I USED TO WORK IN PINE, by Kent H. Elliott copyright 2013, all rights reserved.
The young staff members in the group home knew, they just knew. Andy’s oft repeated announcement had it wrong somehow. He had to be making it up. Sure, he’d settled down over the years. He was still a guy who could do some damage when he got anxious or angry, but it didn’t happen as often now. And it wasn’t really a group home where he lived, not as such. But with just six men in his living unit within the state run facility, it was just like a community group home.
Staff members had heard tales of the bad old days when the institution housed hundreds, not like the current few dozen clients. Pine Hall was remembered with a reputation: back ward, the place for the most severely mentally disabled who could walk. (Those who could not walk were in a large wing of the hospital building.) That was back in the time when the socially acceptable way to say it was ‘profoundly retarded’. The unacceptable term ‘low grade’ could still be heard occasionally back then. Andy certainly wasn’t smart enough ever to take care of himself, but he wasn’t Pine Hall material. Unless, perhaps.
Some long-time staff remembered re-organizing times. They could tell about it, and did. So the newer folks heard stories. Of course they were skeptical about what they heard. They couldn’t be sure which part was true and what was useful myth to get their attention. So, they dared not give anyone the benefit of the doubt. But there are some things that must be true, for nothing is to be gained by lying about them.
Maybe Andy had been young enough at the time to live in Pine when it was occupied by the children. They called it the Pre-Puberty Unit during that short, desperate era. But that was never his claim. He didn’t say he lived there. What Andy said was, “I used to wook in Pine. Mop floows. Bweak windows.”
The young staff members knew that could not be right. Okay, he wasn’t Pine “Back Ward” material, but he wasn’t working client material either. Break windows—that part they could believe, but only that. His attention span only lasted long enough to break your glasses.
If you visit his living unit, be forewarned. Especially if you wear glasses. Andy may very likely greet you this way: “I bweak your glasses.”
Sometime in that long ago past, when Andy was young and even more unpredictable, some bad advice had been given to a new direct care worker. Maybe it was honest advice based on a one-time recent experience. But it may have been given by a practical joker with no sense of proportion. It could have been a hazing gone wrong, but there wasn’t any evidence, and now the reasons are long forgotten, anyway.
The new recruit arrived. Andy approached with his greeting threat. “I bweak your glasses.” He reached for them but the new employee ducked away in time.
The attendant whose shift was nearly done for the day said, “Just hand him your glasses. He won’t know what to do with them.”
So she did. Big mistake. Andy took the spectacles and flung them with force against the wall across the room. Frames were twisted. Both lenses shattered and the brand new attendant was left to squint through swing shift and fill out the paperwork to get reimbursed for new glasses.
But she was tough. She didn’t quit. Karen squinted through that shift and muddled through the next two weeks wearing an old pair with an outdated prescription.
You, dear reader, are being introduced to Andy, difficult, unpredictable, given to outbursts that can sometimes become violent. Beloved, joyous, fun guy. A man with serious deficiencies of mental ability.
So Karen got some new glasses. She was always wary and watchful to keep Andy’s hands far away from them. It wasn’t only the improved eyesight with the glasses. She also had the vision to see Andy, a whole person, troublesome as ever, lovable beyond reason. It was the way those providing care with Andy and the other unique individuals living within the facility found ways to work around the problem behaviors to help the clients find their way in the world, such as it was and is. Maybe that vision is the mark of those who are able to provide care for people like Andy. For while the particular ways that Andy caused trouble may have been his alone, troublesome behavior among the other clients with him is routine, too.
New rule: The adult clients are to be treated as adults.
Andy at the group home, now in his forties, still acted too much the four year old. The staff could not always adhere to the rule. If one really accepted that rule, the problem behavior would be too much to take; too much the definition of his personality. When one saw in him the overgrown tyke, the behavior could even be endearing when it didn’t do too much damage. Of course, that made it difficult to avoid encouraging him. And Andy was a really likable guy in all his complexity.
You, dear reader, are invited to an understanding. Personality does not diminish just because intelligence is diminished. And Andy used to work in Pine.
An old rule: Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Sometimes the magic works. A supervisor came through the living unit one evening. He didn’t wear glasses, but Andy had a back-up plan. “I stomp your toes.”
To which the management guy promptly replied in a stern, serious voice, “If you do I’ll harass you with idle threats.”
And Andy walked away. He had to consider this. It came to his ears as a word salad of no real meaning, but it sounded bad. And it would probably never work again. Idle threats are just that, aren’t they. They’re idle.
“I used to wook in Pine. Mop floows. Bweak windows.” It is true. He really did. Every bit of it. That he still talked about it, and often, must mean that those two or three weeks were a point of pride, a life highlight.
Clarence had been an attendant in Elm, where Andy lived then. A promotion to charge attendant meant re-assignment to Pine. Clarence proposed an experiment, and he managed to convince the decision makers to go along. Andy would be escorted to Pine each afternoon on the days that Clarence was there. Under Clarence’s constant watch, he would spend a half hour mopping in a large day room or in the hallways. Then Clarence would walk him back to Elm. Andy would be a real working boy. (This was before enactment of the new rule mentioned above.)
That was the plan. This is the way it really worked. Andy walked the short distance from Elm to Pine, pride in every step. He slung the mop back a forth, taking frequent breaks to harass Clarence and others with his own idle threats. Much effort was required to keep the threats idle and not truly destructive.
The floor was mopped, but not scrubbed well enough to call it clean. It would be re-mopped by others that evening. That was acceptable. Improving his mopping skills would be a long term project if the experiment worked out. After his half hour on the first day, Clarence and Andy set out for Elm. At about ten to twenty yards from Pine’s front door, a shoe flew from Andy’s foot, to his hand, and through a glass window. The shoe somehow found a window that had not yet been replaced with acrylic plastic. On the second day the hallway was mopped, dampened but not cleaned. No real change there, but that could not be rushed. After the work time, Clarence determined to be more diligent. He held on to both of Andy’s elbows, reaching across his back as they walked side by side. Still, in the blink of an eye, a shoe flew through one of the three remaining glass panes in the wall as they passed.
Andy’s next working day—after a day’s suspension because of the damages—was a warm, dry day. So Clarence carried Andy’s shoes and Andy walked home in his socks. That worked for the next week or so. Then the day came, walking home, stocking footed, with Clarence holding him close, Andy managed to get loose, pick something up from the ground and throw it through another window. One pane of glass remained. But that was enough. Clarence wanted to keep trying, but the word came down. Andy had to be fired.
And it was worth every window, every frustration, every challenge. Twenty-five years later Andy could announce with pride, “I used to wook in Pine.” He really did. Honest!