PRESTON — It was 2003 and filmmaker Jared Hess was looking for someone to fill the role of school bus driver in his first full-length film — “Napoleon Dynamite.”
The Preston native selected his East Idaho town of 5,000 as the prime location for the comedy, so the film crew reached out to the Preston School District to narrow their search for candidates. Eyes turned to award-winning, 19-year bus driver Laurie Bird.
“I told them I was comfortable playing the role — as long as I didn’t have to say anything,” she said.
Bird spent three days playing bus driver in two of the film’s major scenes. Like other locals playing minor roles, she didn’t get paid. (The movie went on to earn $46.1 million at the box office — on a budget of $400,000.)
But Bird’s claim to local fame doesn’t end with her silent part in what is now a cult classic film. This summer, she placed first at the state bus-driving “Roadeo” in Meridian, an annual competition sponsored by the Idaho Association of Pupil Transportation and the State Department of Education. The competition provides “advanced training in safety and self confidence in all school bus drivers.”
“It was pretty cool to win,” Bird said. “The best part was that I got to go to the national competition in North Carolina.”
Bird’s four-foot state trophy was her ticket to nationals in Greensboro, N.C. in July, where she placed ninth.
Bus drivers are assessed via a written test on the first day of the competitions — then they buckle up for a day behind the wheel in an enclosed driving course.
The written test is a combination of true or false and multiple-choice questions. It focuses on Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) training, state standards for bus drivers and a few “common sense” questions. (True or False: Smoking is permitted on a school bus when all students are off the bus.)
The driving portion ranges from how to properly approach a railroad crossing to how to back up a bus in a confined space.
This year’s state competition was particularly memorable for Bird: Her daughter Kelsi Cleverly also competed — and placed third.
“It’s just something we’ve sort of both fallen into,” said Cleverly.
Cleverly also is a member of Preston’s fleet.
The mother-daughter duo are part of a bus driving dynasty in Preston. (A Preston driver has won the state competition 11 of the past 14 years.)
“Winning the state competition is reflective of our district’s attitude toward safety,” said Preston Superintendent Marc Gee. “We are proud of Laurie and Kelsi and their willingness to help keep our kids safe.”
But being a good bus driver is about more than applying textbook skills to the trade, said one Preston student.
“She’s nice to us — that’s what makes her a good bus driver,” said Avyree Phillips, an eighth-grader who has ridden Bird’s route for over five years. “She smiles at us and treats us like we want to be treated.”
FUN FACTS ABOUT LAURIE AND KELSI
- What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in 19 years of bus driving? Laurie: We had a bus driver in the district — I won’t say her name — who used to hit those orange road construction cones. The kids got so used to her hitting them that they’d watch out the back of the bus to make sure cones didn’t get stuck underneath.
- If we held a bus race between you two, who would win? Kelsi: I have more of a led foot.
- Will you guys race now? Laurie: No.
- “Napoleon Dynamite” made a lot of money — don’t you think you deserve at least some of it by now? Laurie: No comment.
- What keeps you driving bus? Laurie: The kids. In fact, I’m sad when many of them get too old to ride the bus or move away. I find myself missing many of them.