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The Short Bus
cap, captain miss america
I want to tell you all a story about my childhood. This was partly inspired by abhor.

I went to a wealthy-but-public school on Long Island in New York. In elementary school, I lived less than a half-mile from school, and was a "walker." Usually my mother drove me, but I would often walk to school with my little brother and one of the neighbor's kids, who was in my brother's grade.

When I got to middle school, I took the bus. I took the bus in high school, as well.

Bus stories of my own childhood, of which there are many, aside, part of the district I grew up in was an extremely wealthy neighborhood. When I say "extremely wealthy," I mean estates. Like, out of The Great Gatsby or Sabrina estates. Big houses, lots of property.

So the bus route that went through the estates had to go just as far as the other bus routes, but picked up a lot fewer kids. For this reason, the estate bus route used a vehicle that is colloquially known as "the short bus," a bus about half the length of a traditional school bus.

The disabled kids rode whichever bus went along their bus route. There was no differentiation. There were no kids in wheelchairs in my school, but I remember there was one kid on my middle school bus who had a walker/crutches and leg braces. And no one was singled out or put on a different bus for emotional or developmental difficulties. Some buses had an extra adult who rode along, and certain kids always sat near them, but I always assumed it was because they had really protective parents or had been the target of bullying or something.

When I was a sophomore in college, I lived on a hall with two friends: Raquel and Carrie. Names are not changed, because I don't think there's really anything to hide.

One day, a little drawing appeared on Carrie's door. It was a drawing of a short bus, in crayon, with a stick figure that was supposed to be Carrie, apparently, based on the caption. The caption was,

"Carrie rode the short bus to school."

This perplexed me because I couldn't figure out what the commentary was supposed to mean. What purposes would people have for short buses? Were they trying to say she was spoiled? Or maybe they were saying she was from a rural area? I could tell it was supposed to be a joke and not just an observation, but I couldn't figure out what the joke was.

I don't remember when someone explained the joke to me, but when they did, I was really surprised to discover that this was such a commonplace occurrence that it was common vocabulary that most Americans could hear and know exactly what it meant. It also surprised me that people would think this was a funny joke, but that's another story. There are a lot of other issues tied up in that part of the post that I know I can't make this post without stirring, but mostly, I wanted to talk about the phenomenon of growing up in a way where a common cultural association never enters you set of definitions. Because now, when I hear "short bus," my personal meaning is still different, because I can't hear that phrase without thinking about the jarring discovery that a term meant something different to me than it did to most other people in my peer group. And still, when I hear "short bus," my first inclination is to think, "rich kids."

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It is so funny to me that you should post this! The other day someone said "I used to ride the short bus to school", and I had no idea what they were talking about. But then, I never took an American bus ride!

I had to ride the shortbus for most of a year. I lived less then two miles from the high school so I was a walker, but that didn't work after my skiing accident. I think the only real difference, besides less people, was that it was wheelchair accessible and actually dropped people off at their houses instead of stops every mile or so along main roads.

I think it's funny in a horrible kind of way, but you probably know by now that's my kind of humour. As an adult I think it's odd and kind of sad that all through school (elementary to grade twelve) they never exposed any of us to people with mental disabilities. I helped out in a special ed class in elementary, but I learned about it through word of mouth. Even when I helped out I didn't quite get it; I thought of them more as "badly behaved" rather than "having a hard time dealing with emotions" or "not understanding what the appropriate response to certain situations is".

The other thing though is that I was in advanced classes from grade four to grade ten and we rarely mingled with the "normal" kids either. The few times we did they seemed to begrudge or ignore us. I was bullied by a lot of people in my grade when I was ten and it was horrible. I went through Jr. High getting to know pretty much only sixty or so students.

The other reason for The Short Bus was that most kids took public transportation to school and that wasn't an option for a lot of mentally handicapped kids. Even the city buses that specially cater to handicapped people are short.

The seriously disabled kids didn't ride a short bus here, they had a van but they also went to a special school that was totally separate, so no one even knew them. Their parents kept them completely separated from "regular" kids because of the potential for teasing or worse. Very few of us knew about those other kids. I did because my brother was borderline and the neighbor's daughter had one of the rare aging diseases. For a few years they rode the van together though the school he went to was adjacent to the one she went to (her's was different from his, obviously).

Today the short bus is used for Head Start program and for the kids who live in the farthest out-flung areas, not for the disabled kids - and we all just call it the puddle jumper. Actually, most of us wished we rode it. Why? Living in mountainous terrain, the regular-sized buses got bogged down and went pretty slow up and down the hills, but the puddle-jumper went normal car speed - those kids got home FAST. Took us over an hour to get one way...

I didn't know the "short bus" terminology growing up either -- not until well into adulthood (i.e. a few years ago), in fact.

I don't know where that term originated because I don't think there IS a school district where they actually do that.

My mom's kids do sometimes take a short bus when they go on class trips- but most of the time they need the big bus. Also a lot of the short buses are the only ones equipped with wheelchair lifts.

Uhm, I remember them doing that at my school. There were enough kids at my grade school who were in wheelchairs that they filled up a shortbus.

I adopted your inclination after boarding school; all we had for class outings were shortbusses.

My school used the 9-12 (?) passenger vans for the special needs kids/kids in outlying areas, so it took me until college to figure out what exactly was supposed to be so funny about riding a short bus. I was actually mildly jealous of the people that got to ride in those vans because they were so much nicer than the buses.

We had a "short bus" in grade school. We called it the minibus and it was used to take home kindergarteners after their half-day of school. I didn't know it had a negative connotation until I was in high school.

Yes! We had a minibus, too!

I went to a Catholic elementary school, and we had half-day kindergarten while the public school had full-day. In the morning, we would ride the regular bus with all of the public school kids coming from our area, and then at lunchtime, my whole class would get on the minibus home, even though we lived in completely different parts of the school district.

I can't recall exactly when I learned about the negative connotation of the short bus.

Awwh. That's interesting how you tried to reason out a joke you didn't get...when I was little and didn't know what a phrase meant I would do the same thing. People would say 'a little bird told me' and I would think...a parrot? I thought all parrots were big!

And we had short buses in my ickle hometown, but I always thought they seemed cozy and didn't really get why people thought it was insulting to say 'ride the short bus' until I was almost done with high school. XD

That's bizarre. We don't really have anything like that. There are school buses, obvs, but only in certain areas and they usually just have a stop for collection & dropping off. Might be different in Dublin or summat...

Interesting! In my school district, the short bus was used for kindergarteners, who had half-days. The short bus would take the morning kindergarteners home at lunchtime and pick up the afternoon kindergarteners. So that's my first association with the short bus.

On the other hand, my next association with "short bus" was indeed special education kids, and I'm not sure where that association came from. I don't even remember if the special ed kids in my school district rode the short bus or not.

I didn't know what the "short bus" meant until college either. I also rode on one of those tiny buses, probably very near to where you grew up (north shore of Long Island) though I rode to private school instead of to the local public school.

Maybe because I grew up going through the public school system this joke was common knowledge to me by second grade. And for us, it wasn't just the kids who had physical disabilities either. I'm assuming most of the "short bus" kids did get rides from their parents, as we only had one short bus to cover the entire district.

But I remember passing by Nikki's old private school in Charleston, and seeing that they had a single short bus. But they had that as most of the girls attending their got rides from their parents or walked to the school because almost all of them lived downtown. For the very few who weren't able to do this, Ashley Hall had a short bus to pick them up. Though apparently it was more used for class trips.

It's really interesting to read this, Tea. I can't hear "short bus" without automatically flashing to the common meaning... common being relative, of course. This just really goes to reinforce the idea in my mind that our own experiences, our own perspectives shape our "reality" and that no two people are ever going to be exactly alike or think exactly the same way... or even have the same associations for what seems to be a "common" phrase. Interesting post!

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