I have lots of memories of being a child. I was born with a certain sense of destiny which I have no explanation for at all, it is just how I am wired. I can remember from a very young age feeling that I not only was going to be “special” but that I had a responsibility to everyone else to help them understand what they should do and not do. In elementary school I was the kid who actually would write your name down if you talked for the teacher while she was out of the room. It is a wonder, being a grade A tattle tale that I did not get beaten up frequently.
When I was the director of a program at Clark State College I arranged a retreat for my staff, which consisted of two counselors, a financial aid specialist and a secretary. One of the elements of the retreat was the opportunity for each staff member, including myself, to speak in private with a psychiatrist for twenty to thirty minutes. Other activities were planned for the rest of us while the meetings were taking place. I did this for selfish reasons. When I was hired as director of this program, which was sponsored by the Ohio Board of Regents, I considered myself a skilled counselor. When I had been a high school teacher many, many students chose me to confide in to tell their woes, wishes, plans and dreams.
So, when I became the director I told the two counselors that we would split the student load. Our office dealt with students who had either dropped out and returned or were in danger of dropping out due to financial, personal or academic problems. I kept this schema in place for approximately two weeks. I discovered that I was a miserable counselor. The program was well funded. If the student in question was experiencing financial difficulties I could pay their tuition for term or buy their books, etc. If it was something personal, loss of transportation we could buy them a bus pass, if it was day care issues –this was a commuter campus–we could pay for day care, etc. All that was required was that they agreed to come to counseling with one of us to keep them on track.
I soon found out most of the problems were not simple. I thought if a student came into my office with a financial problem and I offered to write a check to take care of it we should be done talking. But that was not the case. They wanted to go into great detail, tell me how they got into difficulty, why it happened, why they were afraid it would happen again and one and on. They did not want their problem solved, they wanted someone to listen to them.After three weeks I called my staff back together and offered to trade my student load for a task the other counselors did not like. I would only see students who were in academic difficulty.
I was troubled by my inability to listen to the students’ problems patiently and with empathy, even if I had already solved the problem that brought them into my office. Was I unsympathetic? Cruel? Uncaring? Why did I start glancing at my watch when a person continued to sit in my office telling me their woes fifteen minutes after I had agreed to write the tuition check, intervene with the dean, arrange transportation, buy books, etc?
So, I asked the shrink to come to our retreat so I could ask. I rationalized this by saying that my office handled so many crises, problems and issues that we needed some mental health care for ourselves.
When my turn came to see the shrink I went in with some trepidation, what would he think of me when I told him the truth about my lack of patience with my students? After I described my concerns he asked me what seemed to be a miscellaneous question. “What is your earliest memory?” Surprised I stopped short and thought for a few minutes. ” My earliest memory”, I said “was watching Joe Louis fight on television. I was sitting in a child sized easy chair upholstered in yellow. I am in the front of the crowd of adults clustered in our living room on East Market Street, around a tiny television on a table. ”
” Ah, well you see, the reason you do not have patience with the students is that working with them one on one is not the way you see yourself. You see yourself as a leader, someone out in front of a group, leading the charge for a cause. That is why you remember so clearly being in front of everyone else and having a special seat there. ”
Gee, maybe he knew I was responsible for seeing he got paid, but it made me feel much better. As I tell people, I am empathetic, but more from a distance. For example, if we were to go to the beach and you got attacked by a shark, I would not swim out to help you, but I would write a really well researched paper on why we need beach patrols to save people from sharks! Do not blame me, blame Joe Louis.
Anyway, I digressed. One of my other early memories, which has nothing to do with being a leader, was going to the Cincinnati Zoo. It was a major deal because they were transporting all of the kindergarten kids in Xenia to the Zoo for the day. The train loaded down near the Viaduct which was just beyond third street and we all marched down there and boarded the train. I was not political enough as a five year old to wonder why the black kids were all in the last car of the train, but my mother did share with me later that we were relegated to the last car for not so nice reasons.
Riding the train itself was a treat, but in those days we had plenty of trains in Xenia. We even had trains that ran smack dab down Detroit street during the day so that if you were on the corner of Detroit and East Main you might have to wait to cross the street to get to Kresges or the Corner Pharmacy until the train went by. Occasionally a railway employee would come out on the porch of the caboose and give you candy off of the slow moving train, so we all loved trains.
In addition to riding on the train and going to the zoo we were going to be able to ride rides in the zoo once we got there. The train actually went right into the zoo, admitted by a big gate that swung open to let us in. Only after we got there did we realize that my mother’s friend Edna, who had brought my classmate Dale, did not know that you had to buy tickets for the rides in advance. She thought they were free and had not bought any tickets. My mother had to give her half of my tickets or Dale would not have been able to ride. I did not mind much, I liked Dale and nothing could dim the events of the day for me, a train ride, my mother to myself, the zoo and rides. Train ride racism and having to share my precious tickets could not intrude on my paradise!
If I hit the lottery I am going to find a way to send all the children in kindergarten in Xenia to the Cincinnati Zoo on a train. I wonder if that track is still there?