There was a time in my life when I was an elementary school counselor. It was a very goofy way to make a living and mostly it was harder to explain than it was to actually do. A friend once described it as trying to imprint logic on the brains of knee-high Visigoths. There was a lot of that sort of insanity that was a necessary part of my reality, but there was also a good measure of the sad, the tragic, the unbelievable and the downright surreal that occurred everyday in my little corner of the educational world. Being a counselor, even in a public school can be a scary proposition. People tend to treat you like you are this mystical Dali Lama-type figure who has a direct line into all the answers the cosmos is willing to provide. Actually you are some doofus with chalk on your back that has an office and a name plate-probably with the last occupant’s name still on it. I never understood how I could become a semi-mystical figure. One day I was a less than ordinary teacher who spent most days lusting after his twenty-something student teacher. In the blink of an eye I become a person with a fake leather swivel chair and I am solving teachers’ marital problems. Years later I am wondering how a degree from a college in North Dakota which specializes in agronomists, pharmacists, and football can transform you into a mental health miracle worker. You think the people who sought my help were confused . . .you should have heard the tape playing in my head most days.
Clueless New School Counselor-September,1981
Every once in awhile magic would occur in places you would least expect it to happen. I had been around kids for a long time and listening them say dumb things had stopped lighting me up years ago. I had become the resident cynic. I could not bring myself to smile at Christmas programs where small children mispronounce words, fall on top of each other or are forced against their will to dress up as reindeer or Christmas trees. Mostly what passes for cute in American public schools made me want to throw up. Treating kids like dopes has never been my style. I saved that treatment for mankind at large and Irish Setters.
One day I was sitting in my fake leather swivel chair entranced as I watched the stuffing float to the floor like a gentle early winter snowfall. I was trying to figure out where the morning and for that matter where my life had gone up to that point. Depressed by that prospect, I contemplated if looking for my lunch is really worth the effort or if I should just let it decay under a pile of undone paperwork, overdue library books, and hand puppets.
My trusty assistant Bear-Nard, who actually did most of the work.
Staring at the forlorn puppets on my desk, I get caught in a moment of self-pity. “Tools of the trade,” I mutter, fully realizing other men my age are utilizing the tools of their trade, cell phones, trophy wives , luxury sedans, platinum credit cards and country club memberships. This list of things I have managed not to acquire rolls on and I began to get catatonic from what I feel is going to be yet another onset of melancholy triggered by the statement, “I went to college for this!”
Somehow I rouse myself into reality long enough to take stock of my day. What I come up with isn’t exactly Nobel Laureate material:
— Explain to an angry mob of fourth-grade girls that swear words liberally applied to each other’s hands and arms with Sharpies will probably not get you invited to the next neighborhood slumber party.
The ever-dreaded Sharpie.
They look shocked that this would be the case. I go over it again, same idea, slightly different approach. The theme remains the same. Sometimes the job is like that, stating the obvious hoping people will catch the drift and come to their senses. Psychological baroque music, same few notes played over and over again with minor variations and wrinkles. I continue to be amazed that people do not catch on that is what I am peddling is logic and common sense. As far as I am concerned this is a good thing otherwise I would be checking out commuters for spare change in the transit mall or asking people, “Would you like fries with that?”
2. See a sweet wonderful sixth grade girl about divorce and braces. My specialty lately seems to be orthodontia and its place in family break-ups. Immature parents playing hot potato with this kid’s smile while her teeth grow every way but straight. The game is, “Mom should pay/Dad should pay.” A school counselor is under-equipped for this but the kid is waiting for wisdom so I give it a shot. “Have a heart-to-heart talk with both of them, Sweetie. Let them know how important this is to you in the long run. They love you and they will listen.” As usual in the back of my mind I am pretty sure I am pedaling a large load of crap. I am saddened that the burden of a break-up and the prospect of a life with crooked teeth are falling on the person who has the least responsibility for carrying it. I am having the kind of day where I toy with the idea of saying, “Face facts, kid, your parents are assholes. Find someone who can actually take care of you.” The words linger on the tip of my tongue, suspended by the need to stay gainfully employed. The urge passes; we agree to meet at the end of the week to see if her parents have grown up by then. As she leaves, I am lost in the fantasy of a gorgeous woman, a fast sports car and a bottle of good tequila heading down the Pacific Coast Highway on a beautiful sunny day.
I am shocked out of my escapist trance by my weekly visit from Emily. She is here to get “fixed”. She is a bright spot in my day. I really like her and the feeling is mutual. I am not sure exactly what is wrong with her other than she thinks second grade is sort of silly. She is eight going on thirty-five so it would make sense that second grade would not be a very magical place for her. She has a knockout smile that at this point is more gaps than teeth but she charms not-the-less. Her sense of humor borders on ironic. She is dark-haired, olive-skinned, with a slight sprinkle of freckles on an up-turned nose. Soon she will be breaking hearts. She appears to grow taller by the minute and the knees which appear below the hem of her dress both sport quarter-sized scabs. These are battle scars in a war between sisters in which sabotage and guerilla tactics appear to be paying small dividends. “Sarah hid behind a bush and pushed me off my bike. Dad grounded her but she sneaks out . . . guess I’ll tell on her.” Calculated risk-life in a family of warring sisters is a minefield when you are eight.
Her quick wit and her off-beat, comical approach to life are reflected in her brown eyes-eyes that do not miss a thing in the world around her. This may be the root of her problem, no time for school, too busy observing and soaking up life. Even though I am supposed to tell her she is going in the wrong direction I don’t think I am going to do that. Her approach seems about right from where I am sitting. Maybe it is because Emily and I share a similar world view and beliefs that we are confined in a very small office together on a rainy, dismal December afternoon.
“I think we’ll do art today, Mr. K.” Less than a minute into our session and she has already taken charge.
“Hey, Sunshine, it’s your time and your dime.”
We both giggle at the time worn exchange. It is part of our ritual. An inside joke that we share. It is not intrinsically funny, but the shared laughter makes us feel good. It fills a need for silliness which we both seem to crave. We both agree that there are just not enough humorous moments to go around in public schools.
Unlike most kids her age, who are too frightened or intimidated to converse with adults in a meaningful way, Emily is the master of conversation and small talk. The banter between us is relaxed and natural and I forget for a moment that she is supposedly a troubled eight year old. The conversation between us flows and drifts from topic to topic. Living with three sisters (almost bearable), math class (a lot of fun), reading (a total drag). For the first time since stumbling out of bed this morning my job begins to make a certain amount of sense and I find myself liking what I am doing-at least for the moment. As I watch Emily glue her self-image collage to the scratched and worn table in my office, I have a moment of what might pass for real insight. Could it be that this is all counseling really is? People just letting people know that you are making a real effort to understand what they think and feel. In short letting them know you give a damn and it is more than just words. Dangerous thought. It could put most counseling graduate programs out of business. It seems in a complicated world that a philosophy like that would be way too simple to work.
During the five years I endured graduate school so I could be qualified to watch an eight year old glue construction paper to a table, I was subjected to a lot of bullshit passing itself off as knowledge. I began to fear I was losing what was left of my mind or that I had accidentally enrolled in the same class fifteen times. It was hard to tell because the titles were starting run together. One night I was sleeping through either,” Advanced Psychological theories of Counseling,” or “Psychologically Advanced Theories of Counseling,” when I woke up long enough to overhear the droning voice in the front of the lecture hall say something to the effect that involvement with another person-REAL INVOLVEMENT-is enough to change a person positively or negatively. There are never neutral encounters between people. It was one of the few things in graduate school that made sense, aside from the pub across the street from campus.
Chub’s Pub across the street from the NDSU campus. I studied for my Comprehensive and Oral Exams there-much to my surprise, I passed them anyway.
I woke up, fumbled around for something to write on and for a change actually took a few notes. It became the focal point for the way I dealt with kids.
Sitting here with Emily, that memory of being stuck in a class on a frigid North Dakota winter evening floats to the surface of my conscious thought. Am I changing her or is she changing me? In the long haul maybe it doesn’t matter. What does matter is assuming that the rubber cement fumes do not kill us, for a half hour on this particular day we will have had a really good time, learned a few things about each other and possibly come away better. At any age be it forty or eight you learn to take what you can get. All in all there are worse things we could be doing so for the moment all is right in the universe.
Rubber cement-the key to a school counselor’s success.
Because it is December, sooner or later the conversation moves to Christmas. When you are eight the whole month of December is Christmas. One of the sure signs your childhood is over is when this is no longer the case. Even now in spite of the clouds and the rain I love winter and the holiday season. If you can get beyond the constant selling and stress it is a time for hope and renewal and recapturing some of the things you may have lost during the journey through the year. My life as a kid was far from perfect and yet I still remember the winter holidays as a sort of a living Norman Rockwell painting. Every once in awhile that feeling returns if only for an instant and becomes my reality for this time of year past and present. If you can’t be kid during Christmas, be with one. See if you can catch the magic, see what they see in the way they see it.
“So what about Christmas/” I ask. The words overflow and I am tickled and overwhelmed.
“Dad makes leg of lamb every year. It is so good! You should come Mr. K. Sarah is such a brat. She opens the ends of all the presents so she knows what everyone is getting. The tree is so pretty. I hope it snows. Mom bakes cookies.” Her enthusiasm light up the office. She makes me see and believe her vision.
I pose the obvious question,” So what’s up with Santa this year? What is he bringing you?’
“Santa?” I am expecting Barbie or long list compiled by a fertile imagination. Instead I get pensive silence, a perplexed look and an answer in the form of a question.
“Mr. K., about Santa, do you believe in him? Really, do you?”
I am not sure what to say but I slowly become aware of the fact that this is definitely one of those who is changing who moments. For the moment the world slows, maybe even stops. Finally I say, “Sure, Emily, I believe.”
Thoughtfully, she purses her lips and folds her hands in her lap. Her fingers resemble those of a Dresden porcelain doll. Having considered my response, she is now ready with the answer. The pause is endless. Finally,” Good, then he exists for you. You see if you believe in him then he exists-just like God.”
The brown eyes dance and sparkle and the smile broadens. She knows she has my attention; I am not so sure she knows why. For Emily the extra-ordinary is ordinary-not a big deal. Zen meditation lesson concluded, she is a kid again. She leaps from her chair and plops in my lap. There was a time not so long ago when her feet did not touch the floor. “So what do you think, Mr. K., am I getting better?”
I am totally lost in the magic and the moment but I somehow manage to mumble, “Sunshine I don’t think you could get much better.”
For an instant time stands still but realizing life is going on all around her, she stands up collects the stickers I give her every session and picks up her collage. “Mom is going to love this one. She’ll put it on the fridge.” “The Emily Refrigerator Door Self-Esteem Gallery,” the thought tickles me.
The self-esteem collage-refrigerator art at its finest.
I think she is gone and I am sitting in bemused silence. Suddenly she reappears with a hug. “I love you Mr. K. and it is Christmas and I should give you something-you know a present.”
After a few moments of reflection, the best I can come up with is, “I think you have Sweetie, more than you will ever know.”