How my therapist became a therapist

A blank page is what I start with every time. And I manage to fill the page with words that are meaningful to me. Right now I am going to recount the story my psychotherapist told me today. He has told me before, but I had forgotten.

My therapist grew up in a Catholic family with nine children on the East Coast. He remembers diapering his baby brother when he was 10 years old, which is how he remembered how to use cloth diapers on his own children many years later. I believe he grew up on a farm. He knows a lot about farming and about growing apples. His first degree was in agriculture. He wanted to become a farmer. Back then farmers made about $9,000 per year. It was and is not a lucrative business. Actually, he told me, his first dream was to become a pilot, when he was in his childhood. But he had never been in an airplane or a boat before and as he got older he discovered that he gets motion sickness, even in a car. So, becoming a pilot was not a possibility.

When my therapist went for his masters degree, he signed up to get a dual masters in agriculture and education. He worked on a 350 acre farm that his university had, growing crop for the studies that the university conducted. However, land that was near a market for buyers was very expensive and he wasn’t inheriting any land. He could have purchased no more than 10 acres. So, he decided, if he couldn’t become a farmer, he would teach the subject at community colleges. Hence, the masters in education.

As a part of the education masters degree he was required to complete some teaching hours. He thought he was going to be assigned to teach teenagers at a high school. Instead, his first assignment was working in a first grade classroom. He told the teacher he would be assisting that he didn’t know anything about teaching children. She said to him, I want you to help these three children, and she gave him their names. They are having difficulties with their behavior and I want you to work with only these three students. That’s all you will do, all semester.

The first young student was a boy. He often got into trouble. My therapist noticed that this boy never instigated the commotion, but was always the second person to become involved in an event that was taking place. He became the center of attention. As my therapist worked with him more, he came to know more about this child’s situation. The mother was ill and could not function, and the father had some unknown poisoning that no doctor could diagnose and it confined him to a wheelchair. These parents could barely provide the needs for their child. CPS was constantly checking on them to see if they needed to pull the boy out of the situation. This child was starving for guidance in how to act and behave with other people. He needed another adult in his life.

The second student was a girl named Tina. She had these strange behaviors. She would get up during the middle of class, more times than any of the other students and ask to use the bathroom. Instead of using the bathroom she spent a lot of time staring at herself in front of the mirror. She would wander down the hallways, just passing the time until break. As soon as the recess bell rang, she was always the first one out the door. She had incredible dexterity and was often on the monkey bars. First one out the door and always the last one to come back in from recess. She was behind in most of her subjects and could not grasp the concept of 1 + 1 = 2. Her activity page was blank at her desk.

My therapist asked a teacher at one of the local Montessori schools about this child. He was given the advice to incorporate physical activity into the learning, because physiologically she was very good. Do you have lollipop sticks? He was asked. Yes. Okay, well, use the lollipop sticks to demonstrate addition. “Can I have one lollipop stick?” “Now, can I have another? That makes two.” Tina quickly learned the concept, and it was subtraction she understood before the addition. She was beginning to be able to complete some of the class assignments.

There was an exercise where the teacher drew on the board an example of a house and a tree and a bird. She asked the students to copy it and draw their own version. Most of the students handed in a fairly good replica. Then it came to Tina’s drawing. The general expression from teachers with this child was just, “poor Tina”. They just didn’t understand her. It was a much more simplified version of a tree and a couple lines for a bird, and for the house it was just one large rectangle with a square in front of it, below it. “Poor Tina,” was all they could say.

In spite of many phone calls and invitations to include Tina’s mom, the teacher got no response. They took it upon themselves to do a home visit. The teacher called the night before and the morning of, to confirm they were coming over, and didn’t get a response. She asked my therapist to come along because he had been working with her this semester. “I’m not an expert,” he told the teacher. “Yes, but you were the one working with her,” she replied. They got there and knocked on the door of the apartment. There was some shuffling noises, and then the door finally opened. They were invited in. On the couch as soon as you entered there was the mom’s boyfriend. He was passed out. He was naked and the mom had covered him with some blankets. The only place to sit was on the floor, because the couch was taken, so they sat in a circle on the floor. During this whole time, the boyfriend didn’t wake up during the conversation. Not a stir. If he did, he didn’t move.

They went through the whole visitation process. When they were done my therapist told the mom he had some questions. “She seems to spend a lot of time looking at herself in front of the mirror at school. Why do you think that is?” Turns out, the mom was embarrassed to admit, they didn’t have any mirrors in the apartment. The only mirror was a small circle that was left of a broken mirror above the bathroom sink and that sliver of mirror was at adult height.

Then he asked Tina about her drawing. He said, “I get that’s a tree, and that’s a bird, but what’s this?” he asked, pointing to the rectangle and the square. “That’s the sofa,” she said, pointing to the rectangle, “and that’s the T.V.” she said, pointing to the square beneath it. There wasn’t any other furniture in the house other than the sofa and the television. Nothing. Just those and the beds. The family was very poor. In the end, this young girl drew a more accurate picture than anyone else who drew a house during that class assignment.

On the day he was to leave, the first boy saw that my therapist was leaving the classroom. It was the end of the semester. He ran over to my therapist and grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let go. He started kissing his arm, and saying, “Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” It was heartbreaking.

My therapist found it fascinating to study these children. From then on, he was hooked. He changed his focus and took all of the psychology classes that his school had to offer. After that, he transferred to another school where they offered more psychology classes. Before this experience, he had never considered psychology as a subject he wanted to study.

“That’s a lot of studying, and a lot of work and a long time,” I told him at the end of the story. “Yes,” he replied to me.

“I keep telling myself, I don’t have to get my masters,” I said. “And at my age, they’re asking me to go back to school to get my doctorate,” he subtly reminded me.

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