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...