Every time Jerri Hall sees a school bus, she takes a sentimental journey.
She is suddenly in the driver’s seat, dropping off middle school students at Ballard-Hudson in the mornings. Or picking up youngsters at Heard and Porter elementary schools in the afternoons.
It was her life for nine years, traversing the roads from Hartley Bridge to Rocky Creek.
To appreciate where you are, you have to remember the streets you traveled to get there.
Jerri is quite possibly the only person to have started her career in Bibb County schools as a bus driver and finished it as a high school principal.
She has gone from “the bus stops here” to “the buck stops here.”
Today is the last day of school at Rutland High, where she has been principal for the past four years. Before that, she spent seven years at Rutland Middle. She was named principal when the school opened in 2003.
She is now retiring after 32 years on the bus, in the classroom and at the principal’s office.
The seniors in Rutland’s Class of 2014, who will graduate Saturday, hardly know what it’s like not to have a Jerri Hall in the hall. She was their principal all three years in middle school, then followed them next door when they were promoted to high school.
So they are familiar with her story about growing up with aspirations of becoming a teacher. For the first 43 years of her life, she lived at Pine Acres mobile home park on Hawkinsville Road. Her grandmother, Mary Bishop, opened Pine Acres in 1957, the year before Jerri was born.
The students also have heard her share stories about steering her Bluebird of happiness through the streets of Macon while going to college and raising a family. She learned to shift gears and shuffle papers to keep her dream rolling along.
“They have the impression teachers and administrators have always been there, but we haven’t,” she said. “It’s important for them to know I grew up working at the mobile home park. I cut grass, cleaned out homes, kept up the swimming pool and helped my mother unstop sewer lines. I didn’t go to college right out of high school. I want students to know they can do anything they put their mind to -- and it’s never too late.”
She has had 10th-graders come up and tell her their moms and dads once rode on her school bus.
Her sister, Jena, was born May 1, 1964 -- Jerri’s sixth birthday. Their two cousins live nearby, and they all would play school. They had a little red desk and a chalkboard. Jerri always appointed herself the teacher and principal.
She attended elementary school at Heard, then Porter. She married her high school sweetheart, Terry Hall, in 1976. The wedding was two months after Jerri graduated from Windsor Academy, where she played basketball and was cheered on by a cheerleader named Nancy Grace.
Jerri’s daughter, Heather, was born in 1978 with numerous health issues. Jerri had to leave her job with an insurance company to care for her daughter. It was about that time her mother, Sally Whitehurst, sold her beauty shop and began driving a bus for Bibb County, a job she would have for 25 years. (Jerri’s dad, Bobby, was a motorcycle mechanic, so there was no shortage of wheels in the family.)
One afternoon, her mom took her out on some country roads and taught her to drive the bus so she could fill in as a substitute. Jerri applied for a job at the transportation office, where a mechanic told her she would have to know how to drive a straight shift.
“He took me out and stopped the bus on a hill. He said I would have to drive it up the hill without rolling backward,” Jerri said.
She passed the test. In 1981, she was awarded her own route. Five years later, she made the decision to pursue her degree in elementary education at Macon State College (now Middle Georgia State). She sandwiched her college classes between picking up and delivering her precious cargo.
She would get up every morning at 5:30, drive her route, then take her big, yellow bus to Macon State and park it. She took up more than the usual allotted space for student parking.
When she enrolled at Mercer, she was assigned to do her student teaching at Ballard-Hudson. “I would drive some of my students to school, park the bus, then go inside and teach them,” she said, laughing.
Harry Trawick, her former principal at Porter, hired her to teach gifted math at Miller Middle School. When Martha Jones took over, she encouraged Jerri to become an administrator.
She was named assistant principal in 2000, then promoted to principal when Jones retired the following year.
Her grandmother had always wanted one of her grandchildren to become a doctor. Jerri didn’t become a medical doctor, but she soon had a “Dr.” in front of her name after earning her doctorate through a program at Fort Valley State.
Jerri became Rutland Middle’s first principal 11 years ago and made the short move across the parking lot to the high school principal’s office in 2010.
Now it is time to come down from the hill on Skipper Road.
She said she will miss the strong relationships with students and the teachers. She won’t miss all the red tape and the constantly changing education policies and curricula.
Jerri soon will be cleaning out her desk and taking the memories with her.
Sometimes, a reminder will meet her on the road. It will be a familiar color. Yellow.
“Every time I see a school bus,” she said.