William Bost was 14 years old when his mom pulled her school bus over one afternoon in their Kentucky neighborhood once the last kid was dropped off for the day. "Do you want to take us home?" she asked, knowing full well the answer.
He had been riding behind his mom's driver seat his entire school career. While other kids propped their knees on the tall seatbacks in front of them, chatting with neighbors, William would watch his mom maneuver the long yellow rectangle down narrow roads and around sharp bends.
That afternoon, the teenager grabbed hold of the oversized wheel, changed gears on the stick shift, and showed his mom in the few short miles it took to get home he could tame the massive beast. "He was a natural," said his mom, Cindy. "It was heaven," said William.
Now, 13 years later, when children from neighborhoods like Skybrook and Highland Creek step into Cabarrus County School bus No. 146 and scurry past Bost to their seats, they most likely don't realize they are under the care of the best of the best.
This year, Bost won top honor in the Cabarrus County School Transportation Roadeo, a competition that tests drivers' safety skills.
Most people haven't heard of school bus roadeos, but they are big in the world of student transportation. Not to be confused with Charlotte Motor Speedway school bus races, where local principals frantically speed around the track in buses that looked like they've been mugged by a gang of spray paint cans, bus roadeos emphasize safety.
During the competition, drivers face off in events like Diminishing Clearance, where a bus must squeeze between sets of posts that gradually become closer. If done correctly, the driver will have just an inch of clearance between the posts and bus on each side.
Bost is so good, he won second in the state this year, earning a spot in the big leagues, The School Bus Driver International Safety Competition, held in St. Louis July 25. He did not place in the top 10. He won't know his rank for a week or so, but he feels he did well for his first time.
"Nerves play a big part." said Bost, of Gold Rush Road. But he reminds himself he logs 95 miles of practice each day school is in session.
Every time he maneuvers between parked cars on his way to Harris Road Middle School, he is practicing diminishing clearance. At every traffic light on Poplar Tent Road, he sharpens his stop line, another event where competitors must come within an inch of a mark.
He travels with his mom's words in the back of his mind. "Always remember you're carrying someone else's babies," she would say.
That's the kind of advice that comes in handy, especially when motorists easily distracted by cell phones ignore Bost's flashing lights, an occurrence that happens all too often, he said. "Those 116 kids become my children. You get to learn where they are coming from, how they're doing in school, their home life."
It's a warmth the 27-year-old with a bachelor's degree in accounting didn't expect to feel. "I thought I would be more hard-hearted," he said. "It's tough seeing them get off the bus the last day of school."
He keeps many of the handwritten thank-you cards from kindergartners on a bookshelf next to his roadeo trophies, as a reminder of why he has the trophies there in the first place.