I Used to Ride the Short Bus too
My sister and I spent the majority of our childhood growing up in a house perched atop a hill in the heart of Orange County and though my school was technically located within walking distance, the winding roads, consisting of blind corners (and even more blind drivers), and the lack of sidewalks in our neighborhood were enough to convince my parents that an alternative solution was required when we first moved in.
They made a few calls, filled out some paper work, and notified us that from then on we would be riding the bus to school. I was fairly ambivalent about our newest means of transportation, and, my backpack slung crookedly around my shoulders, my little sister’s hand encased in mine, I made the trek towards our stop that first morning neither eager nor filled with dread.
That is, until I glanced up, and, with a sunken heart, realized that we would be riding on the short bus.
A line of buses awaits the special needs children at a local school in Orange County.
Photo courtesy Jo Ashline.
I was in sixth grade at the time and had heard enough jokes about drool cups and helmet heads through the years to know that the short bus was bad news. I wanted no part of the long stares and incessant finger pointing from my peers, and as I walked through the doors of that bright yellow bus (seriously, could it have been any brighter?), I knew what little self-confidence I possessed as a slightly chubby brunette with a long Slavic last name was not getting off that bus with me.
My tears and tantrums in the days following our first roundtrip went unheeded and when I was finally too exhausted to continue to plead my case, I turned dramatically on my heels, flung my hair across my face, and announced to my exhausted parents in my most pathetic whiny voice that my life was over.
I look back at that young girl today, seemingly so self-absorbed and self-righteous, and I feel sorry for her – because with that great super power they call hindsight , I realize that what was really driving the humiliation I felt each time I stepped on and off that bus was fear; fear of the unknown, fear of what I didn’t understand, fear of the kids that sat mere inches from me but were worlds away, their eyes slightly glazed over, their vacant hands grasping at nothing- or maybe at everything; I was too ignorant to really know.
I rode that bus for three years, and not once did I strike up a conversation with any of the kids that were deemed developmentally and physically handicapped by our school district. Three years passed and I never learned their names, never asked them their favorite color, never bothered to get to know the people that existed beyond the cruel labels that my classmates christened them with.
Three years I rode that bus, sat among some of the most amazing people I would never have the pleasure and honor of knowing, all because I wouldn’t give them the time of day; partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but mostly because no one taught me how.
You see, we didn’t socialize with the special needs students at our school; our classrooms were located on opposite ends of the campus, our lunch tables separated by an invisible boundary no one dared to cross. The handful or so kids in the special education program were always accompanied by a parade of weary grown-ups, and when the group walked past us, the silence was deafening, a heavy fog of judgment and misplaced fears infiltrating childish conversations and cheesy jokes.
We were not encouraged by our teachers (or maybe even our parents for that matter), to engage with these tragically misunderstood and undervalued children, and so we carried on with our parallel lives, careful not to intersect our existence with theirs at any cost. It was a colossal injustice to everyone, and I shudder at the memories, my heart breaking a little when I imagine the friendships I missed out on as I sat on that short school bus, watching with a mixture of curiosity and pity as the mothers of these children greeted them in the driveway, wondering if they loved them as much as my mother loved me, wondering if they cooked them macaroni and cheese for dinner and let them watch Saturday morning cartoons in their pajamas.
I could have asked, but it never even occurred to me.
We are dressed and ready by 7:40, him in his uniform of beige and navy blue, me in my long grey sweater, polka dot pajama pants and mismatched slippers. I wait patiently as he makes his way up the stairs, supporting his clumsy gait from behind, and as we near the front door, the familiar knot in my stomach signals that it’s almost time to say goodbye. I open the door, and there, in front of our sloped driveway is the short bus, waiting to take my son to school, where I want to trust that he will learn and laugh and be well-cared for by people other than me.
I climb up after him, buckle him into the car seat and make sure the safety cover is on. I say good morning to his driver, a pretty young thing, and I turn and stare straight into the faces of the future, locking eyes with each beautiful child, making sure they hear my cheerful “Good Morning!,” making sure Carolyn knows that I love her yellow sweater and that Braden gets his daily high five.
I give Andrew ten thousand more kisses and then one more before I exit the bus to wait in the driveway. The doors close behind me, and I see my son straining to get a last look at me, unsure at first about leaving my presence, the potential tears quickly abated as the bus comes to life with its loud and familiar rumble.
Boy does he love that darn bus.
I wave and jump up and down, the smile on my face meant to mask the lump in my throat that’s growing bigger as the bus lurches forward and rounds the corner out of sight. I stand there for a moment, basking in the potential of the day, hoping that the kids that find themselves in the presence of my son experience just a sliver of the joy that I do when I am with him, that they are not dictated by the same fear that I once was, that they give him the chance to teach them the true meaning of friendship, that they look him in the eye, make room for him at their lunch table, and know that they’re in the presence of an amazing human being but more importantly, an equal.
I turn and walk inside, remembering those silent rides to and from school, rides that should have been filled with unfiltered laughter, unconditional acceptance and mutual respect, and even though I will probably never know what happened to my fellow passengers, the one thing I am absolutely sure of, without a doubt, is that those mothers I used to see waiting for their children in the driveway loved their kids with a kind of fierceness I never would or could have understood.
That is, of course, until now.
Jo recently won her very first Journalism Award for Best Feature Article 2012 from The OC Press Club for her piece entitled How an iPad can give a voice to special needs children.
She covets the rare occasion she can finish a cup of coffee before it gets cold, and loves her life in a way that makes other people roll their eyes in annoyance.
© 2012 Jo Ashline. All rights reserved.