Recently, I was in a big box retailer picking up an online order at customer service. After the desk clerk assisted me and called for the stock boy, she began talking with two other employees less than two feet away from me. It was hard not to hear them as they gossiped and made fun of other employees. When the stock boy arrived, he came right up to me. He was tall, quite thin, messy hair, mismatched clothes – but poised and professional. He said to me, loudly and nearly scripted, “Ma’am, I am here to serve you! Is this order I’ll be locating yours?” I said it was, to which he replied, “Ok, ma’am, you got it. I’ll be back quick as a lick!” and he did a military style about-face move and headed off to retrieve my order.
I smiled as he walked away, unsure if he was just being silly to get a reaction or if he was being the best he knew how to be. But I smiled because he made me smile, no matter the reason. No sooner did he leave the desk, the clerk exclaimed “Ugh, that kid is so retarded!” as her two coworkers nodded and giggled in agreement. Her statement physically knocked me backwards and I noticeably gasped for air. They all turned to me and I could feel my face start to burn red. My mind was racing in the seconds following her statement. I wanted so badly to smack her right across the face but I knew that wouldn’t make her understand my shock.
I managed to say to her, through gritted teeth, “Excuse me, what did you just say?” Her two friends quickly scattered. I took a step closer and repeated myself, “What, exactly, did you just say?” She rolled her eyes and stepped back before saying, “Um, I said that kid was retarded. Why, do you know him?”
I gasped again.
“No, I don’t know him. Does it matter? You don’t know me! I could be his mother, his sister, his aunt, his friend. Do you know him?”
“Well, he works here so –“
“What’s his name? Do you know his name? Do you know anything about him?”
“Well, um… No.”
“I do and I’ve only been here for ten minutes! His name is Jacob. Do you know how I know that? He has a name tag that says ‘Jacob!’ What is your name?”
“Carol, what gives you the right to call Jacob that awful word? You don’t even know his name! How dare you. How dare you?”
“Well, I didn’t say it to you! Or about someone you know!”
Again, I was physically knocked backwards by her ignorance. What Carol didn’t know is that she was talking about someone I knew. She didn’t know the struggles my daughter had gone through over the last 14 months. The therapy sessions, the speech classes, the meltdowns, the doctors, the pain, the confusion. She doesn’t know.
“Carol, I need to speak to your manager. Immediately.”
I began shaking and, once again, considered a physical altercation. She then pulled back her sweater to reveal her name tag: Carol – Customer Service Manager. I may have blacked out at this point as I said to her, “You cannot be serious. You are the manager? You are the one that is supposed to lead that young boy? And you are the one using that ugly word in front of a customer? No. Absolutely not. Give me the store manager’s number, district manager – give me the CEO’s information! I don’t care who – just so long as it’s not you.”
She quickly started to apologize. “Ma’am I am extremely sorry. There is no need to make any phone calls. It won’t happen again.”
“You know what, Carol? Jacob is coming back now. I think we’re going to chat with him. And I think you owe him an apology.”
Before she could leave or say no, Jacob arrived with my item, put it right in front of me and saluted as he said, “Ma’am, here it is. Lickety split, just like I promised!” “Thank you, Jacob, thank you very much.”
His face lit up in that instant. He towered over me but he seemed so small and innocent as he looked down at the floor and muttered, “You know my name? Wow.”
I couldn’t help but choke back tears. I wondered if anyone in this wretched store had ever addressed him beyond calling for a stock boy. I turned to Carol who was pale as a ghost, and I asked Jacob if he knew her name. He quickly replied, “Yes, yes I do. That is Carol the manager. She is the boss of all of the people,” as he waved his arm in a dramatic arc. I asked him another question but still glared at Carol, “Jacob, is she nice to you?” He didn’t hesitate in his reply, “No, ma’am. She is not a very friendly Carol.” She quickly hung her head and sighed.
I continued, “Carol, Jacob doesn’t think you’re very friendly. What do you think about that?” I could see her face turning red and her eyes welling up with tears; I wasn’t sure if they were tears of remorse or embarrassment, but I didn’t care. She softly said, “Jacob, I’m so sorry I haven’t been friendly. I will try harder.” Jacob’s eyes bulged out of his head and a smile that seemed too big for his face radiated the room. Before he could say anything, I said, “Thank you, Carol. Good evening. Now, Jacob, are you ready to help me to my car?” He switched right back into professional mode and said, “Abso-tutey-lutely!”
We walked into the parking lot silently. He seemed reflective and proud. When we got to my car, I asked if I could help him lift the item into the backseat but he insisted he do it himself. After, I said, “Whoa, it fits perfectly! Thank you!” He stood next to me and dramatically said, “Like a glove!” I giggled because I knew the movie he was quoting. He noticed and said, “Do you know that’s from a movie?”
“I do! And I even know what movie it is!”
“Ok, ma’am, I’ll give you a hint: Jim Carey, 1994, Name that movie.”
“That was amazing.”
“I love that movie, Jacob!” And I laughed with him. With him.
“Ma’am, you’re friendly. Can I tell you a secret?”
“Sure, Jacob. What is it?”
He took a step closer to me then and said, “I have autism. But I can work and learn and stuff! I just like to be goofy because it makes people happy. Then they will have a reason to laugh.”
I have no idea how I managed not to sob right there in front of him. I managed to say, “You’re awesome, Jacob. You. Are. Awesome! Can I have a high five?”
He stretched his arm high above his head. He smirked and said, “Jump! You can do it!” I laughed and I tried to reach but came nowhere close. He brought his hand back down to my level and said, “My mom said it’s OK to be different because that makes me special. But sometimes, I like to be normal. Let’s just do a normal high five, ma’am.”
So we did. Then he did his about-face move again and off he went, back into the store.
And he never looked back.
This post originally appeared on Mommy Needs a Martini.
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