By Jacob Lesner-Buxton
Yesterday, I had a first in my life. It happened at exactly 9:10 AM and about 35 people participated in the occasion. At that point in time I received a standing ovation for, well, for just being me.
I didn’t discover the cure for cancer or land a major account for my job. I didn’t track my girlfriend down at the airport and beg her to marry me instead of moving to Paris. I didn’t even make a great omelet for my roommates. Instead, all I did was make my usual thirty-second speech which includes my name, agency, and what services we offer. I must make this speech 8 times a week in public. However, on this particular occasion — a middle school career day— the audience stood and applauded.
The ovation wasn’t from the students. Instead, it was given by the other professionals in the room. We were all hanging out before we went to talk to students, going around the room, talking about our jobs. Lo and behold, after my presentation I received a loud round of applause. Neither Mark the landscaper nor Sally the banker were so honored. Minutes later I was introduced to an English class by another career day speaker who called me an inspiration. This guy met me a few minutes before, and already he’s using the “I” word. I laughed and thought about telling the students that I was a ambassador of the Cuban Government sent to Santa Barbara to start a Marxist revolution. How inspiring would I be then!
However, I am on my best behavior; and did the normal spiel about my background and job, mixing in a few details about cheating on a few high school spelling tests, and about my arrest record for protest. Apparently this didn’t make me less inspiring. Do I need to tell them about my preference to smoke a little medicinal stuff on a summer night, or my trips to convenience store to buy Playboy, to get them to stop finding me inspirational?
If I had shouted out all my vices, I may have been kicked off campus, but my tale of working a 9-5 job made me seem super-human to them (though I know lots of people with disabilities who do the same thing). It’s kind of scary to hear people say that I am helping them see humanity in a new way. It’s scary to think that I might be able to open someone’s heart in 5 minutes. What if I had never met them. Would their hearts remain closed? Would they remain callous towards other people?
My guess is no, that you and a lot of folks are wonderful people with big hearts offering me a compliment. But your flattery puts a hell of a lot on my shoulders. You set a standard for me that I have to live up to. What if you saw me at a bar drinking margaritas and talking like a sailor with friends downtown — would you be disappointed in me then?
Along with this “hero worship,” I don’t understand why people expect me to be interested in hearing about how their uncle or cousin works for Special Olympics, or how they volunteer with Best Buddies every weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about other experiences with disabilities, but I don’t need to hear these stories to know that someone’s a good person. I am not asking for the “story” about how you identify with the community in every “small talk” conversation — we can talk about the weather too.
Another thing I don’t understand is when people tell me how glad they are that I don’t feel sorry for myself. Most people with disabilities I know aren’t the “woe is me” kind. I wonder if the people they’re talking about as “feeling sorry” for themselves are actually the people who are fighting the evils of this capitalist society every day. I guess I failed in my presentations yesterday to expose my true socialist tendencies. I need to work harder next time so people will stop saying ‘Jacob is an inspiration” and instead say, “Jacob is another liberal nut job from San Francisco, but we better watch out because he’s a damn good advocate ”
I was so tired from being called a damn inspiration that day that I found myself pining to be back in my office getting a good lecture from my boss. Surely a report I submitted had too many typos; or perhaps I had contacted a community person whom I shouldn’t have for some advice; or maybe I was throwing my ego around a bit too much. Now I think highly of my boss and hate to disappoint her, but i was ready to be brought down from that inspirational high to the happy medium of critique and praise that comes with my job.
The day before I got my standing ovation, I received some good-natured ribbing for forgetting to do a job (putting on the music at our organization’s open house). “It wasn’t my fault,” I protested, “I couldn’t find the right password for our computer.”
“Yeah buddy, whatever!“ my co-worker said, “We still have twenty minutes left, and I want to hear classic rock.”
My favorite critique came two months prior when I complained about the bus company not e-mailing me back. “Are you sure you used spell check” the person I was complaining to said. Then she added, “You make so make so many typos sometimes I don’t understand your e-mails at all.”
These critiques help me got better at my job. All the clapping at the event was nice, but it didn’t feel as genuine as that complaint from my co-worker.
I know I sound ungrateful criticizing people who find me inspiring, but I just want to live my life as a person with a disability, who pays his rent, goes the movies and buys toothpaste without people being amazed. I see my job as helping to work for a day when people with disabilities are not ignored by society, but are also not put in the position of being role models. Then again, I probably wouldn’t mind being an inspiration if people who met me were inspired to give $100 to my organization.