Feeling Small

It was a typical lunchroom episode in the on-again, off-again romance between Jerry and Candy. “She don’t like me no more!” Jerry shouted. “Candy Allison don’t like me no more! I’m not gonna sit by Candy Allison!”

I was getting things set up in the Glass Department one morning when Jerry came up to me. He was twenty-six years old, tall and thin, with short red-brown hair and narrow sideburns.

“Look here, I got a watch, watch it’s pretty, shiny, got a watch, last night, mmmmm, John, got a watch, look, shiny, drove with John, Barry too, look, got a watch.”

“You got a watch, huh Jerry?”

“Yeah I did, I got a watch, shiny, look.” He showed me a new Timex with a bright white face.

“Yeah, that’s a nice one, Jerry. I like the white. You got it last night?”

“Got it last night, John, mmmmm, Barry.”

“Did Barry get a watch, too?”

“No, Barry got new boots, new boots, mmmmm, pretty. I went John, and Barry, got new watch, drove over, shiny.” He’d glance at me for a moment, then at the floor, then at the work area. He was smiling throughout, excited but also self-conscious.

“Is John a counselor at your group home?” I asked.

He nodded. “Counselor.”

“And he took you and Barry shopping last night?”

“Shopping,” he said, laughing nervously, proud that he had gotten his story across.

“Well, that’s good, Jerry. That’s a nice watch you picked out. Thanks for showing me.”

“Nice watch, shiny.”

That afternoon, when Jerry returned to the workfloor after a class, he walked past Becky, who was steelwooling. Leaning over from behind, he put his face next to hers, then spoke to her in baby talk: “Hi, Becky. How ya doin’, Becky? Workin’ hard, Becky?”

I tried to steer him toward his work station. “It’s about 2:30, Jerry. I’d like you to finish packing that box before cleanup time.”

“Couldn’t be 2:30,” Jerry said, coming over and showing me his watch, which read 2:30. “6:30, must be 6:30,” he decided, pointing to the big hand on the six.

I pointed to the hand near the two. “See, 2:30. The small hand tells the hour.”

“2:30, 2:30,” he said, pointing at the two and nodding. Then he pointed back at the six: “6:30, 6:30 now.”

“Well, in any case, Jerry, it’s time to get to work.”

He leaned over Wanda, who was sitting nearby, and spoke in her ear in a high, cooing voice: “Get to work now, Wanda, time to get to work.”

It was a typical lunchroom episode in the on-again, off-again romance between Jerry and Candy. Candy started sobbing, and Jerry, who had been sitting beside her, jumped up from his seat.

“She don’t like me no more!” he shouted at Molly, the closest supervisor. “Candy Allison don’t like me no more! I’m not gonna sit by Candy Allison!”

Molly walked over. “Jerry, keep your voice down, please.”

Jerry responded in an exasperated whisper that was almost as loud and was certainly more grating: “How can I sit by Candy Allison? I don’t like her no more. She’s mean to me.”

“You can sit wherever you want, Jerry, but you don’t have to be so loud. Other people are trying to eat.”

At this point, apropos of nothing, Herbert blurted out, “Truck!”

Jerry turned from Molly to Herbert and, grinning and reproachful at the same time, called out, “Her-bert!”

Herbert, smiling, replied, “Herbert!”

Jerry went over and sat next to Herbert, while Candy, now abandoned, wept quietly.

Jerry spread noise wherever he went. You could almost see the sound waves emanating from him. It wasn’t just his loquaciousness, his loud voice, and his shrill laughter, but also the noise he generated in others. He could stir up a quiet work area simply by passing through. In the lunchroom he was like an epicenter of noise: with Jerry around, Candy would be more likely to burst into tears; Wanda would have an attentive audience for her impassioned diatribes against supervisors; Gus and Jerry would yell “Boom-boom!” at each other across the length of the table; Chuck would clown around even more than usual while Jerry, shaking with laughter, would cry out, “Chuck-ie!”; Jerry would shout, “Bar-ry!” and Barry would go, “Uhhh, uhhh, uhhh, uhhh…”; and Cyrus, who couldn’t speak, would laugh loudly at the whole circus. If I walked over to try to quiet the ringmaster, Jerry’s face would turn red and he’d look down at the table while he said, “Oh no, here he comes again.”

One day in class, a teacher, tired of trying to keep Jerry quiet, decided to let him talk himself out. Jerry launched into some disjointed storytelling, with fragments of thoughts tumbling out, one after the other. He went on like this for ten or fifteen minutes, until Stan, knowing it was time to dismiss the class, finally muttered, “Jerry, be quiet.”

Jerry’s loquaciousness contributed to his being chosen as a client representative. When I first came to the Center, the clients were separated into divisions, with Division I having the clients with more severe intellectual disabilities, and Division II having the less impaired, and generally more mature, clients. Each division had its own work areas, products, and supervisors; I was originally hired as a Division I supervisor. But in the fall of 1980, when the Glass Department began operation, it became clear that clients from both divisions were needed there, so the separation between the divisions began to fade.

Listed below, by division, are the clients whose portraits appear in this book. Even though the divisions eventually disappeared as organizational entities, they do give a rough indication of where different clients stood in terms of their learning abilities and their work skills.

Amy DoleBarry SimmonsBecky Rawlins
Blanche BiddellCandy AllisonChuck Putnam
Cyrus MitchellDave JohnsonDoug Nolo
George KearneyGrant ColeGus Malta
Henry BallingerHerbert JonesHolly Loom
Jerry ThompsonJody WellsLeroy Fletcher
Margo WhitmanRamona RiveraRay Murray
Sharon PlattStan ParkerWanda Howard

Andrew HarrisBen WaltersCharles Garr
Earl TurnerEd RoarkJackie Reed
Joyce MundtKen SpencerLeon Clark
Lisa AndersonNeal GrangerNorman Sills
Otto BarnesRoger KaufmanSam Beale

Most clients at the Center had only a small circle of coworkers they spoke to, but Jerry would talk to almost any Division I client—the group he was familiar with and felt comfortable around. He seemed a totally social creature, with no instinct for solitude. Jerry was the only Division I client who consistently addressed other clients by name—a habit they probably appreciated. His extroverted nature and his acceptance of others made him popular with his peers, leading to his election to the largely symbolic position of client representative for Division I.

Division II clients, on the other hand, found Jerry’s volubility tiresome. After the divisions merged, he often found himself in their midst. Jerry had an IQ of forty-three—high for Division I but low for Division II. So the kind of talkativeness that overwhelmed the Division I clients was spurned by the more mature, more capable clients in Division II. Sometimes when he got on their nerves, they’d tell him to be quiet, or to quit bothering people who were working. These rebukes would pressure Jerry into an intimidated silence. With his face reddening, he’d give off an unmistakable air of inferiority—as he did in the presence of a supervisor, especially when no other clients were around.

You could see it in his eyes. Jerry walked moderately fast and with his head up, but if he saw me, or any supervisor, coming down the hall the other way, he’d lower his gaze. As we got closer, he’d throw darting glances at me, while his tight lips formed a nervous smile. He never spoke first. As soon as I said, “Good morning, Jerry,” he’d blurt out, “G’morning,” then quickly look back down at the floor.

For a while, Jerry worked in the packing section of the Glass Department, where we filled customer orders and prepared the glasses for shipping. We used discarded liquor-store boxes for this, because they had cardboard dividers that kept the glasses from hitting each other. Usually the boxes had twelve slots. I taught Jerry to stuff crumpled newspaper at the bottom of each slot, then wrap each glass in newspaper and put it in.

Jerry did a good job as long as I was standing next to him, but when left alone, he’d be so distracted by the clients around him that his work would become careless. One day I noticed he had stopped working and was grinning and whispering to some steelwoolers nearby. When he kept this up for a couple of minutes, I went over and asked him what he was doing.

He shrugged his shoulders, smiling but also embarrassed. “Nothin’.”

“Okay, well, please don’t interrupt people when they’re working,” I said. “You have your own work to do.”

“I need another box,” he said impatiently.

“Another box? What’s wrong with the one you’ve got?”

His voice became louder and he spoke in a high, agitated tone. “I’m done with this box, this box is done!”

“Jerry, I’m right here. You don’t have to shout.”

“Why are you always pickin’ on me? You’re always pickin’ on me! This box is done, I’m done with this box!”

“Jerry, stop yelling, will you please?”

He looked down, his face red, his eyes scared. Too choked up to speak, he shook his head at the unfair persecution that made him feel so small.

“Let’s check the box,” I said finally. I looked inside, checking each slot; then Jerry looked in, quickly and nervously. “How can you say this box is done?” I asked.

He stood there silently in his blue-gray coveralls, his shoulders slumped forward, his chin dropped almost to his chest. Jerry had normal features and in many ways looked like an ordinary adult; but for his height, his head seemed small, almost undersized—something I especially noticed at times like this, when he wanted to disappear.

“Jerry,” I said quietly, “there are some slots that don’t have any paper in them, and some slots that don’t have any glasses. If you’re going to work in packing, you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing.”

He gave a little nod, and as he did a couple of tears ran down his cheeks. I hated this kind of exchange, hated delivering fresh bruises to Jerry’s already battered ego, but the alternative—accepting his carelessness as permanent and ineradicable—seemed even worse.

With his fragile self-esteem, Jerry found criticism devastating, and would do anything to keep it from penetrating: if he couldn’t elude it, he’d try to outshout it. Accusations and counter-accusations, reprimands and denials—this was familiar territory to Jerry. Growing up, he felt the sting of his parents’ impatience—with how slowly he learned, how quickly he forgot, how loud he could be in a restaurant. Their house was often noisy and acrimonious—Jerry getting into his older brother’s things, the two of them constantly at odds.

Later in life, all of this affected the kind of friends he sought out. At the Center, his closest pals—Chuck, Herbert, and Gus—had speech skills that were much more rudimentary than his own. They were neither mature enough nor articulate enough to prod him or question him. All Jerry wanted in a friend was a reprieve from criticism. When Candy, with some negative remark, failed to provide that, he broke up with her on the spot.

Besides working with me in the Glass Department, Jerry was also on my campground cleanup crew. Tensions in his family were high at that point: within a year his parents would separate and Jerry would move into a group home. At the campground, he picked up his share of garbage—at least he did when he wasn’t busy talking to Chuck or Stan or Barry. If we happened to be working near the road that led from the campground to the highway, Jerry would look up any time a car drove by. He’d wave at the people, but not the way Leroy would wave—laughing, intrusive, over the top. No, Jerry’s wave was quiet and sad, a little wistful, as though he were saying goodbye, as though he wished he could go with that family, wherever they were going. It was one of the few silent acts of communication I ever saw him make.

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