This week my third grader was supposed to dress like she would for her career some day. She has had a few ideas in her 9 years but ultimately decided she would wear cool clothes and a tape measure around her neck–the uniform of a fashion designer.
How many 9 year olds aspire to be child protection workers? In her class there was a construction worker, a scientist, and professional balloon animal maker, but no social workers.
Child protection was never my plan either. Until about three months before college graduation, my plan had been to go straight to grad school for psychology. But as the graduate program catalogs piled up on my desk and my completed applications didn’t, it became clear that I wasn’t ready to go to grad school. So a month before graduation, I took (and barely passed) the Minnesota Merit Test which would make me eligible to be a social worker in a county agency.
When I applied for my current job in child protection, I had to admit that I had never interviewed a child, never been to court, and didn’t have a clue how the system worked. I really didn’t know that child protection existed. It was in my plans to Help People, but that’s where my big idea ended.
Then I was hired, and within days I was interviewing children, attending court, and figuring out how this mysterious system worked. I talked to kids about sexual abuse, and they told me things that made my stomach churn. I forced myself to be able to say all the words for genitals. I had to confront people on their drug use, their violence, and their houses full of hoarded stuff. I needed to wear clothes that would go from house to car easily, tromping through snow and clutter, professional but comfortable enough to make a quick getaway on the rare occasions it was necessary.
I didn’t love my job, but I didn’t hate it either. Within a year, I was married and bought a house, got a dog and I was pregnant. We settled into our new home, and I got as comfortable as I could in a job in which people screamed, swore, and lunged at me with regularity. There were bright spots too–the families who got stronger, the kids who were relieved to move to grandma’s home where they were finally safe, and the coworkers who laughed and groaned along with me.
And that, kids, is how a career is made.
I’m sure there are plenty of kids who dream about being a teacher, or a doctor, or a fashion designer, and they grow up to become exactly what they had planned to be. But there are plenty of soon-to-be-grads who aren’t sure what comes next, and hopefully enough of them will want to Help People too. And if they find themselves in child protection, somehow they will suit up in comfortable shoes, clothes that might get dirty, and enough emotional body armor to stumble into a career that they almost, sometimes love.