XXVIII: Toby Smith

The day I stepped into the office of the director of the facilities was a day of possibilities for me. I thought I was about to make a huge stride into being “A man for others.” As a student of a Jesuit high school, I made the pledge that all Jesuits students make, that which they derive from a speech given by a Jesuit priest named Father Pedro Arrupe. It calls for all young men and women to be a man for others. As a man that wanted to pursue this noble ideal, I thought pursuing a vocation, as opposed to an occupation, might be an excellent step in that direction. My high school also taught us an inspirational quote from Jackie Robinson, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on others.” I ran across that quote again, years later, and it had a profound effect on me. To this point in my life, I wasn’t living up to that quote, or the pledge, and I thought this day might provide an excellent first step.

I responded to an ad for a job for a daytime caregiver. The ad was vague. It called for basic qualifications in the manner most ads of this nature do. It informed the potential applicant that they would provide compassionate care for an individual of special needs. As the nephew of an individual that required care, I gained a qualified respect for those that sacrifice a portion of their lives to assist a person in need. I’ve encountered those caregivers that fell to this line of work, because they were unqualified to do anything else, but most of those that decided to help my uncle were inspirational characters that heeded a call to help their fellow man out. One aspect of this respect centered on the idea that I never considered myself capable of achieving the level of patience required for providing such services, and I watched them do so from afar. During a soul-searching moment of my life, I considered the idea that I might be capable of this. I thought I might be able to do some good in the world.

“His name is Toby,” the director of the facility said to introduce me to the name of the person I was hired to help. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this, Toby is a handful. His disabilities are such that they will test the patience of the most patient.”

I spent the previous weeks coaching myself up. I would not let a general warning deter me. I thought I could be that guy. I could be a man for others. I told her as much.

The director smiled. It was a polite smile. The smile suggested that she was used to hearing such things from men and women that thought they had a calling.

“Some things you should know, before we start. Under no circumstances are you to touch Toby in an inappropriate manner,” she said. “That includes hitting him. Even in self-defense. This also includes scolding. You will not scold Toby in a manner the teachers deem to be inappropriate. We are very protective of our students, here at (the school).” She mentioned the name of the school that I no longer remember. “I will warn you ahead of time that if there is a dispute regarding the specifics involved in an argument or altercation, we will always side with the student. No matter what occurs, you are not allowed to scold the student, engage in some form of offensive self-defense, or strike back.”

I laughed at the director’s initial warning. I thought the ‘You are not allowed to hit Toby’ warning was so ridiculously obvious as to be laughable. I also thought the ‘You are not allowed to touch him in an inappropriate manner’ warning was unusual to point of being funny. Why would she feel the need to issue such an unusual warning? That’s when it hit me. Why would she feel the need to issue such an obvious warning? It dawned on me then that this warning was equivalent to a disclaimer. We have all witnessed ridiculously obvious disclaimers, and they are so ubiquitous now that we not only ignore them, we laugh at them. The 2005 iPod shuffle had a warning that the product was not edible. The product’s packaging was so delectable that the legal team at Apple, deemed it necessary to provide a proactive label on it to inform the public that this product should not be eaten. We do not know if the legal team had precedent for this label, just as we do not know if the legal team of a microwave manufacturer had a precedent in mind when they included the label ‘Do not use for drying pets’ in their manual. A comedian began listing off various ridiculous disclaimers, stating that it was important to keep in mind that most of the disclaimers he listed have a precedent that require a company to place such warnings to prevent injury and the resultant personal injury lawyers from cashing in. The idea that the director was involved in the disclaimer portion of her spiel dawned on me, as did the idea of precedent, and it turned me smile upside down. 

“Toby does not speak,” she said. “He uses some code words, but his vocabulary is very limited. He will also never grow more familiar with you. His condition is such that he is incapable of having what you might consider a normal human relationship. He has never displayed such characteristics, even to his parents.”

That was a blow to my resolve. It wasn’t a knockout blow, but it was what a boxing aficionado might call a haymaker. Call me selfish if you want, but when I realized there would be little reward for my effort, it did dampen my enthusiasm. How many people have the resolve to endure what this director was detailing for me without visions of some reward, some pot at the end of the rainbow for their effort? I entered that director’s office that day thinking about how great it would be to affect another person’s life in a positive manner. I did not envision a Rain Man style relationship developing, but I did want to achieve something I could consider spiritually fulfilling. To her credit, the director informed me that this sort of affirmation would never happened with this man named Toby, and she insinuated that if my goal was some sort of spiritual fulfillment I sought in my efforts with Toby, the rewards would be internal. 

“We’d like to have you spend some time watching Toby,” she said. “We want you to familiarize yourself with him in a manner that informs your decision to work with him. Take an hour, an afternoon, or however long it takes you to watch Toby in his environment, so that you can determine if this is the career choice you’d like to pursue.”

It wouldn’t take an hour.

Before I pushed on the door of an adjoining building that the students of the school were in, I heard a shriek. It sounded like a human scream, but only in a way that the mating call from an exotic bird in a wild forest can sound like a human scream. The discerning ear can tell the difference, but the similarities are worthy of noting. The shriek was so loud and piercing that I paused before I pushed on the door. It startled me, but I didn’t make too much of it at the time. I looked out on the throng of students at the school when I entered, and I searched for Toby.

“Which one is Toby?” I asked a young female student that eagerly greeted me when I entered. 

“This is Toby,” she said alluding to the laughing young man that stood right next to her. “Right here.”

“Hello,” I said. Toby said hello. He extended his hand, and we shook hands.

“How are you?” I asked the slightly overweight, young man that appeared to have an ever-present smile on his face. He appeared to be a victim of downs syndrome, but he didn’t appear to have a severe case. I probably would not have been able to determine the severity of victim of downs syndrome on sight, but as Toby answered me, I concluded that he appeared to be a happy and well-connected young man.

I smiled back. My resolve strengthened in that smile. I was still nervous, but Toby’s smile set me at ease. That bird shriek ran through the building again. These shrieks appeared to occur at twelve-second intervals, and they interrupted my exchange between these two students a number of times. I surveyed the floor for a moment, searching for this bird. I wondered why such a school would put such a loud, shrieking bird among these students, but the female student and Toby continued to interrupt my search with questions regarding why I was there.

“I’m here to work with Toby,” I said. Toby smiled. After the three of us talked for a little while, the two students left me to engage in the activities of the day. The female looked to be about twenty-years-old, and Toby looked to be a couple years her junior. I couldn’t take my eyes off Toby. I thought he seemed like such a nice kid, and I couldn’t understand why the director felt the need to warn me. I figured that the director probably offered such disclaimers to all applicants, and that the officers of the school required the director to provide the warning to all prospective applicants as they decided whether the job was suitable for them. I also figured that Toby had a dark side, and that it would be my job to help Toby avoid feeling the need to act out.

As I was standing alone, studying Toby, one of the teachers walked up next to me. She introduced herself and politely asked why I was there. I pointed to Toby, and I said, “I’m here to provide individual assistance to Toby.”

“Toby?” she asked. “Really?” She appeared confused.

“That’s what the director told me,” I said, mentioning the woman by name.

“What did she say?”

“She said I would help provide individual assistance to Toby.”

“She said Toby Johnson?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, come to think of it, she didn’t mention his last name. If she did, I don’t remember it, but is there more than one Toby?”

“Yeah, Toby Johnson is part of the larger group that doesn’t require individual assistance,” she said. “I’m going to guess that you are here to assist the other Toby. Toby Smith.”

As if on cue, the wild birdcall occurred again. “That’s Toby Smith,” she said looking up, referring to the source of the shrieks behind her. She rolled her eyes.

“What?” I asked.

“I think he was watching some nature show one day when he heard this bird call, and he began mimicking it. He hasn’t stopped since,” she said. She smiled. “It’s the call he makes when he’s hungry. You never get used to it.”

These bird calls, these shrieks are difficult to describe, but the adjoining room we stood in, was an attached a shed that I figured to be about the size of a football field without sidelines, and that shriek echoed off every wall. The first couple of shrieks caused me a start. I didn’t know how long this woman had been at the school, or how long Toby Smith had been at the school during her tenure, but one would think that she would’ve become accustomed to it. Over time, one would think she might have become so accustomed to it that she talked through it. She didn’t in the moments we spoke. As she said, she didn’t appear used to it.

The next time the call rang out, interrupting my conversation with the teacher, I put a hand to the heart and whispered, “Geez, that was a loud one.”

I imagined that if a prehistoric man heard such a shriek, he would run. He wouldn’t look back. He wouldn’t attempt to source it. He would assume that if he paused in anyway, he might have talons sink into his shoulders, and the only thing his loved ones would remember were the prehistoric man’s shrieks as he went airborne, only to land in a nest of hungry wide-mouthed youth.

The shrieks were not consistent in intensity either. They appeared to gain strength in the short time I stood in that shed.

At some point, and my memory deletes moments that might have occurred between, for in my memory these moments were concurrent, Toby Smith began pushing a lunchroom-sized table into another table and onto a third table that was pushing into the thigh of the teacher I spoke with moments before. Frustration appeared to fuel Toby’s anguished, and more frequent, shrieks.

“What’s going on?” I asked this teacher.

“It’s 11:50,” she said. “Toby is used to eating lunch at 11:30. He gets anxious when we’re off schedule. Calm down Toby,” she instructed him. “Your food is coming.”

He did not calm down. He continued to push these tables into her, and he continued shrieking.

The difference in my reaction to the idea of pursuing this vocation was as stark as the difference between the two Tobys. Toby Johnson looked like he didn’t get outside enough, as his skin was almost ghost white. Toby Smith, on the other hand, was as black as any West African man I ever met. Toby Johnson was about 5’6”, 180lbs, Toby Smith was between 6’5” and 6’7”, and he looked to be a solid 250 pounds. Say what you want about me, but other than helping my uncle out, I had no experience with matters such as these, and if caring for individuals could be compared to a college curriculum, Toby Smith appeared to be a 4000 level course, and my experience in this field was somewhere around the 096 level.  

Soon after that, again exact timeframes are jumbled, the director called me back to her office. In her office, the director would confirm for me that it was Toby Smith that I would provide individual services, if hired, not Toby Johnson. The director also confirmed that what I witnessed in the morning session was indicative of Toby’s behavior.

“Toby Smith, as I hope you can appreciate, is a creature of habit,” the director said. “You’re a creature of habit, whether you know it or not, and so am I. Toby is more dependent on these schedules than most of us, and when he experiences even a slight deviation, he panics.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” she said for the second time that morning. She was looking me in the eye when she said that. She looked down temporarily, as if searching for a way to phrase this properly. “Toby has a bad habit of biting when he doesn’t get his way. He doesn’t bite hard enough to break skin,” she said to attempt to soften that blow. “But some of his bites do leave superficial marks on the skin.” She informed me that this doesn’t happen “too often”, but that he does have a documented history of biting his caretakers. She also informed me that he doesn’t only do it when he’s angry, and that they haven’t been able to establish a pattern that leads to the behavior.

If that wasn’t enough to cause me to question the ideals that led me to sit before her desk, she said, “Toby does not have control of his facilities, and one of your primary duties will be cleaning up after Toby and changing his pants.” Finally, this far too honest director said, “I don’t know how much you know about schools such as ours, or care facilities in general, but our employees don’t make a whole lot of money. The most we would be able to offer you is minimum wage.”

That whole paragraph of information landed with an inaudible thud on the desk between us. I had a smile on my face, a ‘you’ve got to be joking’ smile on my face that awaited an ‘I’m just kidding’ revelation. I pictured us both sitting back in our respective chairs laughing, and my laughter would be fueled with relief. 

I considered asking her for some time to deal with this overwhelming information, as I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t think a spot decision would be fair to this director or Toby. As for the compensation, I had no delusions about getting rich providing health care services, so the idea that I would only be making minimum wage didn’t make it in my top five concerns. The reason I was sitting in a chair, on the opposite side of the director’s desk, was to be a man for others, and I knew that such services do not generate much in the way of compensation. Yet, the idea that anything I did to defend myself against a 6’7”, 250lb. man hitting me was something I thought the two of us would need to explore before I accepted minimum wage for doing so. I might have been able to deal with the particulars of the school’s definition of self-defense, if I was concerned with Toby Smith hitting me. The idea that Toby might consider biting me for a reason that no one could predict based on the man’s patterns called for a different set of rules to my mind, so I could know the proper reaction to have that would help me avoid termination and a possible lawsuit from the Smith family for what I would consider an instinctual response to having such a large man lower onto my shoulder mouth agape.

If I were able to find my way through all that, I would still have to deal with high-pitched, shrieks that the pleasant teacher that seemed to have the patience of Job told me “You never get used to.” There was no logical order that I used to categorize the flood of information that I was receiving. I didn’t put these things in an order of what I deemed negligible to severe, in other words, but the idea that a novice like me would have the legs of a 6’7” man around my head while I cleaned the discharges of a size I didn’t want to think about, while changing his diapers, might have fallen in the severe category were it not for all the warnings about the man’s violent tendencies. The cherry atop the pie, and the reason her paragraph of warnings landed with an inaudible thud between us, was this idea that I would be doing all this for less money than the average Arby’s employee would make in a day.

My initial impulse, and one that I now regret, was that this had to be some kind of joke. I knew it wasn’t the kind of joke that would end in a team of cameramen and producers walking out from behind the one-way glass to reveal that I was on a hidden camera show, but the effect these warnings had on me produced a smile I imagine is similar to ones the victims of these shows have when its revealed to them that they are the victims of such a joke. If it was a hidden camera show, I thought that the essence of the joke would be revealed if the cameramen could catch a shot of their victim’s face when he, or she, first caught sight of this man of a size I considered on par with the average NBA player. They would then use the shot of the hidden camera that caught the victim’s reaction when Toby shrieked and pushed the tables into the teacher that held his opportunity for lunch in her hands. As I sat in this director’s office, I thought the payoff would then come as the victim sat in this director’s office and learned of what they would have to do coupled with how much compensation they would receive for doing it, and I didn’t think this scenario would require a scriptwriter to enhance one moment of the scenario.

I might have focused on the ridiculousness of this scenario, as it pertained to humor, a little too much. I might have thought too much about the ridiculous nature of this story, and how I would relay it to my friends, for in the immediate aftermath of that proverbial thud she dropped on the desk between us, I was near laughter when I informed the director of the school that I would not need to spend another half hour watching Toby Smith to make a decision.  

I regret the ‘who would want this job’ tone, and the ‘good luck finding a man that would want this job’ tone that I used when I began to suggest that I was not the man for this vocation. That smile, and my idea that she was in on this joke, ended when the director didn’t react in the manner I thought she would. She made it obvious that this was no joke to her.

“I am sorry,” was what I said in a serious and regretful tone, “but I am probably not the best man for this job.”

“Well, thank you for being so honest,” she said.

In her professional response, I saw disappointment. In her response, I saw her recognition of how difficult it would be to fill this position. That led me to think of Toby Smith, the one subject missing from all my ideas that this must be some kind of joke. It dawned on me that no self-respecting hidden camera show would accept such a scenario to broadcast, because the audience would view this scenario as mean-spirited. The audience would end up feeling sorry for Toby Smith, and every person trapped in Toby Smith’s situation in life, and no one would find this scenario funny. They might also consider how much care a Toby Smith type needs and as a result, they might misconstrue the actions of the actor playing me in this scenario as selfish.

“No, thank you,” I said when standing and shaking the director’s hand. “Thank you for being so forthcoming.”

As I sat at that director’s desk, I greeted each new piece of information she was reeling out to me with shock as it pertained to the ridiculousness of the situation, as it pertained to my status as a novice in this field. I thought it would play well in the story I retold, but as I walked away from the facility, regret consumed me. I was not a man for others, and this afternoon provided further evidence that I probably never would be. I thought I might be able to find another way to be so if that’s what I still wanted, but there would always be better men than I am in this regard.

“Who would choose to do that?” I asked myself to attempt to assuage the guilt I felt. I thought that putting someone in charge of the daily life of Toby Smith would be an excellent creative sentence from a judge for a first-time offender of some assault against humanity. Then I thought of those that choose to make such sacrifices in their life to help such a troubled man out, no matter how ridiculous I considered the obstacles to achieving such a lofty status, and I realized the true definition of being a man for others. Some might say that hearing, firsthand, what a caregiver experiences makes them think less of those that make such sacrifices. I walked away from this facility with more respect.