FRESH YARN presents:

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.

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?"

Her tone was stern and accusatory, as if the segregation of Special Ed kids on the short bus was intended solely to curb cheating and I had somehow gamed the system by sneaking aboard. "I'm going to talk to the principal about this," she hissed. Then she wheeled around and stomped off the bus.

Taqueesha didn't say a word to me all the way home, and I didn't speak to her either. I didn't know what to say.

The next day, I took my usual seat next to Jorge, and once again, Taqueesha said nothing. She didn't pop her head over the seatback, didn't say hello, didn't drop her math textbook into my lap.

It wasn't until we were halfway to school before I heard the first sounds out of her. Her voice was soft but firm. "What'd you say to Jerry?!" she croaked.

It was an odd accusation, because, since I'd stepped on the bus, no one had said anything to me.

"Jorge! What did you say to Jerry?" Taqueesha peered over the seat, and she glared down at Jorge with all the fury her 65-pound body could muster. "Answer me!"

Jorge's silence only heightened her rage. "You leave Jerry alone! You hear me, Jorge? Nobody talks to my friend Jerry like that!"

And then it happened. Taqueesha did the thing that would transform this incident from just another blur in my past to a bona fide memory, something I see in nightmares to this day.

She smacked him. Hard.

And Jorge reacted just as I would've expected. He did nothing.

"How dare you talk to Jerry in that manner!" Slap! "Jerry is my friend!" Slap! "I'm gonna tell on you when we get to school, Jorge, and you're gonna be in all kinds of trouble!" Slap! Slap! Slap!

I was too young then to understand the obvious psychological explanation for Taqueesha's behavior. She didn't know how to express her guilt for selling me out, plus she was attempting to renew my faith in her loyalty and she'd chosen the easiest target available as a punching bag to work out her own anger issues. That, and Taqueesha was fucking nuts. All I understood at that moment was that there was a very good reason why Special Ed kids had their own bus.

As the slaps got harder, I finally heard the first sounds I'd ever heard coming from Jorge. He was crying.

"He didn't say anything!" I shouted. "He never says anything. He didn't do anything wrong, so please stop hitting him!"

Taqueesha glared at me. "You be quiet, Jerry! I ain't talkin' to you!"

It took a couple of minutes before Martha realized something was up. "Taqueesha, what in the heck are you doing?" she shouted.

"Nothing!" Taqueesha said, as she smacked Jorge again.

"You stop it, Taqueesha! Don't make me pull this bus over!"

But Taqueesha didn't stop. I looked back to Linda, the one kid on the bus tough enough to wrangle Taqueesha, but even she seemed afraid.

"You!" Slap! "Don't!" Slap! "Ever!" Slap! "Talk!" Slap! "To!" Slap! "My!" Slap! "Friend!" Slap! "Jerry!" Slap! "That!" Slap! "Way!" Slap!

"Stop!" Jorge cried. "Stop please stop please please please stop!"

But it didn't stop. And it wouldn't stop. There was only one person who could stop it. "Pull over!" I shouted. "Martha, pull over!"

As Taqueesha continued to pummel Jorge, the other kids joined me. "Pull over! Pull over! Pull over!" we chanted.

Martha finally got the message. "What in the heck is going on back there?" She pulled the bus over and waddled down the aisle to my row. Jorge was curled up, covering his face with his arms, bawling uncontrollably. His glasses had fallen off, his cheeks were soaked with tears and he was bleeding from his right ear. Amid all this, Taqueesha was still hitting him.

"He was talkin' bad to my friend Jerry!"

"Oh, my God! You've gone crazy," Martha said. She grabbed Taqueesha by the arm and dragged her up to the front of the bus.

"I'm just protectin' my friend Jerry," she screamed. "Tell her, Jerry!"

Martha turned to me for a response. I was petrified. Should I back up my friend, although she was clearly insane? There was no reference point for a situation like this in my moral code.

"You leave Jerry alone!" Martha said, finally. She seized her CB and radioed her dispatcher. "I need somebody to come here right away!" Then her voice lowered and began to drip with utter loathing. "What's happened? Taqueesha beat the shit outta Jorge, that's what's happened!"

I could tell from Martha's tone that "shit" was probably the worst word she had ever said, and that she had been saving it up for something like this.

We waited on the bus, and eventually, Jorge's parents came for him. They draped him in their arms and consoled him, and they never once looked at Taqueesha. Like their son, they didn't say a word.

A few minutes later, we were instructed to grab our things and disembark the bus. All of us, except Taqueesha. Martha had consigned her to the driver's seat, which meant we had to walk directly past her to get to the door. We filed by her one by one, and the only sound she made was when I went by. "Bye, Jerry," she whispered.

We stepped onto the sidewalk to find a full-sized yellow bus waiting for us at the curb. There was a mad rush to get on board, but I didn't hurry. For once, there were plenty of seats, enough so that we could each have our own row.

I can only imagine everyone else was thinking the same things I was. Would we be interrogated at school about what went on? (We weren't.) Would we ever see Taqueesha or Jorge again? (We didn't.) How would Taqueesha be punished? (I never found out.)

As we pulled down the block, I stared out the window at Taqueesha, and she looked back at me, waving. I feared it was the last time I'd ever see her, so I waved back with whatever enthusiasm I could muster. A few seconds later, the bus turned the corner, and Taqueesha was gone forever. Now it was just me and my trombone, sitting beside me on my seat, totally still and quiet, just like Jorge had been.

The short bus was different after Taqueesha left -- calmer, quieter, lonelier. Every time I looked at the empty seat where she used to sit, I couldn't help feeling a little guilty about her fate. I knew that none of this would've happened if I hadn't helped her cheat. But I also knew that if I hadn't, Taqueesha and I would never have become friends at all. And to me, that would've been a greater loss. I may not have known Taqueesha for very long, and we definitely didn't have a lot in common, but there was something about our friendship that was just, well, special.

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