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."