Armed with a degree in history, I figured the State Department could use a guy like me.
Eight months later, I still hadn’t heard back from them — or anyone.
I needed to do something.
I blanketed my county with applications, including a facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. I applied for anything available. Within a few weeks, I had my first post-college job.
I worked as a recreation specialist, coaching Special Olympic athletes, running physical education programs, and teaching leisure classes, such as art and dance. Since the facility served both residents and commuters, the people we worked with were known as participants.
There were roughly 180 participants at the facility. It served an amazing range of people, from very low to very high functioning. They ranged in age from early 20s to early 80s and their disabilities stemmed from all sorts of syndromes, including: autism, cerebral palsy, Down, epilepsy, Noonan, Prader-Willi, traumatic brain injury, Turner, Williams, and, most common, unknown.
I had heard that most people who worked at similar facilities did so for only about a year. The emotional and financial burnout rate was very high. Most often, people would leave for better pay in another field.
I worked with three people at my level, all young men fresh out of college. Two were physical education majors who were banking on an eventual teaching job and one was like me, a liberal arts major with few other options.
Aside from teaching classes, which was only about half of our day, we did not have much direction as to our responsibilities. With all of this idle time, the guys in the office spent much of it telling jokes and wild stories from college. I wanted to join in the fun, but I was worried about getting caught goofing off.
Our boss was Myrna, a proud Missourian of indeterminate age. When she wasn’t around, we tried to guess how old she was. Our consensus was, “pushing 70.”
Myrna was difficult to work for. Imagine 70% Ma Kettle and 30% Yosemite Sam. She had short blondish-white hair, faded with age, crooked teeth adorned with perpetual bits of lipstick, tinted glasses, coffee breath, and wore nylon warm-up suits that zip-zipped when she moved. Although she was vague about her past, from what I pieced together from old pens and folders, I deduced she taught physical education at women’s colleges in the 60s and 70s. As I like to create stories when I lack evidence, I imagined her losing job after job as single-sex colleges closed their doors. She liked to brag that she created our department, “with my own bare hands!”
Despite our adjoining offices, she preferred to summon me via phone.
I could tell it was her by the forceful way it rang.
“Rec, this is Bob.”
“Bob, this is Myrna. Git over here when ya have a minute, will ya?”
I hated going into her office. I was non-confrontational, while she was intimidating. I wasn’t exactly sure what she did, aside from attending occasional meetings and yelling at us to, “quit assin’ around!”
But this time she was smiling.
This couldn’t be good.
“Have a seat, Bob.”
I sat on the other side of the desk, in a chair that faced parallel to her desk, requiring me to twist my body to face her.
“Bob, I need to ask you a favor. You can say no, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Do you know about the play the choir director is putting on?”
“A little bit.”
“Every year we put on a play. It’s a big deal for our participants and their families. Well, this year the lead role is done by Marie Abraham. You know Marie, right?”
I nodded. Marie was a sweet, high-functioning participant. We had a connection because we had the same birthday, although Marie was 20 years older.
“I don’t know if you know this, but Marie has brain tumors. She has to go to California for treatment.”
I looked down at the carpet. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“The thing is, the participants have been working so hard on this play for so long and it’s only a week away. I asked the choir director if there’s anyone else who could fill in on such short notice and she said no. So, what I’m asking Bob, is would you take the role?”
I tried to say yes.
“You could read the script from the stage for all I care.” she said. Then she did something I hadn’t seen before. Her steely eyes became soft and her tight, angry face relaxed. “I’m asking you because you said you like acting, that sort of thing. And you’re the only one in that office who I know would actually do it.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Hot dang!” she yelled, and clapped her hands once, as if she’d just won a carnival game. Then she rose from her chair, leaned over her desk, extended her right hand, and vigorously shook mine. She looked me in my eyes and gave a heartfelt, “Thank you.”
Sitting down, she got back to business. She handed me a stapled packet of papers. “Here’s the script. Your lines are highlighted. Like I said, you can just read them. That’ll be fine.”
I scanned the script. “I think I can learn these by next week.”
She smiled at me as if I said I’d memorize pi. “And if not, like I said, it’s OK to read them.”
I quickly became the golden child of the department. Whenever she came to the office to tell us to quit assin’, I pointed to the script and got a free pass.
We rehearsed nightly. During each session, something went wrong. Adam, a seizure-prone 30-year-old who wore a helmet, read his lines without punctuation, giving it a run-on quality. Ernie, a character who told everybody, “You’re fired!” long before Donald Trump popularized it, kept putting his hand over his mouth while speaking. Alyssa, a feisty middle-aged lady with salt-and-pepper hair, would always forget one of her lines and wail “Oh I’ll NEVER get this right!” like Don Music, the Muppet from Sesame Street who banged his head on the piano.
Within a few sessions, I had my lines down, along with everyone else’s. The arrangement worked well because, when a participant forgot their lines, I could discreetly cue them on stage.
On the night of the performance, the gym was filled with a couple hundred folding chairs for family members. They filed in and hugged the other parents they’d gotten to know over the years. I thought about how my parents were acquaintances with my friends’ parents, but this must’ve been a stronger bond. While my parents and my friends’ parents knew we’d eventually be independent, these parents must have bonded together to fight for their kids’ futures.
Alyssa kept looking at the families from the dressing room. “I think I see my mom. That’s my mom!” She wrung her hands. “Oh, I don’t want to screw up in front of my mom!”
“You’ll be fine.” I assured her.
Ernie went missing. I found him outside the gym, walking in circles with his hand over his face.
“Come on in, Ernie.”
“It’s OK to be nervous. That just means you’re in the zone!” I said, splaying my arms, gangsta-style.
“In da done?”
“Yeah, in the zooooone!”
The play was interesting.
Ernie sat on a prop chair and it broke.
Adam excitedly screamed his lines into the microphone, causing a minute of feedback.
Alyssa performed a line almost flawlessly, except for a minor, unnoticeable concentration issue, then yelled, “OH NO! I screwed up! I ruined the entire play for everyone!”
I spoke to Alyssa out of the side of my mouth. “You’re doing fine, Alyssa. Your next line is…” While I said this, I expected to see frowns from the audience, wondering why we didn’t train their family members better. Instead, I saw smiles.
These family members had lived many years with their own special person, and knew the joy that comes from innocence. Now they were watching a whole stage of special people, perpetual wholesome children. There was such genuine and hearty laughter — they understood that imperfections are what makes a person lovable.
There was never a happier crowd — on either side of a stage. I couldn’t tell who was happier: the participants, proud of their achievement or the family members who saw their loved ones live fulfilling lives.
We bowed, although some just waved from their wheelchairs. We received a five-minute-long standing ovation, complete with whistles. My first thought was, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.” But, as I looked at the participants basking in the lights, I thought, “No, I’m not.”
After the show, family members found their loved ones, handed them flowers, and took pictures. One elderly father, in a wheelchair, posed next to his son, also in a wheelchair. With others, I saw several generations and family tree branches: parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.
One lady, about 40, in a formal dress, sought me out. She spoke at quarter speed.
“I just haaave to meeet this yoooung maaan!” She gently took my right hand and shook it softly. “You did suuuch a goood job.”
I smiled, embarrassed. “Thank you.”
“How did you re-mem-ber aaall thooose words?”
“We practiced quite a bit.”
“Hooow looong did it taaake you to learn aaall thooose words?”
“About a week.”
Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened.
“Just one weeek?!”
It dawned on me that she mistook me for one of the participants. I almost told her that I was on staff, but I let it go. She smiled and shook her head in disbelief.
“Wow. One week. That is amaaazing!”
The next day Myrna hollered for me from her office.
I went in. She had a phone pressed to her ear, with the mouthpiece under her chin. She held up a finger, mouthed “Just a minute,” then put the mouthpiece in front of her lips.
“And here’s someone you’ll like to talk to.” She handed the phone to me.
“Bob! It’s Marie! Myrna said you filled in for me.”
“Thanks. I was worried that the show couldn’t go on without me.”
“Well I didn’t do as well as you could have, but we made it work.”
“I wish I could’ve been there.”
“I know, Marie. But you were here in spirit. We could feel it.”
“Thanks. I miss you guys but I’ve got to stay here for my treatments.”
“Yeah, you do what you’ve got to do. We’ll celebrate when you get back.” I smiled, imagining a cast party upon her return.
I said good-bye and handed the phone back to Myrna. Sitting in the chair, I realized Marie had spoken like a child who had been convinced by her family that everything was going to be OK, that this was just a temporary struggle.
Myrna told Marie good-bye and hung up. She balled a fist in front of her mouth and looked away. Then she lowered her fist. “I spoke with her parents before I spoke with her. It’s not good.” She pushed a few sharp breaths through her nose, then turned to me and said, “You can go back to your office.”
I rose and walked through the doorway. Myrna spoke up. “Bob.” her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Bob, could you close the door on your way out? Thanks.”
I started toward my office, but I wasn’t in the mood to hear jokes from the guys. I altered my path and went into the bathroom, which had a small locker room. I sat on the bench in solitude.
I began to wonder who was the student. I taught them skills, but they were teaching me life. Ernie was teaching me that it’s OK to show your feelings. Marie was teaching me bravery and grace. They were all teaching me that “normal” society has some screwed-up definitions of success.
I came out of college thinking my education was over, but now I realized it had just begun.
It started as a need to do something. After a while, I learned we hear our calling only when we listen.
While I’m now in a different setting, I still work with special populations.
It became harder and harder to support a family on a nonprofit salary. After 11 years, I earned a degree in special education and sought a teaching position.
When I interviewed to become a teacher, the principal asked me about the hardest part of my job at the facility.
“When they die.”
He winced. I continued. “I get attached to them. I become like an uncle or dad to them. It’s weird having parental-like authority over people double my age, but that’s what it’s like.”
He nodded and looked downward.
“But that’s not entirely a bad thing.” I said. “Just a few generations ago, parents of people with disabilities would sometimes pray that their children would die before them, knowing they couldn’t fend for themselves in the world. Maybe they would have been institutionalized, and sit around doing nothing all day. But at places like where I work, they can have long, meaningful lives. There’s still a long way to go for adult care, but it’s a lot better than it was.”
At school, I live in a world that measures success with near imperceptible victories. While our Darwinian society bemoans participation trophies, I see successes that cannot be rewarded with hunks of molded plastic. When a 15-year-old can read a second-grade text for the first time, that’s a win. When a freshman can independently navigate the school by November, that’s a win. When a student finally realizes that five dimes has the same value as two quarters, that’s also a win.
And if anyone confuses me for someone with special needs, that’s cool. They’re my people.