PARAMUS, N.J. – If there’s ever such a thing as going out with a bang, Elin Schikler is walking proof. A serendipitous trip to a Ridgewood diner earlier this year for what she thought would be a quiet retirement lunch with a colleague turned out to be the ultimate "mic drop" of her life.
For nearly 30 years, Schikler dedicated her life to teaching students at Bergen Community College about how to hone their communication skills as a proud speech professor. It was a subject she agrees was her life’s purpose: re-instating confidence in her students as eloquent speakers. Every semester since 1990, she’d instill the same principle to her class: “If I can do it, you can do it.”
As a girl, Schikler went through grade school with what she called “really bad” dyslexia, a learning disorder where the person has difficulty with reading and interpreting letters, symbols and words. The disorder does not affect intelligence; rather, sufferers learn at a slower rate than those without it. Because of her learning disability, Schikler was a target for criticism from classmates who frequently hurled cruel remarks at her, one of them being “retard.” One girl in particular, she recalled, refused to sit next to her out of fear of “catching her stupidity.”
For 60 years, the snide comments classmates made about her intellectual ability stayed with her as she replays them in her head like a bad movie from time to time. This despite having later graduated at the top of her class with honors and an assistantship from Hunter (now Lehman) College in 1969 and educating and championing the potential for success for at-risk youth. The ill feelings she experienced when hearing them in school in the 1950s re-emerged on the day of her retirement this year. But the bullying, it turned out, was kismet that released her from her mental shackles when her heroic efforts in standing up for a special needs man who a waiter refused to serve at the Tom Sawyer Diner in Ridgewood this past spring were caught on a hidden camera show.
Flashback to May, Schikler’s colleague Andy Krikun, a fellow professor at Bergen Community, asked her to meet him at the diner for lunch to celebrate her retirement. Upon her arrival, and before she had a chance to peruse the menu, she was appalled at the abrasive behavior exhibited by one of the waiters towards a deaf customer. On the episode, which aired in August, as the deaf man began gesturing his order to the server in sign language, the waiter impatiently cut him off, telling him that he “doesn’t have time for this” and asks rhetorically if the man is supposed to have a translator with him. Unbeknownst to Schikler, the deaf customer was an actor, and she was part of ABC’s hidden camera show "What Would You Do.”
On the episode, Schikler's increasing vexation could not be contained upon witnessing such blatant injustice.
“Could you show a little more sensitivity?” she asked the server. “O.K.,” she continued emphatically with her hand in the air. “You don’t treat people that way.”
In a recent phone interview reflecting on her experience on the show, Schikler recalled the same "residual anger" she experienced when people had been cruel to her, prompting the need to speak up.
“My life was wonderful with great parents, nice friends, but sometimes it only takes two or three people to hurt you, so I really felt the pain of others," she said. "I am very empathetic.”
While the waiter blamed the full dining room to excuse his rudeness, Schikler got up and walked over to the manager while waving her hand in the air as to block her from the server's presence.
“What the hell is he doing here?” she asks angrily to the manager in the episode.
When Krikun joins her at the table, the waiter approaches them, and she explains to him that she is a professor of communication and tells him of the communications skills that he has: “none.”
When the server leaves the table, the actor playing the deaf man comes up and thanks Schikler in sign language, to which she gestured back at him with her hands on her heart.
Nyle DiMarco, a deaf advocate, champion on “Dancing with the Stars,” and the first deaf winner of “America's Next Top Model,” re-emerged from watching the drama from behind the scenes in the restaurant with news correspondent John Quiñonesto and thanked Schikler for her actions, which he said “completely restored” his faith in humanity.
The goal for that particular episode, DiMarco said on the show, was to create a similar scenario of injustice experienced by people with disabilities -- frequently present in everyday encounters -- with the hope that people won’t become bystanders and instead stand up for their fellow man when they witness any act of social inequity taking place.
“Waiters are completely petrified,” DiMarco expressed in the episode of the discrimination he has faced with people who grew impatient when they could not communicate with him. “You can see it in their eyes. Their world is collapsing as they see us and trying to figure out how to communicate with us.”
That day, the communication gap was bridged thanks to Schikler and her heroic gesture, the perfect ending to a hurtful chapter in her life, which has made her a kind of superwoman.
“I loved what I did in every way,” said Schikler by phone. “This was the cherry on the icing on the cake. That’s how I felt. It was a very happy ending.”