IEP, as simple as 7 3 9.

1 10 2013

We’re back to school. Pencils, books, teachers’ beautiful looks, all that. It’s a delight.

I’m also back to fighting with school staff. I swear, they started it!

I’ve mentioned before that I am a product of the New York City public school system, among other things. I got a good education. Partly because I had access to quality gifted programs, partly because we weren’t in the absolute worst district (we’re number two!) and partly because I had a mother who worked in education, knew the system, and knew her kids’ rights. She also knew not to believe us when we said we didn’t have homework.

Most of the kids I work with aren’t so fortunate. We can talk about kids getting lost in the shuffle, who don’t get to live up to their potential, all that. But then there are the kids who just get completely left behind, because they’re not even in the right classroom.

Not the little weirdos who wander into the wrong room well into December. (That wasn’t just me, right?) The kids with special needs who are expected to sit in a mainstream class that’s in no way suited to their needs. The kids for whom individualized education plans (IEPs) were created.

“Oh, come on SJ. They’re saying everyone has ADHD these days, they don’t all need a special class!”

For the last time, who are you and how do you keep getting access to my blog? If you don’t spend much time in schools, you might think I’m talking about kids with a slight behavioral problem whose parents want the latest, hippest diagnosis.

I hope “she’s caught the vapors” makes a comeback, I really do.

But I’m talking about kids who, no question, need services.

I work with a visually impaired child who was expected to take his state exams without any special equipment and without any additional time.

I work with a girl who was told that she had dyslexia from the time she was in kindergarten, whose mom couldn’t get the school to evaluate her for three years.

I work with parents who were told that they didn’t need to request an evaluation in writing, only to find out months later that yes, they did.

I work with parents who were told not to bother having their child evaluated, they need to transfer them to a special school because the current school can’t meet their needs. (What do you need to effect that transfer? An IEP!)

I work with kids whose 504 plans (IEP lite) have been completely ignored.

And I work with many, many children whose parents had concerns, and wanted their kids evaluated, and were made to wait and wait and wait. It can take a full year.

It’s not supposed to, legally. But what’s to stop the school from losing (I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and not using sarcastic air quotes) the letter the parent wrote requesting the evaluation? Three times, in one case.

Parents can pursue outside evaluations. But for people with no money to pay out of pocket, chronic insurance problems, and little time and money to travel to even more appointments, it’s not usually an easy option.

The most important thing, I’ve learned, is to know what your kid is entitled to. Know the law. Tell them they have sixty days to get this done. If they disagree (“oh no, it’s actually ninety”) let them know you’re happy to use the Google right there until you sort this out. That phone in your pocket is not just a Candy Crush machine, don’t be afraid to break it out! Ask staff members, “is the case still in compliance?” They will get chills, and know you mean business.

And get other people on your side. I have seen the way some school staff ignore parents I work with. I’ve seen how they change when I walk in with that parent. Some parents are intimidated by their kids’ schools. Maybe they didn’t graduate themselves, and feel out of place. As much as we want to empower families to do it themselves, sometimes we need to advocate.

That’s how my weekly calls to one school started. I just wanted to check in on progress! My hope is generally that they’ll get so annoyed with me that they’ll give me what I want just to shut me up.

School SW: “Well, I told the mom we’ve had a lot of requests and are extremely busy with IEPs.”

SJ: “Yes, I understand. You have sixty days to complete it, correct?”

SSW: “Yes, that’s right.”

SJ: “Ok, great! So she submitted it the first day of school…let me just get my calendar out and we can count to exactly when we can expect this to be done…”

SSW: “Sure…I mean we are really swamped with requests…”

SJ: “Oh, I understand, we’re all so busy. November 8th! That sounds doable. I will look forward to hearing from you. I wasn’t able to talk Ms. M into filing a complaint with the city when the school failed to have this done last year, so I’m so glad we’re doing the evaluation now!”

Then I had to reassure this meek, deferential woman that there is a fine line between rude and assertive. Occasionally I cha cha slide across it, but there’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating for your kid.

Now, was it this school social worker’s fault? No. The school has a psychologist one day a week. The psychologist has four other schools to serve. She’s there to provide services, and she’s not the enemy. So we need to demand better for our kids (whenever the government comes back.)

In the meantime, we need to do for our kids. We need to work with the system we have now, while agitating for change. Know your rights. Don’t take no for an answer.

And don’t be afraid to get a little rude if you have to.


27 06 2013

If you have teacher friends, surely you know what Wednesday was. (Aside from marriage equality day–yaaaay!) It was the last day of school here in New York. Those kids and teachers were all out celebrating the fact that they won’t have to see each other or bubble in an answer sheet until September. Or until next week, in cases of summer school.

Some kids, of course, won’t be back in September. Because they’re graduating!

If I may wax poetic for a moment, graduation is a big fucking deal. Especially in the Bronx, where we consider fifty percent of high school students graduating within four years to be a glorious improvement. A sad few of my teens have graduated high school, or are on track to do so. More are successful with GEDs, but that’s still a tough route. As for college…all who graduate college while working with me will get a free vacation to Fiji.

Graduation is rare. It matters. A lot of families don’t get to experience it. Their kids don’t walk across the stage and get their diloma as the entire family cheers for them, despite being specifically told to save their applause for the end. So, it seems, people kind of take what they can get.

I recently stopped by to conduct a school visit during kindergarten graduation. Had I known, I would have made it another day, but News 12 doesn’t mention these things. Yet.

At least, I think it was kindergarten graduation. It might have been some sort of baby prom. The five year olds were decked out in three piece suits and floofy dresses. There were balloons, talk of parties, and kids were handed envelopes of cash and prizes by family members.

I get being proud. And of course some kids struggle in school from the beginning, and their accomplishments should be lauded. But completing pre-k and kindergarten? Kids shouldn’t really even be aware of promotion at that point. “Hey I can write my name!” “Check out my rocking color wheel!” “I’ve met my developmental requirements!” Huh?

I actually worked at a pre-k, including graduation, back at Anonymous Youth Center. We made paper hats, the kids sang a couple of songs, and we said something nice about each kid. (Even the one who kept passing around lice.) The parents took a few photos. It was an adorable photo op. We said graduation with sarcastic air quotes. Before anyone brings up culture (I know one of you is itching to!) Anonymous Youth Center and Anonymous Agency serve a very similar demographic. There just wasn’t that expectation.

I wouldn’t care, but it has an impact. One of my more low key mothers, who is extremely involved in her children’s education, was horrified at her newly six year old daughter’s kindergarten graduation. She picked a nice new skirt and t-shirt for the kid. Then she was informed she’d be getting tickets for the event. She heard other parents comparing what restaurants they’d be going to afterwards, and if they were getting a hall (oh yeah) for the celebration. “I was going to take her for ice cream, just the two of us.” Um, yeah. That sounds pretty good.

I would have brought up what we did for my kindergarten graduation, but I certainly don’t remember it. I think my parents went, but who knows? I know they witnessed my debut as The Little Engine That Could. But that was an accomplishment. It was really one of the finest performances in a Canarsie auditorium in 1989, but I digress.

Obama even got into it a while back, admonishing parents not to make such a big deal out of eighth grade graduation. “It’s just eighth grade, people.” (He doesn’t have my gift for words.) You’re supposed to finish eighth grade.

It’s hard. You want to be encouraging. You want to tell kids they’ve done well, and to keep going. They need to know how good academic achievement can feel. But we don’t want it to be an “everybody gets a trophy” scenario. (By the way, stop blaming my generation for that nonsense, it was our parents’ idea.) We don’t give out prizes for the shit you’re supposed to do, to paraphrase Chris Rock. No plaque for not getting arrested, no Certificate for Participation in Breathing. We need to strike a balance.

It starts with remembering that ice cream with your mom is almost always the best way to celebrate.

We might need some education.

26 03 2013

I am a proud product of the New York City public education system. I know there’s supposed to be a joke in there, something about a criminal record, or the misspelling “edumacashun.” Classic stuff. But I choose to skip it. I get a little defensive. I got a great education, I swear! I was fortunate enough to have the benefit of quality gifted programs, a mother who was familiar with the Board of Ed, and parents who…y’know…made me go to school everyday. (Even when it meant that I threw up in class. Twice. In seventh grade. Really secured my popularity, guys.)

I have a soft spot for public schools, is what I’m saying. Despite all of their issues.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a hotbed of crazy.

I visit schools a lot. I have spent more time in Mrs. Whoozywatsit*’s third grade class than I ever did in eleventh grade physics. (Sorry mom.)

Overheard in school:

“Miss, I like your piercing. Did that hurt? You got tattoos, right? I want a tattoo. I want a butterfly on my back.”

This was a second grader. A child unknown to me. During reading time. No one noticed she was talking to me. No one noticed the strange adult in the room, either. Hold off on tramp stamps, kiddo, there will be time.

“Um, I don’t know. I guess so? Whenever?”

A school secretary, when I asked if I could come visit a child. Seriously.

SJ: “What are your other triggers for your anger?”
13 y/o: “FIGHT!”
SJ: “Seeing fights?”
13 y/o: No. FIIIGHT!

The point was moot, as the child I was quietly counseling ran past me to observe and heckle a brawl in progress. I slipped out shortly after.

Then there was the time I was present for a fire drill. Well, I say fire drill, it was actually some little jerk pulling the alarm and fucking my shit up.

I had to evacuate, of course. With 4200 excitable teenagers.

“Hey, you need to be escorting your kids away from the building.”

What’s that? “My kids?? Oh, right. Why would an assistant principal know who his teachers are? Yes, he thought I worked there. It was a chaotic situation, and I have a helpful nature, so I just did it.

“Hey, put that phone away!”

A security guard, chastising me for live tweeting the event. Because I had suddenly become a student.

“I’m here to see Reginald Von Gooberschmidt*.”
“Well his class is in gym.”
“OK, can I see him?”
“We don’t know where he is.”
“I thought he was in gym.”
“They don’t usually go.”
“Can you check? I mean, I called and you told me to come in.”
“We don’t know where he is. He probably left the building.”
“This is a fourteen year old child, no one can tell me where he is?”
“Probably not.”

Me and a guidance counselor. I’d go on, but my spleen ruptured.

There are, of course, great moments too. Watching a veteran third grade teacher redirect a chaotic group of thirty two kids, many of whom are supposed to be getting one on one help but aren’t, with nothing but rhythmic clapping? That’s amazing. A pre-schooler requesting that I go down the elephant-shaped slide, then excitedly introducing me to all of her friends is a dream. (Hint: she is friends with everyone.) Getting to be on a first name basis with a guidance counselor who is constantly, heroically available to every kid in that school. It’s rather rocking.

Public school employees and social workers have a lot in common. We’re underfunded, most people don’t have a clue what we do, our jobs are way more dangerous and they should be, and however we might feel on a rough day, we’re doing it for the kids. So let’s remember our common goals, and laugh and work together. I suggest we start with high fives.

Everyone loves high fives.

*Not a real name, unfortunately.

We Wilsh You A Merfy Christams*

21 12 2012

Confession time: I have Christmas spirit. Always have, and I hope I always will. I like the cheesy music, I like the gaudy lights, I like the predictable movies. Everything about it. As a kid, Santa was a big part of that.

Actually, Santa is still a big part of that. Twenty eight years young, people!

I believed in Santa until I was about eight. I had my suspicions earlier, but I persevered because I wanted to. It was fun. Sure, Santa had the same handwriting as my mom, and a lot of my Christmas gifts had tags from Sorrelli’s, her favorite discount store in Brooklyn that no self respecting elf would ever set foot in. I read Judy Blume books in which Peter and Fudge discussed the fact that there was no Santa. I heard my parents going in and out of the attic, where the presents were kept, when I was supposed to be asleep on Christmas Eve, and the only explanation I was offered was, “Oh, yeah, we…yeah.”

But I still believed. Why? Kids are stupid. Like I said, I wanted to. It was fun. I wasn’t particularly materialistic, but I had an innate understanding that believing in magic and preserving this ritual was a time limited thing.

I always thought it was sweet. Until I learned about the true horrors of this myth in this article.

JK, peeps. I’m pretty sure that article is the definition of “overthinking it,” and exactly what people worry I had to deal with when they find out my mother is a psychologist.

It’s something I’ve heard debated more and more. Should you support the Santa myth? Isn’t lying wrong? As almost always, I advocate for the middle ground. I think the real danger is when people fall into these “beliefs” or “schools” of parenting. It leaves little room for logic and dealing with things on a case by case basis.

Some people get all high and mighty about not “lying” to their children. Fine, I won’t lie to them either. I feel bad for the next child who hands me an art project! “Kid, you have zero sense of perspective and proportion. That picture of your grandmother looks more like a pineapple. It’s called shading.”

Not to mention, Santa is a cultural phenomenon. He’s everywhere. It’s not a damaging lie, like “that boy is teasing you because he likes you!” or even such an outright one as, “No, SJ, the toy store is closed.”

But some people go overboard. Remember what I said about the middle ground? If you are policing what your child reads and watches to make sure they don’t hear anyone expressing any doubt about my good buddy Kris Kringle, then maybe it’s time to relax. And if your kids are unholy terrors unless you threaten to call Santa, or because Shingles the Shelf Elf is watching, they probably need to have little more respect for your authority.

Side note: If my parents had an Elf on a Shelf when I was a kid, I too would have been on my best behavior. Because I would have thought it was waiting to murder me.

It seems like the more money people have, the more time they have to blow this out of proportion. Either they will protect the Santa myth to such an extreme that they have to sit Junior down before the grandchild’s first Christmas so he doesn’t expect reindeer to deliver the gifts, or they lay the smackdown on magic and provide strategies for investment banking while the child is still swaddled.

Most of my families have more of a relaxed approach. It makes me sad, though, that a lot of the kids stop believing so early, thanks to the harsh realities of life. Their parents don’t have the money to pull it off how they’d like and tell the kid not to be disappointed, mom asks for help setting up the Santa surprise for the younger kids as there is no older adult around…there’s just less time to be a child lost in a fantasy world.

So I like it when the kids are into it. Even if it will surely lead to distrust and incsecure attachment is super dorky.

A couple of years ago, I called a mother to let her know that the Christmas presents we had for her seven year old son just arrived. She came in with him, as there was no one available to babysit. She pulled me aside to say, “I told him that Santa was really busy, so he dropped the presents off here early.”

“SJ, my mom said Santa was here! Did you meet him?”
“I did. It was amazing. He shook my hand twice and he smells of peppermint. I’m so sorry you missed him!”

While I’m sure I did that child irrevecable psychological damage, it was pretty fun for the day.

Happy holidays, people!


*This is a joke that is only funny to my older brother and me. I hope this is a sufficient Christmas gift to him.

We do have to do better, because kids are awesome.

19 12 2012

Last week, I had every intention of posting a new blog on Monday. I was planning for it to be something fun and lighthearted, since my last one was a bit heavy. Then on Friday, as I was standing on line for cheesecake at the agency Christmas party, a little pissed off that we were expected to return to the office for an hour afterwards, a coworker looked up from his phone to say, “They’re saying it’s at least twenty dead now.”

There are a lot of ways I thought I could approach this.

I could get into the need for a serious overhaul of mental health services in this country. However you feel about the author of “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  and the general narcissism/martyrdom of mommy-blogging, (yeah, who am I to judge?) she’s right. And of course, we don’t need mental health services so us normies can be safe, we need it because the mentally ill are human beings who deserve treatment. Anyway.

I could also talk about gun control. My boyfriend’s a police officer, and there’s a gun in our home. This makes me somewhat qualified to say that anyone who thinks that a gun could be safely kept in a kindergarten classroom and that a teacher would have been able to stop this with returned fire is an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed to own a water pistol. Honestly. Peanut butter is too dangerous in our classrooms, but an M4 would be just fine? Not to mention that it’s hard enough to find good teachers when they aren’t also required to be sharpshooters.

OK, maybe I do have a few things to say about that one. But it’s all been said plenty.

I could talk about why interviewing children who’ve just been through unimaginable trauma, then defending it as “allowing them to share their story” instead of “trying to be the first ones to get the story with no regard for ethics or the well being of six year olds” is bullshit and wrong.

I could mention the sick opportunists blaming this on lack of prayer in school or comparing this massacre to abortion. But then I would have to think about them.

I also thought about writing about this woman and the other teachers there. People who are often criticized for not “getting it,” because they’re young or don’t have their own kids or are just doing it for their big fat paycheck. It’s hard to imagine that you could care about someone else’s children that much, but everyone I know who works with kids understands it completely.

Then I thought what would be best would be remembering why we care about these kids so much. How even when they drive us crazy, they are sweet and innocent and make us laugh. How the worst day can be brightened by a visit from a child. To remember who we’re protecting when we talk about all of the changes to be made and work to be done.

SJ: “Did your teacher tell you she called me?”
8 y/o: “Yes.”
SJ: “What did you think about that?”
8 y/o: “Busted.”
Ha! We call that insight.

6 y/o: “Did you bring play-doh? It helps me with my anger.”
Well, look at you.

9 y/o: “I have a concern. My dad snores. I can hear it through the wall, it’s ridiculous.”
I love the confidence it took to bring this up during a safety conference.

SJ: “Let’s talk about what you love about your family.”
7 y/o: “We have a fish.”
The fish’s name is Crunchy, it is pretty great.

6 y/o: “Hey SJ? When you’re done talking to my mom maybe you can come give me a hug?”
Oh…ok, that sounds lovely. It’s nice that we can schedule these things.

11 y/o: “My school said you were looking for my report card. Did they tell you it was beautiful?!”
It was beautiful.

SJ: “Are you excited for winter break?”
5 y/o: “Yeah, I’m ready.”
SJ: “What are you going to do?”
5 y/o: “Party.”
I bet!

7 y/o: “Don’t worry mom, I’ll help you take care of him. Hear that, baby? It’s you and me!”
This was said to his mother’s protruding belly, as she cried over her boyfriend having left the family.

4 y/o: “Hi SJ! This is my snowsuit. Wanna hold hands?”
Yeah, why not?

Everyone I know was devastated and overwhelmed with grief and feelings of powerlessness as they watched this play out. Some of us can help in concrete ways, but sometimes it feels like all you can do is bear witness by overloading on horrific news. We know this isn’t for the best, but it might feel like all there is. We can also bear witness by remembering, honoring, and protecting everything that’s wonderful about childhood. The reaction of so many people was to want to hug the children in their lives closer. It applies to us too.

Summertime, and the living is…meh.

29 05 2012

This past week, most of us Americans enjoyed a long Memorial Day weekend. This is a time meant to honor our fallen military. Typically, that means barbecues with red, white, and blue paper plates, and perhaps a furniture sale. For me, it meant a day out on the roof with an Asian American hip hop crew.

I mean, obviously.

The other significance that most people attach to Memorial Day is that it kicks off summer. As a social worker, I can’t wait for summer. However, as a social worker, I’m dreading summer.

Yeah, you read that right. It’s my blog and I don’t have to make up my mind if I don’t want to.

Pro: The weather! It’s glorious!
Con: How sweaty can I be before it interferes with my work?

I like hot weather and, by extension, wearing little clothing. My preferred way to go running is in 90% humidity, 95 degree (Farenheit, don’t worry, foreigners) heat. I know that I’m in the minority, but I love muggy, New York summers.

I don’t like showing up at people’s homes like a deranged sweat lodge escapee.

Pro: School is out!
Con: School is out! (Yeah, I do that a lot.)

This is what I waited eagerly for as a kid, of course. Now, though, I can’t stand it.

It’s not because I don’t think kids should get to have the same fun I did. I would love for them to be able to enjoy Girl Scout camp (where they become lesbians and do abortions) and complete their mother’s educational assignments. (Draw a map of the colonial United States? Sweet!) But a majority of my kids do nothing. They try to work, but it’s not easy to get a job. Some of them scramble to make up credits in summer school. The rest lounge. Then they get back to school, and their teachers work until November to get them back to where they were in June.

Yes, kids need a break. But two to three months off every year is insane and irresponsible. These kids aren’t harvesting crops, so what’s the deal? They’re so far behind as it is, usually. A majority of my kids have been held back at least once. Summer learning loss is real, and it doesn’t help.

Pro: Camp is the best! Better than the rest! THIS IS A REPEAT AFTER ME SONG!
Con: They’re not repeating after me.

Like I said, I loved camp as a child. I loved swimming, learning to set fires, stupid songs, checking for ticks after a long hike…the Girl Scouts were good for this city girl. But getting kids to have this awesome experience? It’s an uphill battle. Day camps fill up incredibly fast. So fast that a many of my kids who attend are usually in more of a voluntary summer school kind of thing. (Meaning not many of them attend.) You pretty much have to be a psychic, or show up to every free day camp program in the borough every day starting in February, asking for an application, child’s current physical in hand.

The Fresh Air Fund is a wonderful option. If anyone if unfamiliar, it’s a free program that pairs low income NYC children up with either a host family, or a sleepaway camp, for a couple of weeks, to give them an outdoorsy swimming-hole type of summer experience. Awesome, except so few are willing to do it. The parents are nervous. They are convinced, often through experience, that child molesters are all around us and they shouldn’t let their kids out of their sight. (Never mind the dangers in their own homes and neighborhoods.) Well, maybe the hyperactive little boys can go, but definitely not the girls. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they at least want their sons to be gone for a couple of weeks, it’s often August, and therefore too late. Did I mention that this is somehow my fault?

Pro: No more teachers! No more books!
Con: Where the hell did everyone go?

I love hearing that my kids are enjoying themselves. That they’re gotten to visit family down south (fun fact: 90% of my families do not know if their relatives are in North or South Carolina. I don’t know how they get there.) or in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. I love if they have the opportunity to participate in the Fresh Air Fund. I hate roaming the streets aimlessly, poking my head over the fence at public swimming pools like a decidedly creepy adult, desperately seeking an MIA child. Normally I can track them down at school.

Stupid summer.

Parents very often forget to tell me that they or their children will be away. It’s not until I call their emergency contact and hear, “What? They’re in Santo Domingo until next month!” that I piece it together. If Anonymous Agency were willing to send me to the resort to get those contacts, instead of expecting me to intercept my clients’ passports to prevent them from leaving, I wouldn’t mind so much.

Pro: People are outside. Yay community!
Con: People are hot and on top of each other out there. Boo violence!

Wonderful things happen when people are outside in beautiful weather, combatting their boredom. Work together to open that fire hydrant. Share an icee with a neighbor. Play ManHunt (hide and seek in the dark, pervs) until your mom calls you to come home. Take a trip to Coney Island and eat hot dogs and go on rides until you throw up.

But bad things also happen. People are a bit more on edge, because they’re hot, don’t have air conditioning, the kids are running wild, and they don’t have the money to do all those things they want. Things are magical over the summer, but they also get a bit sinister. The street harassment gets more aggressive, and fights erupt more easily. Fights lead to shootings, and we have enough of those in the winter.

There are ups and downs, pros and cons, peaks and valleys, vanilla and chocolate, to everything in life. This is a phenomenon on steroids in social work. We have to take the good with the bad, reveling in good moments, and sarcastically lamenting the bad ones on Twitter.

I hope you’ve all got a well-deserved vacation coming. Or at least a neighbor to open the fire hydrant.

When life gives you lemons, take its comments out of context and mock it on the internet.

15 05 2012

Most of my job is spent trying to meet my clients where they are. However, there are times when things get a little chaotic, crises occur, or a court date is coming up, and we need to meet where no one wants to be–the ACS office.

This office is a thrifty property flippers dream. If there are swamplands in the Bronx, picture them, and that’s where we are. Scenic, and far, far away from that pesky civilization. Inside, the place is rather cheery. Nicely spruced up with grey paint that all social service agencies buy in bulk, as well as many a plastic ficus.

There’s also the playroom, which is separated from the waiting room by plexiglass. It gives me flashbacks to watching the baby chimpanzees at the zoo. Look at him stacking the blocks! He thinks he’s people! Of course, instead of a tire swing, there’s a heavy metal file cabinet.

Kids love those.

I can’t judge, of course (well, I can, I’m really good at it, but I’ll try not to.) Our playroom is just to the left of atrocious. It’s hard. Kids destroy things, and everyone is short on cash.Most social service agencies leave something to be desired in terms of interior design. Anonymous Agency could use a visit from Ty Pennington. No, wait, he blows things up and his hair annoys me. Is that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy dude up to anything? Maybe him.

I get so familiar with the asthetics at this office because most of my time there is spent waiting. Clients often don’t show up. So we wait. We give them time. We’ll give them an hour if we can. I once got a phone call that my client had arrived three hours late, when  was back in the office, and was rather miffed that I hadn’t waited. After all, she had traveled all that way.


Waiting can be frustrating. It means your entire day can be thrown off. It might mean that you don’t get to see a family that is really in crisis, or get in a contact with them that you really need.

However, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse things than waiting. Technology certainly makes it easier. Having a smart phone means you don’t get to complain nearly as much. There are crossword puzzles to do, somethings to draw, and fruits to ninja. Oh, we can also type up notes, I guess. I also have a Kindle in my bag, meaning I can laugh inappropriately at Tina Fey if I’m feeling down, or if I just want those around me to think I’m strange. The city is also kind enough to have kids’ movies (like Despicable Me. HEAVEN) playing in the waiting room. Of course, I did once see the shadow of a man’s head, presumably going on a popcorn run, during one of those DVDs. That’s right. They’re a bunch of bootleggers.

There are lots of ways to pass the time. My number one favorite, though, is eavesdropping.

Overheard in the ACS waiting/playroom:

“Elmo, you don’t shape up, Imma punch you in the face.” – 3 y/o to a stuffed animal.
It’s almost like this kid is trying to tell me something. I mean, Elmo can be annoying…

“No, I don’t have to deal with you. We don’t have to talk. This does NOT go beyond today. Good bye!” – Receptionist to Chinese food delivery guy.
That was weird.

“I wear breakaway pants to these things now, so they can check my legs easy!” – 12 year old on the bruise-checking procedure.
Young man, you are depressingly savvy.

“Look! Look! I tied the Barbie’s legs to the bed!” – A random 9 year old, eager to show off his handiwork.
1. So glad you’re not mine.
2. We need to find who is responsible for you.

“I don’t care where we are, I’ll beat your ass.” – A mom I fortunately don’t work with to her five year old.
Come on, I’m sitting right here. Don’t do that.

“But I have to go now. I really do. Can I piss in the cup here and then take it over there?”
“We are taking the bus. What the hell is wrong with you? Wanting to get on public transportation with a cup full of pee. I’m about to let them have you.” – 15 year old and his mother debating the logistics of getting over to the urine drug testing facility.
I’m just going to say that you both have valid points.

“They have me in here like I’m smoking crack. I’m not smoking crack! I’m not a crackhead. At least I’m not smoking crack.” -A mother apparently feeling she was being treated unfairly.
I get this excuse all the time. Most often from people doing cocaine.

There we have it. We’ve got to wait, there’s just no way around it. We’re busy, and we need to scheduled things back to back, but at times we just have to let go and let clients. As long as there are conversations to eavesdrop on, I’ll be all right.

What would baby even be called?

9 04 2012

About six months ago, something pretty crazy happened in my family–the best baby ever was born to my brother and my sister-in-law. I know everyone feels that way about their nieces and nephews, but in this case it’s true. We can all stop looking.

Obviously, I love the kid like crazy. Therefore, I talk about her and force people to look at pictures from time to time. I try to control myself, honestly. Like I said, though–best baby ever.

I noticed something weird happens when you talk about a baby. Everyone wants to set them up on dates.

I’m sure you’re scratching your head, and I assure you, I agree. It makes no sense. But it’s an uncontrollable urge that apparently affects many. As soon as I mention my super cool adorable niece, people start saying:

“Oh, my son’s a year old, we’ll have to set them up!”
I don’t know you, and I’m sure he’s not good enough.

“She’s in day care? Any little boys got their eye on her?”
No, they can’t sit up unassisted yet.

“Oh, remind them they’re related!”
This was the grossest comment, in reference to my niece and her cousin wacking each other on the arm. I thought it was a cute moment, others thought we needed to turn a hose on the infants.

We’re going to leave the heteronormativity aside for the moment (though it would be nice to switch that up, please) and focus on the bizarre sexualization of kids. Little kids.

I’m not talking about criminal stuff. I’m talking about these weird comments that strike some unfunny people as the height of comedy. It makes sense, to some degree. The idea of babies as mini adults is kind of amusing, in the way that animals wearing hats is a bit funny. But we all remember that animals in costume is an unnatural thing that shouldn’t extend beyond a photo op. People don’t always remember this when it comes to their kids.

As soon as the girls spring forth from the womb, people tell their fathers that they should be locking them up because they’re pretty (it worked for Rapunzel’s evil witch-mom, right?) or that they shouldn’t let them date. The boys are told that they’ll be heart-breakers. Even weirder is when baby boys are called “tough guys.” Yeah, he just shit his pants and now he’s crying about it. Real tough.

I see this constantly in my work. As a youth worker at Anonymous Youth Center, I often assisted in pre-school. The teacher had to send a note home over the summer, requesting that parents not dress their girls in a “sexy style.” This is what it was called. I’m not joking.

I am not creeped out by a little kid who wants to be naked all the time, or little girls swimming topless at the beach, as there’s not anything for them to hide. But a triangle bikini with a metal ring between the “cups,” tube tops, mini skirts…where the hell did they even buy these things?

Don’t worry, it’s not just the girls. On more than one occasion I have heard a man proudly declare that he doesn’t need a DNA test, he knows that baby boy is his. “Cuz he’s well endowed, y’know?”

Actually sir, I do know. I assisted mom during a diaper change. If that infant ween reminds you of your own, I am amazed that you procreated in the first place.

One mother had the decency to tell her baby’s father, “Do not talk about my son’s package!” Normally I deduct points for use of the term “package,” but I let it go in this case.

Only moments later, though, the baby started fussing when his mother was getting his into his onesie. She assured him that they would be done in a minute. “Don’t worry, papi, almost done, you’re almost dressed, there we go, all sexy.”

Ew. What?

Yeah. Parents call their kids sexy. A lot. No one seems to object. Then the kids turn thirteen, talk constantly about dating, and everyone is confused. “You’ll have time for that when you’re older! Why are you in such a rush to act grown?” You dressed her up to go clubbing and tried your hand at matchmaking when she was eight months old. Forgive the children for getting some mixed messages. It’s funny and cute when you do it, but they’re sluts not acting their age when they imitate you? OK…

Childhood is supposed to be fun and carefree, but we all know it generally isn’t. Even if your childhood isn’t filled with abuse, neglect, gang warfare, or domestic violence, being a kid can be stressful. You don’t understand anything. Everyone tells you what to do, and your parents are constantly bringing you places and not telling you until you get there. I remember seeing my little cousin in the hospital for the first time the day he was born. I hadn’t even known my aunt was pregnant. My head kind of exploded.

Kids have enough going on. As much as we romanticize dating when we’re no longer in the scene, we should all take a moment to remember that, for the most part, it sucks. You question your every move and Facebook post, you can’t just talk to someone without wondering where it’s going, and middle aged relatives won’t stop telling you about their friends’ kid who met someone on eHarmony.

We’re not pushing our kids to file their taxes or make appointments at the DMV, so we should probably hold off on dating as well.

Doritos for breakfast? Only if they’re Cool Ranch!

29 03 2012

When I was thirteen, way back in November of 1997, (side note: remember Hanson? Good times.) my family was hosting Thanksgiving. Among other things, like gratitude, the warmth and love of my family, and lots of football, this meant that there was a rather large, very dead bird on our kitchen table.

It had never bothered me before, that dinner was a dead animal. But for some reason, it suddenly struck me. Perhaps because my mother insisted on calling the turkey “the carcass.” Why would anyone do that? But for some reason, she did, and my vegetarianism was born.

Something interesting happens when you become a vegetarian–meat eaters feel threatened. You might think that this is ridiculous. Who cares what anyone else eats? Yet I’m consistently surprised. When I turn down meat, I’m typically asked, after a little while, if I’m a vegetarian. I’m then asked for how long, why, do I eat fish, do I get enough protein, am I a vegan, do I miss meat, no seriously why, and other logistical concerns.  (Fifteen years, I don’t want to eat meat, no, all Americans do, don’t get between me and my cheese, seriously I don’t like meat.)

Then the questions get challenging. “But why do you think it’s ok to eat eggs?” “I bet your shoes are made with leather!” “What if the animals are treated well?” “Then why do vegetarians eat replacement meat, if they don’t like it?” To which I pretty much always have to answer, please shut up, I just want to enjoy my falafel in peace.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with social work. Right? Silly, everything does. That’s pretty much my life this blog’s thesis statement.

Participants have a way of finding out that I don’t eat meat. It comes up. It’s not something I consider relevant, but it’s also not particularly personal, and I don’t mind sharing. At Anonymous Youth Center this point was often raised when we gave the kids snacks, and they wished for burgers or chicken nuggets. At Anonymous Agency, it’s usually at agency celebrations when I don’t partake in the spare ribs, or when we’re discussing holiday traditions. It’s interesting, because my kids are often shocked and appalled. They don’t know vegetarians. They didn’t know this was even an option. What’s wrong with you, SJ?!

Not long ago, a family session wrapped up thusly:

Mom: “You ever been to the wings place down the street?”
SJ: “I actually haven’t.”
Mom: “But it’s right there!”
SJ: “It is, but I haven’t been there.”
14 y/o: “What, you too good for chicken wings?”
SJ: “Too good for…I don’t eat meat.”
10 y/o: “You’re a veterinarian?!”
13 y/o: “She’s a vegetarian, idiot.”
10 y/o: “So no chicken?”
SJ: “No. Chicken is meat.”
Mom: “What about fish?”
SJ: “Still no.”
13 y/o” “Gimme a pound, fish is gross. Crabmeat?”
SJ: “Nothing that was alive.”
14 y/o: “Oh, so it’s like that.”

I’m still not sure what it’s like.

It starts to drive me a little crazy that people I barely know, at work or elsewhere, are so concerned with what I eat. I honestly do not care if others are vegetarians or not. I have woken up on more than one occasion, while visiting family, to find that my uncle had slaughtered a goat in the night. Hey, mutton stew comes from somewhere. It doesn’t faze me.

Until it starts to.

I have no interest in converting others to vegetarianism. I don’t think parents who don’t feed their children a purely organic diet and keep only dried fruits and fresh angel tears in the house as snacks are neglectful. When I grew up, McDonald’s was a sometimes food (you couldn’t pay me to eat it now…wait you could pay me, but I wouldn’t enjoy it) and we had soda at parties. We played sports and went through normal cycles of packing on a few pounds and then growing six inches in seemingly a week. I hope I would be similar as a parent, and resist the terror of the “obesity epidemic” type stuff that prompts some parents to think this is ok. (Free social work advice: it’s not.)

But then I have my moments with my families. If you listen to NPR, you hear about “food deserts.” It’s true, there are many more options for grocery shopping in wealthier areas than there are in the Bronx. But honestly? It’s not bad. There is a major grocery store right by my office. A third of the street is taken up by bodegas, most of which sell fruit and vegetables and accept food stamps.

Every day the kids come to us after school with chips and candy. Not a twenty five cent bag. The kind you get when all your friends are coming over and you’re trying to entertain. They then leave, plotting if they have enough money for more chips and candy. I once thought I was going to have to rescue an infant because his grandmother was feeding him Windex from a bottle. It turned out it was some unnatural blue “beverage,” so I didn’t have to make a call. More toddlers than I can count eat Doritos in the office for breakfast. And then when they start day care, they don’t want to eat the oatmeal that’s provided…it’s so strange!

While it’s not good for the kids to eat this crap and develop these habits, it’s not what you’d call a risk factor, though I know some people think it should be. (For the record, I’m not one of them.) But it’s frustrating. We hear all the reasons and explanations–people don’t have access to fresh, healthy groceries in low income areas, food stamps won’t pay for some healthy items, people aren’t educated in terms of what is good for them, working-poor parents are too stressed and busy to prepare a home-cooked meal regularly, some of these things are cultural. These are certainly factors, but at some point and in many scenarios we’re just making excuses.

Is anyone surprised to hear that broccoli is healthy? I think we’re all educated on that point. Food stamps aren’t perfect, but in New York they can be used at farmer’s markets, and they do cover many healthy choices. Water is cheaper than soda, yes? Toast or cereal are fairly straightforward, and don’t require the family sitting together at the table after hours of someone slaving away. My aunt, a public health nurse, is always fighting the idea that frying everything and eschewing diet soda is a traditional Navajo way.

I don’t want to make myself any more of the crazy white lady than I already am. I don’t want this to be another thing my families think I just don’t get. There’s no way I’m going to pretend that orange soda for a four month old is just another choice. But when we’re already asking a family to do some much, getting critical over how they feed their children, the most basic way that they provide care, is just too much. All I can do is model another way, provide some other options, remember how annoying it is when people don’t mind their own damn business about how I eat, and let my heart be warmed when my girls’ group requests celery with peanut butter over pizza.

All while remembering how much joy a blue raspberry Slush Puppy brought me as an eight year old.

Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.