Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Short Bus, prologue

I'm currently reading Jonathan Mooney's new book, The Short Bus. I've decided to post reviews as I read it. Meaning, not only post for each part of the book, but in the manner in which I read. This means that there may be a lot of digression. Have you any idea how many good books I never finish because I get stimulated to think of something else with every sentence? Of course, you don't, because I have never told you before now. I'm intent on not getting distracted, so putting out my thoughts as they come to me should help. And afterward, I'll assess the book as a whole. If you are also reading this book, please feel free to throw in your own comments. (Full disclosure: Mr. Mooney gave me a copy to read, for the purpose of sharing my opinion.)

So, we get to begin with my favorite part of any book, the prologue. It's my favorite because I get a sense of what to expect. I'm a great one for reading the beginning of a book and then getting restless part way through and skipping to the end. And then reading the middle if I liked the end. I don't know if this will be one of those books that I get so restless I can't read straight through. From the prologue, I think the Mooney's writing style is inviting enough that I might be able to contain myself to see how the story plays out on his terms. Or maybe it will be so inviting that I just won't be able to help myself. We'll soon see, won't we?

Probably anyone reading this blog knows what a short bus represents. That's the half-size bus that the designated "special" kids ride, rather than have them ride with the "normal" kids. There might be a reason for having a separate bus pick up some kids. Goodness knows that your average school bus is barely accessible to your average, homogenized kid. You might think that the short bus should thus be representing inclusion and acceptance. But not every kid on the short bus needs special transport. No, there's something else going on there, and right away, Mooney gets to the heart of it by climbing back on the short bus. What the short bus represents is segregation and stigma, a singling out and demoralization of those who are different. But maybe it can also represent community and identity under adverse circumstances?

As a boy, Jonathon Mooney was diagnosed as having learning disabilities, and spent most of his early education in anguish.  Mooney talks about his feelings going to the special classes, and his frustration, to the point of suicidal despair, with the insistance of the system that he "try to be normal." I can see this is going to be a book exploring how ideas of normality are used to degrade those who just won't be homogenized. He admits that the message finally became his goal, that he sought to become normal, to avoid the "freaks" lest he share their taint. He thought he had accomplished this after his graduation with honors from Brown and the publication of his first book, Learning Outside the Lines.  He had pretty much acheived supercripdom, being introduced on his book tour as having "overcome" his serious learning disability.  But while he's on his book tour, encounters with children and adults who have not "overcome" bring him around to accept the part of him that he had been running from.  The process of acceptance leads him to buy the very symbol of his difference and stigma, a short bus, to take on tour throughout the United States.  To do what?  To celebrate his release from the constraints of The Normal? To seek out others like him?  He had thought it would be Afterschool Special material, but having shaken off that notion, went ahead with his road trip.  Ooh, good prologue.  I know to expect an interesting tale of adventure, but not what that adventure will bring.


Digressive thoughts I'm willing to share:

By the by, this whole short bus thing is somewhat later than my own childhood experience.  Back when dinosaurs walked the earth, there were no learning disabilities. You were either "normal" or you had "retardation". Everyone who went to school, went to the same school as everyone else in the neighborhood, and we all walked.  If you couldn't walk, you didn't go to school.  Of course, there was still segregation and shame attached to learning disability, whether it had a label or no.  Kids with Down syndrome were in a separate part of the building and had separate recess (I really don't remember any kids in that class not having Down syndrome, but that might be a trick of my memory) and we were given the distinct impression that they were somehow under quarantine.  Kids with less pronounced learning disabilities were mainstreamed by virtue of not having resource to the modern panoply of labels.  Though they did get to enjoy the segregation enforced within the classroom of being made to sit or stand in the places of shame, or spend a great deal of one on one time with the principal, and if any of them had masochistic tendencies, they were in luck, for there were all sorts of interesting techniques of humiliation and pain available to the educators of yore.  

Troublesome students nowadays seem to get labeled autistic and sent to the resource room. There wasn't much in the way of "resource rooms" as they are now known.  But they weren't unknown, either.  Without my parents' knowledge, I was sent to the resource room equivalent for reasons that were never revealed to me as a child but that my parents finally divulged not too long ago.  Seems my stutter and tendency to write things backwards, and some picture I drew in second grade, did not meet with approval, so for two years, I was pulled out of class to go play Uncle Wiggly and Candyland with a couple of other weirdos.  Well, that's all I remember doing there. Childhood was very confusing.  Oh, wait, I think there may have been phonics and flash cards. At any rate, they succeeded in mostly replacing my stuttering with speech hesitation and overpronunciation of consonants.  And really pissing my parents off, who put a stop to it when they finally found out. Oh, I should say, I never heard it called a resource room back then. It was the "counselor's office," and only quiet oddballs ended up there.

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