“Roger reveled in the status he had at the Center, but was tantalized by the possibility of making it on the outside.”

When Roger was elected client representative by his peers, he became the acknowledged leader of the Division II clients, as Jerry was for Division I. The position—a liaison between clients and staff—gave Roger a platform for the performance of political rituals. His acceptance speech was true to that genre.

“First off, you guys, I want to thank you for electing me your rep. And I want to congratulate Jan on a hard-fought battle. For a minute there, I thought we were gonna go to a third ballot! Anyway, congratulations, Jan: that bugger went right down to the wire!

“Now, you guys all know me. But, well, I want to know what you think. What would you think about maybe getting me a secretary? We could elect one at our next meeting and then she could take down the minutes. Another thing is—maybe we ought to publish a newsletter telling, you know, what we’re doing. Anyway, if you guys want that, let me know, and I’ll see if I can’t get the ball rolling.

“Listen, you guys, thanks again, really. I’m gonna do everything in my power to make these next six months good ones for all of us. So if you’ve got any problems or suggestions, come to me—that’s what I’m here for. And like I said, tell me what you think about us maybe getting a secretary and publishing a newsletter. Do you think those are pretty good ideas? [No response.] Yeah, okay, well…. Anyway, thanks again, and congratulations, Jan. Well, I guess that’ll do ’er for now.”

That Roger and Jerry were selected as leaders of their respective divisions sheds light on what the clients valued. Both were as large as ordinary adults, and indeed looked like ordinary adults, and both were talkative, though Roger’s use of language was much more developed than Jerry’s. From the clients’ point of view, the most noticeable difference between themselves and society at large was that their speech was limited in range and often hard to understand, while the rest of the world seemed to speak with assurance and clarity. Indeed, the Center sometimes felt like an island with a multitude of dialects that varied greatly in complexity. Jerry’s volubility and Roger’s fluency made them seem ideally suited to serve as ambassadors to the mainland.

Roger’s talk was folksy, peppered with phrases like doggonit and dadburnit; all rightee and yes, ma’m; whaddya say, stranger and long time, no see. His use of language inclined toward hyperbole, often giving events dramatic overtones. One morning he charged into the Center proclaiming that Becky was ill, “flat on her back”; a few minutes later she called to say that she was staying home because her lips were dry and chapped. Even the chores that Roger did were never dull or unremarkable; they were always buggers or bears. And when the client basketball team easily beat a Special Education team, Roger expressed concern for the future: “That darn team wasn’t bad at all. In another year those sophomore ballplayers they got are gonna be plenty tough.”

Most of our clients, whether they lived in a group home or with their parents, never went anywhere unsupervised. They were always accompanied or supervised by either counselors, parents, or the staff at the Center. But Roger was different. Although he lived with his parents, he was a part-time inhabitant of the larger world, going places independently and doing things on his own. He rode around town on his motor scooter, running errands, interacting with people. He conversed easily, and was one of only a few clients that a stranger might chat with without suspecting any mental impairment. On weekends he’d go dancing at a popular local nightspot with Jenny, another capable client. Jenny’s parents always picked them up at closing time since neither Roger nor Jenny could drive.

Roger was thirty years old, occasionally wore glasses, and had brown hair. Slightly taller than average, he had a hard, wiry body and a narrow face. Usually he wore blue jeans and cowboy boots. He was a fast walker, always leaning forward and looking ahead. The metal taps on his heels would strike the linoleum with sharp clacks, making his walk sound important, as befitted a man on the move.

Roger loved being the director. Whenever possible, he maneuvered himself into the thick of things and assumed control. In early 1982, shortly before I left the Center, the workfloor had to be rearranged, and the Glass Department was moved from the basement to a few rooms on the main floor. The moving operation included taking several hundred boxes of finished glasses upstairs in a particular order. Ellen was going to send the boxes, the clients were going to carry them, and I was going to receive them. In the basement, Roger quickly caught on to Ellen’s sequence. Taking advantage of his agility, he climbed into the middle of the stacks and took charge. As efficient as a traffic cop, he kept the line of clients moving, showing each person which box to take. (Meanwhile, upstairs, boxes were pouring in faster than I could handle them.) The clients accepted Roger’s directions without protest, so Ellen faded into the background and allowed him this moment of glory.

Yet he did not use his position as unofficial choreographer of client movements as an excuse for avoiding work. On the contrary, Roger had strength and stamina, and preferred being at the forefront, leading his troops into battle. During the move, he continued to haul things hours after other clients had petered out; and he and Ken carried almost all the heavy furniture. Ellen and I also used Roger to relay messages. And if something had to be taken to a special location, he was the one we could count on to follow instructions. Helpful, dependable, and energetic, he thrived upon his role as Most Valuable Client. Indeed, for a few days he seemed less like a client and more like an aide.

Roger was an indefatigable volunteer—fetching supplies for the Glass Department, helping clients in and out of wheelchairs, wiping and folding the lunch tables at the end of the day. In fact, he became the unappointed foreman of the table cleanup crew: it was Roger who told me if they needed another water bucket or if they were short of help on a particular day. He stayed on top of things, ever alert.

Roger was always tuned in to his surroundings: he saw everything, heard everything, and broadcast everything. At lunch or break, if a client was wandering down the hall, Roger was sure to spot him. He’d inform me by yelling across the lunchroom, announcing it like a town crier. Whenever a class was canceled for a day, Roger seemed to find out even before the workfloor supervisors did: always in the right place at the right time, he’d overhear the decision just as it was being made, then race down to the basement to pass the word. He zeroed in on conversations between staff members, trying to catch all the news about other clients. At lunch he often sat close to the supervisors; while he gazed into the distance, seemingly lost in thought, his ears were wired directly to our table.

Roger’s habit of minding everyone else’s business had to be kept in check, especially on the workfloor. We wanted the clients to concentrate on their work, not on the problems or behaviors of other clients. One day when I ran upstairs in response to a Code 9 emergency, Ellen stayed behind to watch the clients. Everyone but Roger kept working.

“Boy, we haven’t had a Code 9 in a long time, have we, Ellen?”

“Okay, Roger, Glenn’s taking care of it. Let’s get back to work.”

“I’ll bet I know who it is, too—Grant Cole!”

“Okay, Roger, that’s enough.”

Unlike most clients, whose manual abilities exceeded their verbal abilities, Roger’s strength lay in his powers of speech and observation. Learning new work skills was more difficult for him. In the Glass Department he became both a good grouter and a good assembler, but only after extended training periods. Some clients, whose use of language was much less sophisticated than Roger’s, acquired skills like these more quickly than he did. One time I overheard him expressing his frustration with such tasks: “I put grout on this one dang spot four times, but the rascal just don’t want to stay put!” Whenever I returned a glass on which he had missed something, Roger would peer intently at the spot I pointed to, then say, “Oh…. Well, I’m sorry, Glenn, I didn’t see that. I must’ve just plumb overlooked it.”

In his late twenties he appeared on a TV segment about sheltered workshops. A local employer, struck by Roger’s conversational ability, hired him on a provisional basis. Roger tried hard, but he struggled to learn on the job, to master the sort of tasks and procedures that any new employee inevitably confronts. After two weeks the employer let him go. At the Center, there was always the hope that our most promising clients would eventually get regular jobs, but in the two years I was there, this didn’t happen to a single client.

At thirty, you get the blues. The thought of being a client for life, and perhaps never breaking away from his parents’ home, frightened Roger into making some changes. First he transferred from the Glass Department to the shop—a work area containing band saws, table saws, air compressors, and pneumatic nailers, a work area that looked and sounded less like a program for adults with disabilities and more like a professional shop. Next, Roger became a half-day client: in the afternoons he began attending remedial adult education classes, though he had trouble keeping up.

Roger reveled in the status he had at the Center, but was tantalized by the possibility of making it on the outside. With the alertness and fluency of a supervisor, but the erratic learning ability of a client, he found himself caught between worlds. Like an immigrant, he was torn between the society he wanted to enter and the society he hated to leave. He alternately waded in the larger world and retreated to familiar territory.

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