|Zach, Anna G and Carolyn at dinner after changing the world|
Buckhead Pizza Company hasn't been the same since January 20, when five teenagers, their families and I ate dinner there immediately after the incredible performance of "Waiting on the World to Change" at the NRG Dance Project. Our waiter, Dwayne, looked quite apprehensive when we walked in - four teens with Down syndrome, one teen with autism and nine adults must have seemed like a tall order to fill. At the moment we entered, Katie was in the throws of a fit, stomping her feet as she walked and registering her complete displeasure with the situation through her facial expressions and body language.
What sparked Katie's outrage was a misunderstanding. When we left the lobby of our hotel to change for dinner, Katie had been under the impression that the only people going to dinner were the two of us. When she realized that her friends and their families were heading out the door with us, she stopped and said, "Ok, there's been a mistake. This just won't do." Her mother asked her what was wrong and she explained that the only people who were supposed to be going out to eat were Katie and me. As her mom tried to convince her that it was okay for the others to join us, her frustration only increased. Actually, she wasn't frustrated, she was furious.
"Katie, I will sit right beside you," I assured her.
"Yeah," said Carolyn. "The rest of us won't even try to talk to Miss Debra - you can have her all to yourself."
But no matter what anyone told her, Katie was not happy. Once Dwayne got us seated and I started engaging Katie in a conversation, she began to relax. Eventually, she tapped on her glass to get everyone's attention, saying to the group, "I'm sorry how I acted before. I was just very disappointed."
The other kids accepted her apology with open hearts, with the sort of acceptance and forgiveness they always show. Within a very short time, all the kids were laughing and talking, Katie's anger completely forgotten. We thought the rest of our meal would be uneventful but then...
Layne, Anna G's big sister, suggested to Carolyn that she should wash her hair before she went to bed. Carolyn's hair had been straightened, curled and fussed with for two days - starting with the crew at HLN, where she made her national television debut (Part 4 of this series will detail that experience), then she had sweated throughout a day of intense dance classes and had more hairspray in her hair than Dolly Parton by the time we made it to dinner. Unbeknownst to Layne, Carolyn has an app on her iPhone that helps her keep up with her schedule, down to personal details like when she plans to wash her hair. She hadn't planned to wash her hair that night and, the more Layne insisted that she should, the more frantic Carolyn became. One of the ways Carolyn's autism manifests itself is in a ritualistic insistence on routine; deviations from her set routine are not allowed. Everyone starting chiming in, telling Layne to be quiet (she's used to me bossing her around and didn't take offense), telling Carolyn that she didn't need to wash her hair after all. But the damage had been done, the thought had been planted that Carolyn's routine should be adjusted and her meltdown went into full-out panic mode. As Dwayne tried to serve our appetizers, Carolyn's anguish turned into sobs, everyone jumped out of their chairs to rush to comfort her, Anna G was yelling at her sister to hush up and leave Carolyn alone, Layne was apologizing profusely and Dwayne looked like he was going to have a nervous breakdown.
All of the adults were having adult beverages. At about this point, I excused myself from the table and went outside to smoke a cigarette. I know...it's awful that I'm a smoker. I always say that I need at least one vice and since I'm like Mary Poppins - practically perfect in every way - smoking is my one flaw. Of course, that's a joke. I'm seriously contemplating a strategy for quitting this year. Anyway, by the time I rejoined the table, everyone had settled down, the food had been served and the conversation turned to how our program has changed everyone's life.
One of the moms said that I was such an amazing woman, that I had done something so remarkable, that Alan and I were the ones who were changing the world. "Guys," I said, "Give me a break. I just came back in here from smoking outside while I'm guzzling Budweiser in front of your children. You're talking about me like I'm Mother Theresa. We all did this together. It wouldn't have mattered if Hayley and I created a program and Alan paid for it if none of you had come on board."
What a leap of faith these parents took when they enrolled our children with us. There was nothing to show that Hayley or I were remotely qualified to do what we said we could do, no reason for parents to turn over their beloved - and vulnerable - kids to our care, even if it was just for 90 minutes at a time. We ended up agreeing that we were pioneers together, that we all took a leap of faith when we joined forces. Hayley, Alan and I are no more responsible for the success of our programs than the students and their parents are. We entered into a pact together, one that required both sides of the equation to put a lot at risk. The parents had to risk their children's safety and security by trusting inexperienced folks like us. The students had to put themselves at risk and trust that we would never put them in a situation where they might be made to feel "less than," had to trust that the volunteers we pair them with would never have anything but their best interests at heart. And Hayley, Alan and I had to trust ourselves that we could go with our instincts and our hearts, even though none of us had any sort of pedigree, experience or education to help guide us. We all decided that, together we made one hell of a team.
While we had this deep discussion, the kids were amusing themselves with a series of knock-knock jokes, each one more ridiculous than the next. Knock-knock. Who's there? Train. Train who? Trains go fast, for example. Raucous laughter was coming from the kids' end of the table, making it difficult to place our dessert orders with Dwayne. Throughout our desserts, the knock-knock jokes continued.
Finally, exhausted Dwayne brought the check to the table, we paid and he returned with our receipt. I didn't notice until we were almost out the door that Dwayne had left us a note on the back of our receipt. It said, "Knock knock. Who's there? Dwayne. Dwayne who? Dwayne the bathtub, I'm dwoning. Thanks for a good time!" What an awesome guy! And what a fun dining experience!