Wanda walked with an aggressive waddle, swinging her arms wide to the sides, cutting a swath wherever she went. She had blond hair, wore glasses, and had eyes like large marbles. Like most people with Down syndrome, she was short and heavy, with a protruding stomach as substantial as a medicine ball. Never wavering in her course, she charged through the building and through life.
Unlike those clients who shrank shyly away when their speech was not understood, Wanda, proud and persistent, looked you in the eye and kept repeating a sentence until you got it right. Always she spoke with a belligerent tone, as though what she said were indisputable.
One day in the lunchroom she marched up to me and said, “I wan’ talk to ’u.”
“Arns othy andy.”
“Oh…. Uh, Candy?”
“’At’s right.” She nodded as though we understood each other completely.
“Um, what about Candy?”
Wanda sighed at my obtuseness, then spoke more deliberately: “Arn. Is ’othring. ’Andy.”
“Oh…. You’re bothering Candy?”
“No, not ’e! Aron! Aron!”
“Oh.” I looked over at Candy’s table. “Oh! Sharon is? Sharon’s bothering Candy?”
“Okay, Wanda, thanks for telling me. I’ll take care of it.”
“Yeah,” she said, then turned and strutted away.
If a supervisor, making the rounds in the lunchroom, asked Wanda if she wanted to use the bathroom, she’d sigh with annoyance and turn away, offended, as if to say, “God, can’t you mind your own business?” A few minutes later she’d leave the lunchroom inconspicuously. Disdaining the bathroom that the other clients used, she’d walk down the hall to a less frequented one. Similarly, while the other women clients kept their purses by the coat rack, Wanda insisted on storing hers separately: the drawer we set aside for her use served as her declaration that she was no peon.
On the workfloor, supervisors stressed the importance of flexibility. Production needs were constantly changing, so we expected clients to adapt, quickly and without balking, to new supervisors and work assignments. Wanda, however, had her own thoughts on this matter, and her statement of principle—“’Ur not my boss!”—was familiar to us all.
One summer, due to staff vacations, there was a continual procession of supervisors and substitutes through the steelwooling area. The week I worked there, I began by passing out a glass to each client. She’d clean the glass, removing the grout that was on the mosaic pieces. Then I’d check the glass and give her another one. This procedure was fine with the other clients, but not with Wanda.
She had gotten into the habit of sneaking downstairs early, examining the glasses that had been grouted, and setting the cleanest ones at her place, leaving the tough glasses for clients who were not as shrewd. But my intrusion ruined everything. Wanda resisted the new approach and resented the new boss, feeling that she, a regular in the area, outranked me.
All morning long she grumbled to herself and to the clients seated nearby. Whenever I went over to check her work, she’d turn her back to me, bury her glass in her lap, and bend her head down to her knees, becoming as round and impenetrable as a sow bug. As soon as I walked to another table, she’d turn her head toward me and sling a few barbs from afar. Wanda’s speech was impossible to understand when she was perturbed, but I did get the drift of it. If I went over and asked if she had said something to me, she’d immediately roll back into a ball.
Wanda had a 12:30 class, so she was supposed to go to first lunch, at 12:00, although most of her friends were in second lunch. She especially liked eating with Candy and Jerry—talking quietly, giggling, complaining, and commiserating. With a substitute who was confused by our schedule sheet, Wanda would lay low until 12:30; then she’d go to second lunch and skip her afternoon class. Today, however, I made her go to first lunch. Wanda’s response was characteristically candid. She stormed to the ramp door, turned to me, and unleashed a string of indecipherable curses—capped, as always, by the one word she spat out with unmistakable clarity: “Asshole!” Then she wheeled and charged up the ramp.
At the end of the day, Wanda tried to leave the workfloor early; she felt that cleanup chores should be done by others. I called her back to brush off her table. Eventually she did as I asked, but she could not depart without venting her exasperation.
“Do’t tell ’e ’ut to do. ’Ur not my boss, ’Annah’s my boss.”
“Well, Hannah’s not gonna be here tomorrow, so I think I’ll be working with you again.”
“No, ’u wo’t.”
“Well, Wanda, I think you’ll see tomorrow: I’ll be here.”
“No, ’u wo’t,” she repeated with absolute certainty.
The next morning, seeing me once again in the steelwooling area, she rolled her head in irritated disbelief. Wanda was one of the clients who were allowed to use a small knife to help clean the glasses. Indeed, since steel wool left her hands dirty and her apron covered with bits of steel and grout, Wanda chose the more refined approach, working exclusively with the knife. But now, angry over the glass I gave her, she worked under cover, secretly using the knife to gouge the grout between the mosaic pieces. When I discovered this, I told her she had lost the right to use the knife. As I reached for it, however, she gripped the knife firmly, tucked it in her lap, and rolled into a ball. I tried to get my hands on it, but she swiveled from side to side in her seat, keeping her back to me. I finally managed to grab it, then said that for the rest of the day she would use steel wool only.
This time when I sent Wanda up to first lunch, I told her that if she yelled at me on her way out, she’d be eating by herself in an empty classroom. When she got to the ramp door, she turned and saw me watching her. She hesitated for a moment, weighing the alternatives. Finally she whirled around the corner, muttering to herself.
Authority, Wanda understood, implies inequality. Viewing subordination as a personal slight, she railed against all orders and put every new boss through rites of initiation. Tenaciously she held her ground, battling to preserve her autonomy.