By Aldis Petriceks
The Elevating Embrace of a Man with Down SyndromeUploaded: Jul 2, 2018
This piece is the third in a multi-part series, telling stories about employees of Ada's Cafe -- the 501c3 nonprofit cafe in the Mitchell Park community center, which works to empower and employ individuals with diverse disabilities. To learn more about Ada's, read the November 2017 PA Online article, or visit www.adascafe.org
At 33 years old, Jeremy Teter is well past the insatiable exuberance of youth, but he does, periodically, glow with childlike enthusiasm. In his vivacity, there is the sense of something instructive, sagacious even. Teter’s words pounce upon listeners like young wolves in play, while his hands weave invisible looms of inaudible language. Indeed, one need not sit long with Jeremy Teter, even amidst a morning’s chill, to feel his exergonic and heartfelt nature.
Perhaps, you might find, simply reading about him will do the trick.
“Sometimes you might be nervous, you might be shaky,” he says to me, reassuringly, on a chilly Saturday morning in Palo Alto, “but it’s okay to be nervous.” Teter and I had met for the first time on that overcast morning, as I arrived to interview his peculiar self. I knew beforehand that he would be clever and compassionate, singular yet compatible, with an uncanny penchant for what the Greeks might call agape. But even with that foreknowledge, I had little insight into how, exactly, I would come to understand the ebullient man.
“Just relax – relax your body, your mind, and know it’s going to be okay,” Teter says, punctuating each sentence with his undulating arms. In context, he’s describing the approach he takes when meeting new people. New faces are a common occurrence for the lively character, as Teter spends his workdays at Ada’s Café, a local 501c3 nonprofit which empowers and employs people with disabilities. There, the ethos is comfortable and familiar, much like home. The work itself, however, is fast-paced and unpredictable. Teter is thus confronted with new people, new duties, and unfamiliar challenges each day.
Yet somehow, the Los Altos native finds cooling repose in the heat of the kitchen. “[My coworkers call me the King of Patience,” he says with a chuckle of humility, “I’m calm, I’m patient, I don’t use my anger.”
Oddly enough, patience was not the first trait which I noticed in Teter. Instead, upon meeting him for the first time, I picked up on his reflective intellect, which is constantly probing its own thoughts and emotions. This monarch of temperance, for instance, has a deep intuition for the inner dialogues of those around him: “People like to be around each other,” he observes, implicitly noting our human need for community. “People want to be social, to be kind without being judged.”
As he reflects on this relational human spirit, Teter is also quite self-aware. He sees that often, people find it difficult to both make themselves known, and to let themselves love. “Sometimes that’s not going to be easy,” he notes, acknowledging the manmade barriers which hinder human relationship, “it’s going to be hard.” Nonetheless, as he navigates an enigmatic world of human interaction, Teter has a clear response to such roadblocks: “That’s okay – love is hard.”
The intuitive question thus becomes, how did this young man attain such a perceptive compassion? The answer lies, at least partially, within what many would call his disability. Teter has Down syndrome, a well-known genetic condition replete with a wide-ranging set of physical and intellectual phenotypes. These manifestations can include low muscle tone, learning disability, and short stature, among a large group of others. In the U.S., approximately 1 in every 700 babies is born with Down syndrome; yet as the Mayo Clinic notes, “each person with Down syndrome is an individual,” and it is impossible to characterize the experience of any one person living with the condition.
For Teter, however, his Down syndrome feels more like an augmentation. On the one hand, he claims no victimhood, saying that he has never have felt judged nor discriminated against because of his disability. And on the other, Down syndrome has led Teter toward a uniquely compassionate wisdom – crucial for Western a culture which is inching, slowly but hopefully, towards greater justice for its disabled communities.
“Don’t listen to other people’s problems,” Teter remarks, giving encouragement to disabled people living in an ableist culture, “their frustrations, their grudges – their fears.” He holds together self-awareness, vulnerability, and empathy – showing that while love is indeed hard, it is also brave. “Get experience with people,” he implores, speaking to those who rarely interact with disabled persons, “and listen to your heart.”
The young man, aware of society’s tribal tendencies, is constantly reimagining our perceived human differences. The purpose of Teter’s life, it seems, is to uplift others with such compassionate reflections. He strives relentlessly to empower others not only with his words, but also his eyes, his hands, his heart.
At Ada’s, Teter approaches work with a different sort of relentlessness. When asked about his favorite part of the job, he brims with enthusiasm: “I like to be pushed.” Fortunately for him, the café provides synchronous moments of challenge and mentorship. “Sometimes people [at Ada’s want you to do more,” he notes with excitement, “and they keep pushing you. And it’s okay, because in your heart, you think ‘I can do this.’ ”
For Teter, it seems, all things do indeed return to the heart. The young man embraces the world with a pulsing vitality, pouring forth energy and love to those around him. “Listen to your heart,” he repeats, to all those who might need his tenacious love, “and it will give you confidence.” At some point during our conversation, Teter mentions that he is a devout Christian, and the analogy is not hard to draw: Come to me, one might imagine him saying, and I will give you rest. The man is unassertive, lending repose to whomever might need it; but all the while, he pulses with energy and purpose in all that he does.
“Everybody hates doing the dishes,” he jokes of his coworkers at the café, “but you know what? I love it.” Teter’s smile sings with sincerity, as he equates cleaning dishes to “opening up Christmas presents.” With a simple contentment, he continues: “You see different things, and it’s wonderful. I love different things.” His very presence exudes with wonder at human experience; it is a public entreaty to reimagine, to experience, that wonder each and every day. When all things are done from the heart, he humbly proclaims, how could love not perfuse life?
To this day, even after meeting and interviewing Jeremy Teter, I still have trouble understanding the man. He is humble and unimposing, yet houses a pulsing internal engine. He transforms commonalities into fresh, engrossing endeavors. And he greets others with a deep and abounding love, even when he is nervous and meek. Teter, in my eyes, is somewhat of an enigma. My own language is bankrupted by his patient, yet powerful warmth – though perhaps that is exactly the point? It may be that for all his reflections, Jeremy Teter has always lived a life beyond locution; that he has always spoken most potently through his eyes, through his hands, through the warmth of his actions.
As the wind continued to blow on that Saturday morning, Teter eventually grew cold. We had only been speaking for thirty minutes, but little else was needed for my heart to be won. Reflexively, intuitively, I removed my jacket and handed it to him. All of a sudden, in that moment, the wind seemed to lose its chill. My own body, much like his, was warmed by the earnest sincerity of self-giving love.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said, as our conversation whistled through the morning.