Saturday, January 24, 2004

...and whom shall we say represents "normal" in this cautionary tale?

After having spent the years from six to twelve at a fine Summerhillian private school in the Alhambra Valley, it was time for Dorian to move on. She'd spent the years relatively happily, but she was the only mentally-handicapped child in this small progressive school, and as the children she'd entered with grew older and intellectually more capable and less tolerant of her deficits she tended to seek friendships with younger and younger children. I was convinced that she was becoming grotesque to the littler ones and now needed a different educational environment in which to continue to grow at her own far slower rate. I'd learned about a fine school in Marin County that might better serve her changing needs. I think that experience colored my feelings about mainstreaming such children. Dorian needed a place where it was she who was at the higher end of achievement scales. Something I've never regretted.

The Cedars was a boarding school, heavily endowed, obviously well-run, and recognized and supported by Lanterman funding (State of California). It was a reasonable 35 or so miles from Walnut Creek, in Ross, and therefore practical for us, though extremely difficult to think about since it was to be our first separation. Our family was defensively close and I wasn't sure how to prepare the boys for this next step in Dorian's move toward whatever independence she could achieve before I die and leave her in the world without our support.

I'd noticed from the first newsletter that no surnames were used when reporting on activities of the residents. This should have been a tip-off that -- despite outward appearances -- this was a people bank in which to deposit embarrassing relatives. This was my first brush with the mentally-handicapped community since Dorrie had never been exposed to that world, nor had we.

Also noticed that -- on my every-other-Sunday visits -- I rarely ran into other parents. I did become acquainted with several of the young staffers and volunteers who were students at Marin Junior College. They quickly became accustomed to my more frequent visits and could be counted on to see that my girl was content and cared for.

When Dorian was about fourteen, she struck up a friendship with 17 year-old blond Larry, a very sweet and well-mannered youngster who appeared far younger than his years. On our visits she and I would take walking tours along the marina, visit downtown San Rafael or Sausalito, attend any public event we might happen to run across in the Sunday papers, sometime go to church together, etc. After her innocent friendship with Larry began, I would include him in our visits, with consent of the staff.

One day Joylene (young staffer) called me at home to say that Larry's parents were coming from Portland, Oregon, the next weekend on their annual visit. They would like permission to take Dorian to dinner with them at that time. They'd obviously heard from Larry about his new friend and (I'm guessing) were grateful that he'd matured to the level where he could have such a friendship with its signal of approaching manhood.

After talking with a very excited Dorrie, I agreed to bring a new dress for the occasion the very next day, and would postpone our next visit until a later time so that she could tell me all about her "date."

The day came. The phone rang late in the afternoon. It was Joylene with a hysterical Dorrie! It seems that the staff had neglected to tell Larry's parents that his new friend was not white, and that -- though his father had arrived with a bouquet of roses for Dorrie -- his wife refused to get out of the car. She was outraged and wouldn't budge! Dorian was left waiting in her new dress and first heels -- with a bouquet of roses -- and Larry was sent off with his parents without her... .

As was almost always the case in the lives of our children, the institution did not protect her. This was the pattern that mystified and enraged me over the years. Where it was surely not possible for the institution to either foresee or prevent such racist atrocities by individuals that so damaged others, the "institution" does have a responsibility to protect and defend those individuals who are the victims of such misdeeds. There was a responsibility to the institution to not acquiesce to the tantrum of Larry's mother, but instead of confronting her, they were embarrassed that it hadn't occurred to anyone to warn her in advance, therefore an acceptance of the rightness of her position.

It gets worse.

I'd tried to comfort my distraught daughter by phone, but she was not to be consoled. Some hours later, when Larry had been returned to the Cedars by his parents, he avoided contact with her. He'd explained to other residents to the best of his mentally-retarded ability that his father told him that something was terribly wrong with Dorrie's mother's skin ... which poor little Larry obviously read as something physical, physiological, and probably contagious! Upon hearing this from others -- Dorrie became frantic -- thinking that something awful had happened to her mother since we'd last been together! She could not be consoled until -- after another call from Joylene -- I drove the long drive to the Cedars so that Dorian could actually see me and be comforted that I was just fine and that my skin had not turned green or purple or scaly!

That may represent the absolute lowest point in the saga of the struggle with racism.

I have no idea what I'd say to that mother were I to meet her today. There are no words. That may make a nice epitaph for my tombstone ...

There are no words ... .