Detecting differences in, and quickly categorizing others seems to be an innate need in humans, perhaps dating back to a time when an unknown person was a very real threat. Without a clear understanding of our tendency to do this, however, we wander the world judging and sorting people, in order to reassure ourselves about whether we should be afraid of, or open to knowing more about them. This shorthand, unfortunately, is frequently negative and if unexamined, provides nothing more than a smug justification for avoiding certain people or groups of people. This is not how you gain wisdom about the world and the people who cohabit it with you. It instead relegates you to membership in a club populated primarily by the ignorant. I was long a member of that club.
I was working for the foster care program at a non-profit social service agency in Chicago. The program contracted with the State of Illinois to provide a range of services to foster children. The kids, their biological parents, and their foster parents were usually involved in ongoing meetings with the caseworker for assessment and planning, evaluation of progress toward goals for the child, and reports on how counseling sessions were progressing. There were also several parenting classes and lots of supervised visits between the child and the biological parents, usually occurring at the main office. It was kind of like the Chicago train system: a constant stream of arrivals, everyone coming from different places and converging on the platform of the downtown station.
The foster children often came during the day, when most foster parents were working and couldn’t bring the children to the office, so we employed people who functioned as a taxi system to ferry the kids back and forth. This was not a difficult job, but it was a complicated one. The driver would get their schedule of pick-ups for the next week on Fridays and would have to figure out the best way to get everyone to their appointments on time without having to keep the kids in the van for too long. Appointments were randomly added or canceled by program staff without checking with the drivers, who were just supposed to make it work somehow.
During any given day, the drivers might have two dozen pick-ups and drop-offs scattered across a 20-square-mile area, with appointments occurring any time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The one thing drivers learned quickly is to expect constant change. Need I say the drivers had to be very patient? Some did better than others.
The primary driver assigned to my caseload was a man in his late 30s, called Teddy. He was a quiet guy, not that I tried to engage him in any way, at least not at first. Teddy did a great job. Where others struggled with the complexity of constantly changing times and locations, he had a real knack for getting most of his kids to their appointments on schedule, and with minimal mileage. I was pleased with Teddy’s work but didn’t think he held any value for the agency other than his on-time record. Until the day he told me about William.
William was a ten-year-old boy who had been in a special psychological care foster home for several years. When his parents were together before he was placed in foster care, they had both abused the boy, physically and emotionally, and he was now given to unpredictable outbursts and rages, did poorly at school, couldn’t get along with his biological or foster siblings and did not attach to his foster parents.
But despite the odds against it, he seemed to love both of his biological parents, whom he saw bi-weekly on different days, as they were no longer a couple. When he came to our agency for these visits with his parents, William appeared if not happy, then at least okay. His therapist had been unable to make much progress with him, but that wasn’t unusual. Children who have suffered through serious abuse are sometimes so fucked up that it can take years to see positive results. At the visits however, he was loving and seemingly without memory of the abuse his parents had put him through. He was obviously trying to please, to make a connection. He behaved the same way with both parents.
Then one day, Teddy stopped into my office between runs. He was obviously a bit shook up, and I asked him what he needed. He said he wasn’t sure he was supposed to do this, but he thought it was important, and he went on to tell me what went on in his van both before and after William’s supervised parental visits. Teddy told me that the way William behaved when he got to our agency was the total opposite of how he behaved on his way to and from. Every time Teddy arrived at the foster home to transport William, the child had to be half coaxed, half pushed to the van, and then convinced to get in. And all the way there and all the way back, he raged. He punched windows, taunted other kids, pulled Teddy’s hair while he was driving, screamed, and today he had tried to unlock the door and throw himself out of the vehicle.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and started to ask Teddy why he had never brought this up before but stopped without saying anything because I realized why he hadn’t said anything. He knew I wasn’t interested in what he had to contribute, nor did I think he understood these kids enough to offer useful information about them. I didn’t see him as part of William’s care team because he was just a driver. And in making that judgment, I had hurt William.
It turns out William’s parents had been torturing him for years, leading him on about how they were finally going to get it together, complete the court-mandated training and counseling and regain custody of William. See, when William had been placed in care, his two siblings were also removed from the home temporarily, but they had been returned in a few months when it was determined that, while the other children had witnessed the abuse and would need therapy, William had been the sole target of the parents’ serious physical abuse, and he would not be returned until the parents complied with the more stringent requirements that they attend long-term therapy and parenting classes. And this they did not do. William was left in limbo, never knowing when or if he was going home, or if he even had a home anymore. He wouldn’t express his real emotions to his parents lest they reject him, but he could no longer keep his frustration and anger hidden completely, and so every visit triggered rage episodes.
I took steps to inform William’s therapist about what Teddy had told me and to confront his foster mom, who had never reported the anger associated with parental visits, though she had ostensibly received special training to qualify her as a special-needs foster parent. We found a different supervisor for the visits, one who didn’t hesitate to keep the parents from manipulating their son with promises they had no intention of keeping. We developed a new care plan for William, and Teddy was included in our assessment and progress meetings. And I began training new drivers about the importance of reporting what they experienced with the children, even if the caseworker neglected to ask for their input.
I did a pretty good job of cleaning up the mess I had made due to my stereotyping of Teddy as someone who had taken the unimportant job of driving children because he was probably uneducated and unqualified for anything else. However, my lesson was not yet over. Once I accepted Teddy’s worth and took steps to learn more about him, I discovered he had a college degree in math and was a chess master. On weekends, he traveled all over the U.S. going to chess tournaments, and often winning prize money, enough that his driving job was his second income, done only to pay for airfare. All he ever wanted to do was play chess, and he had figured out a way to do it.
It would be wonderful to be able to say I stopped stereotyping people after that, but it would be untrue. It took a lot of time and a lot of practice for me to do better, to begin recognizing and curbing my tendency to quickly sort people into good or bad, intelligent or not, worthy or essentially worthless. It wasn’t easy, but there was a payoff in the number of individuals I have since known, every one unique, sometimes from unfamiliar cultures, often extremely different than I, occasionally just exquisitely weird, and all of whom were majorly outside my comfort zone. They offered one-of-a-kind perspectives on life, perspectives I could explore or ignore. It was up to me.
I opened myself to the experience and reality of people who dwell in the corners I seldom investigated, and in so doing sometimes discovered human beings who unabashedly expected me to pay attention to who they were. If I did, I was often the better for it. Individuals will always surprise you, in either a good or not so good way, but always in a manner that reveals them to be so much more than what can be seen at first glance. Everyone has something to teach you, and if you turn away, you’ll never know what you missed. Perhaps you find value in that, perhaps not. You decide.