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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Short Bus

I was assigned to read The Short Bus, by Jonathan Mooney, for my graduate course in special education. Mooney is dyslexic, and struggled with academics during his childhood. He triumphed, though, and ended up graduating from Brown. He decided to get himself a short yellow school bus, the kind that is immediately associated with taking disabled kids to school, and drive around the country, meeting with disabled students and their families.

This is a good idea and a worthy one, but I was not over wowed. Mooney's writing is very casual--he writes as if he speaks, with phrases, "if you know I mean." I'm sure that was his aim, but it often just sounds amateurish. But the theme of the book, that there is no such as normal and that disabled kids are not broken and thus can not be fixed: "What a simple, common, and destructive message. You're not normal. How many people have been told, regardless of who they are. You're not normal? But where did the idea of normalcy come from?" is a powerful one. As an educator, I just wish he had gone further--how exactly should learning disabled children be taught? I certainly understand that they can not be taught like other children, but Mooney seems to be down on the whole education system, and never talks to a teacher.

The bus is given the name Bob Henry and Mooney travels with various people throughout the journey, including his fiancee, his sister, and a documentarian. He meets all kinds of people, though the episodic nature of the book has me kind of forgetting some of the people in the early part of the book. There's Kent, a young adult who would appear to have ADHD, and publishes his own newsletter, called The Kent: "This was Kent, walking a line that seemed to embody the paradox of ADD: the line between utter foolishness and genius, of disaster and success."

Some of the other memorable visits are with an older man in Kennebunkport, Maine, who might once upon a time been called the "village idiot," but is now regarded with affection and protection, a folk artist and transvestite that paints a mural inside the bus. His last visit is with Jeff, who probably has autism, given that he schedules his entire day by the minute and makes meticulous lists. It is here that Mooney hits upon something--people with autism refer to those who don't as "neuro-typical." So perhaps "typical" is a better word than normal.

There's a whole bunch of other stuff crammed in here, too. Mooney tours the country, visiting Graceland, going to Burning Man, and the most touching stop, his futile search for a plaque commemorating Carrie Buck, a woman who was involuntary sterilized. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, normally a great justice, took the government's side, writing, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

I am coming across kids of all different stripes as a teacher, including those with learning disabilities. I found Mooney's discussion of the history of their education enlightening, but I found the book missing that center--just what is a teacher to do? He presents problems without solutions.

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