"I have a job." He is whispering. The tips of his fingers are on my presenation table and he's leaning over to give me this information. I'm doing a workshop aimed primarily at staff but there are a lot of those with disabilities present. He's enjoying himself. He finds me funny. I can tell by his reaction to the material that I'm teaching. At the beginning of the first break, he tells me about his work. On his way back into the room he stops again. Balances on the tips of his fingers and whispers, "I have two girlfriends." I make a joke about him being a player. He smiles.
Several times during lunch he comes back, balances on his finger tips and whispers to me about his life. I don't know why he's whispering, he's not telling me anything particularly private. But he manages to make, "I go swimming," feel like intimate information. He never stays long, just delivers his information and then leaves. It's almost like he figured that I've told so much of myself in my stories that the should return the favour.
At the beginning of the last break in the afternoon, he changes and instead makes a statement about me. "You are in a wheelchair." I wasn't sure what he wanted from me so I simply said, "Yes, I am." He smiled, letting me know that it was OK for me to be in the chair, and left. Just before starting up the last quarter of the day he stops, balances and leans in closer, "Is your mother ashamed of you like mine is of me?" But he doesn't give me time to answer, he senses that it's time for me to start and he takes his seat.
An emotional bombshell has dropped into my lap and I've got to get going with the material I'd planned. I shoved all the churning emotion aside and went on with the workshop. When it was over he was getting up to leave and wasn't heading towards my desk. I called him back. He asked the question, he deserved an answer.
"Yes," I said, "my mother is ashamed of me. But it's not because I have a disability, there are other reasons."
"Oh," he said and nodded. Then turned and left.
I had wanted to pursue this conversation. I wanted to let him know that he was a pretty cool guy and that, though parental pride is a wonderful thing - it is possible to live without. I wanted, somehow to talk about what it felt like to live with pride while receiving constant messages of shame.
And on the way back to the hotel ...
I wonder how many people reading this blog would remember their childhoods as having been a nicer place if their parents said, just one more time, "I'm proud of you." I wonder how many people live with accomplishment but not acknowledgement. I wonder how that big, gentle guy who has a job, a couple of girlfriends and who likes to swim, is gonna do at being his own source of affirmation. I wonder if his mother will ever see him like I do.
I wonder if mine will ever see me at all.