The following story opens my book, Resetting Respect: The Attitude Adjustment that Just Might Lower Your Stress Level and Save the World! I thought it was a fitting opener for the book, and I use it here once again, because I think it sets the stage for a discussion about respect. It tells the story of Betty Jean, a young woman who showed up unexpectedly at my front door one day and was the unlikely epitome of self-respect. And, during the course of our time together, she challenged me over and over again to accord her the respect she knew she was worth.
One cold, damp, gray morning some years ago I had been working feverishly on a project due the following day. I had gone downstairs to get a cup of coffee, noticed that the stroller was missing so surmised the babysitter had taken the kids out for a walk, and was just about to head back up to my office when the doorbell rang. I opened the door, assuming it would be FedEx with the package I was expecting. But it wasn’t FedEx. Instead, there in front of me stood a youngish woman with short, frizzy hair, no make-up, a large trench coat loose about her, raspberry pink socks between heavy white athletic shoes and rolled up khakis, a cane in one hand and a boombox in the other. “Can I use your phone?” she asked. “I need to call a lawyer.”
A bit taken aback by her request, and irritated because I instinctively knew this was going to take a lot more time than I could afford to give it, I asked her in return, “Why do you need a lawyer?”
“They’re driving me crazy over there, so I need to talk to a lawyer and find out how I can get out of there for good,” she said.
“Who’s driving you crazy?” I asked.
“Agnews,” she said. “All they let me do every day is sort this, sort that, sort something else. They’re driving me crazy, so I left this morning and walked across that field over there and now I need to talk to a lawyer. Just please don’t call Agnews. I can’t go back there!”
Agnews was an institution for the developmentally disabled about half a mile from our house. Yup, this was going to take some time….
I opened the door for her to come in as I was getting cold standing there, I was afraid the cats were going to get out, and I didn’t know what else to do. I motioned for her to sit down. “Thanks,” she said. “It was a long walk,” and she sank heavily onto the living room couch. I noticed with further irritation that she had tracked mud across the carpet. “Can I have a glass of water?” she asked. “Of course,” I replied, now irritated at myself – I knew I would immediately have asked most company if they would like something to drink.
I got a glass of water from the kitchen and grabbed the phone and phone book on my way back to the living room, figuring we needed to get this – whatever “this” was – underway as quickly as possible. Lots of things were running through my mind. She certainly seemed harmless, but I really wanted to have the situation resolved and her out of the house before the babysitter returned with the kids, which could be within minutes or hours. I knew I had to do something to get her back into “the system,” but I didn’t want to betray her and call Agnews, much as I realized they would be looking for her. And, I didn’t know any lawyers.
As I handed her the glass of water I asked, “Do you have a specific lawyer you want to call?” “No,” she said.
“Maybe we should call someone in your family first,” I suggested hopefully. “No!” she replied emphatically. “They’ll just take me back to Agnews.”
“Well, do you have a case worker, or a social worker, or someone you see occasionally that might be able to help you?” I asked. She thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she replied.
“OK, Deb. Think! Think!” I said to myself. “Who might be able to help her? What government agency might talk to her, let Agnews know she’s all right, maybe let her talk to a lawyer, get the ball rolling…?”
I don’t remember who it was that I called, but I talked to people at three different agencies I found in the yellow pages, all who sounded harried and irritated, couldn’t help me or her, and had no suggestions to offer. Forty minutes later, I was getting frustrated, grumpy, and a little desperate. Finally, on my fourth attempt, I reached a young man who also seemed harried and mildly irritated, but sympathetic, too. He said, “We may not be the right place, but we can at least begin the process of getting her back into the system. What’s her name?”
Geez! I hadn’t even asked her! “What’s your name?” I asked. “Betty Jean,” she replied.
I shared with him what little information I had, got from him his name, the address of his agency, and his assurance that he would be available for the next half hour or so until I could get her there.
When I hung up the phone, Betty Jean asked, “You didn’t call Agnews, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. But I did talk with a young man named Kevin who wants to meet you and thinks he may be able to help you,” I said.
“Is he a lawyer?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “But I think there may be a lawyer in his office. If not, he probably knows some. Anyway, I think he may be able to help.” Not only did I hope that was true, I really thought there was a chance. The young man had seemed kind and sympathetic to her plight, at least as I had described it. I hoped I wasn’t just returning her to Agnews the long way around with no chance for her to air her complaints.
“I’ll drive you to Kevin’s office. He’s waiting for us, so we better get going,” I said, eager to get us out of the house and on our way. I pulled on my jacket while she stood up stiffly. “Can I carry that for you?” I asked, pointing at the boombox. “Sure,” she replied, so I picked it up, she got her cane from the floor, and we headed out the door and into my husband’s beloved neon yellow 240Z.
Once underway, I asked Betty Jean, “What things do they have you sort all the time?” “Oh, coins, and cards and colors and stuff. It’s the same thing over and over and over. It’s driving me crazy!” she replied. “What would you rather be doing?” I asked. Well, that opened the flood gates….
“I’d like to be a waitress. A friend of mine was a waitress for awhile. I know it’s hard work. She worked really hard. But I think it would be fun and I think I could do it. I couldn’t work in a place where you had to carry those big trays, ‘cause my arm doesn’t always work real well, and my knee hurts sometimes. But I could carry one plate at a time, and maybe a glass, too. And I’d meet all kinds of people and I’d work real hard to make the boss happy and it would be fun! And then I’d get paid and I could get an apartment all to myself. I wouldn’t need much. Just one room with a bed and a chair and a table, and a little refrigerator and a microwave. And I could take the bus to work, or maybe just walk if the restaurant was close. I like to walk. My knee just hurts when it’s cold like this. But I think I could do it. I could be a waitress and have my own place and do something real and not sort things all the time and not be so bored. I know I could do it. That’s why I’ve got to see a lawyer. I’ve got to tell him I have to get out of there so he’ll help me.”
It took me a few moments to reply. “You’ve really thought about this a lot, haven’t you, Betty Jean?” I asked. “For three years,” she said.
We were about halfway to Kevin’s office when Betty Jean said abruptly, “I have to pee.” “Can you wait ‘til we get there?” I asked her. “How long?” she asked. “Ten or fifteen minutes,” I said. “Can you hold it that long?” “I don’t know,” she said.
“Oh, shoot!” I thought to myself. “She’s not going to want to get out of the car if she wets herself. And I certainly don’t want to take David’s favorite car home smelling of urine! What do I do?”
“Betty Jean, I’m going to have to ask you to hold it as long as you can. We’re more than halfway there, so there’s no point going back to my house. And I know there will be a restroom at Kevin’s office. If we pass a gas station or something before we get to his office, I’ll stop and you can use the restroom there. But I don’t remember anything like that on the way. I’ll just keep moving as fast as I can,” I said. “Do you think you can make it?”
“I’ll try,” she replied, not sounding very confident.
I pushed it as much as I could, but we were closing in on noontime so traffic had picked up. And of course there were no fast food restaurants or gas stations anywhere that I could see. Periodically I’d look over at her and ask, “You doing ok?” “Uh, huh,” she’d reply quietly.
Betty Jean was just beginning to squirm when I saw the street number I was looking for. My tires squealed as I made a left turn into the driveway that took us to the parking lot at the rear of the building. Apparently none of the people who worked there had gone to lunch yet, so I had to park all the way at the back of the lot. I jumped out and ran around to help her out of the car – she had the boombox and the cane on her lap, and the car was so low to the ground she had had some trouble getting in and I knew from personal experience that getting out would be harder. Finally we were lumbering across the parking lot and I said to her, “There’s a back door. I bet we can get in there.”
We went up a short flight of stairs. Thank heavens the back door wasn’t locked! We entered into a long, dark hallway that had no apparent restroom signs either to the right or the left. “Let’s try this way,” I said, and moved to the right. Betty Jean followed me, and we half walked, half ran down the hall, and then around the corner and down the hall and still no restroom, and no one to ask. Finally we went around another corner and there, immediately on our left, a sign on the door said, “WOMEN.” I pushed the door open, Betty Jean right behind me, and I grabbed the cane from her hand.
“I think that one’s empty,” I said to her, pointing to one of the stalls. She disappeared behind the door, and after a few tense moments listening to clothes rustling, I heard a huge sigh of relief and a very welcome, telltale sound.
I just stood there in the restroom, leaning against the wall, calming down. When Betty Jean emerged several minutes later, I gave her a big smile, held my hand up for a high five, and said, “We made it!” She high fived me happily and replied, “That was pretty close!” To this day I remember the euphoria of that moment, the sense that Betty Jean and I were sharing a victory. I hoped the remainder of her day would go as well….
The rest of my time with Betty Jean went very quickly. We located Kevin’s agency, walked into a large, bustling office with phones ringing and clients and counselors consulting, the receptionist let him know we were there, and he came out to greet us. I told Betty Jean good bye, wished her lots of luck, and Kevin led her back to his office. I left the building and drove home as quickly as possible. Just as I had expected, the kids were back from their walk and having lunch, and my FedEx package had arrived.
I never heard or saw anything more of Betty Jean, but I have thought of her often over the many years since our adventure. I’ve wondered what happened to her that day, whether she ever got to talk to a lawyer, whether she was able to make positive changes in her life. More than anything, though, I’ve thought of Betty Jean with great admiration. What courage it took for her to strike out that cold, wet morning. And what self-respect she had! She knew her value as a human being, knew she had more to offer than sorting things day in and day out, and embarked on a walk across a wet field on a miserable day to realize her potential and to get others to value her potential, too.
Another high five to you, Betty Jean, wherever you are!