Now that I have a little boy getting ready to start kindergarten, I’ve already been thinking about the school bus. He’s fascinated by large vehicles and wants nothing more than to ride the school bus to kindergarten. He loves “The Wheels on the Bus” song and book. I’m pretty sure the day will quickly come when he won’t be so eager to step aboard, so shouldn’t I take advantage of it now while I can? At first, I was adamantly opposed to allowing my son to ride the bus. But now, I’m starting to soften my stance. Some of this is general parental anxiety. What if the bus gets into an accident? Is it safe? What if he gets bullied? Other worries are related to my disability and my childhood memories. What if the kids pepper him with questions when they see me with him at the bus stop? What if they tease him for having a disabled mom? What if I become an embarrassment to him?
I rode the short bus. 6th grade was my first year in public school, and the first time I had ever ridden the bus. At first, it seemed cool to be able to get to school without my parents and several siblings. That is, until I had to wait outside in the freezing cold dark early mornings for my bus. That’s right, my bus. I couldn’t ride the same bus my sisters took (which picked them up a lot later, by the way); I rode the short bus.
For those of you unfamiliar with the short bus, here is the definition from urban dictionary:
noun. (derogetory) school bus shorter in length than a conventional school bus commonly used to transport students with physical or mental handicaps.
It goes from bad to worse after definition 1, so I’ll spare you. Suffice to say, kids are mean!
I hated it. I hated being the first to get on and the last one off and having to ride around the entire county picking up and dropping off all of the other kids with disabilities. I hated being a captive audience to the bus driver, who talked incessantly about her marital problems. Most of all, I hated having to be loaded and unloaded like cattle at the very front of the school where everyone could clearly see that I was one of them: one of the kids who had to ride the short bus.
One of the worst memories I have of the school bus is getting unloaded in my power wheelchair. My front wheels were on the platform, but my back wheels were not totally over the threshold when the driver began lowering the lift. I fell, and although I was not hurt, I felt humiliated and angry. Most of all, I felt powerless. I didn’t know then whether I’d ever be able to drive, or be captive to this type of disempowerment, labeled as different, of having special needs, segregated from my peers, for the rest of my life.
The best memories I have on the school bus were talking to a girl named Mary, who became my friend. She had cerebral palsy and was a grade above me. I enjoyed talking to her about our families, her experiences in band and mine in choir, and banding together to ignore the bus driver. Camaraderie with Mary was the closest I ever got to disability pride in high school.
If I could go back now and talk to my teenage self on the short bus, I’d tell her so many things. I’d explain how not only Mary, but the two autistic boys were my people. That the segregation is wrong, but finding solidarity is right. I’d tell her not to be so hard on that bus driver. I’d tell her to say yes to the disabled boy who wanted to ask her out, instead of avoiding him. I’d tell her it gets better.
The day my son gets on the school bus for his first day at kindergarten is going to be difficult. I know it will be emotional for me. And I’ll try not to give him my baggage to carry on board. But I also know that I want more for my son. I don’t want him segregated from his disabled peers, just as I don’t want him isolated from peers of color, or other kids with diverse identities.
The truth is, the school bus could crash. My son might get bullied. The other kids will probably tease him at some point because of me. I think what matters more is that I am raising him not to become the bully; I want him to recognize the value in others, and celebrate the diversity in our world. And when he doesn’t, I want him to own it. Somehow, I want him to appreciate the things it has taken me my entire lifetime to begin to grasp. At 4-years-old, his ride has just begun.