During my four years in college, one of my majors was sociology. My secret goal was to be a good girl: a do-gooder working for change. To prove it, I spent a winter (a very, very cold winter, I might add) working with retarded adults in St. Louis. My job was to teach them to ride the city bus from home to their school. They had to be high-functioning enough to eventually ride the bus by themselves. If not, they couldn't attend the school.
I'd show up at their house in the wee hours, walk them to the bus stop, wait for the bus, get on the bus with them, show them how to pay the fare, teach them the landmarks: "When you see the McDonald's, pull the chain. Get off at the next stop." We would do this every day for at least a week. If they didn't seem to know where they were after a week, they probably weren't going to get it and they weren't going to that school.
It was the hardest job I ever had. It was heartbreaking. Not heartbreaking because of them. My clients were lovely, and unfailingly patient with me. As my friend Mark of the M.A.R.C. house in Key West would say, "Retarded people are unburdened with an intellect." To a retarded person, life is mostly simple. The heartbreaking part was me: I had no idea what I was doing. I was too young, too selfish and too annoyable to be any good at the job. I knew they were retarded, but I still couldn't quite get it that sometimes they couldn't put the simplest things together. Boy, was I dumb.
I remember a woman named Sheila. No idea why I remember her, but, if I close my eyes, I can even see her sitting next to me on the bus in her dark plaid winter hat, scarf and coat, bright eyes, pert nose, always with a half smile on her face. Serene, that's the word. I rode the bus with her for two weeks and she never looked anywhere but straight ahead. I'd sit right next to her, put my eyes at her level and stare straight ahead with her. When the Mickey D's flashed by, I say: "Look, the yellow arches! Pull the chain." She'd pull the chain, but only because I told her to. She never locked onto those arches. I even tried turning her head when I'd see them coming: "Sheila, sit a little sideways [I'd turn her body a little], look ahead [I'd turn her chin slightly more toward the front of the bus], and watch for the McDonald's. See the arches coming up, Sheila? When you see the arches coming, pull the chain." She was pliable, obedient and lovely, but every time she got on the bus, she sat and stared straight ahead. If she ever saw the arches, she never gave any hint.
I think I quit after Sheila. I had no idea why I couldn't teach her to ride the bus. If I couldn't teach a retarded person to ride a city bus, what was the matter with me? Honestly, it never occurred to me that it wasn't me. Isn't that funny? Anyway, I went back to acting, the THE-ah-tah, where it really was all about me, and ended up getting a double-major: Sociology and Drama. Go ahead, ask me about my career highlights.
Today, thirty five years later, I'm reminded of Sheila. It's late afternoon, raining (of course), I'm surfing the tube and land on a movie with Alan Rickman. It's already started, but I love his face so I watch for a few minutes. Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Ann Moss show up… two more reasons to settle in. Oooh, an accidental movie find – those are the most delicious. If you are lucky enough to stumble on Snowcake, stick around. It's a lovely off-beat movie with off-beat characters and an actual epiphany. Perfectly dazlious.