Not long ago, I lamented the fact that there are so few options for kids who aren’t going to school. The teenagers are most often chased around half-heartedly until age seventeen, when they’re told to go get their GED. Working with then is frustrating. They want their diploma, if not a college degree, and they want to be able to get a good job. They just can’t bring themselves to get to school everyday.
The girl who really spurred me to action had turned seventeen, and only wanted to work. She had spent her life taking care of her younger siblings and their mother, and just didn’t have time for school. All the statistics in the world about how much her lifetime earning potential would improve with college didn’t matter–she wanted to work.
I thought about what might work for her, and then it dawned on me. Interns! Our interns! Duh. How could you be so stupid, SJ?
There are a few great programs for over-age, under-credited high school students once they turn seventeen. They’re given paid internships, some of which Anonymous Agency is kind enough to offer. They make money, which encourages and enables them to stay in school, which is modified to fit their needs and schedule, and they gain valuable work experience. Not everyone has the sick professional connections of high school SJ– I mean, my brother’s roommate’s mom was a librarian.
I was fortunate in my first job. It was pretty easy for me to do well. For one thing, I shelved books, and I know how to count and alphabetize.
For another, my parents set a good example. They have the sort of work ethic that should really only come from growing up in the Great Depression, or being a nun. If they could stand, they went to work. If I wasn’t actively throwing up on myself or others, I went to school. This carried over onto my first job, and all subsequent ones. My mother’s voice saying, “What does that mean, ‘not feeling well?!’ The books will everywhere! It shall be anarchy!” has been internalized. My father’s complaints about the unprofessionalism of his staff who wear flip-flops to work and loudly rehash episodes of Springer have stuck with me.
I hated it when I was younger, and friends told me they had missed a day of school because they had a headache or took a day off from their part-time job were up late the night before (no threats of imminent death, even!) but I realize now that it was a privilege that gave me a good head start. Sure, it would be nice if I could call in sick without feeling even sicker with guilt, but it’s set me up for a successful future.
A majority of the kids I work with miss a lot of school. I’m not talking about the ones who are sent in for educational neglect when they don’t attend thirty days in a row. They just miss days, here and there, consistently. Or they’re late. They oversleep, they stay home to help their parents with something, medical appointments are scheduled on school days, they claim to be sick and their parents ask the kid to report the thermometer reading independently, and don’t follow through with the hard-hitting questions of, “So then we need to go to the doctor?” or “Look at my eyes. You’re too sick for school, really? Honestly?” (Amateurs.)
This gets pretty frustrating when trying to get kids to go to school regularly, and trying to get their parents to understand that they need to support this. It’s even worse when a person who has grown up with the “School? Maybe. Not today” mentality is now working for you.
The seventeen to twenty one year old interns we get are, obviously, young. It’s a first job for most of them. A majority of them have grown up in families like I described, in which getting to school on time everyday was a priority somewhere between “walking the dog” and “buying pretzels.” Also, we’re a social work agency, so we like to be nice, encouraging, and high five whenever possible.
It may not seem like it, but these are ideal conditions for a throwdown of unprofessionalism.
Most of these young people are excited to come in to work. So excited, that they forget to fully dress themselves in the morning. There have been many half-shirts, or sweatpants advertising the wearer’s ass as being “Pink” or “Juicy.” (Yeah, we need to stop that, ladies.)
Some seemed excited to come in to work, but then…maybe weren’t. They started calling in sick, two out of three days, or coming in ten minutes to three hours late with no explanation. As social workers in a rough area, our minds immediately go to the worst case scenario. She’s been mugged! He’s being trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation! Her boyfriend snapped and beat her! By the time the kid rolls in, offering a shrug but no visible injuries, we’re just so relieved that he or she is all right that we let it go.
Sometimes, the intern in question does have an excuse. “I have a test tomorrow and I need to study.” Hey, school comes first, I respect your education! “My baby is sick.” Oh my, go! Do you need a referral to a good clinic? “The bus was late.” We’ve all been there. SJ tweets about it!
At some point, though, this fades. The excuses are more along the lines of, “I wasn’t feeling well.” Yes, it’s been three weeks, you might want to get that laziness checked out. “The bus took twenty minutes.” Yeah, that’s how long it takes everyday. Why are you three days late?
There are the performance issues as well. Of course people need to be trained for their first job. But at some point, you need to remember to write down the messages that you take, and answer the doorbell when it rings. I don’t know what else to say.
When no one is getting their messages, and the information that was supposed to be shredded was accidentally faxed to strangers, it needs to be addressed. But who is going to do that? Well, I guess I could, because I’m the one who had asked her to do that task. But really, the administrative assistant should, because she’s the direct supervisor. I suppose we could ask our director. I mean, the buck stops with her. Oh, could we call the intern’s program coordinator at her school?!
We’re social workers. The interns have a lot in common with the kids we work with. They tell us all about why things are so difficult for them, and about all the other responsibilities they have. We don’t want to make things worse for them, and we don’t want to be the bad guy. So we grumble quietly, and just do it ourselves.
I’m not blaming the interns (entirely.) We owe them more. We need to have enough respect for their intelligence and abilities to realize that they are capable of rising to meet expectations. Our kids are tough and resilient. They have dealt with much worse than constructive criticism, and they will continue to do so in their future employment. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not doing them any favors if we send them off into the Real Work of Work thinking it’s ok dress like they’re attending some kind of trampy sleepover, or show up when the mood strikes.
So please, someone, tell the intern that she needs to put on a sweater. Because I really don’t want to do it.