Breath & Shadow

A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature




The Short Bus

The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal  by Jonathan Mooney
Henry Holt and Co., 288 pages, Hardcover

I both loved and hated this book. I loved it for its fast–reading, wacky, almost outlaw tone, and for the exciting and vital cast of characters Jonathan Mooney met while driving an iconic "short bus" across America. My favorite was Kent, performance artist, and author of the book Portrait of Your Momma as a Young Man who has turned his ADHD into Steven Wright–meets–Andy–Kaufman comedy riffs.

The thing I hated wasn't any stylistic imperfection, although, in the wake of Mooney's dyslexia, I'd be interested in learning about his writing process, but the painful memories it brought me of the struggles of being a short–bus rider myself throughout the 1980s. I don't like to think of that, though in addition to the obvious and comparatively easily diagnosed cerebral palsy, I carried around undiagnosed dyscalculia until I was halfway through college, though I suspected something was "up" with me and numbers long before it occurred to the myriad of Team Members assigned to "my case". (For a dyscalculic person, apparently I'm pretty decent at simple computation; the trouble hit with algebra and its henchman Order of Operations, so I found myself uniquely placed to understand the struggles of the kids and parents in this book, despite the different ways they manifested.) I revisited the anxiety of undone homework, the dread of every math course, the silly "explanations" given for low performance. I wonder if any of the boys that scored low for their intelligence for reading comprehension ever got asked if they thought it was wrong to read well because the girls wouldn't like them. Somehow I doubt it, but that was number 100, freshman year in high school: "gender–identity conflict." Oh, well, it's funny now, but reading The Short Bus definitely picked the scab.

I don't intend that to stop anyone from reading this book, though I'm far from the victorious, self–accepting "freak" or "tard" that Mooney seems to praise, not least because even typing "tard" makes me picture a ghostly platoon of teenaged boys, all moved by my presence to start slapping themselves in the chest and grunt, hand–down, in an awkward imitation of a spastic arm movement. Yes, I had an effect on boys from an early age, but Seventeen was no help at all in helping me manage it. (No, not even Trauma–Rama. It's a shame, really.)

I suppose the function of most important books is to make us look at things we've always known with a new maturity, though, and it's here that Mooney scores. His attempt to reclaim and demystify one of the symbols of a stigmatized past is both a notion we can all relate to, and a hero's journey. There's an example for all of us in the lack of blame placed in this book, despite the ample and appropriate degrees of righteous anger. This makes it a good reading choice for family members and allies, who are appropriately elevated to the unsung hero status they deserve, without making "Managing With A Disabled Child" the overall focus. Disability–rights concepts are explained in everyday language, with a minimum of neologisms.

It might not be a restful ride on The Short Bus, but overall, it's worth the trip.

Erika Jahneke writes fiction, unpublished novels, and criticism after twelve years of braving the weirdness of the short bus, but she'd give it all up to fulfill her secret ambition to be Keith Olbermann's manicurist. She lives in Phoenix and bites her tongue a lot. And not the fun way.

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