DRACUT — From the driver’s seat of the school bus she’s driven here for nearly a half a century now, Ginger Caggiano has been a dutiful, gasoline-powered lesson in longevity, dedication, and street-smart diplomacy.
She’s the smiling fixture behind the wheel, opening her yellow doors to generations of children who have used crayons and pencils to send her messages of gratitude.
She’s seen hemlines rise and fall.
She’s seen haircuts morph from buzz cuts to shoulder-length. And back.
She’s scolded bullies and comforted scared little kids dressed in fresh new clothes on their way to their first day of school.
At 81, as another school year has arrived, she has tended her garden, doted on her flowers, and savored the summer sun.
And now it’s time to start up her school bus again.
“It’s a great excitement for me,’’ she told me as we sat on her bus at the transportation company yard here the other day. “It’s just a tradition. All my life, I’ve just enjoyed it. I love the first day of school. If I couldn’t be behind the wheel on the first day, I’d be so sad.’’
So would all those little school kids. So would their teary-eyed parents, who kiss them goodbye. So would her co-workers for whom she is both role model and a kind of transportation den mother.
“It takes a special person to do what she does,’’ said John J. McCarthy, the chief executive of Trombly Motor Coach Service Inc. “School bus drivers don’t grow on trees. She really is a gift to the industry. And she’s a great driver.’’
“She cares,’’ agreed Lynda Cruz, the bus terminal manager. “That’s huge. She is here every day. She cares about the kids. And that’s the important part.’’
Virginia Caggiano learned that lesson early in her life. You could say it’s in her blood.
She was raised in Boston. Her father drove a big rig truck and eventually moved the family to Everett, where Virginia graduated from high school in 1957.
“I walked to school,’’ she said. “No bus for me.’’
Eventually, after a 10-year stint in the underwriting department for John Hancock Life Insurance Co. where she started work in 1957, she married, moved from Everett to Dracut, and joined a summer softball league team.
“So, these softball players drove school buses and some of them came in and said to me: ‘Would you like to train?’ ‘’ she recalled.
Well, yes, she told them. Sign me up.
And that’s why generations of school kids here learned to greet “Ginger,’’ each morning, a name that was inadvertently shortened by a niece for whom “Virginia” was just too much of a mouthful.
“So, for years, everybody here at the bus company calls me Ginger,’’ she said.
They call her other things too. Professional. Patient. A skilled school bus driver with genuine heart.
“She’s been doing it since I was 3 years old,’’ said her daughter, 51-year-old Lynda Caggiano. “I remember being a little girl and going with her on the bus. She loves the kids. She loves the people. My mother is a very people person.’’
That’s a prerequisite for a job behind the wheel with precious cargo wearing backpacks, staring back at you in that big mirror above the driver’s seat.
“You have to learn how to park,’’ she said. “You have to back up. You have to always watch your mirrors. Those mirrors are your guide. You always have to see what’s going on. You have to watch the kids.
“You have to have four eyes really. You’ve got to watch everything going on.’’
And as the miles — and the years — pass behind you on all those trips to school, you learn to develop a special set of street smarts.
“You have to have patience,’’ she said. “That’s the main thing. Patience. Be kind. Be a good listener. And make friends with the worst kid on the bus. And I used to have some really rough ones.’’
But, she said, kids are kids. Treat them as you’d like to be treated. And the bus will calm down.
“My whole outlook is that if you have a bad kid, they’re not really bad,’’ she said. “They’re just showing off. And I always had a way about me that kids remember me, especially the worst ones. I meet them on the street — even now to this day — and they come by my house now for Halloween with their own kids.’’
Hi, Ginger. Trick or treat?
Mostly it’s been a treat for Virginia Caggiano, who started out earning $3 an hour, a wage that across the decades has grown to $22 an hour.
There have been some unsettling bumps along the way.
She’s an ovarian cancer survivor.
She’s also a survivor of a head-on crash by a driver who, she said, was impaired — an incident that occurred years ago.
She’s dutifully obeyed the careful protocols brought on by the COVID pandemic.
When she’s behind the wheel, she adopts a no-nonsense persona.
She won’t put up with foul language.
She won’t tolerate any behavior that would imperil the kids seated behind her.
She used to drive a 47-foot bus. But her cargo is no less precious on the smaller bus she drives now.
“She was the one who ultimately said she was going to drive a smaller bus,’’ McCarthy said. “She made that decision. She knows what her capabilities are. And she knows her limitations.’’
And she knows how the parents feel on these first days of school — a mixture of relief and anxiety. The need to linger just a bit before saying goodbye, trusting their children to the kindly, smiling woman behind the wheel.
“Sometimes it’s hard for some of the kids to let loose of the parent,’’ she said. “So, I have to help them on the bus and tell them what a wonderful day they’re going to have. And I put them in the seat.’’
And then it’s time to sit behind the wheel, fasten the seat belt, and guide the yellow bus to the schoolhouse door.
And when school’s out, there are frequent reminders about this special bond formed on that yellow bus.
“All the time,’’ she said. “I’m in Hannaford or I’m in Market Basket and the kids will say, ‘Mom! That’s Ginger over there! Let’s go see her!’
“I can hear them and it’s great. It really is. On Halloween I have a big display in front of my house and in my garage and they come from all over. They know Ginger’s the place for Halloween. And they come to see me.
“And I see the parents of kids used to drive. Grandparents I used to drive. Yeah. We’re going way back. And it’s a good feeling.’’
Summer’s over. Fall is in the air.
And the schoolhouse door has swung open again.
And Ginger Caggiano, that kindly woman behind the wheel, is ready to take her kids to the place where the teachers take over.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.