Monday, January 9, 2012

Living Under the Influence

I was anxious about it. Without question, it was going to be a day that would leave me feeling less-than, shameful, disgraced and wasted. It was one of those situations where you just beg God to get you through what is surely going to be several consecutive hours of indignity.

A few months ago, unbeknownst to me, my auto insurance lapsed due to a paper work error when I purchased a new vehicle. Somehow in the mix of things, my insurance didn’t get transferred on time. This minor infraction was not so minor to the City of College Park who ran my plates one morning last summer as I ambled through town taking Noah to summer camp. While I did not receive a moving violation, my license was suspended and there were auspicious fines. One of the conditions for renewal of my license to drive was 6 hours of a Defensive Driving course. So Saturday morning, I set out to fulfill my requirements and put this whole experiment in failure behind me.

I’m a woman who desperately tries to give the appearance of someone who reasonably has it “together”. But invariably, no matter how dressed-to-kill I am for an interview I’ll customarily step in dog poop on my way in the door. Knowing this, I never shoot for perfection, but rather “not so bad”. But let me just tell you that there is nothing that can make arrival at a building labeled “D.U.I. School” on a bright yellow banner sexy….nothing.

Anxiously I made my way into building to register and begin the shame of this entire event. I was apprehensive because I knew there would be an examination in order for me to complete the requirements. Assessments always make me nervous. Some part of me is relatively certain that I will experience failure no matter how hard I try. I hate to fail. Loathe it. So nervousness, added to my shame, brought a specific tension to this episode of my life. Typically, this level of worry blinds me to logic and reason. To put it rather succinctly, I was afraid.

The intake process left much to be desired as the dear older woman who was hard of hearing shouted my name and the words “So yer here for license reinstatement!” at the top of her lungs. I smiled to her, and at the rest of the class who now knew that I was not here merely as a conscientious citizen who was wishing to take a class in my spare time to reduce my insurance premium. I soon found out that the rest of the class was laughing because this had happened to each one of them when they registered as well. Her abruptness created an intimacy that didn’t allow any of us to pretend why we were there. And it was funny…until Amelia came in.

Small and thin, I could see that this young girl was just as apprehensive as I was about what the class would bring. When she approached the table she found that her paperwork wasn’t there. Our kind host yelled, “What’s yer name again?”

The frail girl replied, “Amelia Armstrong.”

The lady behind the table yelled, “Its what? Yeh’ve got to speak louder.”

“My name is AMELIA ARMSTRONG!” the small girl shouted over the giggles of the class. By the time the intake lady heard her, this girl had announced herself at the top of her lungs no less than 5 times. Everyone knew her name. I began to step out of my own panic and feel sorry for this girl. The interchange continued:

“I don’t have yer paperwork! What are ya here fer?” inquired the lady.

“I just came to take the class,” answered the girl. (repeated again at ear splitting decibels)

“Well, what was yer ticket for? What did ya do to get here?” bellowed the lady.

This girl, who was at the point of tears said, “I didn’t get a ticket, I just don’t have a license and I need to take this class.”

Completely oblivious to her anxiety the woman replied, “Honey, ya only take this class if ya got yerself in a bind or are doin’ it to reduce yer insurance. Which is it?”

Amelia admitted, “I don’t have a license because I failed the test and now I need to take this class.” This, of course, went unheard and had to be repeated. It was painful to watch. I suspect that I am not the only one who just wanted it to stop but we all just stared down at our own paperwork and tried to pretend this wasn’t happening. It embarrassed us to acknowledge her pain and inadequacy so we ignored it.

Once her paperwork was sorted out, Amelia took a seat at the table behind me. I could hear her quietly sniffling. My disgrace began to disappear (without my knowledge or permission I might add) as I ceased wondering how I got here and felt compassion for this girl. As the class would progress, my compassion would grow in proportion to her humiliation.

Just before our first break, the instructor, who was reading his instruction from a 3 ring binder, mentioned blithely, “This un’s important – it’ll be on the test so remember…” This was followed by a string of statistics, which he did not slow down to recite nor care to repeat. It was all Amelia could take. I overheard her crying as she talked to someone on her cell phone during the break, confessing that she should have known she’d “fail this too.”

Another hour of statistics, rules and regulations followed. It became pointless to glance at your watch because it was clear that we had entered a time warp. Just before our second break he finally asked if there were any questions. Amelia shyly raised her hand and asked, “About the test, I was told I could have accommodations.”

While this immediately captured my attention (because it is a phrase used in the world of special education to indicate reasonable adaptations to assessment), it was completely foreign to our instructor. He looked at her quizzically at first, then said, “What kinda accommodations?” as he shuffled through his binder. I risked turning to catch my first glimpse of Amelia to see her red-faced and clearly embarrassed. She started to mumble, “Oh I’m sorry, never mind.” When he shouted over her, “What do ya need accommodations fer? What kinda help ya lookin fer?” Amelia was speechless. Our instructor continued, “What wrong with ya that ya need help?”

In an effort to stop this mortifying exchange, several of us got up and began the break without permission. Amelia fled to the safety of the parking lot. Oncoming motor vehicles were a welcome threat compared to the classroom. Quite uncharacteristically, I strode toward Amelia and introduced myself. She wiped her tear stained face and politely took my hand saying, “I’m Amelia, but I guess everybody knows that since I had to yell it so many times.”

It was clear to me that Amelia must have some sort of learning disability. A few of the telltale signs were there. She was fidgety and her nails had been chewed to the quick. The document on which we were filling in the blanks in order to take notes (which was full of incorrect grammar, typographical errors and misspelled words…thank you very much Department of Driver’s Services) was full of little drawings and doodles in the margins. Her shoes were scuffed on the toes from constant rocking back and forth in anxious, repetitive movement. And she was so terribly sad.

I told her I just wanted to help her in some way, that I wasn’t being nosy but that my son required accommodations so I understood her question, and asked if I could help. Her face looked hopeful for the first time as she asked, “Oh, do you know anything about dyslexia? That’s what I have. It’s why I failed the written test. I knew I would, but I had to fail it in order to be given the chance to take it orally so I can pass. But I also had to come here and pass this 6 hour class.” Suddenly, my fears and failures paled in comparison to the troubles of this girl who had actually been forced to fail before she could ever hope to succeed.

Over lunch, I learned that Amelia was much older than she looked. At 21 years of age, she had never even tried to obtain a driver’s license because she knew she would fail the written exam. When she heard there was an oral exam she was excited, even though realized she had to fail the written exam in order to be given a chance to succeed. Her reason for obtaining a drivers license is to have the capability to drive in order to get a job. Also, she is trying to complete her high school diploma at a local technical college with resources for learning disabled students. The special education resources in her county hadn’t been able to provide Amelia with the opportunity to graduate with anything but a Special Education Diploma, so she had dropped out of school years ago.

As I listened to her story, this frail girl transformed from a weak and delicate creature to a mighty warrior. She was the bravest person in the classroom that day. She had charged into certain failure, more than once, just for the slimmest chance she might succeed. Without an advocate, she had been marginalized and discounted for most of her academic career. And she had been more than willing to fail that first written test, risking humiliation, just to have an opportunity for something other than failure. Her courage was humbling.

So I had a choice to make. I could offer sympathy and prayer – or I could get involved. Please know that I NEVER choose the latter. I’m the advocate for one little special person and that keeps me plenty busy thank you very much. But her palpable pain was more than I could take. I knew that a Kingdom response meant more than just well wishes for her pain. In my mind I heard a friend’s favorite verse: Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.[1] So I “got involved”…I meddled…I was a busy body…I challenged the status quo. I stepped up for this stranger. I still don’t know why, but I did.

I pulled the instructor aside, and without much overture, explained Amelia’s disability and the nature of the accommodation she was entitled. He didn’t challenge this at all, but expressed frustration at the pressure he felt to get everyone through the class. After all, how was he going to keep his own success rate up if he couldn’t get the sleeping teenage boys through the examination? His solution surprised me. “Caint you just give her the test? If ya know what needs to be done just get her through.” Suddenly I was a test proctor.

Now please know, I was still nervous about my own performance on this test. Advocacy had not completely diminished my anxiety about avoiding failure. However, I found it increasingly difficult to panic about my own welfare while truly being concerned for another’s. So I had to quit thinking about my success or failure. I simply had no choice at this point.

I had moved my seat, at Amelia’s request, in order to sit beside her. In her words, it “calmed her down to be near a friend”. Friend? We had just met! But I was the only friend Amelia had in that room. When the time came to take the exam, I was mortified to see the worst visually organized answer sheet I’ve ever seen. Clearly designed to assist the instructor in efficient grading, it was unfeasible to expect Amelia to even see the place where she could place a correct answer. In addition to this, the recycled copies of the exam were so wrinkled and copied on such poor quality paper that I could barely read it.

I read Amelia her exam, and filled in the answers she gave. She laughed and smiled at some of the ridiculous options on the multiple choice questions. When it came time to fill out my own answer key, it barely registered that I was performing for assessment at all. I had completely lost myself in Amelia.

Neither of us failed that day.

This class – which, by the way, spent zero time on any matters pertaining to insurance violation – served to teach me about more than the consequences of driving “under the influence”. Instead, through a set of terrible circumstances I became involved in an opprotunity to live under the influence.

Living under the influence means that I, first and foremost, recognize the kingdom responsibility I have to extend kindness. “Not withholding good” means more than just the cessation of negative actions and behaviors toward the disadvantaged. It means choosing to dedicate myself to those who the Proverb writer describes as “due” a good deed. How did I know she was “due”? Well, I simply put myself in her place – which wasn’t hard to do since I was anxious as well. This started when I quit being embarrassed by her and stopped trying to ignore her pain. Not everyone I encounter will be as easy to identify with, but I pray to be attentive to their pain. Pain is a place where I can meet most of the world because, probably like you, I am no stranger to it.

Secondly, living under the influence of the Kingdom means I share my resources – no matter how meager. I mean, what did I really have to offer? We were all equally in need of what the class offered. I seemed as poor as the next person and as ill equipped to offer hope of success. What I had to offer was cheap – it cost me nothing. I listened and acted with just a mustard seed’s worth of compassion. I approached authority in her place and pleaded her case. And I was, for whatever reason, heard. From a place of poverty, my insufficient resources were more than enough for God to work through in Amelia’s behalf. Our small, inadequate, insufficient and even sometimes trivial assets are mustard seeds of potential in the hands of God.

Lastly, living under the influence of the Kingdom might mean forgetting personal fears and inadequacies in order to be fully available for God. How I helped Amelia was, by absolutely no means, a huge sacrifice. It wasn’t even a grand gesture. It’s almost not even worth mentioning. But it did require me to stop thinking of my own goals, aims and ambitions in order to allow room for “otherly” compassion. I found it quite impossible to be wrapped up in myself and act in someone else’s behalf simultaneously. I only write about it so you might see how very little it takes to be of use in the Kingdom.

I don’t really know what inspired me to write this story. Honestly, I almost quit after the first paragraph. My finger was poised on the delete button when my cell phone rang. It was Amelia. She just called to say “thank you for being my friend”. Her last comment to me was that I really must “believe in God” to have been so kind to a stranger.

I told her I hoped to see her on the road.

[1] The Holy Bible : Today's New International Version. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), Pr 3:27.