I’m a twentysomething woman living in an apartment complex. In my building, there’s a mildly retarded young man about my age who lives with his mother. I’d guess his mental age is about 8. He’s taken a liking to me. He seems to know my routine, and I constantly find him hanging around wanting to talk to me. I’m sure he’s harmless, he’s kind of sweet actually, but it’s getting annoying! I find myself taking roundabout routes to avoid him. Sometimes I think I should just indulge him because he doesn’t know any better. Other times I think he ought to learn not to hover around driving people crazy. I’d consider saying something to his mother, but I’d feel bad and she doesn’t speak much English. Should I just accept that for as long as I live in this building, little chats with him will be part of my routine?
—The Girl Next Door
It’s understandable that you want to be able to go in and out of your building without having to engage with “Pete,” but when you live in an apartment, chatting briefly with others is part of the price you pay for not having to mow your lawn. Pete may like you, but he’s probably hanging around a lot, trying to engage anyone coming in and out. When you have time, talk with him for a few minutes. When you can’t talk, politely explain: “Pete I’m in a rush. I will catch up with you another time.” It sounds as if Pete’s mother is not aware that he may be eligible for free activities for the intellectually disabled. Maybe a group of fellow apartment dwellers could explain to the mother that she may be missing out on helpful programs for her son. Let me also note that the mental health community wants to banish the phrase “mentally retarded.” I agree with my erstwhile Slate colleague Jack Shafer, who wrote that “mentally retarded” can be used in a respectful, clinical sense and that the preferred term “people with intellectual disabilities” is bound eventually to become offensive itself. Nonetheless, it’s best to be sensitive to the wishes of those within a particular group.
My original title of this post was written about a month ago when Lauren, our grant writing guru here, sent me this. I’ve never been able to post about it, until now. It’s from an advice column on some website she gets blurbs from. I can’t help but roll my eyes at “Prudie” and “Girl” but after spending two days with Nikki Booker, Tom Kohler, and Leah Addison here in Savannah, I still roll my eyes, but have some better questions and thoughts about this. My response, a month ago would have been more condescending (justly so) but in spending time with Tom and Leah and Nikki, I’m still learning that that’s not the way to go about changing things. I had to delete some of my haughty inclusion-snob sentences, and re-examine what this article means in the context of our past two days learning with Tom. I have a hunch I’ll need to re-learn this lesson, resisting the urge to be cynical, critical, annoyed but those who “don’t get it” a lot. None of us get it, Tim and Bridget, Leah and I talked about last night. And we’re all at different stages of this journey and learning how to be better people to one another.
I wish Prudie had questioned as Tom does of people, “What can people come to mean to one another?” instead of “it’s understandable that you want to be able to go in and out of your building without having to engage with “Pete,” but when you live in an apartment, chatting briefly with others is part of the price you pay for not having to mow your lawn.” The former is much more productive, and respectful, and useful than the latter.
What can people come to mean to one another?
In the past two days I can see that people mean a lot to each other, that’s apparent, and none of it has to do with “the price you pay for not having to mow your lawn.” Tom was asked, how many people he has matched with each other, how many people he has helped find each other in 30+ years. He answered modestly, 750. Seven-hundred and fifty people have been able to grow in relationship with each other because of the question.
Oh, there’s a lot wrong with this Dear Prudie and Girl Q&A. First, since when did being polite to one’s neighbors when coming and going become optional? Secondly, there’s the immediate referal to services (“It sounds as if Pete’s mother is not aware that he may be eligible for free activities for the intellectually disabled. Maybe a group of fellow apartment dwellers could explain to the mother that she may be missing out on helpful programs for her son.”) instead of referal to friendship, community, and acknowledgment. I won’t get on my soapbox on that, but rather, address the real issue here with “Pete.” The real problem with Prudie’s response is that she fails to address Pete’s annoying behavior of trying to talk to people, is probably because he is lonely, and probably because he has no one to talk to and with. Sure, we all need to learn boundaries, and respect each other’s need for space and silence, but, a hello, a extension of friendship, a neighborly exchange, would probably make a difference in small ways, and in big ways we can never fully appreciate. More on this, later.