Early morning this past Tuesday, I squeezed onto the uptown #5 train on my way to the Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx. The morning rush crowd swept me off the train at 149th Street and Third Avenue, and up the steps to a busy thoroughfare, where several streets spoked out in various directions. I made my way up a hill, heading north and west to where the school backed up against a Catholic church. The main school entrance opened onto a set of stairs, leading to a hallway where a receptionist at a small school desk pointed me up another two flights to the science room. Paper signs with arrows and CAREER DAY in bold print showed me the rest of the way, and I climbed the freshly painted cement steps, taking in the familiar smells and sounds of institutional cooking and children’s voices echoing through the high ceilinged halls.
The principal, Sr. Patrice, a longtime friend, and an avid Yankee fan, set down her coffee to greet me with a warm hug. My life partner is the school’s Board president, and this was not my first visit to the grammar school that holds a great reputation for its students continuing on to high school and college. In a neighborhood with highly segregated, low resourced public schools, this school provides an alternative pathway to children of all denominations. Several other visitors, business people and alumni, sat at the round work tables on an assortment of chairs and stools, sipping coffee and nibbling at sweetbreads that I was thrilled to see. Breakfast had eluded me and I was starving.
I looked up from my croissant to see my friend enter the room. “Hey, Cassandra!” I waved her over to my table. Cassandra is the executive director of the 163rd Street Improvement Council. They provide housing and supportive services for people with a variety of special needs. Cassandra is a fan of women’s basketball and attended Liberty games at Madison Square Garden in seats next to my partner. I’d met her when she invited us to her 60th birthday party, and we’d been Facebook friends ever since. I didn’t know her well, but I thought of her when I’d accepted the invitation to career day. At a previous career day, I’d noticed that there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of white speakers given the fact that most of the students were kids of color. I reached out to Cassandra in a transparent way, telling her I thought the kids might do better seeing more adults who looked like them. (See The Danger of a Single Story.) She accepted immediately, and here she was, excited and nervous about addressing the kids.
Sr. Patrice had us each booked in separate rooms with half hour talks over a two hour period. I began with the fifth graders, who were eager to learn about the wonderful profession of Child Life. I began by asking them how many of them had ever been hospitalized. Every hand in the room shot up, making me think about the healthcare disparities in poorer neighborhoods — chronic illnesses such as asthma being a common scourge. I shared some stories about playing with sick children and showed them the ultimate child life fact — how once an IV is inserted, the needle retracts into the plastic holder and only a flexible plastic tube called a catheter remains in your vein. I brandished a real IV start to demonstrate, causing several kids to cringe in fear. Reassuring them that no one would get stuck with a needle by me, I passed around the catheter for them to examine, showing them how it was so small that a mouse could probably drink a milkshake through it. They brimmed over with questions.
- What do you do if a child doesn’t want to play?
- Are all the kids really sick, or do some of them have like broken bones?
- Do you sometimes feel sad?
- What do you do when it is really hard?
- What do you do if a child doesn’t get better?
- How do you become a child life specialist?
Our time together had one dramatic interruption when a bird flew into the room and many of the children panicked and lept shrieking from their chairs. Sr. Patrice came to see what was causing such a commotion. Her calm and authoritative presence quieted the room so that we could continue. She gave me credit, saying how lucky it was that a child life specialist was there to calm the children, but I knew that she was the one with the magic powers.
My next gig was a classroom of sixth graders. They’d been hosting several speakers before me and were a bit wound up by the time I arrived. So I got them out of their seats for some stretching before beginning my talk. This group had some questions, but they were more interested in telling their own stories of hospitalization. I listened as several children quietly shared about their medical encounters, which sounded scary and unpleasant. Some of them had met a child life specialist, but many hadn’t. One girl said, “Child life needs to come to Lincoln Hospital.” That was a great segue for me to talk about why the profession needed more people like them, who understood what their communities needed.
After our time with the kids, Cassandra and I met up back in the science room and trekked down the hill to part ways, she to her car and I to the subway. Her enthusiasm and joy for the day were clear – She’d had a blast with the students. We celebrated and documented our day by posing for a selfie in front of the church.
Two days later, Cassandra reached out on Facebook with this post:
Today I got a call from a parent of one of the kids from yesterday (Some of the kids asked for my business card). She called to thank me — her 14 year old came home excited about this person who was passionate and accomplished and “looked like me.”
I am so grateful to have been used in this way.
I am thinking that next year, I need to invite more people of color to join me, including child life specialists. Anyone want to join us? In the meantime, consider a visit to your own neighborhood public schools to spread the good word and ignite the fire in the next generation of child lifers.