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What Holiday Gifts Stand Out From the Rest?

These school bus drivers share their most noteworthy student gifts

After driving a school bus in Vermont for more than three decades, James Johnson has received his share of holiday gifts from thoughtful students and families. But there’s one that really stands out, even though it happened 15 years ago.

“Without a doubt, it was when a student’s mother met me at my bus at 7:30 a.m. with a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven, with a tall glass of cold milk to go with it,” he recalled fondly. “Needless to say, we were a few minutes behind schedule the rest of the morning.”

Johnson, known as “Mr. Jimmy” by his students, has received what he estimates to be “about a bazillion” coffee mugs as well as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks gift cards. Though he’s not a coffee drinker himself, “my wife sure appreciates them,” he said.

One year, he got a book, The Killer Angels, a historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, because the student knew he was interested in the Civil War.

“That was also quite memorable,” Johnson added.

It’s that time of year when students and families express their gratitude to their bus drivers with heartfelt gifts that show how much they appreciate them.

Driving a school bus packed with children is no small task, especially when their excitement about the holiday break reaches fever pitch. Since the pandemic, the job has become even more challenging as a historic national school bus driver shortage creates longer drive times, more crowded buses with consolidated routes, and fewer substitute drivers to fill in when the regular driver is sick or needs a day off.

That’s why even the smallest gifts they receive from their riders are so meaningful. It can be stressful driving a school bus, and it feels good to be thanked for a job well done.

Carmen Marshall drives special education students for Hampton City Schools in Hampton, Virginia. The gift she said she treasures most is tote bag a grandparent made for her nine years ago.

“She hand-embroidered a picture of my bus, complete with bus number and my whole name,” Marshall said. “The artwork and detail that went into it meant so much to me.”

It inspired Marshall to make totes for each of her students, though she admitted she doesn’t have the same embroidery skills as the grandmother.

“I use a die-cutting machine, and before that, it was a lot of glue and glitter,” she said.

She fills the totes with items that keep her students calm and comforted, like fidget spinners, pop-its, coloring books – things that keep their hands and minds busy.

Hampton City Schools bus drivers Carmen Marshall and Jeanette Castaneda display two of the gifts they have received from their students at Christmas time. (Photo courtesy of Hampton City Schools.)

Meanwhile, her colleague, Jeanette Castaneda, has been driving a school bus in the Hampton district since 1990.

“Through the years I’ve had a lot of kids on my bus, and some gifts stand out in particular, like four or five stained glass bus ornaments,” Castenada shared. “They’re my favorite ones to hang on the tree each year. They always bring back such good memories.”

Another gift she puts out every holiday is a brass candle holder with a red taper candle.

“I ran into that student a couple of years ago. Twenty years had gone by since she gave me that candle holder as a kindergartener, and I saw her at school with her own child,” Castenada recalled.

But some of the best gifts aren’t the kind you can hold in your hand. For example, Castenada said she had a very challenging 12-year-old middle school student on her bus last year. On the last day of school, as he got off the bus he had tears in his eyes.

“He said, ‘Bye Ms. Castaneda. I’m going to miss you!’ And I realized that I really am making a positive impact,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about that student a lot this holiday season. His words were a gift I’ll always remember.”

In Wisconsin, Tracy Brunette drives a school bus for the Algoma School District. One year, her students pooled their money to buy her a beautiful hurricane lamp.

Tracy Brunette, who drives a school bus for the Algoma School District, said one year her students pooled their money to buy her a hurricane lamp. (Pictured above.)

“I was so touched, I cried,” Brunette recalled. “I’ve gotten t-shirts, cards, ornaments, gloves, lotions, perfume. But the hurricane lamp is the one that made me cry.”

She says she loves all of her students, and one way she shows her gratitude for them is by throwing a pizza party before the holiday break.

“We literally have hot pizza they pass around and enjoy a slice or two on the way home,” she said.

Editor’s note: It wasn’t immediately clear the school district’s policy on allowing food on the school bus.

Susan Dempsey, a driver in the Acton Boxborough Regional School District in Massachusetts, said her most memorable gift came from twin kindergarten girls.

“I talked to their mom each morning and we got to know each other,” Dempsey said. “She knew I’d planned a trip to Key West, Florida, and they bought me two tickets for the trolley ride tour when I got there.”

Related: Giving Tuesday Kicks Off Annual Holiday Donation Drive in Pennsylvania
Related: Gallery: School Districts Decorate School Buses for Holiday Spirit
Related: (STN Podcast E42) Making the Best: Transportation Department Brings Community Holiday Cheer
Related: California School Transportation Officials Participate in Annual Giving Program

For Penny Howe, who drives a school bus in the Pine Valley School District in South Dayton, New York, the best gift is when her students pay it forward.

Every December, she gives her students a Kindness Calendar with a different activity for each day. Some days, they make a bus-ride appropriate craft to give to someone. Other days, they say something nice and pay compliments. On another, they receive three Hershey’s kisses in a bag – one to keep and two to give away. Or, they color a holiday card Howe prints out for them to give to someone special at school or at home.

There’s also a day when they’re asked to say “thank you” to their school custodians for keeping their building clean and safe.

“The custodians were talking about how many times kids said thank you to them, and when I told them about the calendar they couldn’t believe it,” Howe said. “It made them so happy and it makes the kids happy. They really want to do kind things, so every day of the month they’re asked to think about doing something kind for someone else.”

Howe added that kids just want to be heard and recognized and she wants them to know they’re cared about.

“The holidays are a good time of year to express that,” she concluded. “I’ve gotten so many gifts from students, but the best gift of all is their participation in the Kindness Calendar. There’s nothing better than the gift of kindness.”

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