By Richard Kenney, MSSW
Sometimes, it’s something that somebody says that can be so powerfully inspiring it changes your life forever. And sometimes, it’s the look in someone’s eyes that does the same thing. That’s what happened to me.
I had just completed my first week at a residential school working with teens with developmental disabilities. For someone without a background in the field, I thought I was doing a fairly good job teaching them such skills as crossing streets safely and using busses to get to their doctors’ appointments. I was teaching them how to cook, clean their rooms and manage their money.
Everything was going fine until the incident. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I had been warned.
The warning had come from a salesman, a guy I had worked with before the new job. I remember how everyone in the office had wished me well when I told them I was switching careers from sales to social services. Well, everyone but one. He said, “All you’re doing is inviting trouble. You’re giving up a good sales career for what? Working with retards?”
His comment stung. It rattled me.
But so did the incident. I never saw it coming. Danny’s right cross to my chin floored me. That’s what he did when he didn’t get his way. By the time staff intervened, I was dazed. I struggled to get to my feet, eventually making my way into the office where I tried to regroup.
That’s when John, another resident, entered the room. He sat down and stared at me. He said something but, at the time, it didn’t register with me.
Later that night while driving home, I replayed the incident in my mind, over and over. I thought that, surely, this would be the end of my short career in the helping field. Maybe the salesman was right.
After about the fifth time of re-enacting the sequence of events, I remembered the part of John entering the room. This time, I recalled what he had said. It was actually a question – a hard question.
“You’re not going to leave, are you?”
Floored again… Like Danny’s punch, this one had an impact. I thought about how most of the people in John’s young life had already left him. I thought about the unsightly scar on his chin, a permanent reminder from his abusive father. I thought about how he must have thought the world was turning its back on him.
What I remember most is the look in his eyes as he asked me that question, “You’re not going to leave, are you?” It was a look of both fear and hope. It stayed with me all night.
In fact, it’s stayed with me for my entire career in social work, more than thirty years. It changed my life.
Maybe something someone has said or the look in someone’s eyes has already changed your life. If it hasn’t, it may be coming. When it happens, it’s a worthwhile moment.
Rich Kenney is an assistant professor and Director of the Social Work Program at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. The recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Kenney contributed an article to The New Social Worker entitled “Evidence of Time Machines” in the Fall 2012 edition. He has also had poetry published in Social Work Today, Rockhurst Review, and Third Wednesday. He holds degrees from the University of Texas (MSSW), and the University of Arizona (BA).