I’m Dumb

Jackie had a pained, guilty look on her face. “I don’ mean to talk to myself. I didn’ know, I didn’ know. I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”

When Mary was eight years old and in third grade, she liked asking friends over to her house; but when they got there, her sister Jackie was always around. Jackie was eleven, but Mary knew that Jackie wasn’t smart enough to go to school, so she didn’t have friends of her own. Besides, Jackie preferred being around younger kids. But Mary could see that Jackie didn’t fit in with her friends—it was embarrassing. So she told her mother she didn’t want Jackie to play with them any more.

Meanwhile, Jackie was talking a lot about school, wishing she could go. Her mother—a waitress who had been divorced for several years—tried to enroll her in the Great Falls “Opportunity Room,” a precursor to Special Education, but was turned down because Jackie’s IQ was below the minimum of fifty.

Jackie hadn’t been able to dress herself completely until she was ten. From then on, though, dressing up in her mother’s clothes became her favorite pastime. Whenever they went some place together, Jackie always carried a purse.

Sometimes Jackie helped watch the young children in the neighborhood; she was especially careful not to let them go near the street. She was chubby and good-natured, and generally got along with people; but lacking friends, she began inventing people she could talk to. Her favorites were named Don and Señorita.

When Jackie was thirteen, her mother, realizing that no school would take her, reluctantly had her admitted to Boulder. She stayed there until she was nineteen, then went back to live with her mother for five years. After that, she moved into a Great Falls group home, and was later promoted to a semi-independent home. A semi-independent home usually had three or four residents, who were more responsible and required less supervision than regular group home residents. Jackie attended Special Education—by now an established program—from ages twenty-four to twenty-six, then came to the Center.

When I knew her, Jackie was thirty-one years old. She had Down syndrome and an IQ in the high forties. Jackie was short and heavy, but more buxom than fat. She cared a lot about her clothes. She wore close-fitting shirts and blouses including, occasionally, a tight, sequined T-shirt. She wasn’t trying to be a flirt; she just wanted to be regarded as a woman or, better yet, a lady. Jackie was one of the few people at the Center, clients or staff, who consistently wore slacks rather than jeans. Often she dressed in bright pinks or oranges, and sometimes she wore an immaculate white blouse with a black pantsuit. The day Blanche showed up in a gown, tennis shoes, and a fez, Jackie asked if she too could wear a gown to work, but was told, no, slacks and a blouse were more appropriate.

She complemented her clothes with heavy, dangling jewelry that looked as if it came from the 1950s—years she had spent near her mother’s dressing table. Jackie would come to work decked out in earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Sometimes she wore a scarf over her short, light brown hair, but when she really wanted to look special, she wore a full-bodied, reddish-brown wig.

I worked with Jackie in the steelwooling and grouting areas. She was a hard worker, conscientious, and would do anything to please a supervisor. But when steelwooling, she sometimes had difficulty seeing the specks of grout that needed to be cleaned off. Often I had to return her glasses to her for touch-up work. She could easily have become sulky or discouraged over this, but instead she remained cooperative, with a hop-to-it air about her: she’d drop whatever she was doing and get right to work on the spots I pointed out.

She was better suited to grouting, which didn’t demand such fine eyesight. Here she required no follow-up work. She turned out high-quality glasses, and her output was modest but steady: five to seven glasses every day. During cleanup time she’d ask how many she had done that day, and after I told her, she’d say, “Five? Oh, that’s not bad”; or “Six? Wow, that’s not bad.” Doing well was inconceivable to her; not doing badly was the best she could imagine.

She was proud of the glasses she grouted, but her feeling of accomplishment was always tempered with self-doubts. When complimented on her work, she’d smile and say thank you, but her smile was not completely relaxed; she smiled not with her whole face, but only with her mouth. It was as if her facial muscles were held in check by self-criticism, which never allowed her to be at ease with herself. Always lurking in the back of her mind, making its presence known, was a deep-seated belief in her own inadequacy.

Jackie was polite toward the other clients without being close to any of them. She preferred talking with staff. One day she was having a cup of coffee with a psychologist. When he finished, Jackie asked if he’d like some more, then took pleasure in refilling his cup. Such an exchange had form; it allowed her to be courteous, to be a hostess. With many clients, however, there was no way Jackie could adhere to the rules of etiquette. Of what relevance were the rules of etiquette when interacting with Chuck? It’s no wonder that Jackie told me several times, “I don’ like Chuck—too bossy.” Just the opposite of Chuck was quiet, well-mannered Andrew, and indeed he was the one client I know of whom she once had over for dinner at her semi-independent home.

Isolation, though, was what Jackie was accustomed to, and as a result she often talked to herself. Jackie was not psychotic, she was not hallucinating; she knew the friends she spoke to were imaginary. She told staff she wanted to stop talking to herself and talk more with other people, but it was hard to suppress what had always been an important outlet for her.

We allowed Jackie to talk to herself during lunch and break as long as it didn’t disturb others; though sometimes when she was in the bathroom, the conversations became loud and intense. We discouraged it on the workfloor, however, and usually she was good about controlling it. If she did start talking to herself during work time, I’d say, “Jackie, let’s do our talking at break, please.”

She’d clam up immediately, embarrassed. Later she’d come up to me and say, “I’m sorry I talk to myself.”

“Okay, Jackie, it’s just that on the workfloor I’d like you to keep your mind on your work.”

She’d have a pained, guilty look on her face. “I don’ mean to talk to myself. I didn’ know, I didn’ know. I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”

“No, I’m not mad at you, but I would like you to try to control your talking when we’re working.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

Jackie didn’t regard talking to herself as an adult behavior, and she thought it jeopardized her chances for what she hoped to do some day: move out of the semi-independent home and into her own place. Such a move, by increasing her independence, might enhance her self-esteem, though it might also deepen her retreat into herself. Beyond that, she was clear about what she wanted to be: first a girlfriend, then a wife, finally a mother. She loved babies, and especially enjoyed caring for her sister Mary’s young children.

One day Jackie and I were sitting in the lunchroom, talking. She mentioned the town where most of her family now lived, so I asked when was the last time she’d been there.

“I don’ know. Don’ remember.”

“Oh. Well, you went there at Christmas, didn’t you? Was that the last time?”

“Yeah, Christmas. Going at Easter.”

“Easter, huh? That’ll be fun.”

“Uh-huh, I know.” A smile, followed quickly by a frown. “My rel’tive doesn’ like me.”

“He doesn’t?”

“She. She doesn’ like me. We fight.”

“Oh. Well, maybe if you both try harder, you can get along.”

“I know. She fights me.”

“Why does she do that?”

“I don’ know.”

Jackie sat for a while, frowning. That was all she had to say. She was puzzled by human relationships, troubled by the mystery of antagonism.

I noticed some keys on the table. They were connected to a large medallion—a replica of a quarter. I asked if the keys were hers.

“Yes.” She smiled proudly.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the medallion.

“George Washin’ton!”

“You’re right, that is George Washington. But what does this whole thing look like?”

“Hmmm.” She looked perplexed. “I don’ know, Glenn, I’m dumb.”

She said it in a way that was half apology, half explanation. It was a self-appraisal that Jackie had internalized at a young age, the deepest truth she knew about herself. I can’t go to school because I’m dumb. I don’t have any friends because I’m dumb. I have to go to Boulder because I’m dumb.

“No, you’re not dumb, Jackie,” I said. “Just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Isn’t this supposed to be a quarter?”

“I didn’ know that, Glenn. Quarter,” she repeated.

“That’s right,” I said, pulling one out of my pocket.

“Twenty-five cents!” she blurted out.

“Very good, Jackie.”

“Thank you.”

When Jackie knew the answer to a question, she was as surprised as she was excited. I don’ know was like a reflex response for her, ready to pop out whenever someone asked her a question. It was the answer she always half expected to give, because she assumed her knowledge would prove inadequate. I don’ know, I’m sorry, I talk to myself, I’m dumb—these statements she kept close at hand, always at the ready. Together they formed the cornerstones of her self-image.

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