Lots of things can happen on the way home on a school bus. On any given day, there could be a spit-wad fight, an impromptu fashion show, or other unplanned events. Under the right circumstances, it is even possible to have a sing-along.
That’s what happened one fall afternoon on bus 29, which picked up and delivered students from several small rural towns. I don’t know who started it, but all of a sudden someone began singing one of the popular songs on the radio. Before long, even the seniors were singing.
Not long after that Norman started to ride our bus. I didn’t know him well then, even though we were just about the same age and lived in the same ward. My parents told me Norman had a learning disability and that was why he had attended a different school. Now, he had been doing so well that he was being mainstreamed. Norman’s father wasn’t a member of the Church, and the rest of his family were not very active. I didn’t see Norman much at church, either.
When Norman first began riding bus 29, we sat together a couple of times, discovered we shared the same first name, and quickly became friends. Unfortunately, after a few days, some of the older guys started to tease him because he couldn’t pronounce some words very well. They called him “Normie,” and it didn’t take long for them to tease me too. I felt cowardly, but I stopped sitting by him. I didn’t know what else to do.
One afternoon while Norman was being teased, someone suggested that he sing a song. When Norman said he didn’t know any songs, somebody else said he would teach him. He pulled him over to another seat and began to recite the off-color words. Some of the guys were shifting in their seats looking uncomfortable. Others snickered. But no one said anything—not even my older brother, Dean. He just frowned and moved to another seat.
After practicing with Norman for a few minutes, they sang the song together. Many of the offensive words were difficult for Norman to pronounce. When they came to those words, the older boy would stop and let Norman sing them alone. Each time he tried and stumbled on his words, Norman would smile a big, awkward-looking smile. The guys at the back of the bus would smirk and try to keep from laughing too loud.
Day after day, a different boy was selected to teach Norman a new song. One day when he wasn’t on the bus, they started picking on me, “Let’s teach this other Norman a song. Let’s see if he can learn as fast as the other one,” one of them teased. He was a lot bigger than me, so I didn’t say anything, but I’m certain that the look on my face said plenty.
After a while, everybody seemed to be having a good time with this new game. Everybody, it seemed, except Norman and me.
One day, when the singing had ended, that day’s tutor walked up the aisle to where my brother Dean was sitting.
“Hey, Dean, you’re next. Teach Norman a song tomorrow,” he said.
“No thanks, I don’t know any,” was Dean’s gruff reply.
“Ah, come on. It’s not hurting anything. He likes it,” he said.
“I’m not sure he does,” was Dean’s reply. “Besides, I can’t sing.”
“None of us can sing. So what? Teach him a song. It won’t hurt you.”
I could have fainted when Dean looked at his shoes, heaved a sigh, and said, “Okay.”
My brother is fiercely independent and usually doesn’t join in just to gain the approval of others. For instance, he turned down the football coach’s request to try out for the team so he could go to the local rodeo arena and rope calves instead. I couldn’t understand his decision to participate in the singing.
He never did like his younger brother telling him what to do. But this time I had to say something. Later that evening, I went to Dean’s room, where I found him alone.
“Don’t do it, Dean,” I said.
“Don’t do what?” was his startled reply.
“Don’t make Norman sing just so those guys can laugh at him,” I said.
“You’re too late,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m going to do it.”
“Well, don’t go through with it, then. Come on, give him a break. And me, too. You know how I get teased.”
“Leave me alone,” he said more softly than I expected. “I’ve already made up my mind.”
I did leave him alone. Feeling hurt, I went to my room, dreading the ride home the next day. If I could have found another ride home, I would have. But it was too far to walk and I didn’t know anyone with a car. At the end of the day, I found a seat on the bus and slumped down in it as far as I could.
As we bumped along, Dean announced, “Hey, listen up. Norman and I have learned a song and we want it quiet while we sing it.”
The bus hit a few more potholes while I sank lower and lower into my seat. Everybody sat there with anticipation. With an awkward glance at each other, Dean and Norman began to sing. Anticipation turned to surprise as the two raspy voices sang off-key:
When they finished, there was none of the usual banter—no joking, laughing, or teasing. Some guys were looking wistfully at their shoes, others were shifting nervously in their seats, while still others were clearing their throats without knowing what to say. The deafening silence was finally broken when somebody began to clap. Then everybody on the bus joined in.
Things were different for Norman after that bus ride home. In fact, Dean seemed to be the only person who wasn’t affected much by his duet. He still roped calves and went to rodeos, still didn’t talk much, and still couldn’t carry a tune. But, to me, he’ll never improve on the song he sang that afternoon on bus 29.