I am ashamed and embarrassed to tell you this, but I was terrified once by a group of retarded adults.
Not long ago, I took a position as director of marketing and communication with the local United Way in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a fine organization that smartly required that I learn the value of the individual agencies that it helps support by paying each a visit.
It was, as you can imagine, an altogether uplifting exposure to people of great heart and ability, laboring diligently to improve the lives of people.
One afternoon delivered me to Via of the Lehigh Valley’s facility in Bethlehem, PA, where I was to observe a class designed to teach developmentally disabled adults the joys and etiquette of formal dining.
I was greeted by a cheerful and energetic staff member who excitedly described the program as she led me into a crowded banquet room lined with tables elegantly dressed in black plastic flatware and creased napkins.
I was engrossed in the woman’s passionate description of the impending event when, suddenly, she remembered an untended-to detail, stopped in mid-sentence, and swept out of the room with a wave and an apology, ignoring my widening eyes and eluding the hand I shot out in the hope of clinging to her.
Just that fast I was standing alone in a room full of spectacularly unusual people, all of whom instantly stopped their excited chatter to wonder at the wild-eyed expression and ram-rod posture into which I had convulsed.
I appeared, I’m sure, like a just-lit firework. They remained silent and observant, waiting to see if I would explode. Instead, I managed to wrought what must have looked like a maniacal smile, and struck a ridiculously forced pose of casual aplomb, a combination of James Bond and Barney Fife.
Now, I’m no Regis Philbin, but I’m hardly a shy person. I spent many years working as a newspaper reporter, which required a little aplomb. So the question throbbed.
The word was ricocheting in my skull. Why am I in this panic? Why did that woman abandon me without warning? Why are my knees trembling? Why is that man striding toward me?
I was, plain and simply and profoundly afraid. I had no idea what to say or do. And what was worse was that I was quite sure my inability to draw a breath would have its traditional consequence at any moment. I actually thought of getting down on the floor but, incredibly, was stopped by the panic-stricken idea that this would be taken as some sort of sign of weakness or submission (hey, I said this was embarassing, didn’t I?)
My soaring panic was interrupted by that approaching man, who stopped squarely in front of me and, in a gentle tone of sympathy, said ‘we should sit down.’
He guided me by the elbow to a seat across from his and that of a smiling woman he introduced as his fiancée. To my immediate right was an enormous, barrel-chested man with large, fleshy hands which he kept cupped together beneath his chin. Periodically he would heave a sigh of such massive volume that our table would shudder.
Over the next hour, the big man intermittently sighed and took dainty bites of his food, one hand always remaining balled and pressed to his throat.
The rest of the table engaged in a spirited discussion of the just released movie, Titanic. I hadn’t seen it yet. A fact that, as I admired my companions’ reasoned critiques of plot and character and trueness to the historical Titanic, added to the sense that it was they, not I, dining with a perfect idiot.
As we ate and talked, I caught constant glances from other tables, all of which seemed to be the product of concern that I was enjoying myself and removed from whatever distress I had suffered earlier.
We learned the appropriate forks to use and that graphic descriptions of gall bladder surgery, no matter how recently or successfully experienced, are inappropriate at dinner.
At the end, our hostess congratulated us for our fine behavior and encouraged the clients to thank me for having come. The invitation sparked a spontaneous line of well-wishers, the first of whom shook my hand and then, inexplicably, handed me a gift of a packet of peanut butter crackers.
As I accepted the gift I noticed the rest of the line nervously patting themselves in search of similar gifts of gratitude. One by one they shook my hand and offered what they found: a stick of gum … a pack of matches … a Chicklet … a barbershop business card … a nickel. The sighing giant, still not making eye contact, appeared last. His gift was to open his arms and gather me into a huge hug. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered.
I left with bulging pockets and a heart painfully swelled. My ridiculous fear and insulting discomfort had been answered with gracious concern, generosity and sympathetic understanding that I was uncomfortable in my differentness.
I thought about how often each of them had endured–still endures– those same feelings when noticing furtive glances of alarm or curiosity from passersby.
I thought of how often I had avoided the gaze of a mentally challenged person–even children–by purposefully looking past them, refusing to make eye contact.
In the parking lot, I sat in my car and wept in shame.