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Friendly Sophie

posted Saturday June 20th, 2009


The other day, Ray said something that’s stuck with me. It went something like this.

“You know,” he said, “the majority of people who are mentally retarded have Down syndrome. So society’s definition of ‘retarded’ is a person with Down syndrome.”

(I didn’t fact check this, but Ray tends — annoyingly — to be right.)

His words kept running through my head today, at the mall. I’ll be honest: I felt like I was with the poster child for the retarded. Annabelle and Ray were bike shopping (early birthday present) so Sophie and I snuck off to to pick up Father’s Day gifts at the paint-your-own pottery store. I hate those stores. I used to love them, a decade or so when they first got big, but really, now they just depress me — mainly because I feel like such a bitch for hating them. I have no right; it’s not like I can draw to save my life. I am not out-of-the-box creative, though I long to be. But I know it when I see it, and that pottery stuff ain’t it. All those cheerful plates and mugs — you can go to any “As You Wish” pottery store (or a counterpart) anywhere in the country and the crap people are making will all look the same. It’s contrived art, like that other hobby I keep swearing I’ll stop badmouthing, scrapbooking.

Still, those pottery places are good in a pinch for personalized kid gifts, I must say. (And yes, it’s occurred to me that this blog is not unlike a virtual scrapbook. No better, that’s for sure.)

Now that was a digression. Anyhow, it’s a long walk from As You Wish to the splash pad at the mall, and we were walking round trip, which gave Sophie plenty of time to show off to greater Phoenix just what retarded looks like. That is so mean. But it’s all I could think. She was in a silly mood — I love those moods, even on display. And yet, as she gets older I’m seeing the dark side of silly start to emerge, particularly as Sophie’s speech improves.

“What’s your name?” is followed by, “What’s your last name?” and today she started adding, “This is my mom.” (And she usually repeats it all several times for good measure — “What’s your name? What’s your name? What’s your name?”) This happened, oh, a dozen times or so on our walk through the mall. Mainly Sophie chose teenage girls or middle-aged women, all of whom were happy to oblige. They stopped and smiled and patiently answered the questions.

You are wondering here, “Why doesn’t her mother stop this behavior?” I’m wondering the same thing. But honestly, I’m stumped. Short of strapping her in a stroller and putting duct tape over her mouth, there’s just no way to stop Friendly Sophie — at least, not a way I’ve found. And it’s impossible to convince the public at large to act aloof, which is the only chance of making it end. We’re doomed.

And yet today, when it did end, it crushed me.

As we left the pottery store, Sophie was feeling great, sassy as can be, dancing to the piped-in teeny bopper music, shaking her hips in her Hawaiian print bathing suit, ready to take it to a new level. She spotted her prey: Two teenage boys, as sullen as Sophie was sweet, completely disinterested in — well, in much of anything at all, particularly the teeny tiny person stopped in their path, grinning, calling, “LOOK!” and pointing to her new suit.

The boys kept going; they didn’t even look in her direction. Now, I barely noticed this, so lost in my own thoughts — wondering how it could be that I, as self-conscious and painfully introspective as I am, could have created a little being so utterly guileless, so unaware of how the world views her. But I did notice, and when Sophie stopped in her tracks, so did I.

I looked down at her crestfallen face. “Sophie, did that make you sad?” I asked.

“No!” she announced, picking up her pace, head down with her hair falling in her face. And she wouldn’t say another word about it. But something changed. She was still silly and had a good time splashing, but she didn’t say hello to another stranger, today at the mall. And when she was quietly eating her yogurt a little later, she looked downright gloomy. I’ve noticed that about people with Down syndrome — they either look giddy or sad. There’s not much of an in between. It reminds me of the older teenagers working at our Safeway, the ones who refuse to look you in the eye or smile. They’ve clearly been trained to not give hugs or shake their butts or ask shoppers for their names, and that’s a good thing — I’m sure it’s done mostly for safety, but also so the shoppers don’t have to see them acting all retarded and stuff, when they’re just trying to get out of the store with the milk and sugar. But those kids look straight out of Stepford; it’s like someone wrung the personality out of them.

Tomorrow, the whole thing  at the mall will have been forgotten. We’ll go out somewhere — Walgreen’s or maybe the zoo — and Friendly Sophie will be back as though nothing ever happened. At least, I hope so.

Don’t I?

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3 Responses to “Friendly Sophie”

  1. Well, I kind of know what you mean. Kayli is very friendly and used to be rather indiscriminating when she was younger. We’ve worked at helping her be more discriminating, as probably everyone is with all friendly kids- no hugs to strangers, learn the art of taking turns in conversation, hands to self. These are the cornerstones of respecting others. She is still warm, but shakes hands with others who she doesn’t know and as she matures she is more shy ( but not flat). I love all irrepressible kids that just bubble over and find that not restricted to DS. DS kids may take a bit longer to absorb social lessons though? We also used social “scripts” which are great ways of building social skills . I try to be sensitive to not extinguishing her naturally sunny personality- she is so rarely sad, takes a lot in stride so that if she is sad I really pay attention. Sophie is still so young, lots of time to figure out that the world is not a loveable as she is. I find it hard since I am a self conscious person and I don’t want her to be as self conscious as I am. It is complicated but also really simple. Virtual Hug.
    PS- she can come ask me as many times as she wants. Kayli would love her!

  2. Oh, man, do I ever know what you mean. It’s almost like all of the things I find funny and charming and adorable about Evan at home tend to be slightly embarrassing out in public. I find this to be more and more true the older he gets. He generally gets pretty favorable reactions now, but I know as he gets farther away from being a cute toddler or preschooler, the more awkward people are going to be around him.

    People expect small children to be nosy and friendly and have funny speech. It’s part of the little kid vibe. They don’t dig it so much on older kids. Or on grouchy sullen teenagers, no matter HOW many chromosomes they have.

  3. Gosh that is SO true, the part about them not having an in between mood. I had never been able to put my finger on it but it’s really the case. I wonder why that is. Why does this seem so sad to me?

    And your description of the kids at Safeway? Heartbreaking. As much as I don’t want Leo shaking his but at 21, it kills me a little to think of someone sucking all the joie de vivre out of him. I know he has to “behave,” and all, but I hope that joy sucking out thing never happens. It’s part of what makes them who they are. But not so cute on the grownups I guess.

    OK forgive me if this is too corny but do you know what song runs through my head constantly, about Leo? Often when he does something that drives me bonkers (and we KNOW that happens daily, multiple times)–The one from Sound of Music-”How do you solve a problem like Maria”–How do you solve a problem like Leo? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? Not to say that Leo is a problem, of course, but certainly a challenge. The things he does are so perplexing, endearing, aggravating, fill-in-the-blank. But they are also what make him who he is and we all know I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    BIYB/BOYB. Again. Sorry.

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