Thursday, May 03, 2012

Silence is Golden

We made our annual pilgrimage to Ellen's in New York. Again, I know it's touristy. Again, I don't care. I really like it there. We happened to go for dinner on an evening when there were several huge groups of tourists there. One group from Georgia (they'd cheer here) and one huge group from Ohio (they'd cheer louder) took over the upstairs. The downstairs was equally packed. We got there just before the dinner rush and the fellow seating us sat us right near the door, at a table for six which was booth extended by a small table for two. We sat at the extension, the table for two, thus blocking four other seats. What was amazing, was that they only cared that we were seated comfortably. No one rushed us or made us feel bad for blocking usable seats.

Yes, I called for and spoke to the manager, thanking him and their staff.

But this isn't what I wanted to write about.

Directly across from me was a woman with Down Syndrome who was celebrating her 23rd birthday. She was with her mother and grandmother - who was celebrating her birthday as well - I didn't catch her age as she spoke very quietly into the mike. When they were doing the 'Who Is Celebrating What' routine and going round the restaurant, I was pleased to see the mike handed to the woman with Down Syndrome, not her family, to answer questions about her birthday party. Nice.

Over the course of the evening we listened to various wait staff sing - all of them amazing. Occasionally the young woman with Down Syndrome would recognize a song or think a joke very funny. When she got excited her hands went up to her throat and then they flapped a little. She was a pure bundle of excitement, a mass of pure happiness in those moments. I understood what she felt like. I really enjoy going there, eating good food, listening to young people sing their hearts out and watching the world pass by. It's a big part of every trip we take to the city.

But then.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a girl of about 11 or 12 seated with her brother and her parents. She had noticed the young woman with Down Syndrome and had waved to her brother, to get his attention, he turned to look, and then turned back to see his sister with her hands up at her neck and flapping. He rolled his eyes, being at the age that everything bores him. She continued only for a second or two and then slowly turned towards me. I think she could feel the heat of my glare.

At first, I think she thought I was watching her because her actions were funny. I think she expected everyone to find the woman with Down Syndrome worthy of mocking. I didn't smile back at her smile. It was like for a moment, a very brief moment, she felt exposed as a bully and a brute. Like she knew that I had seen past her behaviour to the core of who she was. Like she knew that I knew that what she was doing was mean and that, in that moment she was the meanest person in the restaurant. She froze. Completely froze. Her hands dropped she looked away, almost frightened by the suddenness of the realization that behaviour betrays intent - and that she had betrayed herself more than she had mocked the woman with Down Syndrome.

This all took only seconds.

I went back to my meal and back to enjoying the singing and the atmosphere. More and more people came in, Seats were found, food was ordered, songs were sung - it was a typical night at Ellen's. We had just finished and were talking about heading back to the hotel, when the young woman who I had seen, and her family got up. I was attracted by a movement. I glanced over and it was clear to me that she had tried to get my attention. My eyes met hers. She smiled. It was perhaps the sweetest apology I'd ever seen. Though the apology shouldn't have been to me, I accepted it for what it was, her way of saying 'I can't believe I did that, I'm feeling horrible, trust me, I'm sorry.'

I smiled back.

The relief on her face was palpable.

At that moment, no one in the packed restaurant, no one in her family, no one at all, knew what had passed between us. But something significant did.

The next day I spoke at the conference about bullying and teasing. One of those in my audience said, 'We need to stop the silence about the hurt that's done to people with disabilities.' I agreed.

But sometimes silence is what is needed.

Because sometimes a lot can happen, without a word being said.


John R. said...

It is amazing; the power of eye contact, gestures and non-verbal communication. I use those things all the time in relationship to people who don't use words to communicate. It is all too often I find eye contact to be way more meaningful and powerful than words or even gestures. I hope the young bullying girl gets it....spends a few moments in shame and becomes a convert to maybe become, "A(u)nt-I- Bully" someday!

Tamara said...

I've used that stare before - it's been awhile - I've seen people back down, but I've never seen an apology. Good for both of you. I bet that few moments left a really huge impact on her life. Much more than if one of her parents had seen what she did and corrected her.

Belinda said...

That would be an excellent example of "I" contact, (to steal your book title.) :)

Kristin said...

Good for you, Dave. I bet that young lady remembers that moment and the lesson she learned.

TMc said...

Interesting post. Let’s hope she did in fact know the wrong she did and she changes her behavior. I'm not as optimistic as you.. I liken it to speeding in the presence of police; we modify our behavior to meet the norm until the rearview is clear. But then again, I read your blog for inspiration; perhaps the optimism will rub off.