They called her the “Sweater Lady”. It wasn’t a term born of respect. I’m not sure why, but the era in which I grew up was a time of odd fads and weird events driven by peer pressure. All you have to do is look at the amazingly outlandish clothes and hairstyles of the sixties and seventies to understand that what I say is factual. As ashamed as I am to admit pursuing some of those stupid fashions, the event I speak of today is really shameful, while the fads are now simply embarrassing.
We had noticed the young lady before, walking or standing in her yard beside the well-traveled rural road, where she lived with her aging parents. She wore unfashionable clothes; almost always long skirts, with socks sticking out over the tops of her old tennis shoes. Her blouse was always covered with a cardigan sweater, even in the hottest of weather. Her hair was unkempt and the look on her face made it clear that she was mentally handicapped. Probably about twenty-five years old (or maybe forty, I never really knew), she stayed in her yard, never bothering anyone else, once in awhile actually climbing one of the trees with low-hanging limbs near the edge of the yard. My parents had taught us to respect all people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. So, when we passed by, there was never a disparaging word spoken, never a teasing remark forthcoming.
Such was not the universal experience for the teenagers in the local high school. One day, some bright kid had a great idea. “Hey, let’s go by and see the Sweater Lady!” And, thus the poor lady’s nightmare began. It wasn’t much at first, just a car or two of kids driving slowly by to take a look. There were probably some things yelled at her, but she didn’t understand. Little by little, it escalated. The kids began to tell their friends at school, “Hey, we saw the Sweater Lady after school yesterday. You want to come today?” Before you knew it, the largest part of the kids in high school who had cars were cruising up and down Ware Road, yelling and catcalling, perhaps even throwing things. The woman’s world was turned upside down and she knew fear and torment, perhaps for the first time in her life, but certainly her home and yard were no longer a safe haven.
I was too young to be in one of those cars, but my childhood home was within a mile of hers and I had ridden by on my bicycle many times. As the kids at school exclaimed about the spectacle of a grown woman climbing up a tree, in spite of my upbringing I found myself bragging about seeing her and how ridiculous she was. No, I didn’t participate in the actually torment, but I wasn’t repulsed by the idea enough to buck the trend and speak for the victim. Saul of Tarshish comes to mind as he held the coats of those who stoned the martyr Stephen. No stone-throwing for him, but agreement with the act appears to me to be the same as committing the action. Such was my involvement in this travesty.
Both the civil and school authorities caught wind of the afternoon activity and put a stop to it as quickly as possible, but the damage was done. The family’s quiet life had been devastated, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the edict which ended this one episode was of no benefit in changing the perpetrators’ viewpoint or treatment of mentally handicapped persons. They were not normal, not like “real people”, so the bias and stigma remained unchanged.
I’m not a social campaigner, not motivated to change the whole of our culture’s fabric. That’s not my mission in life and not my purpose in writing this. I simply recount the memory of that sad time in hopes that it will trigger a response. We have a responsibility to learn from the past and to let it inform our present and future actions. I have personally looked at those long ago events many times in my memory and have realized that I can’t go back and undo them. As a parent though, I had the opportunity to break the pattern and help my kids to be better people than I was. As a grandfather, I have the same opportunity. As I experience life, it becomes clearer to me that children and teenagers are, contrary to popular belief, naturally unkind to anyone who is different and who doesn’t fit in. We hear that kids have to be taught to hate, but my experience is just the opposite; they have to be taught to be loving and respectful. It is in our nature to dislike anyone who is out of the mainstream, who is different from ourselves. The adults in children’s lives have a responsibility to help them overcome that nature and learn to accept each other. Does that mean that we don’t teach them to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong? Not at all! We teach them the foundational principles, certainly, but we also help them to love people, no matter what their abilities or disabilities. We do that in our actions, our words (all the time), and our attitudes.
Well, once again, I’ve managed to get up into the pulpit and preach at you. I hope you’ll look past that. It is in my blood. The preaching helps to keep me on the right track, too. Maybe tomorrow will bring something more entertaining and less weighty. You should check back then.
“All the world is odd, save me and thee; and sometimes I think thee is a little odd.”
“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn”
(John Cotton Dana~American librarian~1856-1929)