Today I listened. I listened to the nine-year-old girl who sat in front of me with a big grin, telling me about her 25-year-old brother’s birthday and her interest in “camouflage.” I listened closer when she said that her brother was killed back in 2011 and that blending in with the clothes in her closet keeps her safe when someone is robbing her home or shooting in her neighborhood.
Today I understood. I understood that my world is very different from hers. That I have privilege over this child and many others, her siblings and many others, her parents and many others. I have the privilege to drive away from the ‘bad neighborhood’ I worked in for the day and go to sleep somewhere that I feel safe. Call it white privilege, social class privilege, circumstantial privilege- because I have them all- however we like to make sense of it, there it was. As I sat in the parent-involvement workshop later that day and learned that the school had “earned” an ‘F’ for the past four consecutive years, I felt something strange- I dare say, it was surprise. Even as a fairly attuned person and someone who just “earned” my Masters degree at a university that continually harps on social justice and multicultural competence (Sorry, Dr. Sue), I could be surprised by this. I tell myself I had to have known just how much this school was struggling, that it could be shut down by the county for one more F, but the clean, nicely decorated hallways and cute little children had made me ignorant. Ignorant to the fact that they experience a reality that I do not. And why? Well, there is no simple or agreed upon way to answer that question, is there?
Writing a treatment plan for her that night, it became evident to me that many of her “issues” are actually a result of her environment- yet ‘Conduct Disorder NOS’ is the diagnosis that her previous therapist assigned to her and most of the other children that I see at the school- “A repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated.” Well, ok, this reflects that she is disrupting the classroom, yes, but not that she may be having difficulty coping with the fact that her world is unsafe and unjust. My qualms are not necessarily about the diagnosis (for now), or even that I believe she received an inappropriate diagnosis (which I do), but that counselors, teachers, and others may think or even communicate that this girl is ‘trouble’ or ‘bad.’ It may not be the intention or direct phrasing, but it happens, and even the lone statement that she has ‘bad behavior’ is a very incomplete picture of who she is and what she has been through- It serves to do nothing for her or anyone else by itself.
I remember I watched a TED talk or something where the speaker said “don’t ask people what’s wrong with them, ask them what has happened to them.” It struck me. What has happened to you? It’s so minor, yet so powerful. As a new mental health professional and further, as a family member and friend, I am trying to keep this one in mind. Understanding what is nurturing a behavior is just as important as understanding how one’s nature may attribute to it, yet we seem to forget this part sometimes- until we are truly listening to someone who evokes compassion in us. I think that’s when it’s easiest to remember. And when it’s not- and sometimes, I know, it’s NOT- then we work on looking for it. That must be why they call it “finding compassion.”