The sailors come off the ship after months out at sea. They come to a bar sign, walk down a short flight of concrete steps and enter a dark, dank establishment. There is loud and foul language in the air. The establishment does not smell clean. An aging barmaid with excessive, perhaps garish make-up, clearly looking older than her real age, is serving shots of booze and beer. When we hear her speak words we detect a crudeness and probable lack of education.
This is the woman that was sitting across from me, on public assistance, needing a plan for reemployment. It was Friday the end of a long work week. It was early in my career. My experience and skills were very limited. Since she had not finished high school, I ask her if she wanted to attend the Learning Center for a GED. She laughed and asked me if I was serious. No one had ever offered her further education or even suggested training. I told her, "Of course. You can go over to the community college, take the placement test and begin study on Monday." She took the referral.
When I entered my office Monday morning, the phone rang and the director of the learning center began rattling off reasons why my latest referral could not be accepted.
- She is barely reading at a fifth grade level.
- Her math skills are extremely limited, despite handling money and making change continually in her past work.
- She would be taking up space preventing other students with real potential from getting into the program.
- She has no chance of being successful.
- She was not appropriate.
I felt a little anger swell and it prompted me to threaten to pull out all of our business and financial support. We paid when our customers got into the Center. My client got to start that day.
By the end of the week I was becoming increasingly nervous, thinking the director might talk to my supervisor in the Department of Labor Special Programs Office. I was the newest counselor in the WIN program fresh out of graduate school. I did not have the power to carry out my threat and I did not want to be chastised for an inappropriate behavior. I visited the learning center to see how my client was doing and found her reading a book that looked much like the ones we used when my son was first learning to read. I made the decision to visit the Learning Center often, so that I could pull her out the moment she got frustrated.
Every time I visited, she was in her chair focusing on her work, day after day, week after week and the journey turned into months. I told her if she was feeling too much stress we could look for other options. She chose to continue the journey and did nothing that would cause removal. I witnessed a transformation taking place. The Barmaid began to dress better, I suppose because of the environment and increasingly looked more and more like a student. It was nearly eight months after we first met that my client was accepted into Casino Security Guard Training. After passing her High School Equivalency exam, her options had expanded. She was placed easily into an entry level Casino Job and her first year income tripled her best year as a Barmaid. She stopped me on the street in Atlantic City and gave me a big hug.
Maybe her counselor experienced second thoughts and the Director was sure she could not succeed. But, not my Barmaid. She had no idea that she was incapable of earning a GED.
I had to make a decision about whether it would impact how I felt about trusting people, and I decided I wasn't going to allow it to impact my outlook on trust, because I believe trust is a choice. I've always given people the benefit of the doubt until they prove me otherwise. So, it just made me stronger in my conviction about that, but it also taught me never to put anything past anyone. ~ Boris Kodjoe