Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Her side: She’s raised her boy to believe he is important and valuable, despite his learning disabilities and mental handicaps. Every day at school he battled teasing from classmates and name calling by bullies. He tried to believe his mama when she told him to believe in himself. Finally he was out of school and making his way in the real world. Simple things, like writing his name, still gave him trouble, but he knew there were more important things in life than having a high IQ.

My side: It was a normal busy Saturday afternoon at the library. As a woman brings her books up to the desk to be checked out she asks me if her son’s library card is still valid. She says it’s been years since he used it. I tell her I’d be happy to check for her and then make friendly small talk as I scan her books and hand them back to her. Her son stands quietly next to her, a bit rumpled in appearance but reminding me of many of the kids I see hanging around outside the high school when I go to pick up my own kids.

I scan his card. His name is no longer in the system. I ask him if he’s over sixteen and he politely answers, “Yes.” So I give him the standard drill about how he can bring in a picture ID with his current address on it and I can give him a new library card in just about five minutes. He seems happy with that answer.

As I hand his old card back to him I notice the signature on it. His name is written in bold block print, much like you’d expect from a five or six year old.

This happens a lot at our library. Children get new cards in elementary school, signing their names in little kid script, then their attendance falls off as they reach their teens. They come back as young adults and want to update their card, happy to have a new card with their grown up signature on it.

I foolishly made this assumption about the young man who faced me on Saturday.

As I handed his card back to him I said, “Yeah, and when you come back in I can give you a new card that you can sign as an adult now.” To me it was a simple statement. But it was also an offending assumption.

What Happened: They left the library, I went on to help many other patrons until the library closed on Saturday night.

Monday morning, when I was at home, a sobbing woman showed up at the library, wanting to talk to my boss. She relayed a story about how her son had been insulted and offended by a library employee over the weekend. She said he had been so upset that he didn’t want to return to the library ever again. Ever. Again. My boss was a bit confused, knowing there was no one on her circulation staff who would insult a mentally handicapped patron.

Finally the incident was traced back to me. I was the one who hurt her son’s feelings so deeply that he never again wanted to come to our library.

I had no idea.

I have a mentally handicapped foster sister. I was a special education major in college for a year and a half. I would never, not ever do anything to hurt the feelings of any patron, much less a mentally challenged one.

But somehow I did.

And in this case I cannot make it better. The damage’s been done. Totally unintentionally, but done, nonetheless.

I may never see this woman , or her son again, so I put this out there, into the universe. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Ironically the young man came across as a regular, run of the mill, teen age kid so I had no clues that he might have sensitivities. I never meant to pile more pain on his weary shoulders.

It was all a terrible misunderstanding.


Terry said...

What an unfortunate thing to happen. You had no idea. I hope you can let this incident go. When the other kids get mad at Will for not getting to a ball fast enough or missing a basket, I have to stop myself from getting angry at them. They have forgotten that he is handicapped. And isn't that precisely what we both want?

Will is interested in your story. He visits your BLOG. I have told him about you and your decisions. I posted some video of Will skiing on my BLog today. He wanted to know if you would see it. If you have a minute...

Name: Holly Bowne said...

Oh, Judy, my heart goes out to you. To know you've caused someone pain so unintentionally! I don't know if it helps to say, but it truly could have happened to anyone.

Maybe sending the mom a letter, including much of what you've written here may help. Or maybe you'll just have to say a prayer and let it go.

Elizabeth said...

What a difficult story, Judy. I think we've all done something like this at one time or another; upset someone in innocence. Sending an "I'm sorry" out into the universe is the perfect solution when you don't have the opportunity to do it in person.

goofdad said...

As a parent of a 20 year old with learning disabilities and a foster kid with self esteem issues, I'm more than a little angry at the mother in this case. With my oldest I'm always on the lookout for situations like this, and usually find a way to clue the other person in before the inevitable faux-pas. At the very least she should be understanding when the mistake happened. Honestly, it CAN'T be the first time, and won't be the last.

Remember: You did nothing wrong. You had no idea. If the mother had come back and told you, you could easily have complimented him on the fact that you didn't know (that's a BIG compliment, believe me!) and bolstered his self esteem by letting him know you can be there for him if he needs help. By handling it the way she did, she made the situation worse for everyone, especially her son.

Take a deep breath. Remember the kid with Patrick's Dinosaurs, and know you're doing good work!