The police officers, secretaries and chairman work two 20-minute shifts per day. So does the sheriff, banker and timekeeper. They save their paychecks only to exchange them for $5 gift cards.
Their boss, Curtis Jenkins, is nothing if not reliable. He picks them up in the morning and takes them home every night. He never asks them to work overtime.
They are, after all, elementary school students.
The Lake Highlands Elementary bus driver has created a community inside the yellow school bus. Students apply for their jobs and earn “bus bucks” that Jenkins designed himself. They’re fined when they break Jenkins’ rules, which are centered around respect and compassion.
“I’m teaching love,” he says. “If you don’t love, it might cost you some things.”
It’s no classroom, but Jenkins plans daily lessons that he worries are otherwise neglected. Girls get on the bus first in bad weather, he says, because they’re “queens of the future.” He shows students how to fly paper airplanes and tie a tie.
“I want to put imagination back in children without desensitizing them,” he says.
Jenkins has held an assortment of jobs, from owning a plumbing and electric company to truck driving. Then, eight years ago, his mother became sick. He needed a flexible job to take her to appointments.
“Everybody always asks me why I drive a school bus,” he says. “I tell them I’m on a mission from God.”
One January afternoon, on his lunch break, Jenkins sets a stack of printed articles on a table at Panda Express. In a rare turn of events, The Huffington Post, People, The Christian Post and even far-right nationalist outlet Breitbart share similar headlines. A generous Dallas bus driver bought Christmas gifts for 60 students.
Jenkins pulls his phone out of his pocket and pulls up another story featuring his photo. He doesn’t recognize any of the words — or the alphabet.
“I don’t even know what language this is,” he says.
Jenkins has been inundated with phone calls from nonprofits, TV stations and talk show managers since he and his wife bought dozens of presents, meticulously wrapped them and gave them to students for the holidays.
The act was not out of the ordinary for Jenkins, who makes each student a birthday card and buys turkeys for families in need on Thanksgiving. Lake Highlands Elementary thanked Jenkins on Facebook that Friday, clueless that the post would be shared 13,500 times and his story would run across media outlets in 20 countries.
By the time Jenkins and his family were at church Sunday, the act of kindness went viral. Jenkins transformed into an internet sensation within 48 hours.
“Everybody capitalized on what I did,” he says.
Jenkins wasn’t prepared for the nonprofits who claimed they donated to him, even though he’s yet to receive any money. He was surprised that people created GoFundMe pages under his name without his knowledge. His daughter wasn’t ready for the 2,000 Instagram followers who flooded her inbox in search of her dad’s contact information.
He didn’t expect to buy a P.O. box or hire a lawyer to establish a nonprofit.
Jenkins didn’t return phone calls immediately. He fasted—only eating once per day — and he thought. “Some people call it praying. Some people call it meditating,” he says.
If I have a platform now, why not use it, he decided.
Jenkins’ nonprofit, Magnifying Caring and Change, will be an extension of what he does for the students on his bus. He’s looking for other people to help him, although he’s skeptical of their intentions Ideally, one day, he’ll have a community center for them after school, he says.
“If I had a mentor when I was young, I would’ve run for president at age 21,” he says.