It takes a special kind of cheerful individual to show up for work with a smile at 5:30 in the morning, especially when work means driving a bunch of sleepy, and sometimes cranky, kids to school.
But that would be the only way to describe Carolyn Gunther, a driver for the Montauk Bus Company for the past five years, whose job requires her to drive out from Center Moriches twice a day to bring elementary school children to the Bridgehampton School each morning and bring them back home each afternoon.
Ms. Gunther’s 77-passenger bus is recognizable on the street, with two eyeballs displayed at the bottom of the windshield and a red nose in the middle of the grille, but that’s just the beginning. Students getting on the bus are greeted with a cheerful display of holiday or season-appropriate colorful decorations that hang from the ceiling, frame the door and windows and run along the windows.
“It’s all about positivity,” Ms. Gunther said this week. “Their ride to school is how they start their day, and I want them to start their day on a good note. We’re the first adults they have to deal with outside of the home most days”
Ms. Gunther said students have to make do with a plain bus the first month of school, but when Halloween approaches, out come the jack-o-lanterns, witches, goblins, and spider webs. From then on, new themes pretty much continue nonstop through the rest of the school year, with Thanksgiving following hard on the heels of Halloween, and Christmas immediately after Thanksgiving. Shortly after the kids return from Christmas vacation, a St. Valentine’s Day theme appears, which, in turn is followed by St. Patrick’s Day.
“That came down in the morning of the 18th,” she said, “and in the afternoon I started with the Easter eggs.”
By Monday morning — after Ms. Gunther brought her bus to her home in Shirley for a little extra cleaning and decorating, it was ready to go for Easter with an Easter Bunny plaque hanging from the dashboard, an Easter Bunny floor mat, plastic Easter eggs, and all sorts of paper and foam flowers.
“It’s not an effort,” she said. “I enjoy doing stuff for the kids.”
Ms. Gunther is accompanied by Barbara Eyton-Jones, her driver assistant — or monitor. “She always keeps it fun,” she said of Ms. Gunther.
It’s also about making the bus an inviting place for young students who might be apprehensive about going to school. Ms. Gunther said she had one little boy who didn’t like to get on the bus early in the school year. “Now he doesn’t want to get off,” she said.
Ms. Gunther, whose father was a bus driver in Queens, said she often accompanied him on his route. “I grew up on a bus,” she said. She became a driver herself for the First Student, Inc., which served the William Floyd School District, when her son, now 18, was a young student and she was allowed to let him ride along with her. Montauk Bus Company has the same family-friendly feeling, she said.
Ms. Gunther is also known to decorate a child’s preferred seat with balloons on his or her birthday and hand out treats — with parental permission obtained beforehand — if the children behave during the week.
And the children appreciate her as well. Taped to the ceiling of Ms. Gunther’s bus is an oversized thank-you card Bridgehampton children presented her with earlier this year. That little boy who was hesitant to get on the bus earlier this year insisted on signing that card three times.
With Easter just a little more than a week away, Ms. Gunther said she is already looking forward to her next decorating project, when she’ll bring in the palm trees, surfboards, and beach balls to commemorate summer.