There is no typical day for Howard County school bus drivers.

Most rise at 5:30 in the morning and after a brief maintenance check of the bus, start picking up busloads of groggy, yet spirited children at 7.

Before the last school bell rings at 9 a.m., the drivers will have battled traffic jams, navigated steep hills and curvy roads and steered clear of inconsiderate motorists, all the while keeping peace among 12 to 50 students.

Then, after a few hours rest, the bus drivers will repeat the process starting about 2:30 p.m., logging thousands of miles each day transporting nearly 20,000 county students.

It's a job that requires patience and attention to safety. The wages and hours are not the best, drivers say. But the rewards are simple -- a child's smile or parent's thank-you letter.

"Sometimes we're the first person a child sees in the morning," said Marilynn Schaffrey, a 14-year veteran. "A smile can make the difference in a day for children."

This is the 20th year Lillian Huber has been transporting Howard County students. Many of the elementary school students riding her bus now are children of those who rode with Huber years ago. Huber, who lives in Scaggsville, was persuaded to become a bus driver by her friend, Ginny Mullinix. Huber planned to quit the part-time job after her children finished school.

But Huber, 62, fell in love with the kids. "I'm like an old firehouse," she said. "When the bell rings in September, I'm ready."

There are about 400 regular drivers and substitutes in Howard. Many work for contractors, such as Mullinix, who employs 12 bus drivers. Some are single owner-operators like Schaffrey, who decided to buy her own bus this year.

Trying to control a bunch of gregarious students, particularly those in elementary and middle schools, while watching the road is not an easy task, bus drivers say. But Huber, a bespectacled grandmother of two, said mutual respect keeps students in line.

"A good bus driver is part mother, part teacher, part father-confessor, and a disciplinarian," said Huber. "You know when to laugh with them, at them, and when to crack down on them."

Finding new bus drivers has become a serious problem for Howard County bus contractors, who plan to mount an advertising campaign next month to attract more applicants.

Janice Hofmann, who lives near Mt. Airy, started driving in September for Dale Ashwell Inc., bus contracting service.

Hofmann, 29, is the type of driver contractors most want to recruit. A homemaker, Hofmann wanted a little extra income, but she also wanted to be at home for her husband and small son.

Driving a school bus fit her schedule perfectly, Hofmann said.

Within six weeks, Hofmann, a former truck driver, had obtained her bus license after completing safety classes and behind-the-wheel training.

Next year, Ginny Mullinix will celebrate her 30th year as a bus driver and contractor in this county. Mullinix estimates she and her husband, Ed, a former Maryland state trooper, have trained more than 100 school bus drivers, many of whom still work in Howard County.

Called "Mrs. M" by her riders, Mullinix, 55, said she has no plans to quit soon. "I can't see myself at home pushing a mop," she said. "I enjoy the friendship of the other bus drivers. I'm going to do it until I can't double clutch anymore."