The alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m.
For 34 years, Diane Vaughan has started the day before the sun comes up. She thinks of the children she transports to and from Fayette County schools each day, whispers a prayer and trudges on.
Just how precious that cargo is and the huge responsibility she shares with thousands of other metro Atlanta drivers weigh heavily on her. She remembers 5-year-old Everette Johnson, an Atlanta public school student killed last month when his bus rolled over him.
Every day, she said, she prays, "Lord, give me the strength, the wisdom and the knowledge to make sure these babies are safe."
At 6:30 a.m., she walks out into the damp darkness, closing the door quietly so she doesn't awaken her husband.
At the end of their driveway, Vaughan climbs aboard Bus 376, turns the key in the ignition and the mechanical hum of the big yellow International breaks the neighborhood silence.
She checks the alarms and front and rear lights. She inspects the roof hatches and seats to insure there are no loose bolts. All clear, she steers the bus forward.
A lot of years have passed since Vaughan first started this gig. Upscale subdivisions now dot the once barren landscape. And the children she once carried now have children of their own riding her bus.
When she applied for the job in 1975, it seemed perfect for a mother with five school-age children except for one thing: Vaughan had no idea how to drive a stick shift. Her husband, Hugh, taught her. Another driver taught her the bus route.
“The first morning I met him at his house and rode with him on his route,” Vaughan recalled. “Then he put me behind the wheel.”
That, she said, was the extent of her training. Nowadays new bus drivers must have a commercial license, receive five days of classroom instruction and five days on a skills course. Even returning drivers like Vaughan receive two hours of mandatory annual training from the state on new procedures.
Training is just one of many changes Vaughan has witnessed over the years. Some she likes, others not so much.
Drivers can't break up fights or ask an student to intervene. Now they must call the transportation office and, if necessary, ask for police assistance.
And recently, she and her cohorts took a pay cut. Still it’s better than it used to be.
“When I first started driving I got paid $6 a trip,” she said. “I make about $15,000 a year now.”
Other changes have helped increase safety, including banning the use of electronics on board buses and equipping the vehicles with cameras and radios.
The guidelines make riding the school bus one of the safest modes of transportation for students, said Matt Cardoza, a state Department of Education spokesman.
Vaughan has been delivering students to J.C. Booth Middle School for three years and Peachtree City Elementary[ for two years. She knows them all by name.
She arrives at her first stop a little early, so she waits a few minutes before turning into the subdivision and stopping at the bottom of a hill.
The door flies open and students file on board. A cacophony of voices quickly fill the damp air.
If she weren’t driving a school bus, the 65-year-old Vaughan says in a Southern drawl, she’d stay home and clean the house she shares with Hugh, the man she married fresh out of high school and affectionately calls "Daddy", and Brye[, their 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier.
At Peachtree City Elementary she shuts off the engine, opens the door and the lively group spills out.
“Remember, the last one checks the seats,” she says, peering in the rear view mirror.
“Bye, bye sweetie,” she says as they file out the door. “Bye.”
At 7:29 a.m., she’s on her way again, past the Cannon Gate Golf Club to her first stop. A middle-schooler climbs aboard, saying nothing. Until the fourth or fifth stop, no one does.
Back on Ga. 54, traffic isn’t nearly as busy as she thought it would be. Highway 54 can be the worst when it comes to accidents, and rain almost guarantees a collision or two, she says.
In all of her years of driving, Vaughan has had two accidents: one caused by another driver and one she caused on this stretch of road 18 years ago.
“I was given two days off with pay and a $15 fine,” she said.
At 7:57 she pulls up to J.C. Booth and cuts off the engine.
“Why does she always turn it off?” one student asks another.
“I think the school thinks she’s wasting gas,” the student replies.
A 2006 International, this is one of three brand new buses Vaughan has driven over the years. Its 100-gallon tank lets her drive a week and a half without refueling.
It’s 8 a.m. when she arrives back home, her 13-mile trip complete. Hugh is stirring around the kitchen, where he shows off a wall covered with plaques his wife has received for her driving skills at local and state competitions known as Roadeos.
Vaughan pours herself another cup of coffee. After quick telephone calls to her mother and daughter, Terry, she heads back to bed.
At 1:30 p.m., she will head out again -- first to the elementary school, then to J.C. Booth.
She's a stickler for following the rules, looking both ways at every stop and minding the speed limit.
"Watch for the cars," she reminds each child as they step off the bus. "Watch the cars."
She raises her right hand, signaling them to stop. Certain the path is clear, she motions for them to cross the street.
It is 4:14 when the last student pops his head up, grabs his back pack and trumpet and jumps off the step. It's been a long day but at least she won't have to cook dinner.
“Tonight’s senior citizen night at Captain Ds,” she says, smiling.