Cell Phone Needed in Library

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Protecting That Phone Call

A few months ago I was visiting a public library in Washington DC, surfing on one of the Internet computers. The person sitting across from me starting talking rather loudly on his cell phone. Momentarily startled, I paused to consider whether the phone call was appropriate or not. True, he was talking loudly on his cell phone. Maybe he had a good reason for doing so.

I quickly surmised the situation. This community member, living with mental illness, was talking with his brother who was helping him set up a Yahoo Mail account. I breathed a sigh of relief. A person living with mental illness has enough stresses in their life. The last thing they need is a Hotmail account.

An email account could let this community member stay in touch with family, while at the same time protecting his privacy and autonomy. The cell phone he was using might have been borrowed. His email account was one extra channel of communication between him and his family.

I needed to protect that phone call. Protect it from any member of the public, any librarian, any security guard or any police officer interfering with it. I took a deep breath and sat exactly where I was. I'm protecting that call, no matter what.

There was a strong temptation for me to walk over to help this community member. I knew I shouldn't. He was getting help from his brother. He sounded reasonably confident in his abiilties to complete the desired task of setting up the email account. No need to interfere.

I knew I needed to position myself closer to him, though. I should not offer help unless he really needed it. I grabbed a magazine and started perusing it about 3 steps away from him – out of his sight. I listened very carefully his tone of voice as he was progressing. Was he encountering the normal kinds of confusion that occur as part of learning? Confusion is part of learning. You aren't learning if you're not experiencing some level of confusion.

Step by step he was getting closer to his goal. I could visualize his brother on the other side of the phone – patiently describing the Yahoo Mail screen. Telling him as carefully as possible where to click next. I sent a telepathic message to his brother. “It's okay. I'm here protecting your brother. He's in a safe place. You're helping him. It's going to be okay. Everything is going to work out today.”

In my own mind I repeated to myself, “I value this man's autonomy more than anything else. I must not interfere to help him. I must absolutely not interfere unless I have no other choice.”

He began sounding distressed when his brother directed him to click into a text field. He couldn't find the text field on the busy Yahoo Mail screen. Distress is part of learning. If you're not encountering some level of distress, you're probably not learning.

I must resist helping him until his distress rises to the level of anguish – or severe frusration. I heard distress in his voice, but not anguish. Don't interfere. More distress. Do not interfere.

I have never concentrated more in my life. I listened to every nuance of his voice. Is there any sign of anguish yet? And now? And now?

A slight raise in pitch of his voice was the signal that I needed to move in. “I can't find the place to put my mouse. I can't find it.” I moved in and was almost about to grab his hand to move his mouse to the right place.

You can't do that, though. You can't grab the hand of a stranger, no matter how good your intentions are.

I reached quickly into my pocked and pulled out a pen. I moved the pen to the computer screen and gently tapped where he need to place his mouse. “Okay, I see where I need to click,” he said to his brother. “Somebody... Yes, I see where to click now.”

Exhausted, I backed off and walked out of the library. I didn't find out if he completed the sign-up process for Yahoo Mail. I did what I needed to do. I protected that call for 10 minutes. Against every instinct, I resisted interfering until I had no other choice. When I did interfere, I did so in the least intrusive way possible.

A mentor of mine, Antonio (Toni) Stone, helped me learn what I should do in that situation. Look her name up on the web sometime. She taught many people many things they needed to know. She is no longer with us, but her ideas about learning and dignity are with us. They'll be with us for a long time.

Phil Shapiro

This article was written for Apple Bits, the newsletter of the Northeast Ohio Apple Corps. The author is the former president of the Virginia Macintosh Users Group, in the Washington DC-area.

This article was distributed via the Macintosh User Group Center's newsletter exchange email list and via the newsletter article exchange service of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups.

Grateful thanks are owed to Chuck Joiner, Emilie Unkrich and Judy Taylour.