Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Starting to GET How Much I Don't "Get" It (UPDATED With My Decision)

Or “Wherein Sricki Fesses to a Shameful Level of Ignorance.”

Whatever title works for you. I’m good with either.

We’ve been talking a lot about race on the blogs lately. I freely admitted in a comment the other night that I totally don’t “get it” when it comes to understanding racism and oppression. But there’s so much I don’t get, and the more I learn, the more clueless and out of touch I feel. Am I about to embarrass myself trying to talk about race? Maybe, but I can’t say that my personal sense of humiliation and shame about all this makes it any less true or noteworthy.

First, a little background for those of you who don’t know much about me. I’m a Southerner, born and bred. Lived in Alabama near my entire life. My family is a den of Republicans, but my parents are highly educated. My mom has 4 degrees, my father 3. I have a Southern accent, sure, but no one would call me a “hick” or a “hillbilly.” I’ve had native Southerners ask where I’m from because my accent isn’t near as thick as you might expect for a  lifelong Alabamian. Oh, the Northerners always know I’m from down here, but sometimes the folks in these parts think I talk mighty proper.

I’m white. Mostly German, British, and Irish decent, I think. Sure, I was born with white privilege, but I was given a lot of other privileges that most white people never dream of. Before I entered school, my parents did a lot of research. My mom is a public school teacher, and she was always breaking up fights. She and my maternal grandfather decided that the public school system wasn’t safe enough for me, so my parents threw everything financially into putting me through private education, even though they didn’t really have the money on their own.  My privileged education was paid for by my parents along with the help of both sets of grandparents. I was enrolled in a private school well before I was old enough to attend it. I had to pass a test to get in. My parents changed neighborhoods when I was 2 to provide a “safer environment” and again when I was 8 for similar reasons.

I was surrounded by privilege – mine and that of others – my entire childhood. Despite all my opportunities, I thought I comparatively had it pretty rough because all my friends’ parents had more money than mine. Poor pitiful sricki runnin’ back and forth through sprinklers in the backyard while all her rich friends were swimming in their pools. Sure, my backyard also had a nice swing set and a treehouse, but that didn’t mean anything because my poor dad had to build that treehouse by hand. And my buddies always had the newest video games long before I did. Yeah, rough life I led.

There was never a question in my mind (or my family’s) of whether I would go to college. I never even considered staying in state. I was an “A” student, though I slacked in math pretty badly and neglected my homework often enough to get C’s at times. Didn’t matter on my GPA though, because I took AP classes in high school, which were weighted. My A’s in 4-5 AP classes always outweighed that C in math. I had a 4.2 GPA my senior year, despite that C. I scored high enough on several college board exams to have over a full semester of college finished before I graduated high school. I had plenty of volunteer work under my belt and some great extracurriculars to slap on my resume. I went off to a top tier liberal arts school on scholarship when I was 18.

I can honestly say that up until that point I’d lived in the proverbial “ivory tower.” Completely sheltered from reality, and my college would have gladly kept me that way – but I did some “acting out,” and spent some time running with people who didn’t attend my school (what my parents called “the wrong crowd”). I got into trouble, and I ended up having to leave that school due to misbehavior and skipping class, but when it comes down to it… no, I don’t regret my time with those “wrong crowds.” Until I interacted with them, I truly thought that a person’s worth was measured by her level of education and academic/professional accomplishment. But I met some of the smartest, street savviest people I’ve ever known during my times with the wrong crowd. Without those experiences, who knows when I would have learned that education and privilege in no way dictate an individual’s worth. Sure, I had volunteered at soup kitchens and with underprivileged kids before, but those people had still always seemed totally separate from me. Not relevant to my life. It was being friends with people who’d been brought up in the “real world” that taught me the inherent worth of all human beings.

Flash forward a few years. I’m 26 now, and I have 2 degrees under my belt so far. I’ve been through a lot, particularly during my ongoing struggles with mental illness and the personal tragedies it caused. I’m working with a counseling agency that serves primarily kids. My oldest client is 19, my youngest is 5. These are underprivileged kids, for sure, and most have been abused. Medicaid pays us for our services. I’m not working with kids who have Blue Cross through mom and dad. I work in the clients’ homes most of the time, and the first case I went on was a real eye-opener. It was like stepping into another country. The home is tiny, dirty, and falling apart. They can’t afford AC, so as you can imagine… it is hot as hell in that house in the middle of Alabama during the summer months. And the home is chaos – yelling dad, screaming ADHD kids, barking dogs. The first call I made on that first day on the job was to my mom. She asked how it went, and I told her I felt like I’d just stepped out of a hurricane. The silence outside the home when I left was deafening.

So I’m working with some kids in bad situations. Most of them aren’t in their parents’ custody, for one reason or another. Some in relatives’ homes, some in foster care. And they’ve all dug their way into my head and into my heart. First month of work in particular, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I’d sit up late at night thinking about their cases and their lives, sobbing and crying in front of loved ones.

One thing of note, though:  I’ve been sent into some really rural locations all around this area, and one thing all my clients have in common is that they, too, are white. Still, all things considered, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job relating to kids who’ve experienced a whole different slice of life than the one I am accustomed to.

I’m trying to increase my caseload and cut down on long distance driving, so my boss is trying to set me up to work in a school with “problem kids” during the day. She asked me to meet her and another counselor at a middle school this morning, to get a feel for it and see whether I’d like to work there and help the regular counselor out.

It was a pretty strange, humbling, disorienting experience for me. I walked in the school around 8:45 AM, and I didn’t see another white person until I left and met my regular afternoon appointment in her home at 4:00. I walked in smiling because I love schools. I remember my K-12 days pretty fondly now, looking back. Kids were already in class, so the halls were quiet. I signed in with the main office and was directed to the counselor’s office. I sat chatting with my boss, a coworker, and the regular school counselor for a few minutes. I was told that we would be working with several groups of kids throughout the day. All had been in trouble – most suspended at least once – and were being taken out of PE a couple days a week to work on “anger management” issues. That’s cool, I work on anger issues with several of my clients who have problems controlling their impulses. My boss leaves to attend to other clients, but I’ve still got two other counselors with me. So I was feeling pretty okay and pretty comfortable with the situation all around.

Then the first group of kids was brought in.

I’m all bright-eyed
and bushytailed saying hi and introducing myself (as is my nature – believe it or not – when dealing with clients). First thing I notice is that near every kid does something very near a double-take when they see me sitting at the table. I’ll admit I stood out in that school like a sore thumb. Next thing I notice is that the kids mumble a lot. They mumbled at pretty much everyone, but they mumbled a lot lower when talking to me. Most of them also didn’t want to look me in the face, and no matter who posed a question – the other counselors or myself – I was the last person in the room they wanted to look at when giving an answer. Sometimes, while one child was talking, I would catch the other kids just sorta… looking at me. Until today, I’ve always felt like I did a really good job of getting down on my clients’ level, but today I started noticing communication barriers immediately. I felt my nerve slipping a bit when the kids didn’t connect with me or respond as I am accustomed, and I started to wonder what I was doing wrong. I went quiet for a while as I watched my fellow counselors, both African American, interacting with the kids. Maybe I was looking to emulate what they were doing.

It was quickly apparent to me, though, that I couldn’t. These are professional, intelligent women who were trained in essentially the same way I was. It’s not like they were saying words I couldn’t comprehend, or introducing concepts I hadn’t heard. And they weren’t talking in some sort of “inner city” lingo that my preppy, privileged self I didn’t know. And yet, it was still like they were speaking another language. They were speaking from a position of real understanding and shared experience. Speaking with a assertiveness and a sense of control, confidence, and self-efficacy that I couldn’t seem to match in the situation. Speaking with an authority that resonated with the kids even when these children were denying having done anything wrong. These counselors were on those kids’ level and showed a kind of street smart attitude and comprehension that is still pretty foreign to me. They didn’t handle the children with “kid gloves,” and they didn’t allow excuses. And they managed to come across as authoritative and friendly at the same time.

These groups came in and out all day. The whole time I felt like an “outsider” who didn’t belong. None of the kids were rude to me, but there was an indefinable feeling of distance all the same, even when they were seated right beside me. By the afternoon, I’d come to understand that I couldn’t look to copy my coworkers. Coming from me, that kind of talk and behavior would have been inauthentic, and kids know when you’re not being genuine. I fell into a rhythm where one of the first things I did with each child was make him/her laugh (that’s a policy of mine in general – I don’t leave a client’s home until I’ve made him/her laugh at least once). Way I see it, laugher is the universal language, and it’s hard to feel cold toward someone when you’re laughing with them. Most of the kids seemed more comfortable with me once I’d cracked ’em up, but I never got over that feeling of being “on the outside” looking in at something I couldn’t really understand or be a part of.

The school day ended, I thanked the other counselors, and headed off to my regular appointment. Once that was through and my workday was finished, I set to reflecting on my day.

I’ve said all of this, and now I come down to the point I want to make… and I’m not wholly sure how to make it or even what it really is. Tomorrow my boss will want to know how my day went and whether I’d like to work with some of those kids one-on-one. And as I think on it, here I am asking myself… what right do I have? What right do I have – with all of my privilege, all of my opportunities, and all of my vastly divergent experiences – to tell a little black boy that he did wrong to beat up a kid who hit his little sister? These kids’ parents aren’t used to having it easy in life. They aren’t used to having people on their side. They live in the real world – a world where you defend yourself and protect yourself and your family because you can’t count on anybody else to do it for you. Their own parents have taught them, “If someone hits you, you hit back and protect yourself.” Who am I – white private school brat that I am – to  tell them to turn the other cheek? To disobey mom or dad? To go “snitch” to the teacher?

Who am I?

What right have I to tell these kids what is right and moral and good and proper? When it comes down to it, their reality is not one that I understand. I don’t know what it’s like to have a gang come after me in my own neighborhood. How do I tell these kids to make a “better choice” in the heat of the moment? And when they’ve got a bunch of bigger kids bullying them… what is the better choice? Any one of the kids I saw today could have said, “What do you know about it?” All I could have answered would have been, “I don’t – you have to tell me.”

One quote that’s always stuck in my head comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America.

That may have been true then – maybe it’s true now. But the reality today – and it’s one that I think, until this morning, I “knew” without knowing – is  that segregation is still bad… just about everywhere. I “knew” that of course. Knew about segregation by race and by class in this country. But I don’t think it occurred to me that I couldn’t get past that. It horrifies me to think that I’ve been trained in this field for years, but that I’m still clueless about how to step into these kids’ world. Sadder still, is that there is “another world” out there that has to be stepped into.

So what is the right thing for me to do, really? I don’t know whether I can help these kids, and with me, that’s what matters most. Yes, I get a paycheck, but I go well above and beyond for the clients I have who need the most help. It’s about them. Sure, I could bulk up my paycheck by agreeing to see these children in the school. Even if they just glare at me for 45 minutes each, I’ll get paid. But what right do I have to take up their time – and the money provided by Medicaid for their treatment – if I can’t really help them?

I don’t know whether I’m capable of helping – and what’s more, I don’t know whether they’d let me help them even if I really knew how. And how on earth could I blame a single one of them? I don’t look or sound a thing like the people who have taken care of them all their lives. Why should they let me in?

So I don’t know what to do. My guess is, at this point, I will tell my boss I’m more comfortable working with younger kids (which is true because most of my clients are elementary-aged). And our ethical guidelines for this profession very clearly state that we are not supposed to work outside our areas of competency. But what does it say about me – and my life – and my education… that African American students living in an underprivileged part of town are completely “outside my competency”? What does it say about me… and what does it say about America today?

I guess to build competency I need to seek out volunteer opportunities that enable me to reach kids who’ve lived a different kind of life than I’ve seen.

What’s weighing on my mind right now… more even than my own lack of competence and understanding… is wondering what those kids’ futures will hold. They don’t have the opportunities I had – and it’s because their parents didn’t have the opportunities my parents had. Or their grandparents. Or great grandparents. Because this country has been stepping all over their families for generations. Where does that end? Where does someone step in and do something? Is there a role for someone like me, who doesn’t understand what these kids go through day by day and can’t personally relate? And I know life’s not fair. I can acknowledge that, but I don’t have to like it. And how fair is it that these kids will gr
ow up and go out into the world to compete with kids who had so many more privileges and opportunities? It’s not just unfair – it’s unjust… and indecent… and shameful.

Glanced at the Moose when I came home tonight and read Denise’s diaries back to back. I always admire her work, but maybe today I read it from a different perspective. I still don’t “get it” or “understand,” no. But maybe Denise’s passion for staying so very involved with the African American community makes more sense to me now. After the day I spent at school today, this paragraph from her diary really struck me:

I will continue to organize in “the black communities” I have been in since birth. No matter my social class, no matter my multi-ethnic ties. As long as black folks are oppressed in this country for being black, we aren’t “post” anything, and I’ll point my black finger at anyone – black or other, who gets in the way of that struggle.  

The kids I saw today who are struggling in school – and in life… are struggling for just that reason. Because of lack of opportunity – in their personal lives, and in their parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great-great grandparents’ personal lives. Because they were – are – black. Life didn’t hand them privileges or resources or opportunities like it did me. I don’t care how much trouble the kids I saw today have gotten into. I didn’t see a single “bad kid.” I didn’t see a single kid I was “better than” when I was his/her age. I saw a bunch of kids trying to make do with a difficult situation, and doing the best they know to do. Some of them are on the wrong path, and the things they’re doing now that get them suspended or scolded at this age… will not be looked upon so leniently in the next 5-10 years.

But I come back to the question – and in fact I pose it to moose of all backgrounds, upbringings, and creeds: Do I have the right, with my set of past experiences, to walk back into that school on a regular basis and tell those kids how to run their lives?

And realistically, what is the likelihood – even after I try to learn and understand their lives better – that I can step into their world? That they would let me step into their world?

Step into their world – and help make it better?

UPDATE: Thursday, September 29; 1:05 AM

So I’ve been mulling over all this for over 24 hours now. I didn’t get a chance to talk to my boss today, but I have finally made a decision. I want to thank everyone who commented in the thread — you all had good things to say, and the support has been heartening. One thing which might be noticeable to any longtime moose is the conspicuous absence of a Kysen comment, since we have a pretty longstanding habit of yakkin’ at each other on the blogs. Kysen’s my good buddy of over three years though, and in fact… he has a unique perspective on me and my work since he probably hears more about it than anybody else online. So he put in his two cents too, and in the end, he and I were pretty much on the same page.

The conflict I kept coming back to in my mind which made the decision so difficult was this: I’m not competent enough to help these kids yet that I feel comfortable being paid to work with them, but if I don’t work with them I will never be competent enough to help them.

I’ve discussed the situation with loved ones today, and I think I’ve arrived at a fair enough compromise. If I don’t step outside my comfort zone and learn how to connect with these kids, I’ll forever be impotent to help people with backgrounds which differ widely from my own. What a waste my education and training would be then. But the code of ethics for my field is quite clear that I should not take clients I am not competent to work with. A paradox? Maybe not.

My caseload is not full, so I have some free hours during the day certain days of the week. I also get a lot of financial help from a loved one who is intimately familiar with my work situation. I cannot, in good conscience, take on these kids as “my” clients and get paid to work with them. What I can do, however, is offer my services for free in my spare time. I can see these kids on a pro bono basis and go to the school at least one day a week to run these groups all day. The regular counselor at the school is swamped and needs help, so I can take some of the burden off of her, while gaining great professional experience for myself. Hopefully I can help the kids too, but at least if I fail I won’t have to deal with the guilt of being paid for it.

Everyone I have personally discussed the idea with has agreed that this is the best course to take. It satisfies my desire to gain competency and try to get to know and help these kids, while also preventing me from violating ethical guidelines or my personal moral code.

I already know the kids will teach me a lot about life. I have no doubt of that. Here’s hoping that I can give them something worthwhile in return.

Thanks again for all the feedback, guys. I couldn’t have hoped for a better set of responses.


35 comments

  1. sricki

    Got a lot rolling around in my head here at 2 AM. I’d appreciate it if no one would FP this — it’s pretty personal and also work-related. And we’ve got much better pieces to decorate the front page of late.

  2. jsfox

    Yes you can stay in your comfort zone and not work in the school because as you say, you really don’t have the the life experiences that these  kids have had. So you can sympathize, but empathy get’s a little harder. You can assume that because of your white privileged background connecting is going to be tough. And based on what you have written here that really isn’t much of an assumption, it is going to be tough.

    Or you can stretch yourself, you can take a risk. The fact that you even walked into the school and  are now weighing the choice in your head says that you first and foremost care and care deeply about doing right for these children. Reason one you should do it. Reason two, I think you are judging one day’s experience a bit harshly. My guess if you walked into an all white school as the new guy that these kids had no clue about, the experience would be similar, certainly not the same, but similar. The white kids would have mumbled and not looked at you either because they don’t know you and they certainly don’t trust you . . . yet. Third reasons, comfort zones work both ways. The other counselors you observed have a lot of experience with these kids, they know them and the kids in turn know the counselor. You as someone new and not like them puts them out of their comfort zone and because you have different life experience can bring something new and possibly valuable to the mix.

    So if it were me I would do it. Yes you may fail, but you won’t know until you try. No one learns to walk without falling down a lot. And obviously someone seems to feel you can do this job and do it well or they would not have sent you there in the first place. So take a chance, stretch yourself. I think you’ll grow and so will the kids.

  3. Rashaverak

    Some are born with innate skills and visions that make them geniuses in their fields… e.g., Mozart.

    But Mozarts are few and far between.

    Most of us gain competence through a combination of using our innate talents and the techniques that we learn through dedication and hard work.

    The master craftsperson is usually not born that way. He or she must usually learn from others, through apprenticeships, etc.

    I suggest that you look to your fellow counselors, the ones that you have described in your diary.  If you make it plain to them that you are interested in making the children’s lives better, I suspect that they will be more than willing to dispense advice to help you build channels of communication with those children.

    I say with rather than to because I think building channels of communication must be a bilateral effort.  The person on the other side has to realize that you are sincere and that you have his or her interests at heart.  Initially, you have to make the pitch, but if the person on the other side does not see that he or she can benefit from the interaction, nothing will come of the effort.

    The fact that you are of one race and the children are of another adds a dimension to the picture, but it does not prevent people of different races from building rapport.  Race is just one aspect of the situation.  Socio-economic factors also play a huge role.

  4. anna shane

    already knows it’s wrong, he needs help setting limits (he’s just a kid) so he doesn’t always get in trouble and has more time for fun.  It’s hard to ask kids to limit themselves if their adults don’t always, and adults always give mixed messages on that sort of thing, so you have to look at rules in the home and how they’re applied, and you need to get the dad letting his son know that he doesn’t want the kid to hit his sister.  There may be older siblings in the home who hit down, and he’s not the top rung.  There may be issues with the sister that the parents don’t see, sometimes littler ones are adept at getting the older ones in trouble.  The kid may perceive favoritism, and one has to ask the parents if that’s so.  

    There is always empathy with the parental dilemma.  What you don’t want is empathy for yourself as an outsider, that won’t help you professionally.  What you have is your education and experience, and while you don’t want to overrate it, that’s the place to speak from.  You can’t demand respect, you have to earn it. and show that you don’t get mad if someone doesn’t respect you (which is probably why the kid hits his sister).  

    You’re helping the kid make a verbal case for himself when he’s upset about his sister, because when he can express himself in words it’ll be easier for him to not hit her. And if it’s part of the job, you could help the parents develop a way to set limits without anyone getting hit.  Like if you can’t play together nice, you can’t play together at all. Even the sister would then be engaged in the process of helping her brother not hit her.  

     

  5. Aji

    I’m not sure how soon you have to give your supervisor an answer, so I apologize if this comes too late to help – or if instead of helping, it only confuses you more.

    First, I think I’ve said this over at the GOS, but I wish I had had even half of your maturity and life smarts when I was your age.  Alas, as the saying goes, that was in another country, and besides,  the wench is dead [metaphorically speaking :-)].  

    Second, this comes from a kind of outsider’s perspective, too, so take everything I say here with a whole fricking silo of salt.

    As most folks who know me from DK already know, I’m triracial:  red, white, black.  As those folks also know from my avatar over there, I look mostly white.  Very white.  Pale skin, green eyes.  My sisters got the tan skin and nearly Asian eyes; my brother looks whiter than I do.  And that’s how the family likes it, frankly.  Because being Indian is hard; being Black is unthinkable, for most of them.  So I was raised white, with every single privilege and advantage that that conveys.  Oh, don’t get me wrong:  We were dirt fucking poor most of the time, and always lived in the “wrong” neighborhoods, and knew destitution and fear all too well.  But I have never known what it’s like to be followed in a store because of the color of my skin (except by association, when groups of us neighborhood kids, I usually the “whitest” among them, would go to the store and the staff would follow us as a group because, y’know, those brown-skinned kids can’t be trusted and all).  I’ve never known what it’s like not to be able to get a cab based on skin color.  I’ve never known what it’s like to walk into a job interview worried that I have to get over the color barrier first.  I’ve been afforded every benefit of every doubt American society has to offer, because people (of ALL races, frankly) look at me and the first thing they [think they] see is WHITE.

    And yet, quite frankly, I don’t fit in anywhere.  Too “something” (too red, too black, too white) for everyone – or, maybe more accurately, not enough something for anyone.  I can’t code-switch to save my life; my accent is fundamentally upper Midwestern white-sounding, although inflections of NYC, the Southwest, and Indian accents underlie certain words and phrases, because of the areas where I’ve lived.  Out of my mouth, anything else sounds completely fake (although I can do it online).

    All this is by way of saying that, as a person of color, even I “don’t get it.”  So when you say that you don’t get it, you’re absolutely right; you don’t.  But unlike the majority of our society’s white population, you recognize that, which is a huge fundamental first step.  Recognizing that you need to listen to these kids tell you what their lives are like, rather than trying to tell them what they should do or what you can do for them, is an equally huge second step.  (And as an aside, this is what frustrates me with too many white “liberals”:  They’re so damn sure they know it all that not only do they not feel the need to listen; they’re too busy plotting out their next profound statement, and then interrupting us to make it, even to care.]

    Now, I do think that this gig will be incredibly difficult.  In fact, being brutally honest about it, you might be letting yourself in for a whole world of hurt here.  A lot depends on how well your psyche handles scorn, and derision, and anger – because make no mistake:  These kids will, at some point or other, make fun of you (terribly so), use you as the butt of jokes, and eventually take out their anger on you.  It’s all a defense mechanism, and when someone can see it from their standpoint, it takes a lot of the sting out – but it will still sting, especially at first.  But if you can get them to laugh with you, that’s a good foundation for working toward [eventually] getting them to trust you.  And you very likely can give these kids something they’ve never seen in their entire lives:  exposure to a white person who treats them as the fully-fledged human beings they are, deserving of respect and autonomy; individuals who are not walking, talking thieves and threats of violence and worse, but inherently good nearly-adult persons with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears of their own.  

    And what comes out of that could be very valuable for all of you.

  6. And you very likely can give these kids something they’ve never seen in their entire lives:  exposure to a white person who treats them as the fully-fledged human beings they are, deserving of respect and autonomy; individuals who are not walking, talking thieves and threats of violence and worse, but inherently good nearly-adult persons with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears of their own.  

    And what comes out of that could be very valuable for all of you.

    But Aji said it so well that I’m going to steal the words rather than restate it in my usual ham-fisted way.

    And I was going to mention this, but jsfox beat me to it.

    Third reasons, comfort zones work both ways. The other counselors you observed have a lot of experience with these kids, they know them and the kids in turn know the counselor. You as someone new and not like them puts them out of their comfort zone and because you have different life experience can bring something new and possibly valuable to the mix.

    and this, but Rashaverak beat me to it.

    I suggest that you look to your fellow counselors, the ones that you have described in your diary.  If you make it plain to them that you are interested in making the children’s lives better, I suspect that they will be more than willing to dispense advice to help you build channels of communication with those children.

    This is something I might have said, if Chris hadn’t said it already.

    None of us know if you can do it. The prospect of standing in your shoes scares us to the soles of our feet. Maybe you cannot, and believe me: we would understand.

    But if you can, there might be hope for all of us.

    Do your best. I could never judge you poorly whatever you can or cannot do. You have already gone further than almost all of us.

    or this, if foxy hadn’t already said it.

    So if it were me I would do it. Yes you may fail, but you won’t know until you try. No one learns to walk without falling down a lot. And obviously someone seems to feel you can do this job and do it well or they would not have sent you there in the first place. So take a chance, stretch yourself. I think you’ll grow and so will the kids.

    Now in my own words…

    There is one over-riding goal here and that is to help these kids. Everything else is secondary. Yes, this will help you grow as a person and a counselor. Yes, you will make some extra money and pad your resume. Those are positives for you, but you get those whether you help the kids or not. Those are secondary. What matters most is whether you have anything to offer these kids. Only one thing really matters here. Can you help them? I believe the answer to that question is, “Yes, you can.”

    You have only begun to stretch your wings. You have so much ability and so many strengths that you haven’t yet realized. Over the next few years, you are going to grow and eventually soar. That is also true for these kids. Help them see their true worth and potential. This next is a cliche, but it is a cliche because it is generally true. What you are doing will be worthwhile if you only help one kid live a better life.

    These kids are facing a rough stretch on the road of life. What they need is someone to reach out a hand to help them keep their balance as they stumble over the obstacles placed in  their way. You are in a position to offer that hand and a strong arm (mind/will/personality) for support.

    Now that I’ve thought about it, I think the question being asked is backwards. The question isn’t whether you should accept this challenge. The question is how can you not?

  7. HappyinVT

    better than I would have said it.  But since I had planned to tell this story when I first read the piece I’m going to tell it, damnit.  :)

    A few years ago, while I was in teacher school, I decided to be a sub in part to augment my pitiful Denny’s salary and in part to get some classroom experience.  The first assignment was for a couple/three days at a middle school a couple towns over ~ Gulfport to be exact (the “l” is silent for you Northern readers). I hadn’t slept much the night before because I was too busy planning how I was going to be the white female version of Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love.  So I drag my exhausted self to the school in the middle of the poorest part of Gulfport.  Only to be told I was a day early; apparently they hadn’t yet got to the part about reading calendars in teacher’s school.  Go ahead and laugh, it’s funny now.

    After a night of not thinking about Sidney Poitier I trooped back to that school the next morning and prepared to meet my first fabulous class of seventh grade math (yay math!) students.  Let’s just say the best part of that day was having shown up a day early the day before.  It did not go well as those kids played me like Tiger Woods used to play golf.  But I came back the next day because, damnit, those kids were not going to defeat me.  And I was a day older and a whole lot wiser.

    Now I’ll skip to the good part.  There was one class that had a little smart-mouthed runt in it.  He didn’t need to know math because he was going to be a famous rapper and hire an accountant (and a lawyer) to do his math for him.  After this middle-aged white woman who knows next to nothing about rap looked like the middle-aged white woman who knows next to nothing about rap by making some lame eyeroll-inducing reference to something vaguely to do with rap I spent the rest of the time convincing him that he needed to know basic math to make sure his accountant wasn’t stealing from him.

    For a little while during that class period I had that kid’s attention.  I also remember one young lady who wanted to be a lawyer (she’d defend the rapper for the right fee) wanted to know how fees and such worked.  I’m pretty sure I bluffed my way through that with some vague “billable hours” and such expenses.  But my rambling point is that for some brief time I reached most of those kids with whom I had little in common on the surface.

    I went back to that school several times although I dreaded it most of the time.  They were tough kids in tough situations that I can only imagine.  After I had stopped subbing because of class hours a rather smart man reminded me that someone else’s kids are our kids.  It is easy to deal with the kids in your neighborhood but not so easy to venture out.  I’ve felt bad ever since that I had the attitude that I had toward that school.  It’s gone now a victim to Katrina.  I’ve wondered about those kids and where they’ve ended up; if they had lost whatever little bit they had.  Or if they’ve moved to someplace better.  I’ll never know.

    Anyway the decision, sricki, is yours to make.  Somehow, knowing what I know, you’ve already made it, though, if only in your heart.

  8. this took a tremendous amount of courage to write.  You opened yourself up to listening when it would be so easy to rely on criminalizing archetypes.  You saw your common humanity in those children and I just want to hug you because I know this wasn’t easy to write or to admit.  

    What I think?  I think it is unfortunate that you have to make a decision based on one day.  Even if you decide not to stay at the school, I hope you will continue on the path of opening yourself up to the humanity of those children.  It may be difficult to do that in a professional role but on a personal level, it is possible.  You mentioned the black church.  Ever thought of attending a black church every once in a while.  That could be an ongoing experience that might forge the way from being an “outsider” to an “insider.”

    I wish you the best whatever you decide.  And I don’t think you are alone in thinking in this manner but I think you may be singular in admitting your fears, your doubts and your hopes so candidly.

  9. As always, I wish you well in your life choices. I hope this turns out to be a generally positive experience for you and the kids.

    There’s something I want to share with you. A thought that struck me while reading this diary is that it was better written and more meaningful than most of the columns I read in the NY Times. David Brooks could never write a column this good. This may make you blush and say, “Oh pshaw.” But it’s really what I thought when I finished reading it.

  10. DeniseVelez

    though I wind up with “clients” in anthropology research studies. Lots have been from cultures and backgrounds different from mine.

    My husband is a case worker. He works with MICA’s mostly – but has a mixed bag of other formerly homeless clients. Many are black and latino, but he also has some white clients too.

    He has a lot to say about co-workers.

    He gets a new batch of them quite frequently – fresh out of grad school.  Some are white, some are black.

    Interestingly – he hates most of them equally.  heh.

    It’s about their attitude. The ones who talk down to, think they are better than …who are patronizing to clients and even to some of the non-professional staff (security guards and assistants) he can’t stand.

    The clients don’t like them much either.  

    Who they do like are those case workers who are genuine – no matter what color or class they come from.

    Who can show love and respect and yes – laugh with (and not at) those they have been hired to help.

    You can help.  

    The fact that you could write this says so.

    Period.

    As long as you can look into your heart, and get humble, you are on the right track.

    And I’d like to agree with princss – go to visit a black church. Maybe go get your hair washed or cut at a black beauty parlor. Hang out at a playground or after school center.  

    When I get “dropped” into a new culture as an ethnographer, it’s my job to learn as much about that culture as I can.

    To try as hard as I can to experience life through other eyes.

    I don’t always get it right – nor can I walk in someone else’s shoes.  

    But I make the effort as best I can.

    And folks see me making that effort, and open up.

    Hugs.

  11. Jjc2008

    You are being authentic.  That alone is the greatest gift you can give to your clients/students/the school.

    Whether as a counselor, whether part time or full time, you will learn from your students because your mind is open and ready to learn. Whether your students are poor or rich, regardless of their ethnicity, when one is authentic, when one is open, when one possesses the ability to empathize as well as the ability to accept empathy, a person can contribute in a positive way to the (whether children or adults) lives of those with whom one interacts.

    The thing with children, and most especially adolescent children, is that you may not see or get knowledge of your affect on their lives until years later, if at all.  But when you know you are doing the right thing, when you are giving of yourself, they know it too.

    Enjoy!  

  12. creamer

    I didn’t read every comment,I suspect they echo me. For our country to move forward we need people like you doing theese kinds of things. I wish the white community at large could be as honest with themselves as you are on this subject.

  13. mahakali overdrive

    I’m coming into this a bit late. All I know is what I know. That’s all you can know too. I’ve been through so many different worlds that while I’ve seen some privilege, plenty really, I’ve also seen a lot of the underbelly of life. I draw from that. I’m like Aji… basically I look white, really white at times, although I sort of blend in with several different ethnic groups. But I can code-switch (and do, without realizing it).

    With my students, who are often going through various states of profound crisis, and many of whom are not white, I just speak from the heart. If I’m talking to a white frat boy, yes, I will speak differently, draw from different experiences, than if I’m talking to a first generation Mexican-American girl. There are different values at play. With my Latino students, I’m BLUNT. I tell them that they will be stereotyped. Because it’s true. I tell them that they have to get their writing in order, because they will be read like they are read for their skin if they don’t make it transparent. I tell them it’s their choice, because it is. But we talk in terms of stereotyping and economics and the fact that the world isn’t fair. And if I’m talking to some frat boy who isn’t turning his work in on time, I’ll tell the kid that he is privileged to be in college, has every advantage in the world, has mom and dad paying for his ride, obviously knows how to train since he’s played baseball or football or whatever, and to buck up and do his work. See how that goes? The hardest, for me, are the pampered white girls. I still haven’t quite figured out how to appeal to them. I usually just listen to them talk about their cat and try to find some connection with the issues of heartbreak or gossipy friends. Haven’t lived their lives, but I’m trying to connect.

    In the end, there’s some genuine connection you can find with any client or student. You just kind of have to dig deep and try to be authentic, and also, match them. If they are muttering, acknowledge it. Say, “Don’t mutter like that. You’ll make me look like a fool, talking and talking all by myself over here.” I’m kind of fiery like that. I have students who will mutter mutter mutter during conferences and so, I will just tell them to be quiet.

    The funny part of this is that my office is next to the Dean’s. My status is really low, mine you. But the Dean’s Admin Assistant has been there for like thirty years. She came up to me one day and smiled. She was always waving and smiling at me. And she said something about how I was really different than the other instructors because I didn’t “sugar-coat it.” Basically. It’s true.

    I cuss when I talk. I use big words. I stare them in the eye. Raise my eyebrows. Tell them the truth. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say in 2,500 words over here: be honest. You can’t really go wrong that way. It builds trust. Of course you can’t understand anyone else’s life. That’s always true. Of everyone. I don’t know anything about anyone else’s lives because mine has been pretty weird and not like anyone else’s anyways. Don’t know what class I am since it changed all the time, what ethnicity I really identify as, what religion I really am, not sure where I’m from really, moved all the time, parents were remarried again and again, have half-brothers with half-sisters who I don’t know if I call them “sister” or not. So, it’s all turtles all the way down for me. All I’ve got is connection, and it’s never based on any personal knowledge since my own personal ground was always shifting out from underneath me.

    If I can do it, can connect, you can.

    For me, it’s about blazing honesty and also, compassion. Harsh compassion sometimes too. Other times, hand-holding, soft compassion. You have got to be flexible and fluid.

    It was like three weeks ago when an ELL Latina student came to me crying. Literally. In tears. A Professor in another Department returned her written work to her, saying it was not creditable due to her grammar. Her grammar wasn’t that bad, I thought. I could make out what she meant, at any rate, on the paper he had scrawled all over. She tells me this story about how he told her to not turn in work if he couldn’t understand what she said, and he said it in front of other students as class was letting out. We’re in my office. His office is about two doors down from mine. She said “I don’t belong here. I worried about it. I should just go home.” I looked at this sobbing gal, realizing full well that this guy might be able to hear us. I told her, “Of course you don’t belong here. This is a white person’s school. You knew that coming into it. It’s always like that. You’ve been stereotyped how many times in your life?” She kind of stopped crying and looked at my strangely and said, “A lot.” I said, “When?” She starts telling me about being fired from a job due to her accent. I tell her it’s the same no matter where she goes, and it will be the same. But at least she can be happy laughing at everyone when she has a degree and an education and maybe even job prospects (in this economy, I’m not promising anything). She perks up. I spend almost two hours listening to her, taking her over to sign up with the ELL services folks, telling her she’ll just have to take her sadness and turn it into some motivation to kick some ass in school. She’s doing great. She decided to stay. She knows we’re obviously a bunch of racists, even with our fancy degrees. I’m glad she knows that. She’s working harder now than she ever would have, to pretty much tell us to go fuck ourselves.

    So that worked. And I’m not Latino. I’m just another white girl, same white skin as that pendejo who got up on her about the grammar b.s. (as if she can just snap her fingers and learn it; it will take her years of serious study to get to where he was saying she needed to be… I explained that to her).

    Honesty.

    <3

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