XIV: Toby Smith

“His name is Toby,” the director of the facility said, “and I’m not going to lie to you, Toby is a handful. He will test the patience of the most patient person.”

Just standing in the director’s office was a proud day for me. I thought I was making a huge stride into being “A man for others.” As a Jesuit high school student, I made a pledge to be a man for others, and I thought pursuing this vocation was an excellent step in that direction. My high school teachers taught us the inspirational quote from Jackie Robinson line, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on others.” I ran across that quote again, years later, and I consider it one of the best quotes of all time.

I spent the time between seeing that online ad seeking a daytime caregiver to the moment I stepped into the director’s office coaching myself up for this moment. I knew it would be challenging, and I knew whomever I worked with would be a handful. I knew a care facility wouldn’t post an ad seeking assistance for an individual that the employees could attend to themselves. I thought I knew what I was in for, even though the ad was a little vague. It called for basic qualifications in the manner most ads of this nature do. It informed all potential applicants that they would provide compassionate care for an individual of special needs.

As the nephew of an uncle in need of caregivers, I had a qualified respect for those who sacrifice a portion of their lives to assist a person in need. Through my uncle, I encountered caregivers who fell to this line of work, because they were unqualified to do anything else, but I also met inspirational characters who followed a calling to help their fellow man out. I met successful men and women who helped my uncle out for no other reason than to help their fellow man out. They didn’t do it for the money, of course, as there isn’t any money in such an action, and they didn’t do it to pad their resume. One element of my respect centered on the idea that I never considered myself capable of achieving the level of patience required for providing such services. During this soul-searching period of my life, I considered the idea that I might be capable, and in doing so I thought I able to do some good in the world.

Long story short, I was not about to let such the director’s general and vague warning deter me. I thought I could be that guy. I could be a man for others, and I told her as much.

To this point in my life, I wasn’t living up to that Jackie Robinson quote, or the pledge, and I thought standing in her office was a huge first step. Her warning to me that Toby was a handful only emboldened me.

“If I thought this was going to be easy,” I said. “I wouldn’t be here.” I added a lot more to my personal presentation, but I don’t remember the details of it.

“Some things you should know before we start,” she said. She said that after smiling a pleasant and polite smile throughout my presentation. That smile suggested that she was used to hearing such things from men and women who thought they had a calling. The tone of her reply stated that my presentation was meaningless to her. “Under no circumstances are you to touch Toby in an inappropriate manner. This includes hitting him. You cannot hit Toby, even in self-defense. This also includes scolding. You are not to scold Toby in a manner the teachers deem 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 also 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, or engage in some form of self-defense that involves striking back.”

“I would never hit him,” I said, “and I am not a confrontational person in that regard.” I found the insinuation a little insulting. I tried to keep it in mind that there were people who did such things, and she didn’t know me, so she didn’t know if I was capable of such things. I also knew she had to lay a framework for behavior, but while I tried to respect her process, I considered it laughably obvious. When she added the warning, ‘You are not allowed to touch him in an inappropriate manner’ I considered it so unusual as to be almost funny. Why would she feel the need to issue such an unusual warning? That’s when it dawned on me that all these warnings were equivalent to disclaimers. 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 is not edible. 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 my smile upside down. 

“Toby does not speak,” she said. “He uses some code words and various sounds that you will learn over time have meaning, but his vocabulary is extremely limited. As such, he will 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 to anyone, even 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-to-no reward for my effort, it did dampen my enthusiasm for the job. 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 she implied that the only rewards I would arrive at 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 tin shed 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 noteworthy. 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 who eagerly greeted me when I entered. 

“Toby? This is Toby,” she said alluding to the laughing young man who stood 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 who 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. As we were exchanging superficial pleasantries, that bird shriek ran through the building again. These shrieks appeared to occur at thirty-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 while they spoke. 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 facility needed a special caregiver for him, or why the director felt the need to list off warnings for 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 throughout the day, but especially when he’s hungry. You never get used to it.”

These birdcalls, these shrieks are difficult to describe, but the adjoining room we stood in, was an attached tin shed that I figured to be about the size of a football field without sidelines, and that shriek echoed off every tin 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, it startled her as much as it did me. As she said, she never got used to it.

The next time the call rang out, interrupting my conversation with the teacher, she put a hand to her heart and said, “Geez, that was a loud one. He must be getting hungrier.”

If a prehistoric man heard such a shriek, he would run. He wouldn’t look back. He wouldn’t attempt to source it. He might fear 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, as the teacher said when he gets hungrier.

At some point, and my memory deletes all moments between, 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.

My conviction to the idea of pursuing this vocation was as stark as the differences between the two Tobys. 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 0096 level.  

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

“As I hope you can appreciate, Toby Smith 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 think she saw something in my face that suggested I was having doubts. Rather than soothe me into a position for which I was not suited, she said, “I’m not going to sugarcoat this, Toby is a lot to handle. There are a number of reasons I won’t go into that led us to place the ad.” 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 habit of biting, but he doesn’t bite hard enough to break skin.” I could tell she said the latter to soften the blow of the former. “Some of his bites, however, do leave superficial marks on the skin.”

“How often has this happened?” I asked.

“It’s doesn’t happen too often, but he does have a documented history of biting caretakers.” I considered asking what “too often” meant, but I considered one bite from another human too often. I didn’t think she would’ve bothered with that description if Toby Smith bit people daily, and I think she would’ve changed her description if it occurred on a weekly basis. I surmised that, “he doesn’t do it too often,” meant that the biting incidents were probably a quarterly event. I didn’t ask the question, however, because this idea that a 250 lb. man might bite me on even a semi-annual occasion pretty much meant this job wasn’t for me.

“What prompts him to bite people?”

“He doesn’t only do it when he’s angry, and we haven’t been able to establish a pattern for this behavior.”

At that point, I was questioning my resolve, my personal definition of altruism, and everything else that led me to sit in the desk opposite her when she added, “I should also tell you that one of your primary duties will be cleaning up after him and changing his pants. Toby does not have control of his facilities.” 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. She had a smile on her face as I processed all of the information, and I waited for her to say, ‘just kidding.’ That smile never broke, of course, as she wasn’t joking.

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 her 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.

The idea that anything I did to defend myself against a 6’7”, 250lb. man hitting me was something that kept popping back into my head, and I thought the two of us would need to explore before I accepted minimum wage for doing so. I thought I might have been able to deal with the particulars of the school’s definition of self-defense, if my sole concern was with Toby Smith hitting me. That was still a concern, of course, but the idea that Toby might consider biting me on a somewhat regular basis, for no discernible reason, and they wouldn’t allow me to defend myself in anyway was beyond the pale.

I pictured her saying, “Hey, you knew the rules,” if I defended myself in any way that led to my termination, or a possible lawsuit from the Smith family. I pictured the public scorn that may have followed if I defended myself against having such a large man lower onto my shoulder mouth agape. I pictured the headline, “Man strikes mentally disadvantaged man.” Even if all I did was place an instinctive forearm out to prevent him from biting me, the director of the care facility made it quite clear that they wouldn’t defend me in any way.

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, saying, “You never get used to it.” 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 what had to be sizable discharges was something I didn’t want to think about. The flood of images, including the idea that this man must’ve worn adult 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 minutes watching Toby Smith to make a decision.  

It wouldn’t take hour, and I wouldn’t need to take another moment to think about it. I gave her my answer. Among the many regrets I would have were the ‘I don’t know who would want this job’ tone I used, and the ‘good luck finding a man that will’ 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.

By this point in our interview, she made it clear that no matter how many details she dropped on me, this was no joke. When she scoured her brain for more details to warn me about, I said, “It’s not necessary. I am probably not the man for this job. I am sorry,” I added. She maintained a professional a polite smile throughout my admission, and when I was done both of us turned regretful.

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

In her professional response, I saw disappointment and recognition. She probably knew how difficult it would be to fill this position before I walked in the door, but my rejection only reinforced it.

“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 what started out as some embarrassment, because some part of me knew I didn’t have the patience or the wherewithal for the job. That led to some shock for how unprepared I was, which evolved into a level of shock where I almost laughed, thinking she had to be kidding. My initial thoughts, as I walked away from the facility did not involve this story I’m writing for you now. My initial thoughts were of deep. This moment exposed the idea that I was not a man for others, and it 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 I now knew there would always be better men than I am in this regard.

I sat in my car realizing that all of the thoughts I had about joining this service were self-serving. I wanted to help my fellow man out to serve some image I wanted to have of myself, and my decision not to do it was even more self-serving. “Who would choose to do that?” I asked myself to attempt to assuage the guilt I felt. What inexperienced person, in this field, would choose to take on a Toby Smith? I figured I was in the 99.99 percentile. Then I thought of the one person missing from this equation I developed, Toby Smith.

Toby Smith’s parents obviously couldn’t handle him anymore, and my guess was that they tried to have family members take care of him. As Toby aged, and grew, and his tendencies became more harmful, the desperate parents signed him up for a care facility to have someone provide him the care he needed. Over time, the care facility became overwhelmed, as Toby Smith hit and bit his caregivers. My guess is that the ad they placed, and my interview, was their desperate plea to find someone who could handle him. My guess was that they never would find that special person.  

The care facility may have started out seeking a credentialed caregiver, as Toby Smith required the services of an experienced individual with God-like patience, but as the years went by their desperation led them to open the floodgates to anyone who might be able help them. I wondered if the director fought those who wanted her to hire someone, anyone, and she said, “No, I’m going to warn them about what they’re getting into, so we don’t have people quit on us after one day.”

I thought about that joke that I kept thinking the director was playing on me, and how I thought that people with hidden cameras would walk into the room to reveal the joke. I realized no self-respecting hidden camera show would accept such a scenario to broadcast, because the audience would view the episode as mean-spirited. The audience would end up feeling sorry for Toby Smith, and any 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 subject of this joke as selfish.

“No one would choose to do all that?” I said to myself again, this time with more conviction. I was trying to convince myself that I was a normal person, one of the 99.99%, and I wasn’t such a bad guy. I tried to convince myself the only circumstances beyond your control would put you in charge of such a man. You don’t choose to burden your life with such a man, then I thought of those who do 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 profound respect for them.