REGRESSION BENEATH THE MEAN

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I have never aspired to seek political office. Such striving wouldn’t suit me, and the work itself would likely bore me; my competitive and my reformatory energies both, I have expressed in other ways. But many nevers permit at least one aberration, and mine came in fourth grade, when at the last possible moment, I ran for class president. My platform? The ignorance of misogyny.

The otherwise unopposed candidate was a tall, somewhat stocky boy whom I remember to this day for his brush cut and his brash remarks belittling my gender. Be it classroom banter or playground bullying, he was unrelenting in his hateful attitude. I couldn’t stand it, and I couldn’t let it stand.

So I presented myself in front of my class, by the overhead projector, and made an impassioned, impromptu speech denouncing his language and behavior, asking my classmates in the most rhetorical tone, “Is this really what you want?”

How I wish I could revisit that scene and take in the view from the age that I am: the faces of my classmates in our poor parochial school, my teacher and how she reacted. That was before social media, before the highly public whisper campaigns that crush so many young spirits and regress to something well beneath the mean. I don’t know how I’d fare in our current culture. Back then, my cause triumphed in a landslide.

This past Monday night, between November 7 and November 8, I dreamed that I’d travelled back home to the Midwest, to visit the elementary school where the election that I’ve just described took place. I wanted to walk again the long, wide halls where our teachers hung our art, and the speckled black steps worn smooth as soapstone, leading up from the entrance to the main floor of classrooms and up again to the gymnasium where we congregated as a community, sharing school mass, meals, and spirit days. The stage there where, as a first-grader, I won the spelling bee, almost disqualified because I’d spelled education with a capital E, my teacher having told my class that important words get capital letters.

What I found in my dream, a dream that left me in waking tears, was that the building had been sold; the stairs I’d loved had been dismantled; and the whole thing was being renovated…as a luxury hotel.

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ONCE UPON A TIME (PART ONE)

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What follows is (Part 1 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree.

I’d been spending time with Sarah every week for several months because, although smart as all get out, she was failing to thrive in the classroom. Her teacher reported that she seemed to float in a fog.

We knew her parents were in the midst of an antagonistic separation. When I met her in October, kindergarteners had just begun to learn from my supervisor, the school social worker, various methods for solving small problems on their own. At the end of an otherwise uneventful first session, Sarah asked me what to do “if you have a big problem” and identified that problem as “gwownups fighting.”

I saw her question, naturally, as an indication of her needs, and I assumed that sorting through her feelings about whatever she heard and saw at home would constitute our work together. That proved not to be the case, however. Every week, as elsewhere, she floated around the guidance office, which was large and admittedly full of distractions: a sand table, a dollhouse, puppets, games, a whiteboard with markers lined up and ready for use. Sarah seemed far more interested in, say, drawing “a potato staring at a mountain,” than in talking about her feelings. Was it my approach that was lacking?

Despite having an excellent vocabulary, Sarah often chose not to reply to my scaling question with words; when I asked her to rate her day from 1 (the worst day ever) to 5 (a truly great day), she would walk to the whiteboard to write the answer, then draw faces around it. Her playfulness, for me, lacked transparency, and each silly face, while age appropriate, seemed to take us further away from our purpose in being there. It seemed like there was nothing to catch hold of. I became preoccupied with my apparent inability to connect with her—and as a result, failed to join her where she was.

Sarah often asked me to play hangman, seeming attracted to guessing games. (“Oh, the irony,” I thought, while she drew the gallows.) Play can be a powerful form of therapy, yes, but hangman? Eager to succeed with every client, there were many times when I questioned the value of our meetings—whether our relationship was actually serving her. I discussed those feelings with my supervisor, but aware of her parents’ difficulties, we never quite reached the point of giving up.

One Monday morning in January, I asked Sarah, as usual, how she was feeling on the scale of 1 to 5, and beside her number, she made what looked like four hash marks. “What’s that?” I asked, struck by the unusual drawing. “Scratch marks from a cat,” I was told.

In a flash, an instinct (or desperation) to follow what seemed different, what seemed new, took hold of me. “A cat!” I said. “What can you tell me about that cat? What’s the story of that cat? Maybe I could write it down for you!” “Okay…” she said and followed me to the table, leaning on it and prompting me: “Chapter One.” She watched me write my own contribution: “Once upon a time.” That phrase had always held magic for me, but with Sarah, I was to experience its power as I never had before.

In that first chapter, I recorded that the cat was named Sarah, liked to play, had sharp claws that she used to scratch things, scared her classmates (which made her sad), and was the most beloved member of her family, more so than her baby sibling, who got sick on the bed and made their mother angry.

Six more chapters followed in succeeding weeks. Each time we composed one, my young client watched me take dictation, speaking word by word so I could keep up.

This is what I learned: Sarah the Cat was lonely. She thought her claws scared her classmates; she didn’t know how to make friends. She had no one to play with at school, and it wasn’t any better at home. Though half-hidden in other details to begin with, loneliness was her theme—a fact that became more explicit as time went on.

Finally one day I commented, when our bleakest chapter was done, “I have to say, I’m feeling sad for Sarah the Cat, and I would like to spend some time thinking about things that might help her.” She fixed her wide-eyed gaze on me. “Why do you want to help her?” she wanted to know. I kept to the world we’d created. “Because I care about Sarah the Cat. I know she’s just a character in a story, but I care about her.” After the slightest pause, she said, “Because it’s really me.”

Tears smarted in my eyes, but I blinked them back and replied as if I were surprised by the fact, not moved by her owning of it. “Is it you?” I asked. “You’re Sarah the Cat?” I added in a quieter voice, “Well, then, it matters even more.”

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

 

 

THE SMARTOVATOR

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“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.