I began my day Thursday at full staff meeting for the agency. It reminded me of my days in a tech start-up. A bunch of (mostly) young passionate people, crowded around a conference room table, mismatched chairs pulled from offices and the lobby, and late-comers standing in doorways. People laughed, asked questions, and of course, everyone wanted to know the plan for the holiday party.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past few months about what kind of social worker I will be. My first level MSW internship was with my state NASW office, working on policy and programming. I loved my time there. It felt natural. I felt engaged. I was worried about this second level, doing direct service work with clients. And I realize that what I am drawn to at this internship is still the macro-practice realm. I am devouring the statistics from the UN on refugees, and have become more aware of international news stories. When I spend time with the kids in the after-school program, I am trying to focus on helping them with their homework, but my mind is wandering to the big picture: what is this child’s educational history, and how will it affect their ability in school now? How can the educational system serve these kids? It seems that I naturally go to the macro-level. And while I knew this when I began this placement, it is helpful to have it reinforced.
Those in the social work world will not be surprised to know that my work has also brought some of my deepest fears to the surface. Working to change the world has a way of changing you. Hearing the struggles of others reminds you of your own. I spend the last two hours of my day at the after-school program, assisting with homework. And as the older kids came to me, I realized that I was going to have to confront my math anxiety all over again.
I always excelled with words. I have always been an instinctual speller, a voracious reader, and writing has always felt natural. But numbers have never made sense to me. Years of extra homework, tutors, and honest effort barely earned me passing grades. In 6th grade, a teacher sat us according to our score on the last quiz. Of course, I was always in the back row. So my inability became shame. Whenever numbers would come up in my work as an account manager, I would start to get anxious, hoping no one would ask me directly to convert the gains in dollars of one of my clients to a percentage. It has always made me feel deficient.
So when a middle school boy walked up to me and politely asked for help and showed me his math homework, I panicked. I’m still trying to earn the trust of these kids. Are they going to think I am a fraud if I admit that I can’t do their homework? And yet, there is no possible way for me to fake my way through that. And they deserve better than that anyway.
“I would like to help you, but I won’t be much help. Is there another tutor here that is good at math? I’m yours for any English class stuff, but math is not my thing.” I waited for him to laugh at me. Or ask me to sit in the back of the room like that teacher did when I was his age.
Instead, he shrugged and said, “Okay.” And walked away…and the walls remained standing, and no one laughed, and no one walked in to hand me an official letter explaining that I wasn’t smart enough to earn a Master’s.
Written By Mary-Margaret Sweeney
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