Grass Valley school bus driver retires after 26 years of service
Michelle Norton remembers feeling a little apprehensive her first day as a school bus driver for Durham School Services.
“But I just kind of fell into it,” Norton said. “I don’t think I was scared, but I was nervous wondering if I was going to find the right places and stops. The bus has never frightened me. It is a rewarding job if you let yourself enjoy it. You can’t be too serious, and you have to have some kind of dedication to what you’re doing to have longevity.”
After 26 years of driving countless bus routes for the students of Nevada County, students Norton says have left an indelible mark on her life, she has decided to retire in an attempt to spend more time with her grandchildren and husband.
“I’m happy with my decision,” Norton said. “It’s still early, six months down the road I may say, ‘What was I thinking?’ I’m going to miss a lot of them, the kids the most. But I felt my time was now.”
Born and raised in Nevada County, Norton, 62, is a Nevada Union High School alum, who, prior to being a school bus driver, worked for video-tech company Grass Valley Group for more than 10 years as a domestic sales representative.
Norton said she worked long hours for Grass Valley Group and one day decided that she was not getting enough time to spend with her daughter.
So she quit her job to become a school bus driver.
Norton got her bus driver certification in the summer of 1988 and started as a school bus driver in August of that year.
“Back in those days you passed your certification, they handed you a shirt, a set of keys and a route sheet, and said, ‘Have a nice day,’” Norton recalls.
Throughout the years, Norton worked for Durham in every aspect of school bus driving, from dispatch, administration, and as a cover driver, filling in on routes that were vacant and in need of a driver.
Norton has driven school buses for students from elementary school through high school, including Grass Valley School District, Nevada Joint Union School District, and Nevada City School District, to name a few.
“For years I would take Lyman Gilmore and Magnolia students to their sixth grade environmental science camp,” Norton said. “That was the best time ever, I looked forward to that every single year. The kids, watching them learn about our environment. We’d go to the ocean, the tide pools, I learned an awful lot over the years. We’d go to the redwoods, and I recommend that to anybody because it’s such a beautiful place.”
Norton was also NU’s varsity and junior varsity “bus baseball mom” and took the teams to their away games, often baking the players a batch of cookies for their final away games of each season.
To Norton, being a school bus driver was more than just driving students to and from school.
“You do grow attached to some of the kids,” Norton said. “To some, you become kind of a surrogate parent, and you can be a sounding board for them, and to me it was just amazing how they would grow to trust you. It made you feel really, really good inside to know that if they’re having a bad day, they’ll confide in you when they might not confide in somebody else.”
Durham School Services General Manager Paula Davison says that Norton was an honest and dependable driver with whom she felt kids would always be safe.
Davison recalls a time when Norton would not let a student off her bus because of a suspicious subject lurking around her bus stop.
“She didn’t feel good about it. So she stayed there and waited for the girl’s family to come pick her up so she knew she wouldn’t be in harm’s way,” Davison said. “That’s the kind of person she is, she knew her kids, she knew who should be there at stops, and who shouldn’t be, and she knew what steps to take to keep the kids safe.”
Safety on Norton’s buses, she says, was always top priority.
“My rules were, always be kind to one another — because they can be hateful little devils — but it was always be kind, treat someone the way you would want to be treated,” Norton said. “I found you never talked down to them, I always treated them as if they were my own children. The best were my high school kids, I could really relate to them, and they made me feel young and they made me feel accepted in their world.”
According to Norton, the day in and day out interactions she has had with her students and their families have given her memories and an emotional attachment that she hopes will continue.
“My high school kids were very upset,” Norton said. “But they were very supportive, very sweet. I’ve driven their sisters, their brothers, their cousins, and for some of them, their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles. So leaving the kids is what has been the hardest for me.”
Last week, in honor of Norton’s years of service, her coworkers and fellow drivers held a special cake ceremony for her, giving her a send-off like no other.
“When I came in that morning to my bus, I opened the door and it was full of balloons,” Norton said. “I felt very warm inside and happy, but yet sad at the same time because it really did mean it was the end.”
Before heading out to her final afternoon route, Davison called Norton over to a bridge by the yard where all of the school buses are parked.
As Norton stood at the bridge, every single high school bus began to drive around the yard, offering a honk or a flash of light in salute of Norton’s retirement.
“That started the tears. It was amazing, they’ve never done that for anyone before,” Norton said.
“I felt so blessed and so special that they did this for me, and that it even made me kind of second-guess my decision. But I said, ‘No, I’m done.’ But it’s been a great ride.”
To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.
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