It's 6 a.m., dark and damp. My safety vest repels a gentle mist that slowly soaks my head and jeans -- making it somewhat difficult to find school bus No. 330, parked by the east fence, even with my flashlight.

I've been up since 4:35, in order to get from my home in Plymouth to First Student's bus barn and on to my first stop near downtown Excelsior -- at 6:45.

For about the 100th time, it's occurred to me that I've found a strange way of easing into retirement -- wheeling a 29,000-pound school bus around the streets of Minnetonka, shepherding elementary and middle-school kids to and from school.

But having spent the past 10 years or so before retirement as a family counselor in a clinic north of the Twin Cities, I figured that driving a school bus would give me a chance to reconnect with young people, and get me out of the house more often.

(My wife's bridge group was already looking for a new place to meet -- "Doesn't he have some place to go?"-- and my health club membership card was wearing thin.)

Anyway, I'm learning a great deal driving a school bus -- at least as much as I picked up in college and graduate school, or while working in business and in counseling, or while raising a family.

I've learned it from my fellow drivers. If the kids are paying attention, they can learn it, too.

The course is Life 101. The curriculum is Self-Awareness and Self-Management. And the school bus drivers are, for a few minutes each morning and evening, teachers.

These drivers are truly renaissance women and men. Some are retired folks -- like a onetime corporate CEO, a onetime chiropractor, a onetime personal-injury lawyer, a former teacher, a former investment banker.

They're mixed in with younger, more nimble stay-at-home moms, displaced managers, and people throwing their shoulders into a challenging economy.

If the kids are paying attention, they may learn important stuff from these drivers, like discipline, empathy, kindness, humor and courage.

How can kids know the discipline that it takes to rise every morning before sunrise, to travel to a cold garage and enter a large hunk of iron -- checking it out from stem to stern --ensuring compliance with federal regulations and a safe ride?

Do kids recognize the empathy it takes a driver battling cancer to wheel a disabled, virtually motionless child into a school bus, deftly handling kid and wheelchair like eggs being carefully placed into their carton?

Do they recognize the challenge of being kind and respectful when one's financial house of cards may be coming down?

Or the humor it takes to drive 70 children around town, when age, having taken its toll on a school bus, forces some of its appendages to the street --parts like stop-arms and crossing gates --necessitating a quick callout of a replacement bus, that, depending on its mood, may not want to start either?

And courage. Do children really understand the courage it takes to get up when snow is piling high and drive a school bus, facing an ultimate fear -- an injured child?

Of course kids can't know these things. They're just kids. But in the daily struggle of getting to and from school, there is a real opportunity for parents and teachers, and their school bus drivers, to get to know one another and collaborate on life lessons.

While academics are vital, self-awareness, self-management and personal responsibility are life-changing. Dealmakers, or breakers.

Question to parents: Where, and how, are your kids getting to know what really is important?

The school bus is at the curb. Class is in session.

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Charles Schrader, of Plymouth, is a retired family counselor and businessman.