It’s fall and the streets are filled with yellow school buses.
I didn’t grow up riding a school bus. I lived in a small town and everyone walked to school together. It wasn’t until college that I heard the term, he (or she) rides the short bus. Someone had to explain it to me.
My son rides the short bus, or at least he did last year when he attended a developmental preschool (one for kids with disabilities) a few miles from our home. Now that he’s started kindergarten he can walk to his neighborhood school. He’s lucky to attend. Many disabled kids in our district can’t attend their neighborhood school either because it lacks services or all the special education seats are filled. Instead, these kids are shuttled around the city in short buses, often to segregated or “self-contained” classrooms.
Ted was three-years-old and newly diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when the short bus pulled up to our house. I rode along with him that first day. I expected the bus driver to be friendly and empathic. She wasn’t. She huffed impatiently as I struggled to loosen the seat buckles. We rode past other moms walking their children to school. Ted and I were the only ones on the bus for most of the ride. I felt intensely lonely, as if I had been sealed off from the normal world the moment the bus doors shut.
I soon got to know other parents of kids with disabilities. We’d wave whenever we ran into each other at the preschool, picking our kids up for afternoon therapies or dropping them off late due to a morning meltdown. We naturally became friends, having in common the unique experience of raising a child with special needs. I felt a warmth toward these parents that I didn’t feel for the parents of so-called typically-developing kids. I was, and still am, jealous and resentful of those who seemed to have had a smoother ride.
Now that Ted has entered his neighborhood school, I’m surrounded by parents who don’t share my experience. Their parenting journey has been very different from my own. I find myself keeping my distance, not joining in the group conversations or parental huddles that form every afternoon outside the kindergarten classroom. I tell myself that these parents haven’t been through what I’ve been through. How much could we have in common?
I gravitate instead toward the handful of parents at the school who also have a child with special needs. We share stories, swap resources and moan about other parents who just don’t get it. It’s easy to take an us versus them mentality when there’s so much about our lives that these other parents can’t understand. They’ve never had to watch their child board the short bus and confront all that it foretells about their child’s future and chances at a normal, happy life.
Then it dawns on me that it’s this focus on difference that has led to separate education for kids with disabilities: separate schools, separate classrooms and even separate buses. My son is more alike his classmates than not. He’s a child first and foremost, just as I am a parent like all those other parents. Even our differences don’t have to exclude us unless we let them. When I keep myself apart from the community, I buy into the idea that different inevitably mean separate. My standoffishness doesn’t do me or my son any favors: it keeps us on the short bus rather than taking us off of it.
My son doesn’t ride the short bus anymore. Neither do I.