Lessons from the past

When I was 14, I started working in a restaurant as a bus girl.  I grew up in a town that, at the time, I thought was the most boring place on the planet, and was desperate to get out.  I decided I would go abroad for a semester in South America– see the world, learn Spanish, meet South American boys.  Worried my parents would say no, I figured I would get a job so that I could pay for it myself, and then instead of asking them, I would simply tell them I was going (it sort of worked).  So off I went to Stars, a local restaurant down on the harbor.  I filled out an application and mumbled some kind of youthful, naive, something or other about how I was the perfect person for the job while my eyes full of insecurity betrayed my carefully designed speech.  The managers looked at each other skeptically, decided to give me a shot, and so began the multitudes of time I would spend in restaurants for many years into the future.

Stars was the sort of restaurant that had a two hour wait for Sunday brunch and Friday and Saturday dinner–not a place where patrons leisurely lingered over multiple courses.  It was fast–people were in and out, and I was constantly running about doing twelve things at once and trying to remember the six things three different tables had just asked for, all the while trying to remain personable and make people feel like we had some kind of meaningful, albeit brief, relationship.

In conversation with a coworker recently, I realized that working in a restaurant is shockingly similar in many ways to working in child welfare.  There is never ending list of things to do, and occasional lulls are ripe with a feeling of what’s coming.  The last thing you want is for all of your tables to leave (children to go home or get adopted) at once, because when that happens you know you’ll be slammed for the next two hours (months) with new tables (new cases).  There are tables (families/children/foster parents) that are very needy and require much more of your attention, and there are those that make you laugh and ask you how your day is going.  Some say thank you, some don’t.  Your ability to do the work depends on more than just your own actions; the quality of your relationships with the people you work with greatly determines your success– the hostess who gives you the good customers and sends the Europeans who don’t know to tip well to another section, the busser who works extra fast in your section, the chefs who make sure all of your tables’ meals come out just right even when they have picky requests– the service providers who address the needs of your families and give you the reports that you need for court, the CPS workers who help you through bureaucracy and answer the phone for a favor, the case aids who will watch that visit for you so you can squeeze in your home visits at the end of the month, the attorneys who actually call you back, the supervisor who is there to support you, the coworkers in your office who allow you to vent and make you laugh.

As soon as I recognized this analogy, my perspective on casework took on a whole new degree of clarity.  Casework and waitressing demand the say degree of multitasking, juggling, people skills, and relationship building.  And, for one’s own sanity, both demand that you find some kind of a rhythm, a dance as you move through each day.  I had fun traveling down memory lane, looking back back on my years at Stars.  I was the queen of that restaurant.  I had amazing relationships with everyone who worked there–even that angry chef who was more likely to grunt at you and glare than put together a sentence.  I learned Portuguese from some of the Brazilian guys in the kitchen.  I moved faster than anyone, and more gracefully than I would have guessed myself capable.  My mind was sharp as could be, I became one of those servers who never wrote anything down.  It truly did feel like dancing in a way.

What I did not remember until a few weeks after this reminiscing, when the memory finally managed to make its way to the surface, was that I had come very close to being fired from that first restaurant job.  Maybe a month after I had started working at Stars, right before the Sunday brunch rush, the general manager brought me out back and told me that I was just not moving fast enough.  “This is a very busy restaurant,” she said, “and we need everyone to move at light speed, otherwise it messes everyone up.”  She told me she’d give me one more chance, but if I did not improve significantly, and fast, then she would have to let me go.

What was astounding to me as I thought back and remembered a few of the duds they actually allowed to stay over the years was that I really must have been pretty awful for them to have almost fired me.  To think that a year later I was one of the best employees they had ever had must have been some kind of a miracle.  It was also fascinating to me to realize how deeply buried that memory was.  It’s really no wonder why, because as I thought about it more than a decade later, I was overcome with the fear, embarrassment, that sinking feeling in my stomach, and the shakiness in my hands that had hung with me for several days after that conversation– who would ever want to keep those feelings right on top?  My brain had clearly been protecting me from that discomfort.

I think it’s pretty normal to consciously or unconsciously try to forget painful events in our past.  But the trouble with doing so is that we fail to hold on to the memory of overcoming those difficult times.  As crazy as it may sound, realizing today that at age 14 I had what it took to go from a truly terrible, almost fired, bus girl to one of the best that Stars had ever seen helped me to feel reassured that I have what it takes to–with time, experience, and humility–master this child welfare world…or at least to learn to dance through it with grace.  And to me that is very exciting, because as a caseworker in foster care, the stakes are somewhat higher than Sunday brunch and burgers on a Friday night.  In a restaurant, the dance is just a dance.  In foster care, the dance has immeasurably powerful ripples.

It’s certainly ok and perhaps even necessary for our psychological survival to let go of the pain of the past, but there’s so much power in holding on to the moments in our lives that teach us what we’re made of.  So often in the day to day experience of this work I encounter individuals who are so beaten down that they haven’t a clue where their strengths lie; they have forgotten how strong they are and what they are capable of.  So that’s what I’ll ask of the families I work with when they are struggling to feel able to move forward–tell me what you have overcome.  And that’s what I’ll ask of myself, starting with holding on tight to the memory of a silly 14 year old girl who learned how to dance at Stars.

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