Two days a week, the boys from Heritage High School in Loudoun County come to my store. On Tuesdays, they drop off their teachers' drycleaning, and they return on Thursdays to pick it up.
For each boy there is a teacher monitoring effective communication and safe public behavior. For each boy there is at least one diagnosis of a disorder on the autism spectrum.
The most common visitors are Tommy, Arjun, and Wallace. After three months of seeing me regularly, it was only today that Wallace looked me in the eyes. It was a pretty big deal.
Arjun is far more social and once asked my husband if they could be friends. Go ahead and guess what the answer was.
Tommy also has Tourette's Syndrome so it takes a lot of concentration for him to lift his bag of clothes to the counter and to wait for me to process them. Sometimes, his teacher will slyly move a rubber ball into his hand to give the electrified nerve endings something solid to ground them.
Preston was once a Heritage boy. He says he doesn't remember taking teachers' clothes to the cleaners, but he recalls other outings and Ms. B was his teacher.
Preston works at our store now and is the only person who is neither me nor my husband to have worked a straight 13-hour shift.
If there is no tagging, assembly or bagging to do, Preston will ask permission to sweep the floor or clean the counters. He is the only employee who does this.
Today, after Wallace looked right at me and answered my questions and after Preston had swept the floors free of even the smallest dust mote, a customer came in and announced that she regularly comes in on Tuesdays and has been made to wait because the students from Heritage take so long.
"I only have a limited time for lunch and you might want to consider that doing business with people like those takes a long time," she announced.
I was stunned.
"People like what?" I asked. "Teenagers? Tall people? People who like interacting with me when they drop off clothes?"
She was appalled at me, but I was unable to shut my pie hole.
"What kind of people do you mean? People who wait patiently while I take the orders? Because I happen to enjoy those people. I employ them. My son is one..." I kept talking as she retreated from my store.
So, today I am pretty sure I lost a customer, but Wallace looked right at me today and Preston made my store look great today, so I think it was an even exchange.
And I stood up for my son, although today will not be the day he knows that. It gives me something to which I can look forward.