Communication = anything to which we assign meaning. Stop; think about that statement for a few minutes. How many ways do you communicate with others, how many times do you use something other than words to understand a situation or individual, it’s not a question, it’s a thought. I am thinking of this, because a few weeks ago John taught a not so smart lady this very lesson, and while it may not have sunk in the first time, I can assure you she got the message.
I am a creature of habit; I have used the same grocery store and same bank for decades. Recently however I opened a “fun times” savings account for John at a new bank, with new people, simply because they ran an offer to match the first fifty dollars I deposited if I opened a savings account. On our second time into the bank John and I stood in line looking at Christmas decorations and smiling at strangers. When our turn came I laid my deposit down and spoke a warm greeting to the bank teller. She smiled and spoke to us, then ask John if he was ready for Christmas. I smiled and answered for him. She looked at John and said, “For someone with such a warm smile, he sure is shy, I can’t get a word out of him today either!”
“Oh, John is non-verbal, you know mute, he cannot speak.” I said as I signed a deposit slip.
“Oh really, has he ever spoken?” the bank teller ask.
“Yes, he used to be quite vocal, he had over 100 words, ask and answered questions, but he lost that skills years ago, and has been non-verbal for almost 18 years now.” I took my paper work and smiled at her, John was still all smiles, eyeing the Christmas gift money that was going into his new fun account.
“So you really, don’t even know your son at all, how sad.” She said as she took the money and opened a locked drawer.
“Excuse me?” I had heard a lot of things, but this was new.
“You know, he can’t talk to you, so you don’t even know him, you have no idea what he wants or likes or desires, much be hard on you to live with a stranger day in and day out.”
“You are wrong there, I know my son very, very well. No I have never had a sex talk with him about not sleeping with his girl friend, and I have not had to scold him for flunking his algebra test because he was busy playing video games rather than studying, but I know my son, I know him very well.” I shot back, half amused, half annoyed.
“No, unless he can sign or write, you don’t. Without speech, you really know nothing about him; you are just kidding yourself if you think you do.” Her face was cold, her tone stern.
I smiled sweetly and said, “I know his favorite color is cerulean blue, that he would rather go to the mall and hang than walk the woods with me, that he prefers Dr. Pepper to Coke, wants his hamburgers to be mustard only, but hates mustard on his hot dogs, loves Chick-Fil-A and finds Burger King to be a close second, passionately loves Christmas and never, ever forgets a face, or how that person makes him feel.” I started to back up as I spoke and reached for John’s hand.
“All of that is simply observation, and guessing, no, you don’t know your son, and unless he learns how to communicate, you never will.” She spoke in the same cold tone.
I wished her a nice day and fled. I apologized to John for her rudeness. I wondered what happened to her in life to make her feel so strongly about John’s inability to speak and why did she need to be so rude. I wondered if I should stop going into the bank and only use the ATM from now on, or could and would John hold his own with her. I didn’t have to wait long to learn my answer. A week later we ran into her at the grocery store.
“Hi, Mrs. Bailey. Hi John!” a friendly voice came from behind us. John grinned and spun around to smile at the voice, but as his eyes saw her, the smile faded. There she was the negative bank teller in all her glory. John turned his back to her and tugged my hand. I spoke only hello, and turned back to my shopping. She didn’t let up, but rather circled in front of us and eyed John hard.
“Hi John how are you?” Sugar dripped from her voice as she reached out to touch John‘s shoulder. John scrunched under the weight of her hand and pulled away. He turned his head down so hard all he could see was the floor as he walked to the front of the shopping cart. He thrust his head down so far it almost hit his chest. He began to pull the shopping cart from the front while staring at the floor and walking backwards.
“What’s with John, where is his smile?” the teller ask.
“He doesn’t like you.” I said as I turned around and looked her in the eyes.
“Oh now why do you say that?” She laughed a bit.
“When you were in school didn’t you learn anything about something called body language, didn’t you have one class where you were told how to read body language, or don’t they teach that anymore?” I asked still looking her in the eye.
“I guess….what do you mean?”
My son, John is talking to you in sign language, in body sign language and you know what he is saying, he is saying he does not like you, that you insulted him the other day.” I turned to walk away.
“Really, I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, if I did, I mean, I was just talking to you about him.”
“No you judged him. You judged that because he was mute and unable to communicate with written words or complete sign language that I didn’t know him, and frankly, you make him feel dumb. John does not like to feel dumb, and he does not like people who do that to him.”
“So that thing he did, how he pulled away and will not look at me, that’s communication?”
“What do YOU think?”
“I never though about it. So I guess, if you are with him day in and day out, you get really good at reading signals hum…so that’s it, that’s how you communicate with John, in signals?” Her tone was nice, but still full of question as if she was in disbelief.
“Yea, something like that, I read his thoughts, and right now, he is giving me the don’t waste my time Mom sign.”
She stood still as I walked off with John. After a couple of isles between us John lifted his head, glanced around and giggled. I knew in his own way he was saying “I sure showed her didn’t I Mom.”
A few weeks pasted. I didn’t go back to the bank. Actually I never thought about it again, and then, John and I chose to go back to the bank to make one last in person deposit, just to test the water. There she was, busy with customers, I stepped into another line.
From her station she spoke “Mrs. Bailey, John, hi, I wanted to say….thank you. You taught me a lesson about judging people and situations. I thought about how John responded to me at the grocery and it hit me, yes, John DOES communicate, without a sound, and you do know your son, you really know him very well.
The teller I was making my deposit with looked puzzled. “Don’t ask.” I whispered.
“Oh, I know, I heard how he reacted to her in the grocery store, we all heard. I guess he told her!” The teller I was using whispered back. “I just never heard her admit she was wrong.”
“Yea, I guess he did at that. He showed her a thing or two.”
I looked up to smile at my sweet non-verbal son to say, you made your point, but John was no longer standing beside me. He had walked over to the counter where the rude teller was and was standing eye to eye with her, that killer smile more a smirk today spread across his face. I didn’t say a word to either one of them, I didn’t need to. For they were locked in a non-verbal battle of wits and forgiveness, that ended with the rude teller offering John a cup of coffee. As he walked over to the table where the coffee was, I saw her smile, she knew as I knew, she had been forgiven and was now in the process of having a cup of coffee with a new friend.
Communication…anything to which we assign meaning. I guess for John, the offer of a cup of coffee was as good as an apology. At least, that was how I read that non-verbal transaction.
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