A cold rain falls as school buses pull into Lomax Elementary School before dawn Tuesday. School hasn't started yet, so children inside the last bus stay dry and huddle around the driver.
Timothy Driggers reminds them where they left off in a story about Hank the Cowdog. A cowboy by the name of Slim accidentally ate dog food thinking it was hash.
"It was the best hash he had ever eaten," reads Driggers, 44, exaggerating a country twang. He leans back and laughs boisterously.
He and about 20 kids have burned through dozens of books in the past two years. Staggered bus scheduling means many buses get to the 26th Street magnet school half an hour before teachers arrive and the school day starts.
The students wait with their drivers, but these days many don't want to get off Driggers' bus.
"Who wants to tag in and read a little bit?" he asks.
Hands jut up above the seats — pick me! pick me!
Driggers high fives Mohammed Karim, 8, and hands over the book. Mohammed mimics Driggers' voice.
"It ain't that I'm stubborn and mule-headed. I ain't going to the doctor. I'm feeling better."
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The driver in the bus ahead, wearing earphones, jots something on a pad while students move freely about the back of the bus. Another driver texts on a phone.
Theirs is not an easy job. Kids can be loud and rude. That can be a safety hazard, especially when the only adult is driving a bus.
Some drivers give referrals for bad behavior.
Driggers prefers to give Skittles for correct answers.
He quizzes his kids to make sure they listen as they read and urges them to make predictions about what will happen next.
"When he lets us read, he says try to bring the characters alive," Mohammed said. "Put some feeling to it."
Driggers says he sees results. Sometimes he passes the book to a second-grader who reads the fourth-grade level books he picks. And he has made connections with the kids. A girl who didn't speak a syllable to him last year has become one of his best readers.
The whole bus applauds each child who reads. They pass the book to the next reader by tagging hands, like in wrestling, Driggers said.
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Driggers didn't care much for reading as a child in Plant City. He was a class clown, he said. He failed fourth grade. He graduated from Tampa Bay Technical School and got a job as a driver, delivering produce to schools, before he took a bus route five years ago.
"I never did any college," he said. "Now I'm into all these books."
It started one day two years ago when he found a book left on his bus. No one claimed it, so he started reading to the kids in the mornings.
They were soon hooked.
"It was a silly girls club book," he said. "A pretty good story."
His bus is usually the first to arrive in the afternoon at Lomax, his route for the past two years. He likes to hang out in the media center.
After he read that first book, media specialist Rhonda Hurst gave him the children's book Stone Fox. He then found the Hank the Cowdog series.
While the kids are in school he often reads at his home in Seffner for a couple of hours before heading back to pick them up. He just finished a biography on Hulk Hogan.
Driggers, who is single and has no kids, says if anything, he was born to entertain.
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Last week, about 200 Hillsborough educators gathered to recognize the best in the field of literacy. Among them were principals, media specialists and reading coaches — and one bus driver.
Driggers was nervous. His sister, a nephew and his dad had come to watch him claim a Celebrate Literacy Award from county branches of the PTA, PTSA and the International Reading Association, the world's largest literacy organization.
"I was out of my element," Driggers said.
He was right where he should be, said Richard Long, a director at IRA from Washington, D.C. The award acknowledges people who get kids reading, Long said. It's not always a teacher who makes that literary connection with a kid.
"That fellow's golden," he said.
Driggers had prepared a speech. He wanted to thank Lomax's principal, Connie Chisholm, for letting him check out books from the school library; and the media specialist, Hurst, who had steered him to the Sunshine State book series for kids and nominated him for the award.
His was the only standing ovation.
He never got to deliver his speech, though. For the first time in awhile, Driggers was speechless.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.