“Are you married?” Jesse inquires loudly. I have learned to expect the most random of questions, but this one always makes me smile. Jonathan taps my arm lightly, competing for my attention. He signs the word “funny”, raising his eyebrows to imply a question: Why are you laughing?
“Jesse asked if I’m married,” I explain, simultaneous signing and speaking so that neither the deaf nor the hearing clients feel excluded. “That’s funny because I’m only seventeen!” Jonathan nods in agreement, then catches Jesse’s attention. This time I do not translate what he is signing, knowing that I would only be spreading rumors. “No, no,” I sign at Jonathan. “I’m not divorced! I’ve never been married!” After a moment of silence, I steer the conversation in a safer direction, and soon the table is happily rambling about something else.
It’s been over a year since I graduated high school and stopped volunteering at JBC, a center for mentally disabled adults. Sometimes I miss all the fun times I had there. After all, playing War with these people was even more fun than my family’s hardcore games of Settlers of Catan. And let’s be honest, I rocked at our JBC “game” of slamming the ping-pong ball to make it bounce against the ceiling. I let the clients beat me at Connect Four, gave home-style manicures, and chatted with them about anything and everything. I was there to serve them, but actually it was them who ended up teaching me a lot. They reminded me to see the beauty in simple things, like the butterflies dancing in the shrubbery outside and the glittery snowflakes we cut out of paper. They were patient, always more than willing to slow down and teach me how to sign a new word. They were masters of unconditional love, and no matter how long I had been absent, never failed to great me with cheers of “Come sit with us!” These people were among the most forgiving, understanding, and loving that I have ever met. It’s kind of ironic that I learned such valuable lessons from such unexpected teachers.
It’s also kind of ironic that it was an equally unexpected teacher, a random bus driver, who reminded me why I was given my experiences at JBC.
This was late in the afternoon, several weeks ago. It hadn’t been a particularly long or hard day – actually I had had fun grocery shopping with two of my friends. But by this point in time, we had been sweating at the bus stop for almost an hour, we were totting a week’s worth of meals, and we were more than ready to get home and make dinner. We awkwardly wrestled our groceries on board the bus, fished for the right number of quarters, and finally, gratefully, collapsed into our seats.
It was then that a man, speaking authoritatively, caught my attention. “You can’t have that [the bin of groceries] out in the open like that. You have to put it up there,” and he pointed to a storage area where that bin couldn’t possibly have fit. Flustered, I glanced around for a sign – was it even ok to have such a big bin on board? – but didn’t see one telling me that I had to put my groceries anywhere in particular. I looked towards the speaker, who was repeating his command, confused.
The man looked older than he probably was. Forty-something, maybe fifty-something. His teeth – the few that were left – pointed in every direction. His clothes were not clean, his hair definitely not brushed. His identification information hung around his neck. In short, he was quite clearly not the authority on where I had to store my groceries.
I recognized that this man was mentally challenged and wanted to be kind, but I wasn’t really sure what to do. I gave him a nervous smile and said that I would make sure to hold onto the bin tightly so that it wouldn’t slide around. In response, he insisted that this wasn’t enough and that I had to move it out of the aisle. But to where? I smiled another nervous smile, hoping he’d let my “violation” slide. I was just too tired for this right now. Is it even my responsibility to inconvenience myself just to make him a little more comfortable? Would it be horrible to…just ignore him?
This was where the bus-driver stepped in competently and confidently, speaking to the man. “Hey there, General. We have a problem because the girls’ bin won’t fit up there. It’ll have to stay on the floor, but do you think you can watch it to make sure it doesn’t start sliding around? If it does, just let me know.”
“Yes, sir!” the man responded, in a tone that made me wonder if once upon a time he had fought for our country. He straightened his back and inched a little closer, his face serious and his eyes smiling. He looked glad to have a responsibility.
Relaxing now that the situation was under control, I started to watch our bus driver, realizing that he was not only driving responsibly, but also chatting cheerfully with a few other handicapped passengers. I knew he had probably had a long day already, and still hours of driving ahead. He probably couldn’t wait to get out of this bus and stretch his legs. And yet, he was beyond courteous to these people who needed much more of his attention than his “normal” passengers who rode in silence. He had obviously taken the time to get to know them over other similar trips, because he knew how to keep them calm and satisfied now. If they wanted to think that they were in charge of making sure people stored their belongings properly, he was happy to play along, and was clever enough to do so in a way that didn’t inconvenience his other passengers.
I was impressed and inspired by the way he interacted with these people. Thinking back, I knew I had learned enough at JBC to have come up with a solution like he did. Like him I knew the value in these people, like him I had at least basic experience talking with them, like him I had had plenty of opportunities to be patient and handle situations even when I was not in the mood. But I hadn’t been prepared to use those skills in my “real world”. Actually, I had never really thought that I would ever use them outside JBC. Now I know that I will need to, and that next time there probably will not be such a gem of a bus driver nearby with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle the situation; next time I should be ready with the kindness, willingness, and ability to handle it myself.
Sometimes we students fall into the trap of thinking that for now we just accumulate knowledge and that sometime in the distant future we will use all that knowledge to do good for the world. How self-centered! With that mindset, we will never get around to doing good. What we learned yesterday, we should try to use today. Life is not about waiting until you are thoroughly equipped to do a job perfectly. Do your best now, with whatever you have, and whatever you know, and whoever you are.