Beware of Trolls That Dwell in Cardboard Castles

The week before my trip, I had a conflict with a coworker. Not my fault! This individual typically works in my warehouse’s box-making area…and nothing else. Box making isn’t a difficult task. The chore involves taking flat boxes from a pallet, load them into a folding machine, take folded shipping boxes from the machine, and loading them onto a motorized overhead conveyor to be distributed to the warehouse packers. A dismal task to say the least. If it wasn’t boring, then it was annoying, as the machine would always break down if you so much as look at it.

My coworker, however, took great pride in this task. So much so, he believed he the manager of box making. He was no manager. This pride has rewarded him with a nasty temper and would often snap at anyone who wouldn’t do things his way or who denied him his favorite job. Even before our confrontation, I didn’t agree with what he did, how he treats others, or his lack of spirit in life despite being only in his mid-thirties.

If he wasn’t belittling someone for bring him the wrong colored pallet-jack, he was inventing new rules that the real managers didn’t authorize, saying that certain people don’t deserve to work there, loath the company picnic at an amusement park, and made his coworker’s jobs harder than it needed to be. And now it was my turn to work with him.

I was going about my business. I had my box-folding machine, and he had his on the opposite side of the area. I loaded my boxes on to the trolley, saying nothing, and he did the same. As I was working, I felt some kind of tension in the air, the same kind of aura you would feel from an angry parent, but my thoughts were too occupied elsewhere to care. My head was dancing with excitement for the prospect of going to Belize and imaging what wondrous adventures I may have. I couldn’t care less about the other guy or what his problem was. For three hours, we said nothing to each other ––– not even a “hello.”

I was about to load a stack of finished boxes onto the trolley. Then – Boom! – I was shoved out of the way by the supposed Box Master. Instead of an apology, he went on a rant that I wasn’t doing my job properly and that his boxes were more important than mine. I was stunned, but only for a moment. My mind briefly flashed back to the soulless English teacher that bullied me in college. I then felt a grenade pin drop in my mind. The anger I have suppressed from that time combined with the frustration of my unfulfilled life came out all at once.

My retort was loud and came complete with colorful names and signing a very insulting salute. My reply made the coworker-turned-box troll angrier and started proclaiming that I was an evil person. Making insulting accusations that loosely translate to “nobody likes me,” “I intentionally annoy others,” and “I was alone and soulless.” I saw that this conflict could only end badly as he knocked over a stack of boxes during his hissy fit. So instead of risking my job over the Box Troll, I packed up my things, left to report to the managers, and left more kindly words as a rebuttal as I left.

I wasn’t terribly injured, but I have already lost a battle with one adult bully; I was not going to be a victim to another. Not without sharing my honest opinion of him. Even if he was signing my checks, he had no excuse to treat me like an underling. And besides, of all the problems in the world, he chose to pick a fight over boxes…how lame is that?

When I relayed my story to my manager, she was not surprised to hear that the Box Troll has scared off another partner. I was not the first to be chewed out by the Box Master over his supposed supremacy in his domain. It was no secret to anyone that he loathed anything but cardboard construction and demanded respect for his “skills.”

After I was reassigned to a new job and had time to cool my head, I began to reflect on what happened back there. I had only worked with him a few times and I knew very little about what he does outside the warehouse, or if he even has a life outside his job. I was certain he knew as much about me as I did of him. So how could he have possibly become so convinced that I was an evil person when all he knew about me was that I was a piss-poor box maker? How could he say such cruel things about me when our dialog between each other has been shorter than the attention span of a goldfish?

From my training as a social worker, I analyzed what I knew of this man to make some kind of sense of this his obsession for paper containers. After some hours of pondering, the only reason that made any sense to me is that he wanted control like most bullies. From my prior interaction with this guy, I gathered that he may lack control over his life at home and the reason he enjoys box-making so much is to take back some of the power he lacks from home through his coworkers. And now he hates me because I question his authority, I debate his methods, I didn’t show him the respect I would show a manager, and I didn’t give him control over me.

As sad as all of this may seem, I don’t have any pity for him. I’m not a professional social worker yet, he wasn’t my client, and he doesn’t want my help. The Box Troll may keep his precious Cardboard Kingdom. He can shout and play with his imaginary power all he wants, but I know for a fact that I am still better than him. I don’t need to step on others to feel good about myself. I don’t need to bully others to have control over my life. I have a lifetime’s worth of astonishing achievements under my belt with no intention of slowing down. Now I’m journey-bound to Belize to build a home made of wood, dreams, and hope.

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.

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.

A Fork in My Road

For a good deal of my life I’d been announcing, practically bragging, to my family and peers that I was going to be an engineer. So, you can probably imagine how difficult it was for me to ask my parents if they could see me working in another career.

As much as I wanted a job in engineering, the higher level math requirements became too much to bear. For reasons that still elude me to this day, math just seemed pointless to me now. I used to love math for its patterns and predictability. Now the algorithms didn’t seem to touch on anything in the real-world anymore. Eventually I had to drop out of the class and forfeit the path of engineering altogether.

My academic journey was stuck at a fork in the road. I had to uncover new talents and new inspiration for a new calling for myself. When I didn’t have papers to write or tests to panic over, I pondered and reflected upon who I am, what I have done up to this point, and what do I want to do for the rest of my life. I knew that discovering my true vocation was a matter that deserved careful deliberation. However, I also knew that my time for pondering was running out.

I dreaded the worst when I informed my parents newfound struggles. When I came across difficulty with a class, I would always stay the course by working through the problem or find a way around it. This was the first time I had to abandon such an important waypoint. Oddly enough, they were very open-minded and were supportive about this change in potential professions. This was not to say that they were happy about me leaving engineering; this just meant that they would support me wherever my path would lead.

I tried to put my dilemma into the perspective of “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius) Then came the query of what do I like to do and can I make a stable career out of it? I thought about my dilemma long and hard, but I needed inspiration to move me in the right direction.

One night while I was contemplating my career decision, my Mom suggested helpfully, “Maybe you can be like the people at KAP?” I thought about it. It was true that KAP’s career was focused around helping people, but how was that career classified? I did some digging on the matter and discovered that the organizers of KAP are classified as a social-work program, a vocation that I had been doing for fun for years with the Boy Scouts, National Honors Society, and the Beta Club.

Very soon after my discovery, I declared myself as a Social Work major at WKU and signed up for the necessary courses for the third year. Fortunately for me, I had already dispensed with most of the major’s prerequisites and Gen Ed requirements so I was able to jump right in to the major’s introductory courses unchallenged.

Though I was taking a new academic and career path, I did not regret my time in the engineering courses that I had taken in High School. I may not be putting my education from them to everyday use for my new profession, but I still value my time in the engineering magnet. The program gave me motivation to get out of bed and seize the day. It gave me hope that every school day I was going to wake up and learn something that would make a difference in somebody’s life. This was also a time that I could get an idea on what parts of engineering I was good at. I had new skills that could aid me in a domestic setting-such as the time when I repaired my dying TV with the skills I learned from my electronics course. I could also say that my high school years were anything but ordinary. After all, how many can say they made a human-sized canoe out of cardboard and duct tape?