Along the stretch of South Miller Loop Road to Nikiski North Star Elementary, students, with their families watching, patiently awaited the school bus that would bring them to their first day of school.
The children already on the bus fell back into their friendships and old ways quickly, waving and giving a thumbs up to cars that have, once again, found themselves idling behind the flashing lights of the school buses.
It was the buses’ first day, too, marking Apple Bus Company’s arrival to the Kenai Peninsula with a fleet of new buses manned by familiar drivers.
Colleen Puch, who drove bus No. 114 up to the school’s entrance Tuesday morning, was in the thick of her 44th first day as a bus driver.
“I hope you make your first day a happy day,” Puch said over the bus’s loudspeaker as students filed off the bus and on toward the school’s playground.
“I think they missed me,” Puch said after checking to make sure the bus was empty. “I got a present — smoked salmon and bread. Oh my god, I can’t believe it.”
Puch started driving buses in Ohio, but continued after moving her family to Alaska years ago. She has driven her own children, their children and now, this year, will be driving her great-grandson to school.
“It’s fun to watch kids that I know from driving them, that are now bringing their kids to the bus,” Puch said. “…I wouldn’t trade it for any job in the world.”
Puch, though, didn’t drive her great-grandson to his first day since he had wanted it to be a full family affair.
“His mom drove him today and he wanted his grandma there too,” she explained as she started heading into the school to wish him good luck before getting back on her bus.
Down the sidewalk, away from the bus drop-off, the school’s principal Margaret Gilman waved families through the crosswalk from the parking lot and into the school’s doors while donning a reflective vest and a smile.
“I do the crosswalk every morning and every afternoon,” Gilman said. “…I’m looking forward to all the bright and shining young faces on the kid’s faces that are happy to be back here and are here safe and sound.”
With the exception of a few late stragglers, all the first day excitement moved inside the building in time for the 8:55 a.m. start. The hallways were abuzz with parents saying hello to their children’s new teachers and goodbye to their children.
“I have four kiddos total,” Allana Kimbell, president of the school’s parent-teacher association, said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I have a middle-schooler this year, so that’s new to me.”
Kimbell, who had organized a “Boo Hoo Breakfast” in the school’s library for parents, said it was exciting to be back.
“It’s not boo hoo for me, it’s kind of a yahoo,” she said. “They did pretty good this morning, fell right back into routine. We’ll give it two weeks and see how well they are doing then, though.”
The school loudspeaker helped continue the routine’s momentum as the first day hustle paused for the pledge of allegiance and morning announcements. It seemed Nikiski North Star still had a taste of summer, with cheeseburgers on the menu for lunch.
And although the routine already seemed familiar to everyone in the school, peeking into each classroom revealed a lot of new — new supplies, new classmates, new lessons to learn and new names to remember.
“My name is Ms. Erwin, and I am so happy to have you here,” Tanya Erwin told her class as they settled in to their new desk on the first day of third grade. “… I’m looking forward to getting to know you and learning to love you.”