Year I was Special
my common sense was fully developed, I did a lot of really stupid
things, but none quite as idiotic as deciding to play the trombone
in fourth grade. I explained to my parents that I liked the trombone
because it could make "circus sounds." By this I meant
the brassy "wah-wah" produced by extending the tuning
slide as far as it would go and then quickly retracting it. It was
the kind of sound often used to punctuate a joke in vaudeville,
not a sound you made very often doing elementary arrangements of
"Bad Bad Leroy Brown" in the school band. But, as it turned
out, there was a bigger problem -- namely that the trombone was
bigger than I was. I was the shortest fourth grader in school, even
shorter than most of the third graders and a few of the kindergartners.
So, with my puny arms, I couldn't play those circus sounds anyway.
The worst part about the trombone, though, wasn't that I couldn't
play it. It was that I couldn't carry it.
My school was almost 2.2 miles away from my house, the operative
word being "almost," since if it had been more
than 2.2 miles away, I would've qualified for busing. My parents
might've driven me, but they both had jobs. So twice a week on band
days, that meant a very arduous walk. I'm not sure how much a trombone
actually weighs, but if my fourth-grade memory serves me, it's approximately
Gradually, I developed a routine that made my plight slightly more
Pick up schoolbag and trombone. Walk twenty feet. Stop and rest.
The walk, which was usually 30 minutes when I was tromboneless,
took almost two hours each way, and it never got easier. Some days,
I tried to calm myself by thinking of Jesus carrying the cross to
his crucifixion. But that just made me jealous of him. After all,
he only had to do it once. There's only one thing worse than having
to carry a trombone that distance at that age, and I say that with
certainty, because the one thing that's worse is exactly what happened
to me next.
"Jerry Mahoney, what in the heck are you carrying?" a
raspy voice called out one day as I was making my pilgrimage. It
was a lunch lady from school. I barely recognized her without the
white coat and hairnet.
She was puttering alongside me in a Dodge Dart. Pretty soon, I was
sitting inside her car inhaling two decades worth of stale cigarette
smoke and explaining how the busing laws of the township, and the
priorities of my parents, had consigned me to this constant agony.
The lunch lady was horrified. That night, she called my parents.
And I'd find out later that she called the principal, too. And the
entire school board. This kind-hearted cafeteria worker had found
her Norma Rae cause, and it was little Jerry Mahoney.
Thanks to the lunch lady's crusading, I was informed that I would
now be able to ride the bus. I couldn't believe how easily the problem
had been solved. So the next morning, I headed out the door with
my trombone and my book bag and walked approximately 50 feet to
my new bus stop. Waiting there was a big-boned, angry-faced girl
named Linda Sarnett. I wondered how Linda could've been riding the
bus all this time when I couldn't. She only lived two houses down
from me. Of all the kids on my block, Linda was the one I knew the
least. That's because she was a year older than I and had very different
interests. In my leisure time, I liked to ride my bike and play
Atari. In hers, Linda liked to hit people.
"The back row is mine," Linda growled when she
saw me. "You can sit with Jorge."
A few minutes later, I realized exactly what the lunch lady's efforts
had procured for me. A bus rolled up, but instead of a long, yellow
bus like I was expecting, it was short and green and full of kids
I never ran into in any of my classes.
Oh my God, I realized. I'm riding the tart cart.
everyone at school knew, the short bus, a.k.a "tart cart,"
was for "special" kids. And as everyone also knew, "special"
was code for helmet-wearers, pants-wetters, paste-eaters, tantrum-throwers,
tic-exhibiters, fire-starters, puppy-suffocaters and various types
of medication-takers. They were the kind of kids who were better
off segregated from the general grade school population, the kind
who never graduated from rubber scissors to real ones, all of them
commonly referred to with the blanket label "retards."
If it hadn't been drizzling that day, I might've just turned around
and started walking to school. But rain was my worst enemy. With
my book bag in one hand and trombone in the other, I didn't have
a free hand to carry an umbrella. So I picked up my things and followed
The driver told me her name was Martha and that I'd better not cause
any trouble. Then she motioned backward with her head and added,
"You can sit with Jorge."
Jorge ended up being easy to pick out, not just because he was the
only Latino kid on the bus, but because he was the kind of kid whose
spare seat was most likely to be offered up by others. A timid,
twitchy second grader who never said a word, Jorge didn't even look
up when I planted myself next to him in the van. I said hello, but
he kept staring into the patterned green nylon of the seat in front
of him, locked in a state somewhere between meditation and catatonia.
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