on the short bus to heaven

The sun shone yellow-orange through the curtain of autumnal branches, heavy with red leaves, stretching towards each other across 14th Avenue as it plowed up the hill towards Bernard Street, where Roosevelt Elementary School, an old stone building surrounded by high fencing and a large cement playground, stood proudly guarding the neighborhood children. It was 1974, and although decades later many Baby Boomers would, in laughing arrogance, claim that anyone who remembered the 70s wasn’t there, there was, in fact, a whole generation of children who were most assuredly there, being profoundly impressed by many events that would forever remain in their memories.

First grade. At almost the bottom of the hill, on Cedar, was our bus stop, exactly one block from our house. My brother was way past immaturity, defending his annoying little sister in his important role as fourth-grader. Wearing his Boy Scout uniform. Probably living under the threat of mom’s wrath, should anything happen to me. Certainly being unbearably bossy, as all older brothers should be at this age. If he was in the mood, and if we weren’t running late, we’d sometimes take a little bit of a walk out of the way, up the hill a half a block, to the Laundromat, where we’d spend our nickels on Lemonheads or Mike & Ikes, which we’d have to scarf down on the bus, because they’d most assuredly be confiscated either by older kids on the playground or by teachers in the classroom. Early childhood’s answer to the morning caffeine rush. If no change was to be had, I’d just stand at the bus stop, gazing up the hill through the trees.

Beside the Laundromat, on Adams Street one block from our bus stop, was one of my favorite places. It was just street, but it was where the Bookmobile parked each week, on Thursdays. I loved everything about the Bookmobile—its smell, its shelves packed with books to the ceiling, the librarian who drove it. Mom knew the very best way to get me to behave was to threaten Bookmobile privileges. Losing them was too horrible for words. So I’d gaze up 14th, sometimes pondering that spot on Adams, which, as it happened, was also a stop for the short bus.

The short bus didn’t go to Roosevelt. It was for the ‘retards.’ It was for the unacceptable, for the inconvenient, the embarrassing—the Others.

We didn’t have any terminology for it then, but we were all what is nowadays called “downwinders,” people who lived down wind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland. It’s much debated nowadays whether there is, or how significant any causal connection might be between certain ailments and the emissions from the plant, but statistically, the per capita percentage of Down’s Syndrome (and thyroid disease) sufferers is significantly larger in this ‘downwind’ region than in the rest of the Northwest. And the kids with Down’s were not visible. If they weren’t living in the state asylums, they were hidden away at homes and shuffled off, via the short bus, to their own, segregated, school. As were kids in wheelchairs. As was, in fact, my soon-to-be foster sister B, who was far above average intellectually, but who was also, unfortunately, deaf. The different were retards, and belonged in the asylum and in special schools.

Not all ‘retards’ were in special schools, though. And, of course, not all ‘retards’ were mentally handicapped. Some were courageously enrolled at Roosevelt. One such kid was J, who was a year older than I, but was held back in first grade so was in my class for a second attempt. J was awkward, nerdy, insecure, and emotionally damaged. He talked with a slur, and sometimes wet or messed his pants. And because we were so segregated from the Others, he was a little scary. Not that he was scary—he was a gentle as a lamb—but his existence, his presence in our class, was scary. He challenged our neat little world. And he was, in turn, ostracized. J was either ignored by those who didn’t have much of a cruel streak, or tormented by those who did. Few befriended him. His brother didn’t protect him like mine did me.

Another kid in my class was M, who was witty, intelligent, and kind. M had CP, and endured multiple surgeries that year. I shied away from J, but M and I became best friends, at least for that year. I never thought of her as anything like J, because I knew her. But the very next year, when there was a shuffle for grouping the second-graders, she was left with the “slow” readers because, well, just look at her. The teachers determined she, too, was a ‘retard.’ And I was outraged. Not her!

And so life went on in the 70s, segregated not only for the adults, who struggled on through the still-active civil rights movements and argued loudly over the Equal Rights Amendment, but also for us children, who learned to fear the different.

There were, clearly, two groups. Those like us, and those to be pitied and isolated. Those with whom we played, and those whom we avoided, feared, and pretended didn’t exist. It was a burden to be saddled with a retard. It was a shame to be a retard. At church, we pitied and prayed for them. We had special programs to help them overcome. And our parents clucked their tongues and told us not to stare.

But I couldn’t reconcile what we said with what I saw. M was no different than I, except she had a little bit of a limp and an almost-useless hand. And when B joined our family, straight from a childhood in the asylum, I quickly learned that she was, if anything, way smarter than I, learning how to bathe and dress herself, becoming fastidious to the point of making the rest of us look barbaric, learning sign language and rising from near-animal functionality to the top class in her ballet school in the space of a year. She couldn’t hear. So she’d been labeled a ‘retard,’ and shoved away in the asylum. M was treated differently, but she really wasn’t. What was this ‘retard’ thing, then?

Somewhere between second and sixth grades, J moved from outcast to protected mascot. We knew him, and although we didn’t perhaps play so much with him, we were now the older kids, and made sure he wasn’t bullied by anyone but us. He was a retard, sure, but he was our retard. And we decided that whatever teachers thought, they were just stupid regarding M, who had been moved, mid-semester, from a class where the teacher treated her poorly to my class. We were top dogs, now. M was just as normal as the rest of us.

At our high school, there was this tradition called the ‘Junior Con.’ It was a variety show, run (oddly enough) by the junior class. It sometimes got a bit raunchy, was generally hilarious, and to get one’s idea in it was the coolest possible moment in one’s junior year. It was, then, a very big deal when E, a kid from my class at Roosevelt, organized a brilliant break-dance routine with J. And it was even bigger that, upon the skit’s amazing success, J moved from mascot to high school champ. As much as was possible, J was popular. Kids liked to hang out with him. Those of us who grew up with him understood, as we grew older, much of his character and some of the reasons behind his demeanor. We honestly cared about him. We had learned to get to know him. But he was, of course, still Other.

And years later, when the high school was refurbished and finally put on the national register of historic places, J and I walked the grand reopening tour together, he regaling me with his fond memories of high school and his many great childhood friends—including me. He said I was always kind to him. I thought of my inner state during those years and was deeply ashamed.

In the 90s, I commuted to work via bus. The asylums had long been emptied, and a significant number of my fellow commuters had Down’s. I lived near a number of group homes, where developmentally disabled adults lived. My favorite neighbors. Some of the most interesting conversations of my life were to be had on these commutes. But, even as with J, I segregated these people into a group—Other. Not like me. These were people who didn’t know. Who were ‘less’ than me, intellectually, who were to be ‘humored’ out of kindness. Who were to be prayed for. Who were to be pitied. I loved these people, mind you! Adored them. But still, I was better off than they, more aware of reality. Normal.

And even as I—unconsciously, non-deliberately—treated these this way, believed this about them, I encountered a repeated, nagging worry. Was I being treated like I treated these people? Was I being humored? Were people talking nicely to me to my face, but behind my back shaking their heads and clucking their tongues at my pitiable state? How would I know? How could I be certain that I wasn’t somebody’s pet retard? How could I be certain that people weren’t just being nice, but generally bemused by my naïveté and adorable antics?

This bothered me because, I realized, the one thing I would hate the most would be to be the Other, to be that one outside, that one who would always be pitied, misunderstood, set aside for special prayers during Sunday night revival meetings and assigned seats on the short bus.

I worked very hard to never be Other. Any otherness in me I stowed away. Even as my neighborhood opened to otherness and learned to embrace the variety that characterizes humanity, I found the Christian ‘neighborhood’ did not. Not really. A woman with Tourette’s was ‘politely asked to leave’ because she disrupted Sunday services. Although we welcomed the deaf and disabled, we set up isolated places for them to sit, and when attendance was too low, informed the interpreter she was no longer needed. And when a suspicion of my own otherness surfaced, I was immediately the subject of fearful staff meetings.

It was understood that to be a Christian meant to be delivered from otherness. To become like Christ was to become ‘normal’—but if one remained somehow not ‘normal’—well then, one was clearly not Christlike. Christ was, after all, just like us.

To be Other in the mind of many Christians is a fearful thing. To have beliefs or behaviors—or to be thought to have beliefs or behaviors—outside the sanctioned set is to move from the “beloved brother in Christ” category into the “lost needing prayer and pity” category. And to be Other is to be no longer equal, no longer on the same level in God’s grace. To be considered Other is to be something beyond the total forgiveness and liberty of Christ. To be considered Other is to be considered in bondage. To be deceived. Pitiable.

M was considered Other by our teachers, and the thought that she was perfectly competent escaped them. B was labeled ‘Other’ and treated like an animal. She was presumed Other, so became Other by ignorance. She was never taught to bathe herself, never taught how to hold a fork or spoon. She was never taught sign. Only when she was loved, treated as equal, presumed normal, was she enabled to excel. And, in fact, she grew up to be a model and businesswoman. It was this acceptance of her, this denial of Otherness, or marginalization, that enabled her, that liberated her.

What is it to be Other, as a Christian? Certainly not to be considered differently by God. Certainly not to be segregated by Christ. Within the Body of Christ, then, what is this propensity we have to ‘Otherize’?

In a chat yesterday with a Christian friend, I revealed something about me that she regarded as making me Other. When she had, a few weeks ago, discovered I was on Facebook, she was quite excited to befriend me. It had, after all, been over four years since we’d last seen or even spoken to each other. And we were sisters in Christ. Equals in grace. Co-laborers in the harvest. But now, now I was Other. I was no longer equal, but on a different level, pushed aside, not belonging in the regular school, but assigned to the short bus, the bus that took those who weren’t quite fully Christian to their own special place where they’d be pitied, humored, and prayed for with grieving hearts. Where they’re at best ignored because confusing or unacceptable to norms, at worst bullied, ridiculed, and demoralized.

Or maybe at worst, humored.

At worst, I write, because this is the very essence of that attitude James wrote us to avoid. That attitude of segregation. We are all one Body, Paul wrote. We are all of equal status in the eyes of Christ. Those whom we don’t understand, those whom we find offensive, embarrassing, or inexplicable are yet image-bearers of Christ, fully radiating his grace and mercy, fully capable of powerful depths of holiness and truth. It is not God who segregates us, but we ourselves. And though our lines are often drawn by what we have called ‘sin’ or ‘error’ or whatever our labels are, it is far more often the case that we are the line-drawers, not Christ. How many times have we, over the millennia, discovered that our beliefs about sin and holiness are patently wrong? And how many times have we forgotten to love as Christ loved, not with pity and clucking tongues, but with gentleness?

To tell somebody “you are weighing heavy on my heart” and “I will always love you and pray for you” despite that thing that pushes one past the Other line is only to slap across the face. What we say in what we believe to be gracious love for the lost is far, far too often haughty unkindness, if even coming from non-deliberate, unconscious beliefs. To presume one is in sin because one is different is characteristic of spectacular pride. And to speak to that person out of shaking-head pity only informs the Other that she has now been removed from equality, from fellowship, from respectability. It is horribly unkind, horribly painful, horribly un-Christlike.

And it was this that ashamed me, in essence, those years ago when J told me how he perceived me. I knew my heart. I knew I had been judging him as inferior. I knew my pride. And I knew I was terribly wrong. I apologized with all my heart to J that day. And I realized that he, in fact, had something beyond anything I ever understood. He had an appreciation for grace in social marginalization that I never grasped. All my ‘kind words’ to him were belittling, yet he taught me something that day about how he was so much beyond, so far above me in profoundly significant ways. He was gracious.

Now I am the Other, marginalized by those who once accepted me as equal. And though in some circles, I am accepted as the ‘special needs’ kid in Sunday school, I am nonetheless expected to take the short bus. But I am still, regardless the perception of those who fit in to the normal mold, on the bus. I’m still travelling the road with Christ, who protects me from the (perhaps unwitting) bullies in the church.

We on the short bus still follow Jesus with abandon, still experience grace profoundly, still love deeply, still know and embrace truth. It is not we who are missing out, even though we’ve been segregated. And though my greatest fear—that of being humored—has come to pass, I’m learning that there is much grace to be had on the short bus. And I’m praying that someday I will become as gracious and gentle as J was to me that day as we gazed down from the high school clock tower upon the tree-lined avenue, dotted with school busses and slowly-falling leaves.

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