Tales from the Short Bus

[Editor’s Note: Don’t write me an angry letter about this piece until you’ve read it all the way through!]

Frank’s Story

Frank was having a relatively successful outing at this day’s track and field events. Frank never got tired of being around other people that were like himself. Pole vaulters, relay racers, long jumpers and assorted other athletes always graced these spirited competitions.

One of the sights Frank enjoyed most was watching one of his fellow “athlete-friends” as they were attempting to achieve a new “personal-best.” But sometimes the schedule didn’t allow time for Frank to do that. Such was the case today. In hindsight, Frank wished he HAD indeed been watching his friend Murray as he attempted to “go long” on the discus throw; but Frank was too busy concentrating on his shot-put throw to be concerned with anything Murray happened to be doing at the moment.

If you happen to be a spectator at one of these “competitions” and don’t know what you’re observing, what you see may appear a little ridiculous. All you will see is a bunch of odd-looking athletes with paper I.D. numbers safety pinned to their jerseys. It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between the coaches and the cheerleaders (assuming there IS a difference). Furthermore, this is one of those “competitions” where “everyone’s a winner” and the “Participation Award” is something that was proudly sought after.

Adding to the sickeningly sweet feel of this unusual field day, Frank didn’t see Murray as a competitor. In fact, Frank wasn’t alone. It turns out that all the athletes within this band of merry teammates/competitors/friends (whatever you want to call them) saw themselves as allies rather than opponents.

Again, to the outsider, this brand of sporting event might seem kind of silly. After all, competitors are supposed to be our enemies! If one of them pulls a hamstring or suffers from an A.C.L. tear…who cares! That’s their problem! Right? …Right!

Nevertheless, Frank was there at the shot-put circle preparing for his next heave. This is when he heard the sound of a familiar voice echoing through the air. It was the voice of Murray. It was an awkward lisping sound. It was being made by uncoordinated lips and an oversized tongue.

Murray had yelled out: “heads up.” Unfortunately though, the words weren’t going to register fast enough on someone who was mentally preparing to attempt a new “personal-best” in the shot-put event.

Then…. Thud! everything went dark for Frank.

Some time later Frank came to. At least, Frank THOUGHT he had come to. Frank was having difficulty figuring out what was going on. He seemed to be floating on his back. All he could do was look straight up. Out of the corner of his eye, Frank could see some mysterious figures dressed in white moving about. Everything else was obscured with a blinding light coming from every direction.

Frank was still trying to gather his senses when one of these “glowing figures” approached him. Frank couldn’t make out any facial features because of the intense light. It seemed to be the shape of a man. Frank was caught off guard when this man/being/shape (whatever it was) began to speak.

“Hello Frank, my name is Peter.”

Immediately Frank recalled all those stupid “St. Peter” jokes his dad liked to tell. Frank thought to himself:

“I must be dead…but I don’t feel dead.”

The voice continued:

“I have some questions and I was told you would be the best person to ask…I hope you don’t mind.”

All Frank could manage to get out was an:

“uh…OK.”

With that, Peter said to Frank:

“I’d like you to tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Frank, being in this mysterious, intangible world, was more than a little confused. He wasn’t sure how to answer this being/shape/entity. Was he supposed to start with “earlier-in-his-day” or “earlier-in-his-life?”

Adding to all the confusion, this was the first time Frank could ever remember someone (or someTHING) actually wanting to know “a bit about himself.” Normal people usually didn’t give two flying hoots about Frank. But seeing as how Frank was in some kind of nebulous “twilight-zone-dimension” where time didn’t seem to matter, he just decided to start with the first thing that came to mind.

“Well, I’m not normal.”

Frank hadn’t realized he wasn’t normal until he went to school for the first time. For a brief moment, Frank worried that he may have started at the wrong place…but Peter reassured him and invited Frank to go on. So, he continued.

“A lot of the other kids would make fun of the way I walked and talked.”

For Frank, the taunting was incessant. All day. Every day. Mercifully the insults that were tossed at Frank didn’t seem to cut too deep. Because of Frank’s condition he did not completely comprehend the steady stream of insults sent his direction. Frank WAS however sensitive enough to feel the derision that was aimed at him.

God had given Frank a keen ability to see “good” in others. All Frank ever wanted to do was show love to those around him…but of course…he got teased for THAT too.

Frank paused for a moment. He was still unable to make out Peter’s face. The other figures were still moving around in this “other-worldly-bright-light.” Frank felt completely at peace with the thought:

“Maybe I AM dead.”

This is when Frank decided to confess something he had never admitted to another soul (human or otherwise).

Frank whispered to Peter: “I was born with a super power.”

Narrator’s Story

I remember a lot of stuff from my own grade school years. The problem is, I remember a lot of stuff for all the wrong reasons. For instance, I remember my fifth grade teacher vividly. She was young, blonde, and perky. She was single handedly responsible for jump-starting me into puberty. I remember the day my friend Billy brought a stink bomb to class. That was epic! I remember the day our class clown waited for the teacher to leave the classroom. Once we were unsupervised, he jumped on top of his desk and proceeded to moon the class. Without getting into the gory/(slash) hilarious details; it’s sufficient to say: it was a VERY THOROUGH mooning. So thorough indeed that one poor girl with a front row seat (back row seat?) noted that this “gentleman” had some “cling-ons.” She declared, loud enough for the entire class to hear: “eeeeeeew…it’s got [stuff] on it!”

Kids can be cruel. Hilarious…but cruel.

Another incident I remember for all the wrong reasons involved an unsuspecting girl named “Janice.” “Janice once, (and I repeat: “ONCE”) decided to bring some “tasty” treats to share with our class. The treats were little bits of fruit that had been batter dipped and fried. Evidently these little morsels were called “fritters.” Sadly though, the rest of the students didn’t enjoy them as much as Janice did. With that, someone in the class (who shall remain nameless) discovered that these little fried fruit morsels were relatively airworthy. This led to, what forever became known as: “The Great Flying Fritter Incident of ‘86”.

Like I said: “Kids can be cruel. Hilarious…but cruel.”

Another thing I remember about grade school were the “special ed.” kids. As you might imagine, I remember a lot of cruelty aimed at those poor kids. We had a whole arsenal of names for them. It started with: “the speds”…a contracted version of “special ed.” “Space cadets” was a popular term. “Retard” was, of course, the ubiquitous mainstay. Sometimes we called them “slobber monsters” because…well…they drooled a lot. The problem with the phrase “slobber monster” was that it had WAY too many syllables. In fact (for us) the word “retard” had WAY too many syllables! So, in our less than infinite wisdom, “Retard” simply became “tard.” One word. One syllable. We could handle that.

“Tards” rode to school in the “tard cart”. The tard cart was more famously known as: “The Short Bus”. We would make fun of the way they walked, we would laugh at the way they talked. It was incessant.

Now I look back and cringe at the way I treated them. The names and faces of people like Mary-Beth, Patrick, Peter, Laura and Jon (among others) still haunt my memory…all these years later.

However, I’m humbled to announce, that those dear souls have been able to claim revenge on me vicariously through another young man…a young man named “Frank”.

Frank was a fellow I met when I was older…and wiser…sort of. Frank had some kind of “condition.” Autism? Asperger’s? Retardation? Maybe it was a combination of all three. I honestly didn’t know.

My wife, Buffy, had taken this Frank fellow under her wing. One evening Buffy and I decided to teach Frank how to play five card stud. She introduced the rules to Frank: three-of-a-kind beats a pair, flush beats a straight…and so on. Buffy gave Frank a few pointers on strategy and then dealt. Frank was a little slow, (literally…decidedly not figuratively), so when Frank’s turn came around Buffy would need to check in on him. Frank was dead to the world as he studied his hand.

Buffy: “It’s your turn Frank”.

Frank: “I know”.

Buffy: “OK Frank…don’t rush. We’re just making sure you know you’re up”.

Eventually Frank would decide what to do. Eventually Frank would discard and draw. Eventually Frank would kick our [butts].

At the end of a nasty drubbing that night Buffy looked over at me… (as if I had some sort of answer). Then Buffy announced:

“I think we may have unwittingly discovered a secret super power deep within the recesses of our friend Frank”.

Indeed…we had.

Frank’s Story

Frank was still stuck in his odd world of bright lights and mysterious glowing people. The one named “Peter” continued to be curious about Frank. The “Peter fellow” was asking questions that didn’t seem relevant to the situation. But, since Frank didn’t know what the situation was, he just went along with it. Besides, Frank really enjoyed talking to someone who seemed to care. It was as if he was “wanted.” Frank could get used to that.

By now Peter was sitting down next to Frank. After a pause during which he seemed to be thinking Peter asked:

“If I could grant you one wish…what would it be?”

Frank answered without hesitation.

“I’ve always wanted to be normal”. Frank continued: “other people get to be normal…but I have to be like…”

Frank trailed off. Peter prodded Frank: “Like what?”

Frank finished as he pointed to himself.

“You know…like “this.”

It was unusual for Frank to complain. Almost nothing ever offended him. Even in the rare event that Frank was upset he would have a hard time sharing it with others. He was different. He had a difficult time getting words out. On top of that, not too many people wanted to be around Frank.

It was kind of sad that so many people would avoid a person to whom God had given so much compassion…but Peter was there now, he was listening. Peter saw Frank for who he was.

Because of the peace Frank felt in this bizarre “land-of-light,” Frank felt compelled to share something else that had been on his mind for years.

“I know that my father loves me” Frank continued “but sometimes I feel that I was put on this earth for no other reason than to be a punishment for my dad.

This statement rattled Peter. He didn’t know who to feel more sorry for…Frank?…or his dad?

Narrator’s story

In case you were wondering, there WERE some memories I took from grade school for the RIGHT reasons. Along with my memory of a perky blond teacher, the memory of my first full-fledged food fight and the memory of a rather disturbing/(slash) hilarious “lunar event”…I remember my times tables. I remember some rudimentary grammar rules. I remember George Washington standing up to cross the Delaware (because there was no room to sit down) [rim shot]. And who could forget “frog-dissection-day?”

I also remember a very special visit one of my elementary school classes had. It was a visit from the father of one of those “special ed/short bus” kids.

Uh oh.

I could only assume that this guy’s child MAY have been negatively affected in some POSSIBLE way, shape or form by “us” [me]. I SUPPOSE there COULD have been a slight, outside chance that “our” [my] contemptible, rude and thoughtless behavior MAY have possibly, PERHAPS been construed as “cruel” …maybe?

Younger me: “Come on man! We’re kids…it’s not like we’re actually hurting anybody.” Presumably, a lecture of sorts would set us [me] straight.

Oddly enough though, this particular parent had something else in mind.

In the 80s, there was a growing push to “mainstream” the mentally handicapped students. The idea was to socialize them as much as possible so they had a better chance to become productive members of society.

This father informed my classmates, and ME, that if this effort was going to be successful, it was going to have to start with us. We could help by including his child and his child’s friends in our playground games. He encouraged us to help by learning their names and saying “hi” to them in the hallway.

The father admitted that he could see how it might be kind of funny to see someone in the hall who might be a bit misshapen, who perhaps walked a little weird and who may have a bit of slobber dribbling from their chin.

The dad continued. He pointed out that we ourselves would have never learned to tie our shoes if those around us had just pointed and laughed as we tripped on our own laces.

Like I said, there were a few memories I took from grade school for the right reasons. This father was giving us an opportunity to be part of something bigger, something that mattered. Instead of coming to our classroom to scold us for the way we had treated his son, this father came to us asking for help. THAT…I will never forget.

Before he was done though, this dad poignantly illustrated one of his son’s superpowers by asking us this:

“Has my child, or any of his friends, ever responded to an insult by saying something mean in return?”

The classroom was silent.

Frank’s Story

Frank was still unable to figure out exactly what was going on. He still didn’t have any idea what time it was. For that matter, Frank had no idea what day, month or year it was either! The one thing Frank did know was that this “man,” Peter, was still by his side, still asking questions.

Peter was still rattled by Frank’s confession of feeling like he was some kind of punishment for his dad. Peter was now acutely aware of the idea that Frank was living in a world where he felt like he didn’t belong. Peter invited Frank to explore the areas of his life that made him feel out of place…as if Peter might be able to miraculously do something about them?!? [eye roll]

As Frank began to ponder all of the things that made him feel “out of place” he asked himself:

“Does this guy want them alphabetically or in order of importance?”

Not knowing exactly where to start, Frank sighed and began speaking about how awkward and clumsy he was. Even years removed from school, he still sometimes had trouble pronouncing the simplest words. From time to time, Frank would still trip over his shoelaces. Those things alone would be enough to make a fellow feel out of place, but Frank continued on down “the list.” His ears and mouth weren’t quite proportional to his eyes and nose. The braces he had on his legs when he was little gave birth to today’s odd limp. He still drooled a lot. People still pointed.

For obvious reasons Frank wanted to move away from this topic. Peter understood.

Frank, instead grabbed the thread and began to share some good memories. Years ago some “regular kid” had started saying “hi” to him in the elementary school hallway. Once Frank even got picked by a “regular kid” to play on the kickball team. The idea that some “regular kid” wanted to include Frank in “regular kid” games was a turning point in Frank’s life. Even though the “kickball-thing” was a disaster…a seed had been planted.

This is when Frank decided to make, what he felt was, a somewhat obvious confession to Peter:

“I was no good at sports.”

Frank paused for a moment before continuing:

“Until later.”

Peter was intrigued with this little nugget of addendum.

“What do you mean “until later”?”

Frank elaborated by telling Peter that he couldn’t play sports with “regular kids” because:

“I was too good for them.”

Frank smiled as he delivered that line. This is what Frank’s dad used to say. Frank knew it was just “a line,” but he went along with it to make his dad feel good.

At any rate, since Frank was “too-good-to-play-sports-with-regular-kids” he got to participate in something else.

Frank became a “competitor” in something called the “Special Olympics.”

This is where Frank learned to play sports. He liked it too. There was no pressure. Everybody really WAS a teammate. Everybody really WAS a winner. Frank then followed up with Peter: “You know what?…I wasn’t half bad…and besides…”

Frank added:

“…that’s where I got to meet my friend Murray.”

Narrator’s Story

There was one more notable memory I have from my grade school years. The memory was that of a pep rally I “elected” to attend. Well, it wasn’t really a “pep” rally…it was an “anti-drug” rally…and I didn’t “elect” to go, I was forced. I hated school. Having said that, this particular “rally” ended up being something that didn’t entirely suck.

My school had managed to land a Harlem Globetrotter to try and talk us out of ever using drugs (or “quitting”, as the case may have been). Regardless, this guy was part athlete, part motivational speaker and part circus freak. This guy could do some crazy cool [stuff] with a basketball. I guess the thrust of this “rally” was to illustrate that we’d never be able to do any crazy, cool [stuff] if we were high on drugs. I’m sure some people would be willing to debate that last point…but that’s another topic for another day.

Moving on.

As part of this guy’s spiel, he was going to select someone from the audience for an opportunity to play a little one-on-one with a real Harlem Globetrotter.

What happened next became part of Local Middle School lore for years to come. I’m not sure if Mr. Globetrotter’s selection was planned, unplanned, by mistake or by divine intervention…whatever it was, Mr. Globetrotter managed to pick this kid named “Murray.”

“Murray” was a “little off,” to put it mildly. Perhaps he had Down Syndrome? Maybe a touch of autism? I didn’t really know. All I DID know was that Murray talked slowly and walked funny.

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure Murray knew the faces and names belonging to just about every one of my 600 plus middle school colleagues. I had to admit: an awkward kid with a spooky “facial-recognition-super-power” could be kind of disconcerting.

At any rate, as we realized that Mr. Globetrotter had selected Murray to step onto the court, the gymnasium erupted with a taunting laughter. Even some of the teachers covered their faces in preparation for what promised to be a spectacular train wreck.

By the grace of God, the Globetrotter was “fast” in more ways than one. As he gathered what was unfolding in front of him, he scrapped the “one-on-one” plan, deciding it would be better just to let Murray put up a foul shot or two. Or three?…or more? Ugh. The laughter continued.

To his credit, Mr. Globetrotter stayed with the situation, which was good, because another problem lay ahead. As he watched Murray step to the foul line he noticed that 15 feet to the basket may as well have been 15 miles!

With that, Mr. Globetrotter tried to coax Murray a little closer to the basket for his “foul shot.” This, of course, spurred on more laughter from the derisive middle school crowd. In the face of all this, Murray insisted on staying at the regulation foul line.

More laughter.

Mr. Globetrotter was now reconciled to the fact that this whole mess was out of his hands. Consequently, he decided to just stand back. More laughter. He may have covered his face too…I can’t remember.

Murray then prepared for his foul shot…not by pulling the ball up and back over his head, but by pushing it down between his legs. Murray was, of course, preparing to shoot “Granny Style.”

As you can imagine, more riotous laughter.

Murray began to swing the ball back and forth between his legs. We were moments away from some sort of heave. Would the ball just roll across the floor? Would it go flying across the gym, taking out a light or two on the way? Or, would it leave Murray’s hands with a somewhat respectable, if not, slightly exaggerated arc, before heading towards the vicinity of the rim?

Indeed, that’s what it did. For a brief moment there was complete silence in the gym. No sarcasm. No laughter. No taunting. Just silence.

Then, as sure as Christ rose on the third day, I’m here to tell you: that ball never even thought about touching the rim. It went straight through the hoop into the net.

SWISH!

Then: complete pandemonium.

Over the years I’ve been in a lot of different stadiums to see a lot of different sporting events. Having said that, I will confidently state: the cheer from our middle school gym that afternoon was louder and longer than any stadium roar I have ever heard.

Frank’s Story

Frank’s saga continues. He still had no idea where he was. Peter was still there asking anything imaginable. Frank wasn’t sure what to think. The questions didn’t seem to be the kind that would help Frank in any way. In fact, it almost seemed as though Peter was looking to Frank for some kind of help. But that didn’t make any sense! No one had ever come to Frank looking for help with anything!

Peter knew from his firsthand experience in school that people like Frank had to deal with a whole assortment of names and labels. Some labels had good intentions. Others? Well, not so much. Peter pressed forward asking Frank his thoughts about all the labels.

The first word that came to Frank’s mind was “different.” Frank wasn’t a big fan of that word. Being tagged with the term “different” isn’t going to help a guy whose whole goal in life is to be normal.

Frank moved on to talk about being “special.” Frank was keen enough to understand about half the time “special” was meant to be sincere; the other half of the time it was just straight up condescending. To make matters worse, even the people who used “special” in a sincere manner STILL usually came across as condescending.

Frank also complained about phrases like “mentally handicapped” and “learning disabled.”

“What person trying to be normal would ever want to be tagged with those labels!?!?”

Then there was the phrase “short bus.” The phrase started out as an insult alright, but over the years it had kind of lost its edge. Frank was a little sheepish to admit:

“I actually sort of like the term “short bus.”

He couldn’t fully explain why.

“Maybe it was because I walked to school and didn’t ride the short bus…who knows?”

Peter chuckled to himself in disbelief. Frank had unwittingly taken Peter back a few years. Now that Peter was an adult, he had forgotten all about his close relationship with the phrase “short bus.” That “flash-from-the-past” put Peter’s curiosity onto another track.

“What’s life like for you now that you’re older?” Peter asked.

Just like that, Frank’s face lit up. He was about to share his experience as a productive member of society. Frank did so by proudly announcing to Peter:

“I am a commodities packaging engineer.”

Frank knew he was JUST a grocery store bag boy, but he was OK with that. If there was one thing Frank could do well, it was stuff a grocery sack.

“Milk first…then boxed items. Veggies and eggs get their own bag. BREAD ALWAYS GOES ON TOP! DON’T SMUSH THE BREAD!”

Frank worked in soup cans with the same mastery as Andy Warhol. Edible parcels were his “paint;” empty grocery bags were his “canvas.” Frank was a master craftsman. For him, it was a true calling.

By now Peter could tell that Frank had all the qualities of a faithful servant. Peter felt much more at ease once he learned that Frank was kind of special…not special “special”…but you know…regular “special”.

“Well Frank, this isn’t “It’s-a-Wonderful-Life” and I’m not Clarence the Angel, but I want to know: If there was one thing in life you could go back and change, what would it be?”

Frank thought about it for a second before answering.

“I’d like to go back in time and get rid of self-serve grocery checkouts.”

Frank knew he was good at his job. He was proud of that. As a result, Frank was never enamored with the idea of untrained laypeople scanning and bagging their own groceries.

With that, Frank decided it was about time for him to pose a question or two for Peter. As Frank was still on his back he struggled to see the glowing backlit figure he knew only by name, he asked bluntly:

“Are you Saint Peter?”

Peter was taken aback. It had become painfully obvious that Frank was oblivious to the goings-on of the past few hours. Peter decided he should probably fill Frank in on some details.

“No…I’m definitely NOT Saint Peter. My name is Dr. Peter McGee. You’re in the emergency room here at General Cedars Hospital. Earlier in the day you got hit in the head with an errant rubber safety discus. It would have killed ten ordinary men. You’re fine now. You just need to rest for a few days. Keep some ice on your head. You’ll be back to bagging groceries and athletic competitions in no time flat.”

“Your parents are outside waiting to take you home” Peter added.

Dr. Peter McGee clicked his pen shut before continuing: “I had some questions that I was going to ask your parents but they insisted that I come in and talk to you directly. So, I did.”

Just then, everything started to come back to Frank. He shook his head in mock disgust and said to Peter:

“Murray needs to stick with basketball! If he got a “Participation Award” for that stupid discus toss of his…I hope the judges revoke it!”

Peter smiled, said “thank you” to Frank for his time and then left the room. Out in the hall Peter sat down by himself and took a deep breath. After Peter had collected his thoughts, he picked up the phone to call his wife.

Wife: “Hello Pete…what’s up?”

Peter: “So, when I went to the high school magnet program…I rode a short bus, right?”

Wife: “Yeah…I guess…so?”

Peter: “The regular kids used to call me “Short Bus””

Wife: “And…?”

Peter: “I think they may have meant that as an insult.”

Wife: [long silence] “Did you just figure that out now?”

Peter: “Maybe…but that’s not why I called.”

Wife: “Yeah…I hope not…look Pete, I’m busy with the baby right now…what’s going on?”

Peter: “I called to put your mind at ease about our son.”

Wife: “Oh?”

Peter: “We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us and we’re going to need a lot of prayer…but everything is working out just the way it’s supposed to.”

Wife: “I suppose so…but what makes you so sure all of a sudden?”

Peter: “Because…today I was introduced to a man named Frank.”

Narrator’s Story

My favorite type of fiction is the type that combines a series of seemingly unrelated real life events. Having said that, the narrated portion of this story between “Peter” and “Frank” is fiction in the classic sense. However, all of my grade school memories happened pretty much as noted. Buffy and I did indeed play cards with “Frank” (along with many other activities). “Murry” really did know the faces and names of his 600 plus middle school colleagues. The foul shot that Murry made was not exaggerated either. That father really did come to my 6th grade class. That father’s visit to my class is, in part, the inspiration for “Tales from the Short Bus”.

When I was in elementary school there was a young boy there with me named Jon. I didn’t interact with Jon too much because he did indeed have Down Syndrome. Jon was the son of a political commentator who went on to become more well known as one of America’s leading baseball nerds: George Will.

When I was in grade school I would recognize Jon’s dad from local TV. No big deal; just a memory that stuck with me.

Eventually I finished school, I grew up and, in time, the memory of Jon and his friends faded from my mind…mostly.

From time to time I would be reminded of Jon and his friends when perusing bookshelves only to see a book written by George Will.

I wonder what ever happened to Jon?

I guess part of me was always hoping to find a George Will book on his life experience as the father of a Down Syndrome child.

Many more years passed when, to my delight, I discovered that George Will had been writing columns about his son, Jon. This would be my chance to learn (as Paul Harvey used to say) the rest of the story.

In reading George Will’s columns, I was heartened to learn how much Jon had been blessed and, in turn, how much of a blessing Jon had been to others.

I’m also a bit jealous of Jon. While I grew up to have a relatively successful 9–5 job, Jon grew up and landed a job as a clubhouse attendant for the Washington Nationals.

Looking back, as you may have gathered from this piece, I kind of wish I had been more proactive about helping people like Jon and his friends. However, it’s probably more poignant to note how much more beneficial it would have been to let people like Jon and his friends help someone like me.

Namely me.

If that had been the case, perhaps I would be a better person today.

Perhaps there’s still time.

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Convicted sex offender living in Federal prison finds Jesus; retains sense of humor while under misguided notion that he’s still relevant to society

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