February 3, 2009

“Maryann,  you want this receipt, don’t you dear?”. Maryann took the bank teller’s receipt and went over to the counter. She took three different color pens and marked up the two inch receipt for over a minute. Then she opened a folder and gingerly placed the paper inside. Maryann then took a paper clip out of a coin purse and joined the receipt to a larger piece of paper. I could swear I noticed several other paper clips joined to the same page.

I had first seen Maryann as I was walking from my car to the Credit Union. She brushed past me, yelling at a woman a half block ahead. She half-walked, half-run, avoiding every sidewalk crack while maneuvering forward. “I must talk to your Pug” she repeated many times. I could tell the dog-walker was hoping the light would change so she could escape Maryann, but she didn’t quite make it. This Pug-chaser looked about 70, but appeared in fantastic shape. I imagine all that aerobic crack-avoiding and dog-chasing had served her well over the years.

She finally stood in front of the pug and its owner and this is what she said: “Hello Mr. Pug. Top of the Morning to you.” At that, she left, not saying another word to the owner or to any one of the ten people who were watching this. I took note of the disdain on their faces as I walked into the Credit Union where my daughter was waiting for me.

I thought about Maryann and others I meet every day with functional mental illness. They can function well enough in life to avoid hospitalization, but they know they don’t quite fit. Most people notice their strangeness or perhaps are annoyed by their funny facial expressions and outbursts that seem foreign to average people. Maryann may have had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia or perhaps Bipolar Disorder. In the fifteen minutes I watched her, I saw traits that could be found with each condition. Whatever her difficulty, the reaction of most people was like the pug-walker; avoidance. The mentally ill become acutely aware that the world doesn’t want them around and they live daily with a sense of isolation from others. I wonder at times whether mental illness leads to homelessness as much because of this feeling of being alone as much as it relates to inability to cope with life.

But in the bank I saw another reaction. The teller saw Maryann come in immediately. The other two tellers looked at their colleague and you could see they wanted Maryann to go her direction. Maryann was not given a choice.

“Maryann dear, I have your account pulled up here on my screen. How are you today love?” She made direct eye contact, even though Maryann did not return her gaze. The teller used terms of affection (were these the only ones this lady had received all day?) and she leaned forward to give an air of confidentiality. My daughter and I were sitting a few feet away waiting for some paperwork to be finished. I was trying to overhear the conversation while appearing not to. I’m glad I did.

In the next five minutes, the teller walked Maryann through all of her accounts and their balances. She informed Maryann that she probably wanted a roll of quarters since it was Monday. At each helpful point, Maryann did a sharp “Mmm…hmmm…yes that’s right!” It was like she was checking things off a list. The list was long, convoluted and complicated, but none of it threw the teller off her game. She peppered her conversation with “dear”, “sweetheart” and “love”, but never once got a smile out of Maryann.

The most telling moment came when Maryann left the branch. She paused at the door and looked back at the teller over her shoulder. She turned up the corner of her mouth in a half-smile and then she was gone. I then looked at the teller who was back at work on a small mound of paperwork Maryann had left her with.

This teller is my hero of the day. No one will ever give her awards for treating mentally-challenged Maryann like a human being. No, she went beyond treating her as a human being; she made her feel like she mattered. I concluded that none of it was an act. She was too genuine and unforced to be anything other than what she was – Compassionate. I guess she must have figured a long time ago (how long I wonder had she waited on Maryann….months, years?) that this OCD patron was worth the extra time she spent on her. I am not stretching my imagination to believe that this is the only person Maryann meets daily who takes this kind of time to show any type of positive reaction.

My determination this morning is to emulate that teller. I am on the lookout today for the dispossessed and the isolated. I want to show them in some way that they matter. I also want to send a letter to the Credit Union and nominate this teller for whatever there is to nominate her for. She should at least get a pat on the back from someone who matters. Having seen her devotion to making a difficult customer feel special, they sold me on their company.


  1. Mike, that is such an amazing story! And this is so true, even with children in school. Last year I student taught in a class where there were two students with disabilities. One had autism and he acted different enough that all the children accepted his unusual habits and accepted him willingly. We then had another student that also had social difficulties, but was “normal” enough that the same students who openly accepted the student with autism rejected this other student. It took a lot of work of my cooperating teacher to show these students to have the same patience with both. I later visited this same class 6 months later and the improvements that both this second boy and his fellow students had made was astounding! Showing people such as these love truly makes a difference. No wonder John told us repeatedly how important love is!

  2. Kristiina…I knew you were a good teacher, but your comments here do more than affirm that; I realize you are probably an exceptional person and a great teacher. Keep finding those lost ones and bring them into the community of humanity with love.

  3. The connections we make with others matter more than anything else in life, well, except for maybe food and water. And those of us who project the façade of “normal,” but have problems swirling in our noggins, need those connections more than you can imagine. We have value. Our minds are filled with creativity and wisdom. But our oddities can be difficult to ignore, by others and especially by ourselves. I have tried, with faltering success, to make connections at work, school, health clubs, on the golf course, in sports, through technology, and the church. I have found that all of these mediums have agendas and goals that supersede the human heart’s need for simple unadulterated connection with other people. In order to connect, I cannot rely on institutions. My hope for connection is through one person at a time. Perhaps this is why Facebook has 150 million people using their service. No pressure to produce, no pressure to buy, no pressure to give, no pressure serve, no pressure to win, no pressure to entertain; just connect! Why is it so hard? Why does it take someone like a saintly bank teller to reveal for a few precious moments the sublime value of honoring our sacred in-God’s-image value? It is good to hear such stories because they provide needed hope and they chip away at disillusionment.

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