The Waiting Place

…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night

or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

Dr. Seuss

 

These melancholy words are an excerpt from Dr. Seuss’ famous book Oh, The Places You’ll Go. This book has been often used as a graduation gift to inspire young adults to live unafraid in the real-world. In his otherwise inspirational tale, he describes The Waiting Place as a “most useless place” and can be interpreted as a graveyard where ambition goes to die.

I can ask anyone who has lived long enough that life in the real-world is not all sunshine and rainbows. On the road to success, there will be problems, twists, turns, and dead-ends among other complications on your path. When the path gets rough with ill fortune, some people would rather:

  1. Sit around and give up
  2. Grit and bear their terrible situation
  3. Gamble their future on blind luck

These patient ones’ figure if they wait long enough, eventually a solution will introduce themselves and their problems will magically be solved.

In a scripted fantasy novel, where the normal protagonist is trusted into a fantastic adventure, this method may work. In the real-world, not so much. Nothing ever gets done by keep your hands in your pockets. If you want to change to happen, then you must be bold enough to make that change yourself. I have stayed in The Waiting Place before and I never want to return.

         I too have visited this purgatory. Wishing and dreaming. Praying and waiting. All of it, a waste of time. Of all my talk of doing something better with my life, I have done little to make good on my promise. I have applied to every Social Work industry in the county and prayed to the heavens above that they would change their mind about me. I have waited long enough. I am now 28 years old and still working for a job I hate. The warehouse industry does not need me. People come and go from this job all the time. There I am a number, a replaceable gear, a disposable pawn. My student loans are gone, so what is left to keep me here?

Both of my younger sisters have progressed farther with their lives than I have. One has had the opportunity to be a teacher straight out of college and now living with her boyfriend. While the other has joined the NAVY and has become part of something bigger. Me? The biggest career transition I have made is moving from one warehouse to the one next-door and I got a pretty lanyard that states I have been with the company for 3 years.

Now I could have expressed my grudge towards humanity in a number of ways. I could:

  1. Publish my anger on Facebook and repeatedly post how much the world is not fair.
  2. Be like a coworker and rope random people into whiny conversations about how much I hate my job.
  3. Stop being an obnoxious troll and do something to change my destiny!

It is time to do something about it besides whine. It is time to either find a new path or make one. It is time to go back to school.

 

Fellow Exiles

No sooner, the party ended than my life returned to its usual self. I went back to my job as a warehouse associate, missing absolutely nothing. Waking up at five in the morning, work for ten hours a day, and I’m still not social worker.

Unfortunately, my situation was not uncommon among my peers. Scores of my coworkers were also college graduates not working in their field study. As much as I can complain about the unfairness of it all, I knew for a fact that my fate could have been worse. I have heard of stories about individuals struggling through life because of a bad luck of the draw. I was lucky; I still had my parents’ support and my job offered insurance and benefits.

It didn’t really sink in that I was not alone until one day I was helping Hand in Hand Ministries with a load of donations from a popular toy store-chain. The task required at least two trucks to go collect the bounty from the store and bring it back. Libby recruited a volunteer with an SUV, and I volunteered with the Ford Ranger that I bought right before my Belize trip.

As we were waiting for the toy-store manager to gather the goods, one of the cashiers struck up a conversation asking who we were and what we did. After we explained the HHM mission, the cashier revealed that she was social worker and worked part time with an agency I applied for years ago. After explaining I was a social worker, too, the cashier started to tell me that her introduction into the field was no more forgiving than mine. She had a diploma, but she was not given a free ride. She had to jump through all sorts of hoops and difficult entanglements before she for just a part-time gig.

These notions alone made me feel much better about my own vocation circumstance. It proved that autism was not the only thing that was tying me back and that there are others in my field that struggling just as much as I.

This chance meeting had convinced me that my efforts in college were not to be in vain. I would just need to do a little more work to convince my future employers that I have something to offer them. If a Bachelor’s degree in social work won’t open a door for me, maybe a Master’s degree will. It would take a while yet before I could take on such a challenge. I still had thousands of dollars’ worth of loans from my first go through college, and I wanted to kill off three of my four loans before I try again.

But before I settle down to my studies, I was still restless and wanted to add some community service points to my resume.

 

Working From the Bottom

With diploma in hand and résumé drafted, I was ready to jump into the social-work field and put my new education into practice. In the spring of 2012, I started out by applying to several jobs at a government social-services organization. I had just got out of school, and I was in no hurry to have a job yet. After a few online applications, I kicked back, relaxed, and waited to see where my life was going. About a week later, I get an email saying that my candidacy was rejected. “No big deal”, I thought. Maybe they weren’t interested in me right now. I quickly moved on. However the more places I applied, the more skeptical I became.

About a year goes by, and I was still not in the social service industry and still jobless. I wasn’t being a snob about my search. I tried out many different agencies to at least get my foot into the door. Government, private, non-profit, internships, special needs, homecare, daycare, animal shelters. They all wrote back the same thing, “We thank you for you interest, but we have narrowed our candidacy to other applicants.” Each time I find this dismal message in my mailbox, it solidifies the notion that either I doing something wrong, or something else is afoot.

To prepare myself in this new level of social interaction, I applied to résumé workshops, interview practice, and speech therapy. I learned a lot from these classes on what it means to talk with others in a professional manner. Now armed with new manners, I tried my luck again and applied to a slue of jobs that claimed that they were in desperate need of social workers. However, despite my best efforts I still found rejection letters in my mailbox day after day.

It then occurred to me that these social work agencies were like an exclusive club to get in to. They didn’t want just anyone with a diploma to work for company. To be considered for an interview you need to know someone that already works at the company you are applying to, pass the leisure exam, know the secret handshake, and have 5 years of on-the-job experience. Job experience that I don’t have, and nobody would let me have or provide me a chance to prove myself. I also couldn’t take the license-giving exam because I wasn’t part of a social work company. My life was in a classic Catch 22.

It wouldn’t be years later that I would find out my school didn’t have any direct ties to the state government. Meaning, schools that DID have ties to the state would be given preferential treatment and given first dibs on any social work jobs. Meanwhile, graduates without those connections were on our own and had to figure how to get a job under our own power and I have already experienced how well that goes.

I was in a bind: Student loans were piling up, I was running out of money in the bank, and the Bank of Mom & Dad was closed. I lived in an expensive society and I needed money regardless of my professional goal or my education level.

So, with much bitterness, I applied for a job at a warehouse. Where you get paid minimum wage to shunt stacks of cardboard boxes from one end of an oven-tempered building to another. At first, I did some odd jobs for different companies through a temp agency. Some required that I take a surprise math quiz as part of the application process without a calculator. One place I applied was a tech company that was waiting on parts, and I’m still waiting on their call. Others were warehouses that collected parts for cell phone orders, unloading packages from trucks, etc. Although different in their merchandise specialty, I barely saw any difference between them. They had a complicated work process that didn’t work, the managers ignore the problems, and I had many coworkers that were not friendly. After a half-a-year of bouncing from one warehouse to another, I finally landed a long-term gig in a warehouse that specialized in shoes, among other things.

It was supposed to be just another hot, dust-filled building, and it was. But unlike the other warehouse jobs I had, here the work was simple, the coworkers were friendly, and the managers were proactive. During rest periods, there were times I would have casual conversations with my coworkers. As time went by, I eventually became one of the company trainers for the new warehouse associates.

Was this warehouse my true calling on life? Do I plan to stay here for the rest of my life?

No.

If anything, this detour only fueled my ambitions more. Warehouse work was easy and put money in my pocket, but I needed to move out and experience more. I was not as ambitious like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But I was restless enough to be dissatisfied with my life’s current state of affairs.

For the coming years, I spent the majority of my free time running marathons, involved with Boy Scouts as an adult leader, and working to build up a nest egg for myself. I didn’t know yet what I was saving for, but I lived in an expensive society and whatever I planned to do with my life was going to require money and lots of it.

Graduation Again

I woke up one early on a chilly Thursday morning in December 2011 and went about my usual morning routines. The day should have been like any other, but it wasn’t. For this particular Thursday was my last day of finals. My body was tense with anticipation. My brain was doing everything to retain every detail of my studies. My mind was geared towards facing my final obstacle that lay in wait for me and what it would mean if/when I passed.

The tension that surrounded me was (please excuse the cliché) so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I had faced final exams before and they were no picnic, but this was the test that could decide whether I graduate or not which made the stakes all the higher.

After about an hour or so, I put down my pencil for the last time at WKU and I handed over my exam to the professor. It was over. I was done. I was finished with college!

As I was walking back to my dorm, I felt so weightless. No more tests to worry about. No more project papers to contemplate or complete. I had nothing school-related to fret over. I could not keep this Cheshire cat-like grin from my face knowing full well that another chapter in my life had been completed in the best possible way.

Now came the most exciting time of all. Although I wouldn’t know all of my final scores until many weeks later, I was at my proudest moment, the graduation ceremony. I hadn’t felt this level of joy and self-accomplishment since my Eagle Ceremony or my high school graduation. My fellow social work colleagues and I couldn’t contain our joy as we walked up together to receive our hard-earned diplomas with our families and friends’ looking on.

Although the diploma itself was just a fancy sheet of paper, we give it meaning through our actions and our accomplishments. Then when our diploma is finally handed to us, it forever baptizes our commitment to our futures. However, despite all the cheers, applause of congratulations, and the party afterwards, I knew in my heart that my real journey had yet to start. Graduation was only the beginning.

Unfortunately, this new beginning started out with paying student loans. You see, despite my accomplishments at WKU and throughout my life, I was still burdened with debt to pay and no scholarships to help. During the course of my college term, my family and I had looked for grants to help ease my financial burden, but to no avail. Plenty of money has been used to research autism but not one dime of it goes to supporting an autistic student through college. While at the same time students with other disabling factors (low-income backgrounds, physical disabilities, etc.) can receive grants that can carry them all the way through college. Unfair but true, and I hope it changes soon.

The END is Coming

My final semester at Western Kentucky University—this year marked the final chapter for a very important time of my educational career. As I was going about my usual routines in the semester, I grew more and more restless with each passing day with the realization that the end was coming. All my life, I had only known life as a student. The largest majority of my life had been centered on studying for tests, completing book assignments, and gathering data to compose a project. Now, all my effort and patience was going to pay off, and my life as a student was coming to an end. As my days as a student were drawing shorter, I couldn’t help but count down the number of weeks, days, and hours that stood in the way between me and the real world.

Then something happened to make my graduation even more memorable! Midway through the semester, KAP was hosting their annual support-appreciation banquet. An event to honor all financial benefactors and moral supporters that have allowed KAP to grow over the years. Weeks before the event, KAP asked me to take part in this event by saying a few short words of thanks to WKU and the reigning president on video. The reason they choose me was because I was the only student at KAP who was scheduled to graduate that year.

Something unexpected happened. During the banquet my thank-you video wouldn’t play. In resolution, KAP’s director asked me if I would be willing to provide a live performance. I didn’t have a script handy, I was wearing a dirty jacket and blue jeans, my hair was a mess, and I hadn’t even shaved for the event. I had every reason to say “no”, but I went up anyway. Armed with nothing but my wits, this is what I said:

What I was trying to say… *pauses for laughter* is that I want to say thanks. It is difficult for someone like me to find the educational support that I need to grow to my full potential. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to explore, try new things, and make mistakes when I need to. Again, thank you.

It may not have been the Gettysburg Address, but the audience enjoyed my live performance, rather than the recorded one. The biggest highlight of that evening was that after my speech, I was able to shake hands with the president of WKU, and I received a standing ovation.

I suppose this is one example when something better comes out when they don’t go according to plan. Knowing how to improvise has its merits too.

More Than a Career?

“As a social worker, how can you make a difference?” This was the question asked during the first social work class. Off the cuff, this was what I wrote in response:

The reason I believe that I can make a difference is because ever since I was young, I’ve never been the type to stand by and do nothing. The one thing I truly hate is to be the one who is “dead weight” to a circumstance. I have a perfectly healthy body, I have a mind in my head, and a heart in my chest. So there is no reason I can’t make a difference to someone’s life.

Even now I still stand by what I said. There are only two conditions that would prove me different: the lack of know-how to make the needed difference and if I had the opportunity to make a difference happen.

The first couple of Social Work classes covered the basics of how to act like a professional. Such as how to get a job done, what values a worker must adopt, and how to behave under certain circumstances. Out of any of these key points, I thought the knowledge of how to act interact with a client was the most important to me. The proper order of things had always been a mystery to me. Including how to talk to people.

In this field, it was impossible to avoid people. If I wanted to help people, I had to play by their rules. And now I had the opportunity to learn those rules. In my future classes I had begun to learn the proper etiquette of how a social worker professionally consults with a client. This etiquette includes how to be an active listener, how to interpret non-verbal signs, how to know what kind of questions to ask, how to phrase the questions, how to structure a conversation, how to take note of every essential detail, how to be thorough with the information you receive from the client, and much more. Of course KAP, was there to help hone my skills.

Seeing that KAP is also a social service agency, they were able to provide useful advice on what to do for my interview projects and how to improve my interview performance.

Of course this form of vocal exercise took more than just one class session. My professor knew of my autism and knew that I would require some extra help and so thought that it would be wise if I had some extra training outside of class. I thought the idea of extra training was wise as well.

For the extra interviewing practice, my professor referred me to another social service agency stationed on campus. The Family Resource Program (FRP). The Family Resource Program is an agency that specializes in interviewing clients, access what the client needs, and then refer the client to additional resources that can satisfy the client’s needs. Given the nature of their work, the workers there were the ideal tutors to help me overcome my vocal limitations.

I returned to the FRP in my free time and utilized their training for the remainder of the semester. This training consisted of being engaged in several different mock-interviewing scenarios. In the practice scenarios, I would play the role of the social worker and a staff member would impersonate a client who had come to seek my advice. During these demo interviews, an observer would provide active constructive criticism if I perform inappropriately. During the course of the next couple of months, I learned how to structure my conversations and how to handle unusual client situations.

During my practice lessons, I also began to figure out my own preferred strategies and my flaws in my interviewing techniques. One of my faults as a social work practitioner is that I had a habit of projecting myself on to my client. That is to say, I would use myself as a base model and urge my imaginary client to behave as I would. Ethically, such a practice is a taboo in this field.

During these classes, I had also begun to rediscover my own voice. Now that I was better informed to what is polite, I felt a little more comfortable talking to people.

In a Social Work Practice class, the professor asked each student to host a short activity before the start of each class. The only requirement for the nature of the activity was to demonstrate a key aspect of Social Work ethics. For my activity, I requested the class to take out a blank sheet of paper, draw a big circle on the page and then draw an emblem that represented their own character and personality within the circle.

The idea behind my exercise is that before any social worker can be allowed to help a client and/or intervene in a client’s affairs, the social worker must first be in tune with their own selves. I felt that it was essential that each worker must know the limits of his or her own strengths, weaknesses, emotional limitations, moral tolerances, and essentially have their own inner political affairs in order before delving into a client’s case. I thought that the best way to demonstrate this concept would be to translate your character into a simple caricature.

Following my own advice, my exercise had me looking at myself in a different way. Up till this point, I had kept a small memo book’s worth of guidelines of what I thought my personality was like in the back of my head. But new questions came to me: How well do I really know myself and will it be enough to fill a book? Would that book be an interesting read? Would my story inspire others? I knew what kind of person I fancied myself as, but how much of it was reality and how much was fantasy? I feel that such self-reflections are necessary if one wants to grow into a better person.

Along with my social work classes for my major, I also took a variety of other classes that I felt would be an added benefit to my degree. I had already completed my requirements for my Gen Ed, so the nature of these courses could be anything useful, useless, and/or fun. So, I choose to expand my knowledge in the fields of sociology and psychology.

I took a class in Developmental Psychology. As a social worker I would not only be working with people from different nationalities, but also different ages. I thought that knowing how people cognitively mature as a species would further aid how I could help my future clients. I thought that this class would also, in turn, expand my understanding of a person’s illogical social behavior.

I also chose Psychology of Personality to learn about a person’s intellectual structure from birth to old age. I had known beforehand that a person’s personality is shaped by their past experiences, good and bad. How we translate those experiences is how we become the person we are. I took this class to see what other kinds of external factors shapes a person’s cognitive development, how to analyze the mind during different stages of maturity, and to see what kind of structural techniques shape a person’s persona.

At first I signed up for Supernatural Folklore just for fun and only for fun. However, I soon discovered that the content of folklore had more sociological applications than I would have normally thought. The realm of folklore consists of elements of varying cultural traditions, religion, superstitions, and spiritual attunements. The tests were horrible, but the content was enlightening and fascinating. I was finally getting answers to my dormant questions I had regarding what kind of elements motivate and influence different groups of people. These folklore elements have ties to sociological factors, which could influence certain social behaviors. One’s beliefs, be it religious and/or supernatural, can influence their attitudes and help shape their personality.

Similarly, while I was taking the Sociology of Gender class, I wanted to see how far gender was wired into our society and how one’s gender influences a person’s decision making processes and philosophies. I was surprised to see how much gender played an active role in human societies across the world.

Developmental expectations, professions, attire, hobbies, family traditions, deities-these are all gender ordinated in one manner or another. Thanks to this class, I can’t even watch TV without doing a gender analysis.

While taking these classes satisfies the requirements for my major, it also helped me to further expand my social repertoire and has taught me how to be more vocally active, how to be more responsive, and more importantly, how to act like a person.

Culture Shock

Super-Size Me. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Morgan Spurlock’s world famous documentary about little acts causing big changes. This film didn’t intrigue nearly as much as his other brainchild, 30 Days. 30 Days is a documentary-like reality show that takes an individual from one upbringing and inserts them into another culture, religion, or profession for the course of one month. One of my sociology classes required that I watch these shows to gain a new interest in different cultures.

I found these episodes extraordinarily fascinating because they explored new cultures and explained, in simple terms, how they were different from my familiar habitat. While watching these, I have to admit that I was a little smug. The participants who took the challenge all looked like a cat being dragged through a bathtub. They were scared that they would, somehow, be corrupted by experiencing a new culture. I didn’t understand what the problem was. No matter where I would go, I would still be me. A temporary change in address shouldn’t be enough to overhaul my persona. I felt confident that if I was placed in the same circumstance, I could handle it with no problem. Soon enough that ego would come to bite me in the butt.

Sociology was a class designed to dissect human culture in the U.S. What impressed me the most about this class is that it forced me to take a close intellectual look at human society. It allowed me to analyze the world and see it through a lens that was clearer for me. I could finally understand all of the unwritten rules of the world that have eluded me in Elementary School. I was looking for logic and order in the game called Society, but I was consulting the wrong profession. Now that I had a system to abide by, human nature became a subject of intrigue.

This was the first of many cultural events that would come with my new classes and profession.

Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, I was taking American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill my foreign language requirement. Why take ASL instead of Spanish or French? I stutter, I clutter words, and it takes me awhile to think of the right words for spoken languages. In ASL, the class converses by using our hands and facial gestures. I thought that this form of communication might provide a better fit for me than a verbal foreign language.

While taking the class, not only did we study non-verbal communication, we also learned about the culture of the deaf community and others who practice ASL. These lessons of the deaf culture became my first real active interest in cultures and human nature. While reading and interacting in the world of silence, I became more and more interested in how the world of someone else was different from my own world. I hated taking tests over it, but was still intrigued by the content and the natural world of ASL and the deaf.

In the second half of the year, the arrogance from my sociology class finally came back to bite me. In my first Social Work class, one of our main assignments was to venture into a culture with that we were not familiar with and write down our experience. The idea behind this exercise is that all types of social workers will be expected to interact with individuals from different ethnic backgrounds and this assignment is to help the students venture outside their familiar territory.

Choosing a culture to explore was the easy part. It so happens that my family is good friends with another family that was of both Muslim and Jewish descent. So I asked them for their advice, and they advised me to visit a mosque for my project. It was a culture that I knew only from hearsay and stereotypes. I thought that it would be an ideal place for my project and one-up the guys how on take to part in the 30 Days challenge.

As the day of my first mosque experience came closer, I went from ‘next in line for the rollercoaster’ excited to ‘cavity filling at the dentist’ anxious. Finally, the day of proving came, and I was scared out of my wits. My dad came along to help me with my project, but he wasn’t any more prepared for this endeavor than I was and he was just as nervous. I finally understood why the people on 30 Days were so scared.

As we slowly approached the front doors of the mosque, countless questions shot through my head. Should we wait five more minutes? Should we have brought some kind of peace offering? Who do we talk to? What do we do? What are the people like? What was the polite thing to do? What was the impolite thing to avoid?

This series of senseless inner questioning came to a halt when we shook hands with the door’s greeter. In a flash, my worries lifted, my preconceptions blurred, and my media induced stereotyped image of the people laid dead behind me as I walked through the door. The people I had feared to meet were a kindly and helpful bunch.

The moment my dad and I stepped into the mosque, many of the local parishioners practically rolled out the red carpet for us. When they learned that we visiting and we were interested in their culture, the practitioners were overjoyed and were eager to show us around. They showed us what to do, when to do what action, and explained the mechanics of the faith. Afterwards both my dad and I felt very relieved that our worries were groundless and we were grateful for the experience.

In a way, I’d spent my “30 days” by exploring a different career path.