The Magical Mystery Bore
Jonathan Mooney grew up with the label of “learning disabled” firmly attached to his forehead. Jonathan was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at a young age and had to attend special classes, isolating him from his peers. Despite having a difficult time in grade school, he proved his teachers and peers wrong by graduating with honors from Brown and becoming a successful author, writing books including The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal. Although Mooney could have turned his personal struggles into the ultimate “look at me now” story, he instead focuses on observing other learning disabled individuals to try to get an idea of what normality really means.
Mooney’s memoir starts with an idea: He wants to travel across the country in a short school bus—which is the transportation most learning disabled students must use get to school—stopping at the homes of people along the way who are considered different in some way. Most of these individuals are people he has met through his speaking engagements, where Mooney lectures about overcoming his own learning disabilities. Most of Mooney’s subjects, some kids, some adults, have also been given the label of “learning disabled” by schools or standardized testing. Mooney looks at these people as individuals, peeking in on their lives and what they enjoy, finding that they seem pretty normal after all.
Mooney’s trip is also peppered with unrelated destinations that he has been meaning to visit throughout his life, like staying overnight at The Lightning Field in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and visiting his girlfriend Becky’s parents. Interesting for him, perhaps, but not very interesting for the reader. Every time I got to one of these sections in the book, I wished I was reading more about the truly interesting people that are marked learning disabled in The Short Bus, like a deaf and blind girl named Ashley, who has shown her loving adopted mother that happiness is really all about experiencing life with as many senses as you are given, and Kent, a friend of Mooney's from Brown who had also been labeled with ADHD. Mooney visits a male painter named Cookie who dresses like a woman, and despite his learning disabilities is embraced by his small town. He visits the home of a young woman with Down’s Syndrome named Katie, who longs to be a scientist and is the light of her parents’ lives.
Although the story of Mooney’s rise to academic success is inspirational, I found myself wishing he had lingered longer at the homes of his subjects and maybe even taken them along for the ride, which is what I had expected to happen in The Short Bus before I opened the book. Maybe it was the phrasing on the back cover, stating that Mooney “[sets] out cross-country, looking for kids who had dreamed up magical, beautiful ways to overcome the obstacles that separated them from the so-called normal world.” With all those seats in the bus, I assumed that there would be other people making the trip. Instead, Mooney takes the journey alone among all those empty seats, although two of them are occasionally occupied by his non-learning disabled girlfriend and sister. I longed to know what would happen if the cast of characters Mooney meets were all taking the trip together on the bus, which would have been far more exciting than leaving them in the dust.
Mooney’s story of traveling across the country is a sometimes fascinating look into the homes of people who do not live according to societal norms, but it doesn’t delve deep enough. Although there was an underlying sense of anger and disdain inherent in the book towards schools that treat students as if there is an invisible line between “normal” and “different,” nothing is ever done to address this issue. What if, I wondered, everyone Mooney visited piled into the bus Wizard of Oz-style, and then stormed into Mooney’s old school to confront the teachers that deemed him unable to learn with regular students? But the empowering ending I envisioned for this story was nonexistent. Rather than ending with a bang, the story fizzled out and like most of Mooney’s visits with the learning disabled individuals, ended too soon.
Although Mooney seems to have lots of passion—enough to drive across the country and devote months to his study of learning disabilities—I felt the story paled in comparison to what I had imagined the book to be. Toward the end of his journey, Mooney toys with the idea of anonymously leaving the short bus outside his old elementary school, which seems like a roundabout way to prove to his school that he has now become a success. He does not, however, end up doing this, although he mentions the idea several times, and there is no follow-up on what happens to the bus. The Short Bus follows this “all talk and no action” formula the entire way through, making me wonder if Mooney even needed to travel across the United States in order to come to the conclusions he has made in the book. What I had hoped would be an adventurous trip around the country seemed more like a dragging family vacation that is fun at first, but eventually slows to a halt as it becomes apparent that the trip is just a way for Grandpa to get someone to listen to his incessant stories.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney (Henry Holt & Company, 2008)
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine, and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. Her web site is New York Words, where she can be found blogging about her favorite city. Contact Lindsay.