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.

No matter what, we can all agree–Newt Gingrich sucks

5 12 2011

Newt Gingrich, who is apparently (really?) a serious candidate for president, seems to kind of hate poor children. Or, if you think janitorial work is tons of fun, he loves them. I’m sure we all remember last summer, when Fox news broke the startling story that poor people have refrigerators.

Lamenting that people are not so hard up for cash that they can afford to keep their eggs at a temperature that won’t kill them, or that kids are spending time learning to read rather than mop, seems pretty harsh. I don’t usually hear that about the families I work with.

But I have been subjected to views along these lines. I’m sure you’ve all heard them as well. Everyone seems to have a neighbor who drives a Lexus to recertify for their foodstamps, or a deadbeat, unemployed cousin who has the ultra-premium cable package, complete with Showtime. Of course there are all those people in soup kitchens making calls on their iPhones, and every kid in a failing school is wearing the latest Jordans.

I mean, those people are living better than I am! And I work!

Of course, this isn’t true of many people we work with. I have a lot of families with video game addict children, but those expensive games are always purchased second hand at Game Stop. They’re looking fashionable, but that shirt was five bucks at a no-name warehouse on Fordham Road. The nice phone is most often a gift from grandma. People have told me that I’m not seeing the bigger picture–what about how much the phone plan costs a month? Um, you’re stupid. Everyone participant I work with has a pay-as-you-go deal, and very often they don’t have minutes at all.

We also hear a lot about how the people we work with just don’t know how to budget. They act like cable is a necessity. (It’s not, but I can see how you might feel that way if you have six kids.) They buy too much pre-made food. (Again, when you’ve got a bunch of hungry kids in a one bedroom apartment, and you’ve been working all day? I get it.) They don’t prioritize. (Unlike me. I needed that novelty size Pez dispenser.)

As a society, we’re too hard on the poor. We expect things of them that we ourselves can’t do. We learn to defend against these viewpoints in Comedy Central social work school. But those who say low-income people need to budget and prioritize better? They’re not always wrong.

I don’t like to say it. It goes against my liberal social work sensibility. But I have worked with some people who frustrate me in this regard. They spend more money on junk than on concrete things that their children need. I had a mother ask me for band-aids to take home for her child, explaining that she didn’t have enough money because they had just bought a Nintendo Wii. Another worker was very upset to find out that her family that was facing eviction was still paying for three cable boxes. A friend was at a loss when a mother she helped to find a new apartment was late on her rent, because she spent her pay check on a dinette set instead.

I don’t like to tell these stories. Like I said, poor people get enough shit. There are enough people who think we waste money on public assistance programs by enabling people too stupid to budget properly. As long as the children’s needs are met, how adults choose to spend their money is none of my business.

Many people were scandalized when I mentioned that my first encounter with an iPad occurred when one of the two year olds I work showed me her family’s during a home visit. (I have never felt older than when that child rolled her eyes at my inability to operate it.) People couldn’t believe that this family could have afforded an iPad. I defended them strongly. Dad works fourteen hour days, mom is home with the kids, they live extremely reasonably, but they are geeks and love technology. It’s something they enjoy as a family. They can decide what to do with their money, so shut up with your faux concern/jealousy that you don’t have one.

Until the children’s needs (school supplies, clothing, and so on) aren’t met. Or they come to me asking for help paying their back rent. Then it is my business, whether I like it or not.

I understand some of it. I delay gratification and hold off on buying things I don’t really need, because I know that I’ll be able to save up for a down payment on a house new car new pair of Chucks. When you’re making minimum wage or living on public assistance, and greatly struggling to pay rent, the idea of saving up for a larger goal is not really on the table. It doesn’t seem realistic. So spending the six dollars in your pocket on sending the kids down to the corner store to get french fries for dinner (which simultaneously gets them out of your hair for twenty minutes) seems to make sense.

I don’t think that this means the people who engage in this particularly frustrating behavior are bad parents. In my experience, a lot of them became parents very young, and are very overwhelmed in their day to day lives. I can understand that they would spend money on unnecessary, but fun, stuff.

As a broad social policy, acting like poor people don’t have it that bad, or would be fine if they just laid off the Dom Perignon to go with their steak dinners, is pointless. It’s not true, and it doesn’t work. It isn’t right, and it won’t change anything.

But one to one? We can’t feel wrong in recognizing this. And I know people do. We’re constantly defending our clients to people who think they’re bad parents, bad people, they’re free-loaders, public assistance is the reason we can’t have nice things, America!

The thing is, it’s never all or nothing. You can’t paint an entire group of people with one judgmental brush, solely based on their income. And we can’t be too protective of the populations we work with, or married to a certain point of view, that we deny that people are doing something wrong.

So in this safe space of like-minded individuals, I will say–I have a great deal of respect for all of the families I work with. They regularly blow me away with their resourcefulness and resiliency.

 But I kind of wanted to drop kick the woman who chose Nintendo Wii over band-aids.

Never fear, PC Gal is here! (Fear no, annoyance yes.)

8 03 2011

It’s been a while since we’ve revisited A Series of Unfortunate Events social work school. That magical land where I learned the importance of language. No, I don’t mean not swearing at clients (though I do recommend that you try to avoid this) but of the all important politically correct terminology.

Apparently, I’d been unwittingly oppressing everyone around me. To be honest, I was open to learning.

I think being “PC” has gotten a bad rap. What’s wrong with making an effort not to offend someone? Think of all the times someone has made you feel like garbage, and then explained, “well, I didn’t mean it!” Really? I didn’t mean to stick my foot in your ass, so I guess we’re even.

In the words of Simon Amstell (whatever, I like curly haired, insecure, English comedians) “I like that political correctness exists, though, otherwise we’d all still be racists.”

While this view is a bit simplistic, it is also a bit accurate. Language evolves. Some words that used to be offensive no longer are. Some words that used to appear on government documents will now earn you a gasp and shunning in polite company. We need to pay attention to that.

But what I learned in social work school was that it wasn’t enough to be politically correct. You had to be the most politically correct. You had to win the non-racist, non-homophobic, non-transphobic, non-sexist, non-classist, non-sizist, anything else you can think of award.

If there was an actual trophy up for grabs, I might have been more interested in playing along. Instead, it just seemed that we were playing for smug satisfaction, and the right to make other people feel stupid.

One girl, a repeat offender, informed us all that we were to refer to people as being “white-skinned” rather than white. I think she explained, but I had stopped listening. Like I said, repeat offender.

This is the same girl who told our class that we should be referring to Native Americans as “first nations peoples.”

After doing a little research, it was determined that I was the only one in the room who actually knew any native people. I explained that my cousins liked the term “native” and had banners reading, “Native all the way!” decorating their MySpace pages. They had never heard of the term “first nations people.” If asked, they said they were Navajo, because that was more accurate.

What’s that, someone speaking from experience? Silence!

I was also not open-minded in my disdain for “Stop Snitching” t-shirts. Apparently, the viewpoint that this movement primarily benefitted drug dealers and brought stuggling neighborhoods further down was not welcome. I had no right to say such things because…again, I stopped listening.

Once I referred to a client as “overweight.” This caused a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

Let me remind you that I said, “overweight.” I did not say, “What a raging fatty-boombatty” or call her a “heifer.” I referenced the fact that her weight was higher than what was recommended and healthy for her height. This was a factor in her low self-esteem.

I then got a twenty minute lecture on being “fat positive,” and how saying that someone is “overweight” is offensive, because it’s too clinical.

Since learning more about that particular issue, I think there’s a lot to be said for it. But (prepare to be shocked) being told in a room full of people that I was wrong, that everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to you, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul (sorry, I had to) did not make me want to open up and listen. It made me think that this girl was kind of a jerk.

That’s not a PC term, but I can use it because I am one too.

I appreciate what these other students were trying to do, kind of. I understand that they wanted to empower clients to accept and love themselves.

But the problem is that a lot of our clients don’t talk or think like this, and this isn’t the problem they come to us seeking help for. I think PC Gal would catch the vapors and drop dead of shock if she heard some of the things my clients say.

“Miss! Sorry to be ghetto, I’m throwing down the key!” yelled one mother out her fourth floor window. (Ghetto? Ugh, how judgmental!)

“Yeah, my mom beat us. But she’s mad Dominican.” (Painting an entire culture with such a broad stroke? For shame.)

“You can’t discriminate against my kid based on his sex, religion, political affiliation, or the fact that he’s queer as a three dollar bill!” (OK, that last one was Burt from Glee. But I think it illustrates my point nicely.)

I don’t know that telling someone that everything they say (even about themselves) is wrong and offensive is really going to help. It’s a tricky, delicate, issue, and pretending that it’s not just really doesn’t help anyone.

I just hope I figure it out by March 17th, so I can celebrate with all the other drunk micks.

But…my mom thinks I’m special.

20 01 2011

My job does not just consist of helping people to get their lives reorganized and back together, or helping them to learn to be better parents. A lot of what I do involves helping people to believe in themselves. Letting them know that they are competent parents, they can succeed in school, and that they deserve good treatment.

A lot of what we’re trying to do is boost people’s self esteem.

You’re special. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like you.

Sorry. I had to.

People like to bitch about “the self-esteem movement.” We’re obsessed with making kids feel like they’re unique and talented. Trying is just as meaningful as doing.

We all know that this doesn’t quite fly is “the real world,” as we adults have so narcissistically dubbed our own lives. I’ve tried telling my boss that I really tried to get my service plan done, but it just didn’t happen. The important thing is that I learned something, and I had a lot of fun.
She didn’t go for that. Even when I gave her my drawing of a butterfly.

We’ve all heard the complaints. Everyone gets a trophy, because everyone’s a winner. (Hint: when there are two teams, one loses.) We can’t play dodgeball, because it makes people feel bad. (When I worked at a youth center, I made the kids play. We all need to get our aggression out.) Everyone gets a chance to be Student of the Month. (That used to mean something when I won it! Right?)

We want to raise kids who can tolerate failure and disappointment. Who understand that things won’t always go their way. Who realize that talent is special, and no one has it for everything. That way, our kids don’t become those dreadful people who embarrass themselves on American Idol.

Excessive, meaningless self-esteem breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement. We can all agree that this is bad.

I don’t deal with that much in my day to day work. Like so many of the latest child-rearing crazes, feeling overly good about oneself seems to go hand in hand with privilege.

The two teen girls’ groups I ran in the past year were focused on improving self-esteem. To hear the girls talk, you wouldn’t think this was necessary. They sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“Miss, I know I look good.”
“If that boy don’t wanna be with me, it’s his loss.”
“I don’t play with peer pressure. I don’t care what people think.”

Wonderful! We can conclude group! Perhaps these girls can go on some kind of speaking tour, imparting their wisdom to others.

Except, as happens so often with humans, their actions don’t match their statements.

The girls talked a good game. They sounded confident. But their sense of self-worth was superficial. For all they talked about leaving guys who didn’t treat them right, they returned to those boys, or a similar one, week after week.

They don’t care what others think, until they’re the only girl in the group who thinks shoplifting does not sound like a good way to spend the afternoon. Somehow, when security shows up, she’s the one left (quite literally) holding the bag.

The self esteem movement hadn’t reached their parents and grandmothers, who were raising them. When pressed for specifics, these girls could not list one thing that they were good at. And so often, their parents were no help.

One girl’s mother had the common problem of interacting with her daughter as though they were peers.

“You’re looking fat today!”
“I swear, you are my dumbest child.”
“Why are you being such a bitch?”

It was hard to explain to this woman the damage that this kind of talk caused a fifteen year old girl.

“She shouldn’t do those things if she doesn’t want me talking about them. You hear how she talks to me?”

I do hear how she talks to you. I wonder wherever she could get it from.

Newsflash from the desk of the Obvious News Network–kids can be jerks, especially to their parents. As the person who brought them into this world, it’s your job to rise above it.

It’s also your job to make sure that they feel good about themselves. Somewhere along the line this idea got distorted.

We’re either praising our kids every time they successfully use the potty until they reach high school, and preparing for their future in the World Cup due to their skill at three-year-old “let’s all bunch around the ball!” soccer.

Or we’re engaging in “brutal honesty,” a self-serving concept that allows people to  be mean without feeling bad about it, as they should.

Shockingly, I believe there is middle ground. Maybe there is a way to keep your kid from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” in the school talent show, when you know it will wind up going viral on YouTube, but not for good reasons. And maybe that way does not involve, telling your child the first time he opens his mouth, “Oh no. You suck. May God have mercy on your soul.”

If nothing else, you’ll be keeping your kid off reality TV (and Maury).   And that’s good for everyone.