A woman with brown stains on her teeth stands behind an electronic cash register in her navy blue regalia, a “have it your way” pin buttoned on her left breast.
I tell her that there are nine of us together and I ask if she can separate each order individually. She assures me that she will.
My students, all College Living Experience summer troopers, stand single file, their name tags and key cards dangle from their necks. They look like grown-ups on a field trip, only without fanny packs around their waists. Many of them have never ordered their own meals in a restaurant.
I stand at the counter, at the front of the line, and one by one, each student tells me what they want and I tell them, “I’m not a Burger King employee, please tell the lady behind the counter what you’d like.”
“I want a Whopper with cheese and ketchup.” “Say please,” I instruct. “Oh yeah, please.” “Can I have the #3 meal?” “Say, please,” I instruct. “Please.” “Two double cheeseburgers and nine Chicken Sticks.” “Say please,” I instruct. “Why?” “Because it’s polite to say please when you ask for something.” “Fine, Please.”
One of the nine students I’m with says please.
Our food is served on three trays. Nothing is separated. It’s now my job to decipher which sandwich is wrapped within what paper. They all look exactly the same, some of them are heavier. I work systematically and pass out what I believe to be everyone’s meal.
One student is not pleased. He has opened his white wrapper to find that there are vegetables in between the bun. He screams, “There’s lettuce on mine!” He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he’s very anxious and he speaks in a loud voice. He scrambles for his sandwich, grabbing at those that are still wrapped.
He opens a woman’s sandwich that is not a member of our party. She’s a middle-aged Hispanic woman in sweatpants. She yells, “What the fuck are you doing?” She starts to stand. He is holding her lunch in his hand, his fingers on her buns. I intervene before she swings.
I explain to her about the population of students that I’m escorting. “He has a severe learning disability.” She doesn’t seem to understand. She’s pissed. I apologize profusely. But, she can’t understand how anyone, regardless of “some fucking learning disability,” could touch her food.
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I explain to the manager behind the counter what’s happened. His line extends beyond the wooden labyrinth that lines up hungry customers. He doesn’t understand why someone would grab someone else’s food either. My explanations fall short again. He yells and one of his employees makes two sandwiches, one to replace the one that was fondled and one without vegetables.
Everyone eats. Nobody says thank you.
-- Jesse Ruderman
Jesse Ruderman spent three weeks this summer working for College Living Experience's first annual summer program in Denver. CLE specializes in helping teenagers who live with ADD/ADHD, Aspergers, psychosocial-maturational, nonverbal learning disorder and other learning disabilities transition into college and adult life with a three-week intensive college preparation session. More than 30 students from across the nation traveled to Denver, where they lived in their own dorm rooms, attended college-credit courses, traveled via public transportation, cooked and or ordered their own meals and were responsible for maintaining their own medications and hygiene, testing their ability to function independently.