SANDERSVILLE -- Some little girls grow up wanting to be nurses. Others have dreams of becoming ballerinas or teachers.
Merion Sheppard always wanted to be a school bus driver.
It was her calling from the time she was able to write her name with one of those big, fat pencils in the first grade at Reynolds Elementary School.
She has driven a bus for Brentwood Academy in Sandersville for the past 38 years. She has made enough runs between Deepstep, Tennille and Wrightsville for the equivalent of 16 trips around the Earth.
Some of those rides have been while dressed as a clown. Or an elf. Or the Easter bunny.
There are people who love their jobs. And there are people live for their jobs.
Merion loves and lives for her job.
She underwent shoulder surgery July 31 and hasnt been able to drive since school started Aug. 10. But she has been riding the route with a substitute driver every day. She has been cleared by her doctor to climb back on the saddle on Sept. 12.
She can hardly wait.
Merion has lived in Sandersville since 1964. She went to school in Reynolds through the 11th grade. Her family moved before her senior year of high school.
In the first grade, she rode a giant yellow school bus for the first time. It was a Blue Bird, manufactured just down the road in Fort Valley.
I knew right then I wanted to be a bus driver when I grew up, she said. I loved being around the other children. I always felt safe when I was on one. I rode the bus every time I had the chance.
It wasnt as often as she would have liked. Her family lived only two blocks from the school, so she walked to class every day. She and her cousin would board a bus every Friday afternoon and travel 3 miles out in the country to her grandmothers house. They would ride horses back into town for the weekend. That was always a treat.
Her father ran a Ford dealership in Darien. He would sometimes let her climb in his lap while he was driving. She was barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel. She later taught herself to drive when she was 16, riding around in circles in the yard.
She still took the school bus whenever she had a chance. She played basketball at Reynolds High and enjoyed traveling on the bus for road games almost as much as home games.
She worked with children at a nursery in Sandersville until 1974, when she learned one of the drivers for Brentwood was retiring. She had never driven a bus. The mechanic at the bus shop let her take an old bus home for the weekend to practice. She took it for a spin on country roads in Washington County, kicked the tires and learned how to make those wide turns by trial and error.
By the time she went back Monday I had it down pat, she said.
The bus was old and patched together. It had a hole in the seat. The brake pedal was held in place with wire and a block of wood. It left her on the side of the road a few times until the school could purchase a new vehicle.
In 38 years, she has driven eight different buses. She got her newest one in January. It has cruise control. (Yes, she has come a long way since that hole in the seat.)
For more than a generation, the parents of students at Brentwood have entrusted Merion with their special cargo. Her tires have kicked up kaolin dust from Yank Brown Road to the Johnson County line.
She has never had an accident, unless you count hitting four deer. One time, a student picked up Merions pocketbook and tossed it out the window for no apparent reason. Merion stopped and went back to pick up everything scattered along Union Church Road.
Another time, she couldnt get a boy to stop spitting on the other students. So she sat him on the top step by the door and placed a trash can at his feet. She made him keep spitting into the trash can on the way home.
She knew she had cured him when he finally surrendered.
Im out of spit, he said.
I asked her how many times she has said: Sit down, please.
Only a million, she said.
There are plenty of sweet stories, too. She had one girl who would tell Bible stories to the other students on the way from Tennille to Sandersville.
When she had the idea to dress up like a clown for Halloween, she first checked with the Georgia State Patrol. They told her it was OK, as long as she didnt wear a mask that would impair her vision.
The other drivers helped her cut the yarn to make an orange wig. The children loved it so much she designed an elf costume with a hat, shoes, green top, bells and red pants from Wal-Mart.
Once, she had a doctors appointment in Macon on the same day she wore the Easter bunny outfit. She called to tell them she might be running late. And one more thing. Dont be surprised if she showed up in a bunny outfit.
Merion also wears the costumes to spread cheer at a local day care center, churches and nursing homes. She hopes to expand her bus-driving wardrobe to include a turkey for Thanksgiving.
I was an only child, and Ive always loved to be around children, she said. I look forward to being with them. I can be having a bad day, and they can say one word that will make my day.
When she got the keys to the new bus nine months ago, she was told she would probably have to drive it for the next 20 years.
No problem, she said.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org