Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A work study?

For those of you who don't know, I currently edit a weekly college newspaper. Recently, I published this letter from the editor.

I want to say goodbye and thank you to somebody who will have left his University job by the time you read this letter. I’ll call him JD. A few of you who are on campus for the second shift may have seen him: He worked each day cleaning, vacuuming the various houses along Bedford Street. I’d guess he was 18, maybe 19. Everyday we would exchange those polite platitudes that people share with when they work in the same space but not together. He would smile, say “Hi, how’s it goin’?” I would reply in a like manner. And every time I saw him, I would get pissed off, not at him but at USM, Maine and society in general.

JD, like many people who get funneled into janitorial work, is mentally handicapped. Now, my cousins and I are the first generation of my extended family who have not earned their living by pushing a broom – my issue with JD doing janitorial work has nothing to do with his profession, one which is essential for to all institutions. Rather, I am angry about JD’s potential options for employment. While he may never become a professor, who the hell has the right to decide that he should be a janitor? Has anybody ever handed him a paint brush and canvas? Has anyone taken the time to teach him to play the piano, to write a story? While none of these professions are more or less important than being a janitor, they represent an aspect of being human, which he was denied: Free will.

Around the time JD was born, I got to go with my mom to see where she worked. I was either four or five. It was an institution called Pine Land. One of my most vivid memories of that visit was seeing a room filled with residents, all of whom were mentally handicapped in someway, putting together little pill boxes. According to my mom, the residents were paid some pittance to make these. Suddenly, one woman gave a strangled scream and cry, lashing out with her arms knocking everybody’s piles of boxes and materials off the table. It was the most uninhibited display of frustration and anger I had seen at that point in my life and I have never been able to erase that sound she made from my mind.

While these two people are very different, their plight is the same; for the sake of productivity, their humanity was diminished. Both JD and the woman were given jobs so that they might “contribute to society” or “gain a sense of self-worth” without consideration of what they might want to do or might truly be able to do. In essence, mainstreaming did little more for them than to force them to fill the shortage of manual labor. It turned them in to little more than objects, servants, of those of us lucky enough to be able to recognize our own autonomy. And, since these jobs are usually done after normal business hours or in institutions, we don’t have to see their faces and reflect on what’s happening.

So, goodbye JD. I’ve heard that your new job pays a bit better (not hard to do with the lack of union contracts here) and you said that it’s something you’ve been looking forward to doing. I know you don’t realize that you’ve been one of my teachers but I thank you for it and hope you find another student, one who can make a difference.

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