Denver, CO — I tell myself that all grad programs must be this way. There came a moment during the first day of class when I was surrounded by people I didn’t know who were doing the exact same thing as me and not in a planned, flash-mob sort of way. Maybe it’s a social worker thing. It was more of a presence around me, a competitive presence that told me to quickly clarify what I was passionate about because soon I’d have to introduce the person sitting next to me and she would introduce me. My mind started to wander as I tried to think of one interesting thing about myself that I wanted to tell the class.
Oh my god, there is nothing interesting about me. That’s what your head says to you. I determined that I would not panic. I had come a long way since high school when, on the first day, I wore a nondescript long-sleeved white t-shirt with jeans so as not to attract attention and wrote my locker combination on my ankle so I wouldn’t have to fumble in the locker bays. Didn’t everyone do this? The truth is, I loved high school. College, not so much all the time. Grad school – the jury is out but at least we all can maturely discuss our differences over beer.
It’s a fine line between something interesting and something bragging, which I realize I’m not very good at. I don’t come off as bragging as I tell my partner about my experience in rural health outreach. I unconsciously pull up on the armrests of the leather chairs. They click into place at a higher setting and I can’t figure out how to get them down. Now not only can I not remember an interesting tidbit about myself, I sit with my arms resting on armrests about four inches higher than the rest of the class. I imagine Freud sitting like this, tapping his fingertips in a teepee. Maybe I look academic. No one seems to know how to get them down.
The class will be mostly self-reflection about my culture and what makes me uncomfortable. To be a good social worker, you have to know yourself well first. Unfortunately, I reflect, I can’t think of an underprivileged group I haven’t worked with that makes me uneasy. I imagine myself as a bike reflector, like the flashing one on the triangle I wear around my waist and recently forgot to take off until I went to bed. I wonder what my roommate thought of this new fashion statement when I was brushing my teeth.
We will be roleplaying in another class. General consensus is that this makes most people except a few of us uncomfortable. I have deja vu about my undergrad and walking into an interviewing class delirious after not sleeping the night before. I had to role-play a client who thought the devil was living in her stomach. It may actually be PTSD but I’m okay with pretending to be someone else.
My next class is about the practice of social work. I write down on a student inventory sheet that my concern is that there will not be enough concrete information attached to all the theories we’re going to learn. The professor tells us the class is mostly abstract and there probably won’t be too much concrete material.
Social workers, as a population, are passionate. The experiences in the room would make you think there’s nothing a social worker can’t take. I tell a friend that I’m glad she wants to do the edgy stuff – I will work with seniors. Another student-friend mentions that she’s just out of her undergrad and worries that she doesn’t have enough life experience to keep up with everyone. I tell her a story.
Once when I was working for a state park years ago, I was complaining to a fellow employee about my life. She’d had a tough childhood and continued to have a tough life. I stopped myself even though she was listening. I apologized. I said that, compared to her, I had nothing to complain about. She paused. Then she said, “You know, if a little girl named Jill falls off her bike, she feels pain.” I continued to drive; she continued to speak. “And if a little girl named Julie has a mom who puts cigarettes out on her arm, she feels pain. Pain is pain is pain. It doesn’t matter what it is.”
In that moment, it wasn’t her validating me that I felt. It was the incredible graciousness of another human being realizing that we all feel pain and, if something is painful to you, it just is. There’s no bigger pain or lesser pain. We don’t get to wear t-shirts that say, “My trauma is bigger than your trauma.” I told my new friend that her experiences would be enough – they had to be, they were hers.
I called home and relayed this conversation to a friend. I told her I wasn’t sure about the program because the posturing for being the most experienced, the smartest, the most wounded was new to me. In her wise way, she said she’d read somewhere that it’s not what you’ve gone through that matters. It’s what you do with it.
After class, I nestled into the quiet of the Mexico Conference Room and let my mind wander. Was it really about what you did with your experiences? I was no longer open to working with high-risk populations. I knew they wore me out. I didn’t want to try to build relationships with teens who dismissed me if I didn’t wear the right clothing. I didn’t want to work with people who slid post-it notes across the public health desk listing the thing they had stuck inside them and asking to see a nurse. I didn’t want to find out the client I tested for hepatitis C overdosed the night before his results came in. I knew nothing would shock me anymore and I wasn’t out for a shocking story. My threshold was lower now but I enjoyed my conversations with seniors. They were interesting to me.
A professor talked about the authority to step into someone’s life as a social worker comes from four places. First, the profession in which you are trained gives you the authority to do social work, through practice and education. Second society lets you walk the fine line of helping a client. The agency you work for gives you certain authority to help others. And finally, the last being to give you the authority or permission to do social work is the client. They let you come into their lives, as an advocate, as a navigator, as a counselor, as another human being. Your job is to help them “self-determine”, a fancy way of saying that you help them, with all the authority invested in you, to make the decisions that work for them. You sit with them, shut up and listen. Then, maybe, probably, you speak with the agreement that you will walk along side. And this becomes your experience, registered in your brain and your heart, and from there you do what you do best, which simply is to continue to do.