Built President, CEO Edgerly Named President of Sonny Merryman
Related: Family Engagement School Bus Makes Waves in Virginia Community
Related: Virginia School District Addresses Transportation Operations Amid COVID-19
He explained that driving a school bus full of children with special needs has made him more patient. Jokingly he added that he asked a genie to make him more patient, so the genie made him a school bus driver.
Mason shared that he isn’t certain if he will continue driving a school bus past the 2021-2022 school year, as he has other goals. For instance, he wrote a book and is working with an editor to get it published. He also hopes to do motivational speaking.
“I would like to focus on my next adventure, maybe doing a little jailhouse outreach,” Mason said. “I did that, believe it or not, as a supervisor in the FBI and I enjoyed that. I thought there were too many people and quite frankly, as a black man, too many black men in jail simply because they never had anybody to tell them of their value or to tell them what they’re capable of doing. To tell them that life offers different opportunities. And I grew up rich in one way. I am rich in the mentors, the counselors, the coaches, and the bosses I’ve had. I had great bosses everywhere I went, I just feel like I was born under a lucky star. So now it’s time to pay a little bit forward.”