Friday, April 30, 2010

She's Funny AND She Cares

My superfriend Heather wrote the commencement speech for Hunter School of Social Work's 2010 graduation as she and her peers take their graduate degrees and max out at $28k a year.

It cracked me up so I share it with all nine readers out there. Enjoy:

About a year ago, I was walking home from my internship when I got hit in the head by a ten-pound box of frozen Chicken McNuggets. I was walking past a McDonalds delivery truck when the chicken struck my skull, rendering me temporarily unconscious. Normally, I wouldn’t have been so careless, but it had been a hard week in the field. I had accidentally given the homeless man outside my office Chuck E. Cheese tokens in lieu of actual money, the youth Christmas party I had helped to plan was broken up by the Queens riot police, and my highest-performing client had somehow legally changed her last name to Delicious. Even my favorite group home had gotten bored one night and carried their house’s 40 inch flat screen projection TV down the block, trading it for what must be a lifetime supply of weed. As my back began to buckle from the weight of four-hundred-and-sixty ounces of preprocessed chicken lard, I started to ask myself the questions that many of you are probably asking yourself right now: How did I get here? What am I doing with myself? And more importantly: what’s there to celebrate?

Some people say we’re here to celebrate our academic achievements. In the past two years, our class has collectively written over 32,000 papers and 120,000 blackboard postings. Impressive and disturbing. A former classmate of mine who has been unemployed for over a year recently called to tell me that he found a job that finally allowed him to take advantage of the writing skills he developed here at Hunter. At $40,000 a year, he was now writing and editing the denial letters for insurance companies. The clean, linear sentence he learned how to construct in his Human Behavior Class now included such phrases as ‘unfortunately the finger you lost in your mining accident was not included under your basic liability coverage’ and ‘the inhalers you’ve been using to treat your daughter’s chronic and life-threatening asthma are no longer part of our family premium package.’ Sure, the job didn’t include insurance and violated a few of the ‘core’ NASW Code of Ethics Principles, but he was putting his graduate degree to work. To me, his argument seemed to be lacking. Maybe graduation is about validating the skills we’ve learned in the classroom, but I think that’s missing the point.

Others have argued that we’re here to celebrate the work we’ve done in the field, which is probably closer to the truth. My first job in social services involved an hour and a half commute to Jamaica, Queens, where I worked nine hours a day without lunch to hurdle children through the foster care system. It was meaningful work, but backbreaking at first. I remember taking the train home from a client’s house very late one night and finding myself next to a group of teenagers, all with red bandanas over their mouths. Somewhat new to the social work game, I had assumed that the poor children lacked adequate scarves and had no choice but to resort to some well-crafted homemade bandanas. The train had just come to a stop when ten more teenagers piled into the car, yelling, “This is a Blood’s Car! Everyone in this car is now a BLOOD!” It was a strange recruitment push for a gang, given that the car was composed of three homeless men and myself, an effete girl from New Jersey drinking a miniature Juicy Juice with a crazy straw. As it turned out, one of those kids would eventually become my client (awkward!), but that didn’t stop me - or really, any of my far more courageous classmates – from riding that late train or early bus, from giving up our weeknights and weekends, or from taking the big, scary risks that are at the heart of our profession.

If I had to pinpoint our real cause for celebration, it would probably have something to do with those Chicken McNuggets. After I collapsed, I was fortunate enough to have a group of my coworkers, all of them social workers, standing behind me. They were with me when I fell and later in the booth with me at Dallas BBQ, where we toasted to my recovery with Texas-sized Appletinis. They were with me on the subway ride home and later in the cab to Woodhull Hospital, where I was treated for symptoms of a concussion. My social work friends were with me at work the next day and the day after that. They were with my when my favorite client finally got housing and her son back from foster care; they were also with me one year later when the city came to take her apartment – and her baby. When my youngest client contracted HIV, they were there, and when my biggest success story was sentenced to jail for many many years, they were there. Phones permanently turned on, batteries charged for good.

I’d like to think I’ve been particularly blessed, but I think what I’ve experienced is at the heart of these Hunter Social Workers, and is the real reason we’re here today. The theme of today’s commencement is building community, but that only touches the surface of the issue. We are not classmates but friends and family. Our treatment of clients is not governed by theory but guided by love. Social workers know more than anyone else that community is just a euphemism for connection; that we are here today not to celebrate our papers or to recognize our field work, but to be able to turn to our neighbor and say, “Congratulations.”


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