Here’s an audio version
Recently, I had the chance to talk to a summer student employee of the TTC about her job. One of her responsibilities was to herd people the right way around construction. When I asked her if it was hard to take on such a commanding role in front of hundreds, she said it was hard at first, but if you speak loudly and clearly, and get a few people to follow your instructions and get the herd moving in the right direction, the rest will follow smoothly.
Every time I’ve had an encounter with a lifeguard at a public swimming facility, I’m struck by their competence and authority, unusual in people in their teens. My abortive attempts at summer jobs never afforded opportunities to cultivate these qualities; I was too busy gaining invaluable insights like: people who work in offices spend a lot of time doing nothing, “it’s hard to work in groups when you’re omnipotent,” and, I’d rather prostitute myself than work as a telemarketer.
One of the most useful factoids I took away from first aid training is that someone needs to take charge in a crisis. A dozen bystanders with the best will in the world may hover ineffectually, not sure what to do, until the hapless victim bleeds to death. If someone seems to know what they’re doing and is able to project calm confidence, people are willing to be pointed at, and directed to do things such as call 911, or find water.
One of the good parts about getting older is recovering from the misconception that most people around me know better than I do. Because I was never a lifeguard or a herder for the TTC, I didn’t learn how to take charge. It’s something I’ve been figuring out gradually. Particularly as a blind person, it’s seldom felt to me like I am the person best positioned to direct or command others.
This started to shift when I worked as a server in a dine-in-the-dark restaurant. This fascinating job offered unique opportunities; things happened there that just couldn’t happen anywhere else. One of these things was that, for the first time in my life I was, hands down, the most powerful person in the room. For the most part, the sighted diners were completely helpless, and dependent on me for just about everything. It was a heady role-reversal that I enjoyed immensely. I never abused my power, but I’ll tell you frankly: I savored it!
One night, I was serving a large group that had come for a work function. This meant that many of them were there not because they’d chosen the experience, but because they were expected to show up as a workplace obligation. I could tell right away that this was a bad dynamic. By the end of the first course, it was clear to me that one of the guests was having more than typical discomfort. Something about the total darkness sent her into a truly psychotic episode, and before long she’d become the kind of screaming, flailing crazy person people sidle warily away from on the street. I knew I was the only one in the room situated to act. Somehow, while trying to soothe and reassure her as she shouted and tried to fight me off, I wrestled her between tables full of paralyzed diners and out into the lighted area of the restaurant. This is one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me, but in one way it was one of the most liberating. I found out that I can cope in a crisis.
For me, part of getting older is an increasing awareness of the finite. You don’t think much about it when you’re younger, but more lately, I’m conscious of the sense that if I don’t speak now, when will I? Maybe if I had kids or spent time caring for children this is something I’d have gotten a long time ago. As things stand now, I’m hoping for another 40 years or so in which to:
* Calmly call strangers publicly on their rudeness or discourtesy
* Assist negligent householders in pruning overhanging branches that will offer a nice wet slap in the head next time I pass that bit of sidewalk in the rain
* Advise children to treat their parents with more respect when I’m disgusted by their bad manners
* Be the one who’s not afraid to speak out when I witness discrimination
* Resist the temptation to look away or pretend not to hear when a scary mentally ill person talks to me on the bus, but instead, talk to them respectfully
* Politely but firmly insist that well-intentioned but misguided strangers take their hands off my person. I may not have the time and composure to explain that I’m perfectly capable of boarding the bus without help, but I have the right not to be touched by strangers when I haven’t invited it.
All of these things sound obvious and reasonable, but until a few years ago I lacked the conviction, composure and assurance to carry them off gracefully. I think that’s one of the best things I’ve cultivated.