Names have been changed to protect both innocent and guilty.

I used to get on the short bus to go to school every day. We weren't going to a regular school. We were going to a segregated nightmare. The only way to get to regular school from there was to prove you were able to act normal and handle a normal education. Few of us were able to do that, especially since we didn't learn much at special ed. Special ed was simply a place where they dumped kids who were too weird, annoying, crazy, mean, scary or slow for the district to want to deal with.

I spent rides staring at the elaborately sculpted golden hair of Ellen, the girl in front of me, and having the usual adolescent thoughts about her. I never dared to talk to her much, and she didn't talk much anyway. She may have been too heavily drugged. I heard her tell someone she had a learning disability.

Meanwhile, Mark would usually be taunting Jim. Jim was an Asian guy with schizophrenia and noticeable tardive dyskinesia, and Mark would chant racial slurs at him. Why nobody ever stopped Mark, I don't know. There was one day when Jim lost it and yelled at Mark, but that was unusual. Sometimes the two of them would discuss sports, or Jim would talk about whatever he was interested in at the moment.

If Mark got bored with Jim, he'd turn on Allen, the autistic guy who sat in the back humming and rocking the whole way to school. He'd usually talk to Allen in nonsense baby talk. I'd seethe and stare harder at Ellen's hair. I sometimes told Mark to shut up, and that Allen wasn't a little kid, but then he'd turn the baby talk on me: "But he likes it, don't you Allen?" I'd try not to puke as Mark launched into a sappy, exaggerated rendition of a children's song. Sometimes he'd break his facade and call Allen "You fucking retard." Telling him to shut up then would provoke the excuse, "He doesn't understand anyway."

Worse was the fact that Mark always claimed he'd be working in Allen's classroom soon. I never knew if that was true, but I did know that Mark had sexually assaulted some of the girls at the school. There was no way I'd have let him near anyone who couldn't talk back if I ran the school. But I didn't run the school.

Sometimes various exciting things happened, at least from the standpoint of a bored teenager. Allen would take his clothes off, or Mark would get into a fight with someone. Mostly, though, it was the same boring routine on the way to school every day.

We'd get off the bus, and go to our respective classrooms. Allen went to the low classroom where they tried to teach him to act as normal as possible, at the expense of any useful skills. They said they wanted him to at least not look retarded, as if that was the big deal in life. I'd always wish him well in not hating himself under those conditions. Jim went to the medium class, where they ostensibly taught social skills. Mark, Ellen, and I went to the various high classes where they made a lousy attempt to teach us academics.

The day was nearly always punctuated by screaming -- the angry screaming of someone who'd just started yelling at someone, the agonized screaming of that same person after the teachers had started to enforce their form of "discipline" on them, and the terrified screaming after they'd been locked in the closet. You could tell the last two were real. There's no way you can fake that sound, and you can hear the instant it crosses over into that moment of perfect terror. You're not allowed to react, though, because the teachers are supposedly just doing their job and if you react it means you're being annoying on purpose. Besides, it could be you some days. You learn the art of silent terror, and you eventually stop reacting.

Other than that, it was pretty boring there. The day revolved around behavior control rather than education. It was clear we were there for other people's convenience and peace of mind, rather than to learn anything. Those of us who were able to teach ourselves in spite of the place were the lucky ones, although the teachers rarely noticed even when people did learn things.

At the end of the day, we'd all go back onto the same bus. Sometimes there would be kids from other schools. It was a repetition of the same stuff that happened on the way to school, only with everyone more edgy than we were in the morning. I think Ellen was the only one of us, including the ones who couldn't talk, who avoided getting into a yelling match at some point on the way home.

So there you have it. I was one of the kids from the short bus. We were different.