"Short bus" is a gentle euphemism to refer to people with disabilities who ride the short bus to school, their parents serenely convinced that, among their peers, no harm can come to them.
Little do the parents realize the torments their offspring endure in school, being classified as ADD, ADHD, autistic or learning disabled. The beleaguered "special ed" teacher begs her unruly pupils, "Try to act normal." Often the only person who treats them like human beings is the school janitor, in whose closet they hide.
Author Jonathan Mooney was one of the fortunate ones --- he grew out of his disability (I would like to have found out more about precisely how) and got a degree in English. It's ironic that, all too often, kids with learning disabilities have IQs so high they're off the charts, yet they suffer the same painful insults as the oft-maligned "tards," a nasty schoolchild insult for anyone just slightly different. Being officially or unofficially labeled as retarded or just plain stupid sometimes turns sensitive kids suicidal.
So college-grad author and non-profit (Project Eye-to-Eye) mentor Mooney bought a short bus. He set out on a quest for people who have veered too far from the mainstream to be easily categorized: Cookie, a bewigged transgender artist who lives marginally with the unofficial support of his New England community; Butch, a brilliant self-taught architect/builder whose "Museum of Wonder" contains a dinosaur bone he discovered in rural Alabama as a bright but illiterate child; Ashley, a misshapen deaf girl who was adopted by a woman who sees only her beauty; Jeff, who keeps detailed lists that chronicle every minute of every day in his life; and Kent, whose inability to stay still for more than a few seconds will probably destroy his chances as a stand-up comedian.
Mooney's treatment of these folks and the analysis that accompanies his encounters sometimes caught me off guard. Is he saying that Kent's ADHD might not be a real "disorder?" Some people, we are told, believe that "ADHD doesn't exist at all and that the ADHD label is an excuse for lazy 'bad kids.' The other camp sees ADHD as a brain disorder caused by a defect in the frontal lobes." It's like nibbling on opposite sides of the Caterpillar's mushroom, and even Mooney, who suffered the onus of these labels himself, can't tell you which side will make you taller. All he knows for sure is what Kent recalls from his earliest school days: "You can't expect a kid to sit in school for six hours." Mooney's willingness to give people like Kent a voice is a refreshing antidote to the rhetoric of medical and human services professionals.
Consider Katie, a vibrant twenty-something woman with Down's Syndrome. If she accepts SSI, a monthly government disability benefit, she can't earn more than about $75 a month at a job. If she doesn't take the check, she has to find viable employment in a hostile world. If she goes to school in order to gain job skills, as a declared Down's Syndrome student she won't be allowed to take college-level classes because, she's told, she couldn't possibly benefit from them given her disability. Her mother says wearily, "Most people miss the point of Katie's story…they made it either too nice or too mean…"
The essential paradox that Mooney invites us to ponder in THE SHORT BUS: How do you honor the disability without dishonoring the person? And what is this strange thing known as "normal" that we're all measured against?
THE SHORT BUS is both an exoteric and esoteric travelogue, taking us on the byways of America to the Nevada desert to witness the sybaritic chaos of the Burning Man where nutters of every stripe gather to cast off their sorrows and inhibitions, to Big Bend to Austin to Gibsonton, Florida, traditional haven of the carnie freak. Like Mooney, we examine our own preconceptions as we go, meeting ever stranger strangers and learning to see them as potential friends.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on May 29, 2007