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Monday, November 21, 2005

From the Files

Can Sensitivity and Common Sense Coexist?

My client tells me last week that her boy was suspended from high school, 12th grade, for five days, charged with "biased behavior."

Seems his "Living Skills" class was having a discussion on negotiating in the marketplace. The teacher asked them what they could do if they wanted to buy something that they thought was overpriced.

My client's son answered, "I'd try to 'jew' them down." Except even in his thoughts, he didn't put "jew" in quotation marks, because he wouldn't have known to do that. There in the classroom, in addition to students and teacher, was an administrator from the school board, there to observe. The administrator was a Jewish man who took offense, took extreme offense, at the boy's answer. With no confrontation, no explanation, the man went to the office and started the process that would suspend the boy for five days and put a notice of "biased behavior" in his school file. The mom was called. She apologized for what her son had said, adding that, regrettably, she expected he had heard his grandfather use that term. She pleaded, saying that she was certain her son had no idea of the term's origin, or that it even related to a group of people, and certainly no idea that it was an offensive term. So far, the suspension stands, the record stands, and my client is the only person to have taken the time to explain to her son what he did wrong.

My client, who works in education, said that she could not understand why the teacher and/or administrator wouldn't have made use of the "teachable moment," to help the boy and all the other students examine the statement, understand why it would be objectionable, and replace it with something else. I agree with her. I have never used that term; I have heard it, and I find it offensive. And I still say that this situation is political correctness / cultural sensitivity run amok. A little common sense is called for. Incidentally, the teacher thoroughly corroborates, via an email which my client showed me, the story that the boy clearly had no intent to offend, and indeed, appeared to completely lack understanding of why he was in trouble.


I got a phone call from a former client, whom I hadn't heard from in a couple of years. When I met her, she was utterly alone. The story she told was one that would not have been realistic enough for a soap opera. If it can go wrong in a person's life, it had gone wrong in this woman's. Illness, disaster, violation, victimization, betrayal by family, friends, church. And you might think, yea, but did she....? Yes, she did. Yea, but was she...? Yes, she was. Imagine a bad scene, and she had been there. She was living in her car when I met her, here in a country that was not her own, staying in this town to complete her cancer therapy.

She was calling to tell me that she has written a book, which will be published next year, and in which she wanted me to know, I get a "shout out." I am not showing false modesty when I say to you, as I said to her, "I didn't do anything." She says I helped her immeasurably, and that she wouldn't have survived if not for me. I don't see it. Indeed, I was often amazed that this woman was not suicidal, and it was not because of anything I was doing. Her needs were so great, anything I had to offer barely made a dent. I actually remember thinking, more than once, that if I were her, I would have to seriously consider suicide. Her past, present, and prospects for the future, seemed that bleak. She amazed me then, and she delights me now. She is indeed, a survivor. I can't tell you how happy, truly happy I was, to hear from her.


Had a little training session for the grad student interns, on interpreting children's art in therapy. Student One holds up a client's drawing of his family, in which she's calling attention to everything but the ONE thing that jumps out at me from across the room.

Me: What is that, there, on the Dad? Is that pubic hair?

Student One (obviously seeing what I see for the first time): Ohmygosh, I didn't even notice that! (looks more closely) No, I think it's like laces, they're like lace-up pants...

Me: His Dad wears lace-up pants? Did he wear these in session? (other students giggle)

Student Two: I think they're balls!

Student One (with absolute seriousness): No, it couldn't be that, he doesn't have any. In fact, that's one of the things we're working on, trying to get him some...

Me: Well, OK, as long as you document that as a goal in your treatment plan.


Sometimes clients, even uncooperative ones, will feed me the perfect set-up.

In this family, I'm trying to get the single mom and all three teenagers to take responsibility for their own actions, to stop blaming one another, or anyone else for the choices they make. I am at that point in the session when a concrete example would be useful. Just then, the 13-year-old says something very disrespectful to the mom, such disrespect being another target of treatment.

Mom looks stricken, as she always does when this kid lets loose her venom. I say to the kid, "Gidget, it seems to me that you are so accustomed to being unkind to your mom, I wonder if you even recognize how hurtful your words are to her..."

Gidget says, "Oh, yea. I know I'm being disrespectful. She gets on my nerves so much, she makes me so crazy, that I have to be disrespectful to her!"

Mom retorts, "See? See what I live with!? I had quit smoking today, but you know what? I'm going to smoke! They behave so badly that I'm going back to smoking as soon as we leave here!"

Hmmm. Wonder where Gidget learned her technique...

35 heads are better than one . . .

Blogger Bucky Four-Eyes said...

I have to think the administrator was pretty self-absorbed to miss an opportunity for discussion like that. To not say a word to the student, try to find out if he knew what he was saying was offensive, and to just go and start the suspension process? Obviously this man's own sense of self-importance far outweighed his feeling of responsibility for education the students.

An overdose of pride can be quite counterproductive, I've found.

Blogger Bucky Four-Eyes said...

...or for educatING the students...

Blogger WILLIAM said...

Thanks for the interesting reading this morning. I love when you do "case files".

Blogger Amy said...

Ahh, a nice long post. Let me go make a cup of tea.

Blogger Susie said...

bucky, well, that's just it. I understand that he was personally offended. But as I always tell clients, (and MYSELF), there's what you feel like doing, and then there's what's NEEDED. Often, they are not very similar at all. I agree, some education was needed, first and foremost. And reaching out to someone, explaining to them why we're hurt, is more productive than "retaliating" for the offense, which, it seems to me, this man did. I hope there is some reconsideration and repair done in this case.

william, glad you enjoyed. I don't write about work much, it's a thin line that causes me some anxiety, actually. It's a big part of my life, so of course I'm inclined to say something about it. But it's hard to be specific enough to make it blogworthy, while being vague enough to assure privacy.

amy, bless your heart! I love to do the long ones when I have time. And I know that many readers back right out the door when they see a long one; so thanks for sticking around :)

Blogger Amy said...

Okay. Yep, the administrator took what a student (who is not yet an adult) and took it personally. Should have been more professional about it, IMO.

The lady with the book! Wow.

Blogger Nilbo said...

I grew up in military communities that were pretty much monolithically white and Christian. I had no exposure to Jews or the Jewish faith. None. In fact, when I was in Grade 11, I asked a substitute teacher what her family did to celebrate Christmas and she said "Um, we don't." I thought "Shinto? Buddhist? What?" She said "I'm Jewish." I said "And ...?" I had no idea Jews didn't celebrate the birth of Jesus.

She was astonished, and my more worldly classmates were greatly amused. I was laughed out of the classroom. That night, I stopped at the library on the way home and picked up Abba Eban's "The Jews" and slogged through it over the next two months.

I learned only then that phrases that formed part of my everyday vernacular like "Jew him down" or "Jewish lightning" (business fire) were hideously offensive.

I could easily have been that student. Easily. It's a damn shame that people searching around for ways to affirm their sense of victimization can't see that the solution isn't punishment - it's education.

As to the book: I know it isn't false modesty on your part - it's very real. But we tend to forget that we're almost always in the worst possible position to judge our effect on others' lives. Whatever you added to that woman's life - perhaps it was simply acceptance when that was a rare commodity, perhaps affirmation when the world was telling her "No" - clearly made an enormous difference to her.

There's a lesson there for all of us. Sometimes we put our backs into moving mountains, and don't notice the seeds that drop from our pockets. Ten years later, the mountain may not have moved. But the seeds we dropped have changed the face of the world.

Blogger Susie said...

amy, yep. Not very grown-up behavior, there. And "wow," indeed.

nilbo, you really could have been that student. Thanks for the story, you make my point very eloquently. Also, thank you for your remarks on the other client. I know the truth in what you say here; I just forget it sometimes. Thanks for the reminder :)

Blogger Von Krankipantzen said...

Very interesting post. I love all the tidbits that are going on in your life.

Blogger Effie said...

Loved the post today--the children's drawings and "trying to get him some balls" had me cracking up!

I have to say I agree with Bucky that it was the perfect opportunity to bring out, during the class, a discussion about why what he said was offensive. Suspended for 5 days with no explanation? Not the way to go about things....

Anonymous SUB said...

Back in the 60s when I was in college and PC (both definitions) was not in the vernacular I was with a Jewish friend and her family. Her mother told her not to be so Scotch. I was sort of taken aback because I had Scottish ancestry, but it did strike me funny (odd).
There are many expressions that I have used and found out later that they are potentially offensive, and I am sure any young person now probably is even more clueless.
I guess George Carlin ought to do a bit on them.

Blogger JessicaRabbit said...

I always love to see how little kids draw me, with the wild colored hair and the clothes and such, they always include a cat too it seems hehe...But thankfully I dont own any lace up pants.

Sometimes the PC of the world is just so over done, so crazed that I think people just need to shut up and suck it up already. Not everyone says things just to hate or offend. Its hard to know what is even right half the time. I agree saying Jew like that isnt right, anymore then saying gay as in, oh thats so gay. But there reaches a point where it becomes like, what do I say to not offend anyone ever? How bout just not speak? And if school isnt a place to learn from your mistakes. ahhh. crap. Im just going to go rip my hair out, and it will be so gay.

Blogger Snickrsnack Katie said...

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and never though to use a phrase like that, but I have come across a lot of people who do use it. The smart thing to do is, as you said, to let the person know that what they are saying is extremely derogatory. That administrator did that child a huge disservice by simply suspending him. To not explain the reasons was insane. As BFE said, he obviously felt as if though his hurt feelings exceeded teaching the young man that was he was doing was hurtful.

Blogger MrsDoF said...

A great post. Your job qualifications astound me. Worthy of mention in a book, you are.
And Nilbo, you made me cry and it's not even your blog. Then again, my hormones are working overtime. I'm glad I'll not be this age for long. I'm gonna use that quote about the mountain and the seeds from the pocket at the first opportunity.

Blogger Susie said...

kranki, and I love the word "tidbits." :)

effie, so far, all reasonable people in blogworld and realword have agreed that the man handled it all wrong. The "balls" thing cracked me up, too. :)

sub, the "Scotch" thing is too funny. I'd never heard that.

JR, yea, don't be so gay. Are you sure you don't have lace-up pants? I thought I saw a picture somewhere...

katiebbaw, I couldn't agree more. Insanity.

mrsDoF as always, you are too kind to me. My best qualification is probably my own insanity ;) Nilbo has a lot of nerve, making people cry, and it's not even his blog. (He made me a little teary, too.)

Anonymous jediger said...

As a student two weeks from defending my dissertation, I had to laugh at your training stories. I've got two similar stories you might find amusing. Both are from a supervision group on assessment.

On one occasion we got quite involved in discussing considerations necessary to ensure appropriate testing of a deaf client. Things were going quite well until one student piped up with "Well, he reads braille, right?"

The second involved an unintentional faux pas by the supervisor. We were discussing a rorschach and the use of all these "tiny dd sections." The supervisor piped in with the comment, "but not all dd's are tiny." There was about a two second pause where the room just fell silent before everyone started laughing.

Hope you enjoyed them.

Blogger little sister said...

yeah...Bucky is totally right on. Go figure why the 'educator' didn't see it as an opportunity. Like Nilbo, I could easily have been that kid, as well. and LOL @ Bucky's self-correction ;-)

and YAY! for the woman who wrote the book! I wonder if there's some backdoor way you can tell us about it without revealing who and all that crap....and I'm sure if you didn't show up in her life to show her what work she needed to do, she wouldn't have written the book :)

Blogger Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

I am surprised that an educator—be it a teacher or an administrator. To use “Jew” without being capitalized and as a verb is pejorative at best. A quick Google found “jew” or “jew’d” in a couple pf slang dictionaries with no mention that using the words as such was derogatory or anti-Semitic. What really amazed me was when I can across it in the American Heritage Dictionary online:

TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: jewed, jew•ing, jews
Offensive 1. To bargain shrewdly or unfairly with. Often used with down. 2. To haggle so as to reduce (a price). Often used with down.
ETYMOLOGY: From Jews' supposedly extortionate practices as moneylenders in the Middle Ages.

At least the American Heritage Dictionary states that it is “Offensive.”

From a more personal standpoint, my maternal grandmother was from Germany. She and my mother’s family regularly used the term “jew” as a verb and exactly in the sense the American Heritage Dictionary states.

My grandmother died over fifty years ago—when I was four year old—so I never knew her well. It wasn’t until within the last year or so that my sister and I discovered that my grandmother’s family back in Germany—our relatives—were Jewish. That was a secret she kept for all of her life. I don’t know why.

My point is that my grandmother used “jew” as a verb as much as anyone else in the family. So did I until I was in my later teens. It was a “normal” term used by my family.

Back to my first comment: I not only think that the teacher and the administrator missed an excellent “teaching moment” is response to your client’s son’s comment but that the action they did take was itself pejorative.

Blogger Susie said...

jediger, those are good ones, thank you! All the best with your defense :)

lilsis, your question about the book got me thinking. I'll have to see in what context I'm mentioned. If she openly mentions therapy, then it's public knowledge, I could mention the book. Although, there's the other consideration, that I don't even use my real name on here, and to publicize the book would be to do that! Life is so complicated :0

ssnick, your comment sort of continues my story: the boy went home and looked up the word, where he found, as you did at first attempt, the word, not capitalized, and described as "slang," with no mention made of offensive. He still had no clue what the problem was until his mom got home to explain.

Sounds like your grandmother had some stories to tell. I hope someone, somewhere knows them and can fill you in someday.

Blogger eviluncledave said...

I would have posted this yesterday, but I was too angry to be coherent.

I'm a firm believer that political correctness and "cultural sensitivity" are the antitheses of genuine sensitivity. The use of PC terms allows a person to talk around a subject without taking the time and effort to understand it. Disabled? Mentally challenged? African American? Labeled. Done. And you don't have to deal with any of that unpleasantly meaningful context stuff. Teaching children to be politically correct, instead of teaching them why they should be sensitive, is really doing them a great disservice.

After all, how would the boy know that the word was wrong unless someone took the time to explain why it was wrong? Oh, that's right. You can't say that word. And if you can't say a word, then you can hardly be expected to explain it. At least everyone was spared the unpleasant task of learning. I just hope that this doesn't put the boy off from offering his opinion in the future.

I'll stop here, but I really think that the administrator needs to be disciplined for his actions.

Blogger Hippo said...

Oh boy does your post bring back memories. Back when I used to Counsel, before I wrote my best selling self-help book “Shut the F*ck Up…all of You,” my office carpets were threadbare from the trampings of one dysfunctional single-mother with hitched litter after another.

“Hold, on here…which boyfriend which live-in boyfriend are you talking about…was it…ah…ah..Steve….ah…ah…John…or was it that crane operator.” “What do you mean you have to hide you liquor or you kids will get it…” “Let me get this straight, is it the 12-year old that watches the kids while you self-actualize at Wednesday night Karoake….” “I realize you need to love yourself…but this is should not be the primary pursuit when you have a family…”

I was getting to entangled in this whacky-world of womans pursuit of freedom and equality. I had to separate myself. I broke down, I purchased a tailored 10K dollar Hippopotamus suit and began conducting therapy again.

Obviously Freudian, I told them to stick their head under the water…look under the waterline I snorted….They’ed say but what about ME! Hence, the title of my Best Seller “Shut the F*ck Up…all of You,”

Those days are over now. I’ve earned enough from my practice and the recurring residuals from the Movie they made about my post-retirement life “The Great Lebowski” (I’m the dude btw) to settle in here at the Waterline. Kudo’s to a fellow practioner Susie!

Dr. H.O. Potamus - Psychologist

Anonymous lawbrat said...

I, too, was hoping to know the book. Its understandable why you may not be able to let us know.

*funny side note: On law and order, a jewler being questioned asked if there was a jewler/client confidentiality. It was funny.

The first story should have definetly been a teachable moment, and it would have had MUCH more effect than a 5 day suspension.

Anonymous sheryl said...

I wish I had found someone like you, during the crazy years, when I really needed someone and didn't know it.

I don't know if your client had trust issues, but I know you are trustworthy.

Sometimes I wonder if learning to trust wisely, and trust for the benefit of your own heart (and being fortunate enough to find people who are trustworthy) is something that is easier to learn when you're young. Or when you're most vulnerable.

Sometimes I think people are like trees, and every year there is another layer, built up out of growth and weathering storms and to protect against drying out. And I think learning to trust is the kind of lesson that soaks through the layers, soaking in more deeply if there aren't as many. Or, soaking more deeply if the layers are cut.

Blogger ieatcrayonz said...

Love these stories, Susie. Kind of makes you appreciate what you have.

That kid that got suspended makes me shake my head. The administrator totally overreacted to the student's behavior and should have either explained the offense right there or out in the hall. Had the kid laughed after he said the offending statement, then I can see getting in a huff about it. You were so right in your analysis of the situation. All that guy did was further confuse the poor kid and is probably paving the way for further discrimination in his young life.

Why do Americans feel the need to jump directly to drastic measures before talking things out? We'll never defeat racism, sexism, and religious bias with attitudes like this.

I'm not saying it was appropriate to say at all (it's terrible), but the situation could have been handled SO much better.

Blogger Susie said...

eud, Interesting perspective, and I agree. I resist labelling whenever possible. It does reduce, pigeonhole people, and as you say, lets us off the hook from really struggling to understand others.

Dr. Hip, your book sounds like a must-read. I am not joking very much when I say that those quotations from your um, practice, could be taken from mine in any given week. I have truly heard all those things . . . just checking, yep, all of them.

lawbrat, I'll have to see just how the book pans out. I'll email you about it when it happens :)

sheryl, you tongue-tie me here just like you do at you place (and I love to see you here). There are way more therapists than there are good therapists, I know this. Anyone who had the opportunity of accompanying you on your journey would have benefitted from that process as much as you would. The gift of another human's trust is a sacred thing; I do try to treat it as such. Thank you for your kindness. I expect that we do trust more easily before we've been mangled. Then later, I think we trust again, after we trust ourselves, and are strong enough to take the risk of trusting others.

crayolabreath, yea, we're just not very skilled or comfortable in really talking about things. We'd rather retaliate. I guess we see that at all levels of our society.

Blogger scott said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by and for being so nice!

Hello, Susie.

Anonymous sheryl said...

I forgot to say what I really meant to say because i got off on a tangent (too bad I don't use those ::tangent:: thingies like mrtl and you. At least they allow you to keep a mental placeholder).

I meant to say, maybe your client felt so affected because you were there for her and allowed her to safely trust in that when she really needed it.

Anonymous sheryl said...

P.S. Hope you have a warm and peaceful Thanksgiving :)

Blogger Squirl said...

Susie, I love when you give us little glimpses in your professional life. That woman who is a survivor is such an inspiration. The rest of these people, well, they do need help. Especially the woman, in the last story, who's teaching how to shift blame.

Blogger Dawn said...

happy thanksgiving

Blogger OldHorsetailSnake said...

That "jews down" outcome seriously troubles me. Poor lad. Insipid administration. It is, as you say, a perfect chance to educate, and instead they take it personally. What -- excuse me -- assholes.

Blogger abcd said...

Thank you for sharing each piece
with us. We see the strengths in humans to overcome. We see the shortcoming of humans to take the low road. And we see a parent who appears to lack coping skills.
Backtracking to the student-how does one learn what is right from wrong if nobody explains to them?
In my world we learn from questions, and in my world there is no such thing as a "stupid" question.

Thought provoking posts are always the best!


Blogger Susie said...

hello, scott. You're welcome :)

sheryl, I wish the same for you (and nobody can do the tangent thing like mrtl ;)

squirl, yea, that last mom, she really does have potential, and she'll be OK, if she doesn't give up on the process.

dawn thank you!

hoss, well, now that you mention it, "assholes" are the one group I don't mind offending here ;)

nikki, thank you. I think you're so right. Questions must be welcomed, and answered honestly and thoroughly. Then we understand. I hope your Thanksgiving feels blessed.

Blogger mrtl said...

I found while teaching that many administrators have their heads so far up their asses that they are incapable of giving the benefit of the doubt. Kids are horrible, devious, nasty beings. There's no room for mistakes.

Good for your client in turning things around. Even if you think you have no role in her success, you have to realize that you may have helped her to see things differently, to choose a different path than what she would have taken had she not met you. Obviously she sees a turning point that involved you; give her that!

Blogger eclectic said...

So many things to say, and so few words at my disposal. **sigh**

I will paraphrase Ol' Bill Shakespeare and say: a Susie, by any other name, t'would be as salty.

I'm glad you don't stay only in the salt-shaker.


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