It was a particularly busy day, which is a bit of an understatement. I don't quite remember which product had just released that morning, but it was the kind of thing that had attracted a long line of campers outside the entrance the night before. The store was so packed it felt like working inside of a sardine can all day.
Somewhere in the middle of this hectic rush, a group of about 15 high school kids came through the door, accompanied by their teacher. It seemed like an odd day to take a field trip to the Apple Store, I thought. My curiosity was piqued though, and since I happened to be free at that moment, I went over to talk to them.
The kids basically ignored me, but the teacher was happy to speak for the group. She said that their school—which sounded to me like a small, upper-class, private institution—was providing one MacBook for each of the students. No Pro models or anything, just the low-end plastic ones. They'd all been given an Apple Store gift card to purchase with, so they would all be rung up individually.
Each student was given the choice of a black or a white 160GB MacBook. I supposed they had all been brought to the Apple Store to check each one out at the last minute and see what they liked best, but it didn't take long for the students to form a line next to the teacher with their minds already made up. And then the teacher walked off to handle a student who was being particularly rowdy.
And then it dawned on me that all of these students were all speaking to one another in sign language.
They were from a school for the deaf.
While the teacher was tied up with the troublemaker, the first student in line began signing something to me. Now, I had taken a 6-week sign language course in high school, but that was years ago and I couldn't remember how to sign much more than "thank you" and the "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" song (it was our final project, don't ask me why). I had no idea what this kid was saying.
I put my hands up and started doing that thing where I'm mouthing words and kind of adding an airy whisper, you know, the way you might do with someone on the other side of a car door window. I've never really understood why people make that noise, when we know the other person can't hear it.
Anyway, the point is, I was trying my best to communicate to him that I don't speak sign. Once we finally established that, a light bulb went off in my head and I walked him over to the nearest iMac so we could open TextEdit and simply type back and forth. What else was I going to do? It was insanely busy and there was still a line waiting outside the door.
Our text conversation was pretty curt:
-how are you doing?
-cool. so you're wanting a macbook?
yeah i like the white one
and so it went until he had paid for his MacBook and the next student stepped up. I had a version of this text conversation with every single one of these kids. I suppose I could have been more efficient by getting all their MacBooks at once, but instead I ended up walking back and forth between the sales floor and the stock room to grab each one individually.
It wouldn't occur to me until later that the teacher could have jumped in as translator at any point after I had rung up the first kid, but she chose to let me communicate with the students via text messages on a screen instead. I remember thinking that we could have saved a lot of time and effort, but I wasn't too perturbed by it or anything.
I mean, the kids were mostly friendly, and it was an overall enjoyable experience. Kinda fun, actually. It was certainly a nice distraction from the other craziness going on that day. Eventually, all the students had their MacBooks and were saying their "thank yous" in sign as they left.
This is the point where the story should have ended, in my mind. But fast-forward a few hours, when the craziness in the store had died down a little and we were finally being allowed to start staggering our lunch breaks. When my break time rolled around, I headed to the food court upstairs (did I mention my Apple Store was in a mall?) to grab some grub.
You know who was sitting at a big table together up there? You guessed it, the group of students and their teacher. But...imagine my surprise when they were all talking to each other out loud, no more sign language involved.
I must've stood there dumbfounded for several seconds before one of the students pointed me out. The teacher turned around, laughed at the look on my face, and got up to come talk to me about what I was seeing. She explained that none of the kids were actually deaf, although the part about their school getting them MacBooks was true.
Apparently, the teacher had decided to turn this outing into a strange assignment/experiment. The idea was for the group of kids to spend the entire day at the mall, going store-to-store and behaving as if they were deaf to see how employees treated them. After explaining all of this, the teacher told me that almost every single store they'd visited had treated them a bit terribly. As if they were annoyed that they had to deal with all these "deaf" kids and preferred to be finished with them as soon as possible.
The next part of her story made me feel awesome inside: She said that I was the only person they worked with all day that had treated them like real people, and actually tried to be as helpful as the situation allowed. They had all been impressed with my idea of using TextEdit to communicate, because nobody else in the mall had even bothered to grab a pen and some paper.
The students got to learn a real lesson about how the world treats those who are a little different, and I got a bunch of hugs and handshakes in return, along with a few tears shed all around. They even bought my lunch! We sat around and chatted for a while before I had to go back to work, and we exchanged a few more hugs before I left. I haven't seen any of those kids since but they all seemed like a good bunch so I'm sure they're all doing well somewhere.
It was one of the most feel-good, warm and fuzzy experiences I've ever had, and I will remember it forever.
Update: Wow, I really didn't expect this story to blow up the way it has. I've never had anything voted up on Hacker News before, much less gain the top spot. I'm still not convinced it hasn't all been a fever-dream.
The generally positive response I've been getting from readers all evening has been incredible. I've received tons of emails/tweets/ADN posts from people who have been kind enough to share their similar stories with me. Many of them are far more touching than what I published here today and deserve all this attention more than I do.
Tonight has been a strange, wonderful, exciting, nerve-wracking experience. I'm not sure I can ever express my gratitude for all the support I've received. Thank you, everyone.
Now, here is a picture of my son looking super smug for your enjoyment: