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Captivated by school buses: As the youngest behind the wheel in Brownsburg, at 22 Nick Whitlow’s childhood goal of driving a school bus came true

Nick Whitlow drives his dream route through the country with Brownsburg High School students. He also mentors them along the way. (Photo by Jessica Todd)

By Jessica Todd

Many children dream of becoming a firefighter, teacher or doctor when they grow up, but for 22-year-old Nick Whitlow, none of these felt like the right fit.

For as long as he can remember, he wanted to drive a school bus. Whitlow, who grew up in Avon, has always had a passion for vehicles. He was in first grade when his fascination for school buses grew.

“Growing up, I was obsessed with motorcycles, trains, planes and buses,” said Whitlow. “I was captivated by school buses from a very young age. I don’t know how else to explain it other than I have always known I wanted to drive one.”

In Indiana, bus drivers must be 21 to apply for a CDL license. To become more familiar with the job, Whitlow accepted a position as a bus aide for Brownsburg School Corporation when he was 18. He helped ensure students entered and exited the bus safely, helped with fire drills and became familiar with the bus.

“When I was a bus aide, I always wanted to take over the route I helped,” he said. “When I learned I would take over the route when I got my license I was so excited. I like the route because it is full of country roads, and the students are awesome.”

He obtained his license to drive the school bus in March 2020. Then the pandemic shut down schools just four days into his journey as a bus driver.

“I was crushed. The four days I had of driving the bus for the first time were nothing short of pure bliss,” he said.

Masked up when schools resumed in July, Whitlow could not wait to sit in the driver’s seat. Since then, he has been driving the same route he had as a bus aide every afternoon. He also fills in as a substitute in the mornings and occasionally drives athletic teams to events.

“I only have time to drive for the high school in the afternoon because my route takes almost double the time it takes others to drive theirs,” said Whitlow, noting it’s 40 miles long.

The pandemic changed many things about his routine when it comes to cleaning the bus and ensuring students are safe and healthy.

“The kids are great about keeping their masks on. They know it is expected of them and do a great job of following directions,” he said. “I also wipe down the seats and handrails after students are off the bus and deep clean once I finish each route.”

Compared to other college students, Whitlow believes his passion for driving school buses is unique.

“What many of them fail to realize is how perfect my schedule is,” said Whitlow who is taking classes at Ivy Tech Community College then plans to go to IUPUI to study sustainable management and policy. “I have plenty of time to get things such as homework and classes done in between routes. It also makes it super easy to schedule college classes.”

Whitlow is the youngest school bus driver in his corporation, but this has been more beneficial to him than he could have imagined.

“I googled the average age of a bus driver the other day and saw that it is 56. Most of my coworkers are within the age range, but
that has benefited me in many ways. My coworkers guide me and share all of their valuable experiences with me,” said Whitlow.

“He was a great aide,” said Brownsburg bus driver Lissa Broyles who was a CDL trainer before driving a bus. “He always kept the children entertained while I drove the bus. Whitlow was a great person to train for his CDL. He was always ready to drive or help prepare the bus for the students.”

With every job comes good memories accompanied by hard times. Whitlow has learned to embrace both.

“I love my route, and each ride is different every day. I like having that time to spend with the kids,” Whitlow said. “As a bus driver, the students feel like they can confide in me with more than they could to a teacher or parent. I have the advantage of being able to relate to the high schoolers because I was one just four years ago. I like to listen and give them advice on everything.”

On every drive, Whitlow’s essentials include a mask, his license, water and his patience.

“The hardest part about the job is that the kids tend to test your patience sometimes,” he said. “I remind myself that I never know what goes on in their lives before or after they are on my bus. It could be an escape for some students. I try to remember that when I get frustrated.”

He also needs his patience when dealing with other drivers on the road.

“As a bus driver, all eyes are on you when you are on the road. I can’t honk if someone cuts me off or have a reaction to other drivers not stopping for me,” he said.

Whitlow continues to dream and plans to graduate in May from Ivy Tech, perhaps driving a semi or delivery truck.

“I see myself being a school bus driver forever, even if it is just as a substitute,” said Whitlow. “The reality is that I can’t live off that salary alone … I could see myself possibly becoming a truck driver or driving for UPS, then working as a bus driver on the days I have off.”

No matter where his life takes him, the lessons he has learned during his time as a school bus driver will stick with him forever.

“The most valuable lesson I have learned as a bus driver is that no matter where you are, what you do or who you meet, you have the opportunity to make a positive impact on somebody,” Whitlow said.

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