Retardation as Nothing to Fear
My First Experience with Retarded Adults
“I wan’ Pep-Co! I wan’ Pep-Co!” demanded the thick, child-like voice. The speech seemed detached from its owner because a ceiling-high shelf separated me, the overly-sheltered, twenty-year old, college sophomore, from all other life in Leonard Cottage. Two weeks before, I had been assigned to the library where I basked in the solitude of books. Surrounded by pages stuffed with worldly wisdom, I saw the placement as a perfect match. I had worked silently and alone.
Before being assigned here as a way to pay for my college tuition, I had never seen a retarded person. I had never given a thought to what they were like, how they lived, what went on in their brains or hearts. This day, I was an intruder in the midst of their domain.
Shell-shocked at being transferred, after only two weeks, to the chaotic hub-bub of a cottage, I had sequestered myself in the cave-like laundry nook away from the retarded adults who made their homes on the campus of the State training school in my home town.
Two minutes earlier, I had been instructed on how the laundry should be put away. No introductions. No tour. Just, “Welcome to Leonard. Let’s start you to sorting laundry.” I couldn’t even remember the lady’s name who showed me my new job, then disappeared. Let’s see… towels to the right; sheets and pillow-cases up top; dresses on the lower shelves. I had gotten into a rhythm, almost oblivious to all that was happening outside my “cave.” But not quite. Every once in a while, a disembodied voice would screech something unintelligible, making my stomach flip-flop. With each squeal, I’d listen, in frozen wonder, for a second, then return to my mundane chore, desperate to shut out the remainder of the drama of which the outburst was a part. That is, until the voice, now growling out of the slightly twisted mouth moved into the opening of my dimly lit haven. Her lips, all but dripping saliva, were so large that they didn’t seem to belong to her face. Though she didn’t look like she was capable of thought, she seemed driven.
Margaret, whose name I learned later, might have been five feet tall and a quarter of that size in width. Her very round, but flat-featured face appeared both vacant and determined. She flailed her bulbous hands in uncoordinated gestures, tugging momentarily through stringy blonde hair as she half grunted, half shouted in my direction, “I wan’ Pep-Co.” Because she now stood with one foot all but inside the laundry nook, I interrupted my rhythm and stared dumbfounded.
Oh, Shit, I thought. Is she dangerous? Surely she won’t come in here! I’d call this wishful thinking since something inside me knew she would do exactly that. I could not move. Plus, there was nowhere to go even if I could. Margaret stood at the only opening of my former haven. And she wanted me out.
Since I had no intention of exiting, I was not responding as Margaret wished. For emphasis, she moved into the nook and flailed her arms again. “I wan Pep-Co,” she cried, all but insisting that I move in the direction of the “Pep-Co,” of which, by the way, I had not yet figured out the meaning. While I stood staring, trying to determine what she wanted, why she was coming at me, and what I should do if she actually attacked, Margaret’s arms started whirling like the front propeller of a small-engine airplane. And that plane was headed toward my face.
“ I wan’ Pep-Co! I wan’ Pep-Co,” her monotone droned on. I knew that no other cottage worker was around to accommodate Margaret’s demand because the other female, Mrs. Whitfield, had stepped out for a moment, locking the cottage door behind her, leaving me alone to put up the drab, over-washed laundry of women who did not know me. I also knew I wasn’t the one who could help Margaret since I had a total of five minutes worth of experience at cottage life and could barely find my way out of the laundry nook. So I stood there, staring blankly at her as she made the decision to land her flailing hands somewhere on me.
Perhaps it was unintentional that one of her hands landed in my mouth, but the fact that the other one ended up there also suggests otherwise. In her attempt to force me to acknowledge her request, Margaret grabbed my face by forcing the three middle fingers of her left hand into my mouth, digging into the soft tissue of my inner jaw. The right thumb was on the other side of my tongue, and its four clammy siblings gripped the outside of that same jaw. Though I grabbed her wrists in an effort to free myself, my face felt as though it were in a vice. Jumbled and unanswerable questions whirled through my brain: What does she want? How do I get her off of me? How forceful am I allowed to be? Where the hell is someone who can save me?
Finally, while Margaret and I danced our obscene waltz out of the mouth of the laundry nook, another resident yelled, “She wants a Pepsi Cola. Give her a Pepsi Cola,” as though I had a Pepsi dispenser in my possession. At that moment, Mrs.Whitfield rushed through the door. Knowing that yelling at Margaret would only agitate her more, Mrs.Whitfield all but leaped upon us, grabbing Margaret’s arms near her wrists. Determined not to let go of me, her Pep-Co agent, Margaret tightened her grip on my face and mouth. Her thick, clammy thumb jammed deeper into my gum and her nubby fingers pulled on my jaw as though she thought it were made of elastic. Her former demands had turned completely into grunts now, and the previously clumsy two-person waltz turned momentarily into a threesome.
“Margaret,” cooed Mrs. Whitfield, “Let the nice lady go. She doesn’t have any Pepsi Cola. I’ll get one for you. Come on, now; let go.” All the while Mrs. Whitfield spoke, she was prying Margaret loose, one finger at a time. When the last finger slipped away, I floated zombie-like to the door, opened it, and calmly walked out, letting it slam with an echoing clank behind me. Breathing the hall air made me conscious of how sour the odor had been inside the cottage, and I felt the contents of my stomach surge. I sucked in air to calm myself, but that caused that part of the room whose air I swallowed to tilt slightly. I leaned against the door to steady myself and knew I had to leave. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. As a matter of fact, I did not utter a sound. I just walked over to the administration office and sat down.
We Are More Alike Than We'd Like to Think
The thunderstorm on my face was enough to signal the secretary to get Mr. Laws, the supervisor over student workers. He followed her to the outer office where I sat sphinx-like, and offered concern. “Jackie, Is something wrong? Come into my office.”
Still feeling the thickness of Margaret’s fingers clinging to the inner walls of my mouth, I could not release the words behind the upcoming storm. Silence. Mr. Laws sat back behind his desk, never taking his eyes off me. Again he spoke, “ Jackie, is something wrong? You couldn’t have been in the cottage more than fifteen minutes. Did something happen?” Silence again. Suddenly, the clouds broke, and tears washed the stubby fingered shadows free.
“I can’t go back,” I whispered, raising my flooding eyes from the floor to meet his.
“What happened?” he asked for the third time.
Tears flowed unrestrained, and again, words would not come. How could I tell him that though Margaret’s “attack” had scared me, she was not why I could not return to Leonard or any other cottage. To say that, I would have to admit that I was petrified of being locked in a cottage with fifteen retarded adult females. Me… afraid. Afraid of women, just like me. Like me except retarded… lacking in complex thinking skills. Just hearing myself think that, made me burn with embarrassment. The ladies were retarded, not dangerous; and yet, the need to be away from them over-powered me. Who was I in relation to these beings, human, though not functioning as we who call ourselves “normal” do? What craving inside would urge me to attack another for the burning fizz of a Pepsi Cola, the wet-hot kiss of a handsome man, or to save a child from some stranger lurking in the dark? How far removed was I from functioning less than humanly or inhumanely? That’s what the” Margarets” of Leonard Cottage would force me to ask .
Again, I whispered, “I can’t go back,” then retreated to the safe malignancy of silence.
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