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The Year I was Special
By Jerry Mahoney

Before 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 900 pounds.

Gradually, I developed a routine that made my plight slightly more bearable:

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.

As 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 Linda aboard.

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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