Booking Thoughts: The Short Bus A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney

I was a short bus rider from Kindergarten to 12th grade without knowing that I was a short bus rider. Teachers would say "You can only choose 2 friends to ride with you.." on class field trips. And always I would have trouble choosing between one squirming-hand-raised buddy and another pal's pleading face. By the time middle school came around I had learned to tell the driver to please blast the pop-music radio station as he worked the controls to deploy the mechanical lift. There were many mornings when "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" by The Offspring was my entrance music to 6th grade: So don't debate a player straight/You know he really doesn't get it anyway/Gonna play the field and keep it real..the world needs wannabees so (HEY HEY!) Maybe those are some reasons for why I didn't know what that short bus represents in our larger society. Because it never occurred to me during my public education career that what I (on most days) excitedly rode to school in was a long standing symbol of pain, oppression, shame, and exclusion.. for so many.

Jonathan Mooney was one of these many people for which that was true. This book isn't a trip down memory lane where we revisit traumatizing childhood moments for Mooney. He couldn't sit still as a kid, he hid when it was his turn to read, he took on the persona of the all-star soccer "dumb jock" to compensate for his academic failings. This wasn't about a man who having graduated with honors from an Ivy League decided to preach around the country to inspire other kids with disabilities. Quite the opposite in fact. The book begins with Mooney about to pitch his "Overcoming Disability" story - that template plot-line that mainstream media so adoringly idolizes from the disability community - and instead foregoes plans to allow a film producer to tell his story. As a reader, that's the moment I thought to myself dude I totally respect you and will follow you on a road trip to anywhere - no questions asked. Let's dooo this thing! 
Trusting a narrator is telling me the truth and actually connecting with them, on a personal and reflective level, are actually two very different things. Before I picked up this book I was weary about whether or not I could connect with him. As I'd mentioned, my experiences on the short bus were very different from Jonathan's childhood experiences on the "special van." For him it was only a reminder of how he didn't fit in, and was never seen as 'normal' in school - though his disability was invisible. I didn't expect to see the characters Mooney comes across on his road trip with such empathy, and also a shared discomfort. Not through his eyes anyway. Could two different experiences between short bus riders come out on the same side of the disability community? Would we have deeply different philosophical understandings of a person's identity and their disability? Would a self-professed nerd learn anything from a guy who used to be some "dumb jock"?


With the kind of honesty and humor that few would utter aloud but everyone is thinking it Mooney shares the social experience captured inside the short bus, all while steering its passengers (and the reader!) towards a horizon he frequently references. "We are told to chase it---in our culture, in our families, in our lives. But when we chase it---as I did---it disappears. Normalcy is like a horizon that keeps receding as you approach it" (33). The power of Mooney's journey is that I didn't expect to care or think about whether or not I've been doing this all along myself.


Normalcy. Human value. Freak. Human race. Genetic variance. Diversity. Community.. Those are words and concepts I struggled with (and still do) when I first realized I have a role in the disability community. While working with the young women's mentoring program has helped shed some lucidity on my understanding of those words, I was stunned and jealous at how precisely Mooney could navigate his own confusion and through that offer some clarity on these ideas. "I'm sure that many people had thought that Butch was stupid throughout his life....It would be patronizing to say that Butch was like everyone else. Butch wasn't normal, and he wasn't a freak. He was wondrous" (102). Over and over Mooney brought me to the destination, turned on the metaphorical headlights of his short bus and I could see my own misgivings of the people and things I'd been racing to flee. One of the people we meet along this journey, Ashley, in particular brought these knee-jerk instincts to me right away: "I didn't know if I could truly value a body that was so damaged...And if Ashley couldn't learn, was she a fully functioning member of the human race?" (113). I flinched when I read this because it's something I have thought about in private to myself, not even feeling like I could think about them at work because the thoughts just seemed so wrong. I trusted him as the driver of this short bus and narrator of this insanely intimate journey because he elegantly steers a short bus through the thoughts I can't navigate on my own.

Stylistically, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal presents individuals in a way that is humanizing, self-reflectively critical, honest, and intelligent. Mooney always makes it a point to describe the person first, their home, their habits, their lifestyles and what drew him to meet these individuals. Throughout these descriptions he weaves facts and history succinctly, including only points that are sure to make a lasting impression on its readers: "One of the most powerful concepts within the disability rights movement is the idea that we all have temporarily able bodies....I was still scared of that idea, to be honest, but after Cully and Chad, I knew what to do with that fear" (179). This style of narrating his story was markedly different from Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree which read more like a textbook at times, and inundated readers with a wealth of knowledge, medical information, and labels that I at times thought nearly lost the humanity and the lives they sought to portray. In contrast Mooney takes all that is humane about individuals he meets and thrusts them next to the things about themselves that fall outside what is expected. "What I do know is because of Katie, no one was left out, no one won, no one lost, no one cared, and we were all more ourselves than we were before the game" (195). When we see these side by side, those are the moments when I felt like I was riding shotgun beside him.

By the end of the journey I wasn't left with just a string of stories and individuals along Mooney's road map. These individuals took a place on the short bus and shared with it some piece of their own identity, each story adding to the community of Mooney's short bus passengers, "We need Cookie as a testament not only to the importance of community but to the power of transformation, a reminder of our ability to create ourselves" (169). Their lives are not centered around this short bus that Mooney drove to meet each individual, and they are not trapped by the confines of what it symbolizes either. It's a story of a community made up of individuals that transformed and freed the driver of the short bus, and left this reader wondering what more of herself might be created if she stopped -for a moment- racing towards that horizon of normalcy. 

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6 Responses to Booking Thoughts: The Short Bus A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney

  1. Great review.....now I have to read the book!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Would love to hear your thoughts if you do.

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  2. Nice information, There is obviously a lot. Your points are very valuable and knowledgeable. Thanks for sharing this great blog with us.

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  3. I was recently part of bus journey and truly this is the experience that is simply liked by me.

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  4. I like the review... thanks for sharing this information.

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  5. This was a wonderful review. Please sharing more information like this.

    ReplyDelete

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