Bumping along on one of the brown vinyl bench seats of bus No. 7, Shea'la Paul, a straight-shouldered first-grader with big eyes and a curious mind that casually tosses out questions about Barbie dolls and the nature of the universe, relaxes into a familiar tour of bus-stops on her way home from school.
Her guide is Bob Opal, a soft-spoken retiree from Chicago who shrugs off the pain of rheumatoid arthritis every morning when he gets up at 4:45 to get old No. 7 ready for another trip with "his kids."
He delivers them to school bleary-eyed and reluctant in the morning and shuttles them home in rumbling knots of energy in the afternoon.
In the belly of his 40-foot cruiser, Opal is teacher, counselor and character coach to as many as 70 students a day as they travel between kitchen counters and classrooms and afternoon chores.
"They're not just kids, they're like family," said Opal, who has been driving a school bus in Payson for four years. "Each kid is special in their own way."
Ask him about the quiet girl in the second row and he doesn't hesitate with her history.
"That's Rebecca. Her stop is coming up. Her mom works at Time Out, and she'll be there to meet her. She comes out to walk her home every day."
As promised, a taller version of the brown-haired girl is waiting expectantly under a shade tree when the bus turns the next corner on the dusty, country road through Oxbow Estates.
Opal's route, one of 17 in the Payson Unified School District, takes him to three stops in Oxbow Estates south of Payson and five stops in Upper Round Valley across the Beeline. The whole trip takes slightly more than an hour, but that's all the time Opal needs to make an impression on young lives.
"We contribute to raising them up," he said. "You get to know the kids and what makes them tick. You can see which ones need a little extra help and attention and which ones don't. When someone else drives my route and says my kids are well-behaved, I know I'm doing something right."
Opal, who retired at age 50 from the U.S. Veteran's Administration five years ago, knows how to snap students to attention.
"Kids. Kids! I think you're getting a little out of hand," he said, transforming his gentle baritone into a booming bass that barrels over the excited talking and laughing and schoolyard singing that fills the bus. "Let's quiet down," he said, giving the students a meaningful look in the oversize mirror hanging from the windshield.
"I tell my kids if they behave, they can sit where they want," he said. "If they don't, we have surprise day, which means everyone sits up front, three-to-a-seat. They get the message."
Opal and Payson's 19 other school bus drivers are well-trained in student discipline.
Each driver, who must hold a Class B commercial driver's license and a state bus driver's certificate, is required to master student-discipline, defensive-driving and emergency-situation strategies.
"We feel pretty confidant that by the time they've completed their training, they're prepared to handle just about anything they'll encounter in the field," Payson Transportation Director Phil Johnson said. "If there's a problem, the drivers are taught to pull over and stop the bus until the situation is resolved. Oftentimes people will get frustrated when a bus doesn't get moving right away, but we take a strong stance on safety.
"We won't allow any student to cause an unsafe bus environment. If they ignore the rules, they get written up. On their third notice, they get suspended from the bus for a week."
So far this year, Opal has only sent home two written notices.
"Children want respect just like you and me and if you treat them right, they're pretty good kids," he said. "They're really a lot of fun."
On this day, though, trouble looms for 10-year-old Donald Iles. Halfway home to Round Valley, he remembers that he wasn't supposed to take the bus home today. His mother was going to pick him up at school.
"My mom's going to kill me," he said. "Life can be so painful when you have a short memory."
Opal radios back to base to find out if the boy's mother is still waiting for him at Julia Randall Elementary School. The reply comes crackling back: "Nobody's seen her. Take him on home."
As the bus approaches his stop, Iles groans. His mother's car is parked by a row of mailboxes and his mother, who is sitting in the driver's seat, has a look of exasperation on her face. He swings his backpack over his shoulder and heads down the steps to face the music.
Just down the road, James and Emily Vandruff's grandfather is waiting for them on a quad runner. Their family lives out in the country, a mile from the last bus stop, so John Vandruff Sr. drives out every afternoon to give his grandchildren a lift.
Tomorrow, Opal will start his route all over again at Shea'la Paul's stop in Oxbow Estates.
"I leave a little early to go down and talk with Shea'la about her animals," he said. "I have animals, too -- a miniature donkey, a regular donkey, goats, geese -- not too many, but enough."
"We have two baby goats," Shea'la said helpfully before grabbing her plaid backpack and skipping down the bus' steps after her older brothers, Jesse and Jacob.
"See you tomorrow, Bob," she said over her shoulder.
"You bet," the bus driver said. "See you tomorrow."
"You know, it's a long day for a bus driver," Opal said, sliding the bus doors shut, "but those kids make the early mornings worth it."