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The Year I was Special
By Jerry Mahoney

No sooner had we started moving again when a tiny, inquisitive head popped up behind me. "What's your name?" I turned around to find myself looking at an eight-year-old African-American girl. Her hair was done up in three thick braids that shot off at wildly askew angles, and she smiled a wide, teeth-baring portrait studio grin.

"I'm Jerry."

"Hi, Jerry," she said. She extended an arm and vigorously shook my hand. "I'm Taqueesha." Despite Taqueesha's youth, she had the gruff voice of a transit cop coming off a twelve-hour shift. She held my hand tightly as if she might never let go. "You and I are gonna be friends," she said, which seemed like a harmless enough statement, until she tacked on, "Aren't we, Jerry?"

It was not a rhetorical question. Taqueesha continued to stare at me, waiting for a response. "Uh... sure."

"Taqueesha, sit down!" Martha screamed from the front of the bus.

Taqueesha ignored Martha. "I like you, Jerry," she said, reaching her other arm over the seat to hug me around the head.

"Taqueesha!!!!" Martha wailed, and Taqueesha grudgingly took her seat, folding her arms across her chest in a well-practiced pout.

For the entire ride, I sat in fear of what would happen when I got to school. I already got made fun of enough for being short and bad at sports. Stepping off the tart cart would make me the school's official poster boy for wedgies.

If anything, I underestimated the humiliation I would face. The only consolation was that it was hard to hear anyone actually call me a retard over all their laughter. I tried to defend myself, but there was no explanation I could give for why I rode that bus that didn't lend itself to an even more humiliating -- and pretty much accurate -- response.

"I only ride it because the trombone is too heavy for me to carry." = "Wimp!"

"The lunch lady makes me ride it." = "Jerry loves the lunch lady! Jerry loves the lunch lady!"

"Wouldn't you rather ride the short bus than walk two miles to school?" = "No!"

I didn't have many friends at school to begin with, and riding the short bus was pretty much the end of my social life. I really needed a new friend -- just as badly, it turned out, as someone needed me.

"You're not in the special classes, are you, Jerry?" Taqueesha asked me one day.


I was afraid this would upset her, but instead, she was thrilled. "Good, then you can help me with my math homework." She shoved a sheet of mimeographed paper at me. Her handwriting was all over the paper in pencil -- numbers scattered around in what seemed like random patterns. I started with the first problem, and tried to explain it to her, but Taqueesha was staring out the window, ignoring me. Getting through to her would be too difficult, so I simply took out my own pencil and got to work.

This became our daily routine. Taqueesha's math homework, of course, was not very challenging, and that only made it more impressive to her how quickly I finished it. "Wow, Jerry, you're smart," she told me. "I'm smart, too, you know. Not like these retards."

While I was doing her homework, Taqueesha would talk to me. Usually, she wanted advice. "My brother teased me," she'd say. "Should I burn his sweater with a candle?"

Whatever she asked, I'd shrug and tell her what she wanted to hear. "Sure, just do it in the bathtub so the fire won't spread."

At some point -- I think it was around the time when Taqueesha's class was studying how to subtract fractions -- I realized she might actually have become my best friend. When Taqueesha was out sick, I missed her. And when I got home at night, she was the one I found myself telling my parents about. "You know what Taqueesha said today? She said she can speak to her cat! She meows to tell him to go outside, and he will!"

One day after school, the bus was just about to depart, and Taqueesha still wasn't aboard. But just as I started to worry that my buddy wouldn't show, she came out of the building, waddling sadly toward the bus with a grown-up at her side. It was Mrs. Boxner, the Special Ed teacher, and I could tell she was pissed.

Mrs. Boxner stomped right onto the bus and barked, "Which one of you is Jerry?"

For a second, I wondered if there might be another Jerry on the bus. A teacher had never called my name in anger before. Ever. "I'm Jerry," I said.

Mrs. Boxner marched down the aisle toward me. "Have you been doing Taqueesha's math homework?"

I briefly considered lying, then realized Taqueesha had already sold me out. "I've been helping her with it," I explained.

"Oh, is that it? Well, you must be a very good teacher."

I shrugged and smiled proudly. "I guess I am."

"I mean, Taqueesha hasn't gotten a single problem wrong in weeks! And did you teach her handwriting, too? Because her writing looks just like yours now."

"How do you know what my handwriting looks like?"

"You've been doing her homework for her," she sneered, with probably the most contempt anyone has ever heaped upon me in my life. "You're a liar!"

I sat quietly and avoided eye contact from that point on, staring into the seat in front of me just like Jorge. "What class are you in anyway?"

"Miss Barrington's."

"The gifted class?!"

"I don't know. I just go there." I played dumb, which, looking back, was not the best way to approach the situation after having just been outed as a member of the gifted class.

"That's just great. Taqueesha's got a gifted kid doing her homework!" She narrowed her eyes and leaned in even closer to me. "Why are you on this bus?"

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