Admit it — you see a short bus and you pretty much think you know the kind of kid who is riding in it. Jonathan Mooney is not your average short bus rider though — wait — maybe he is. As a child, Mooney, an Ivy League university graduate, was diagnosed as dyslexic and labeled a severely learning disabled student. As he grew up, he was taunted and teased, made to feel inferior and inadequate by teachers and school administrators, and struggled with his identity and with where he fit in.

Now an adult and still processing the childhood experiences in which he heard, directly or indirectly, again and again, that he wasn’t normal, Mooney decided to take a road trip — on the short bus, of course — to meet fellow children and adults negotiating similar terrain. He has chronicled his experiences in The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal.

In this cross-country jaunt, Mooney’s book goes beyond memoir/travelogue to include brief asides on the history and the current use of various labels. In the process, he explores what it means to be normal, to be different, and to fit in with our culture and our society.

To Mooney, even a label as innocuous-sounding as “learning disabled” is fraught with unspoken meaning and judgment, the impact of which might not be realized by many people: “The label ‘learning disabled’ may seem minor in a world full of labels, but in the context of normalcy and self-acceptance, it matters deeply. A kid who on every other level appears normal and could pass for normal is pulled out of the crowd and told, in essence, that he isn’t right, isn’t like everyone else.” It’s this message — which sets a child up for a pattern of failing to meet the cognitive expectations of the education system — that has long-lasting repercussions.

In Mooney’s opinion, placing the blame for shortcomings in academic achievement squarely on the shoulders of children and their parents deflects attention away from shortcomings in the accepted standard of intelligence and learning. Medicalizing variations in learning styles and abilities shunts parents’ attention to their child’s neurological defect or deficiency instead of allowing them to see the big picture: that perhaps the problem isn’t with their kid, but with the way our culture views intelligence.

Focusing on de facto case studies of a diverse group of people with cognitive differences, Mooney’s day-in-the-life observations are compassionate yet brutally honest — with himself and with his reader. He cuts himself no slack in admitting his own discomfort during his first impressions of Ashley, a deaf and blind child. He wonders at her ability to learn, believing that ability to be one of the primary criteria for defining what it means to be a valuable person, and finds she exceeds his expectations in more ways than one.

From troubled children whose educational needs are not being met by the school system, to adults who’ve never received a formal diagnosis of any kind but who live life according to their own rules, The Short Bus offers readers a close-up of how students and adults labeled as learning disabled assert their own identities beyond established societal expectations. For example, Mooney meets up with his old friend Kent, who was labeled as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but who managed to do a 24-hour comedy routine. This leads Mooney to ask the question: If the guy has no attention span, how could he do anything for 24 straight hours? Wouldn’t that indeed require a great deal of concentration and attention?

Mooney, also the coauthor of Learning Outside the Lines (Fireside, 2000), loses his narrative focus a bit about three-quarters of the way through the book, when he arrives in the Nevada desert for the annual Burning Man Festival: “Here, I thought, I would let go of these old selves. But first, I had to experience being someone new, living without regard to the norms, for the next five days.”

But even in a place like Burning Man, there are norms; even in a society without rules, the community still self-organizes into a place with cliques and “cool kids,” much to Mooney’s surprise. “I felt increasingly desperate to fit in at Burning Man and it showed.” Mooney gets a Mohawk haircut and finds out what millions of women already know: A new haircut really amounts to no more than a new haircut; no matter how good it looks (or doesn’t look), you’re still the same person walking out of the salon that you were walking in.

“I had traveled all this way, only to find myself at the end of the tunnel, no different.” This one statement risks undoing all Mooney has done in his book up to that point — his rejection of the standard of normalcy, his advocacy that our culture increase its tolerance and understanding of cognitive differences and abilities. Here, Mooney is showing that he’s just as preoccupied with being normal as anyone else is — which is, ironically, totally normal.

The final stops on his short bus journey bring Mooney back full circle, helping him learn to expand his definition of normal, as his Uncle Bill put it, and leading him to affirm his identity as a short bus rider, on his own terms, once and for all. In the process, he leads readers to re-examine how they think of people with diverse abilities and the way we, as a society, treat them and allow them to be treated.

Mooney’s writing style is affable and easy, and pulls no punches, even when events paint him in a not-so-flattering light. His persuasive arguments prompt self-examination in the reader, and support new ways of thinking beyond the traditional education/intelligence standard. While I found the ending to be a bit flat, overall, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal is a powerful book that offers readers a road map for exploring our culture’s preconceived notions about abilities and labels.

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