The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney

Book review by Catherine Woodgold

This is not a reference book about learning disabilities. This book is about the intangibles: things which are hard to pin down and express. It grasps for them, searches for them, sifts through cluttered piles of tangibles in hopes of catching a glimpse of them.

The author used a short bus, chosen symbolically to represent the short school buses used to transport schoolchildren with learning disabilities, to travel around the United States meeting people with learning disabilities and other differences.

The author's self-doubt permeates the book. He shares with the readers his doubts as to whether the whole exercise is pointless. The book jumps back and forth between banal, futile, ordinary, pointless things and transcendent, enlightening, deep realizations. It reads like a series of Zen koans. Like a poem, it cannot be summarized but needs to be experienced.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've considered a book containing obscene words to be beautiful. If you can see the beauty in an energetic preschool boy shouting "f---" and kicking people, then you've grokked the spirit of this book. It's not about learning disabilities per se. It's about the relation between society and those individuals labelled as having learning disorders, or as being different in some way. It's about human worth, acceptance and treating people with respect.

There are many humourous moments. The author's search for normalcy is mirrored by his struggles to follow driving directions given to him by learning-disabled individuals, telling him things like turn left three times, then turn left again; or turn at the tree that looks like a dead man. Somehow or other he always managed to connect up with the people he had arranged to meet. Similarly, his search for meaning does not take a direct route but ends up getting somewhere.

This is a story of people caught "between the desire to fit in and the desire for individual freedom." (p. 88). Information about attention deficit disorder, autism, transgender and other conditions fits smoothly into the narrative. The chapter titles are about as helpful for finding this information as the odd driving directions. The point of this book is not to be a reference work on diagnoses and symptoms. It's about the human worth of the people described and how they can create their own realitiy: their own way.of relating to the world. This information cannot be categorized, encoded or listed. Reading this book is an experience.

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