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Pranks and thanks as school year ends in Manatee

MANATEE — A few years ago on a last day of school, veteran bus driver Mary Johnston drove No. 563 up to its final stop.

When the students deboarded, they ran to a culvert, grabbed eggs and oranges and splattered the yellow Blue Bird.

The next year, on that same route, on the last day, Johnson got smart.

About two blocks before the stop, she pulled the bus to the side of the road, told the kids they’d be getting off there, then smiled.

Realizing their defeat and, with faces of disappointment, they deboarded the bus one by one.

“I knew they had their ammo. It’s live and learn in this trade,” said Johnston, who’s driven a school bus in Manatee County for 27 years.

Today, 63-year-old Johnston will reboard her bus for one more last day of school. The day, she said, will be bittersweet because not only does she expect a few pranks, she is retiring. And she and her fellow bus drivers know that along with the pranks come the thanks. And she’s not so sure she is ready for that.

Pricella Washington, who drives bus No. 524, hopes she doesn’t have a last day like the one 10 years ago when she was dropping off King Middle School students near Palma Sola Boulevard and students began throwing paper out the window.

“They littered Manatee Avenue with it,” the 48-year-old Bradenton resident recalled. “When the mood hits, they do it.”

Drivers Gloria King and Alfred Gibson had their buses hit with eggs during a last day prank.

“I think I got hit in crossfire,” Gibson said laughing.

Sometimes the pranks aren’t just on the last day of school.

Southeast High School junior Jackie Merino, who has ridden Johnston’s bus since her freshman year, said that on the first day of fall semester she put shaving cream all over the driver’s seat when Johnston wasn’t looking.

“I didn’t think I’d get caught, but I guess a camera caught me,” Merino said while riding the bus on Wednesday. “The next day I come on the bus everyone’s telling me, ‘Oh, you’re in trouble’ ... they showed me the video tape.”

Her punishment? A permanent front-seat assignment next to Johnston.

“She never thought she’d get caught, but she did and she took it like a little woman,” Johnston said, smiling.

On Wednesday, Merino sat in her seat and chatted with Johnston about the last day of school and Johnston’s retirement.

Merino’s reign of pranks, she said, has not ended.

“The last day of school, I have some tricks up my sleeve,” she said. Johnston immediately turned around, shook her head and smiled.

But for the most part students are well-behaved, said Johnston, whose regular stops include Southeast High School, Haile Middle School and Bashaw Elementary School.

“I may carry around 70 kids on a bus, but there are only a couple who sometimes give me a handful,” she said. “It’s all about how you relate to them. Treat ‘em like adults, and they treat you like one.”

The kinder side will also come on the last day when drivers get cards from students showing their appreciation.

King has already gotten a thank you note, and Gibson and Washington have received gift cards.

“I started crying,” Washington said as she sat inside the teacher’s lounge at Southeast High School waiting for the bell to ring. “I never expected it.”

Johnston got a T-shirt.

“They knew I was retiring so my middle school kids signed a shirt for me,” said Johnson. “I’m gonna miss my kids. They sure did entertain me.”