Plants that survive in the desert lay low to the ground, conserving water and energy, and allowing harsh winds to blow over them or they develop prickly tough exteriors. Both endure heat and high winds. Both require that the observer do just that....look, don't touch.
A young woman sat in front me. She reminded me of the Joshua Tree...tall and prickly. She looked me straight in the eye. She wants to survive and be seen. It is a challenge. Not even all Joshua Trees make it in the desert. She has a steady gaze ~ there was no glancing away. Nor did she lower her gaze after she met my eyes. The muscles in her jaw tighten slightly. I thought briefly about how much I dislike these encounters. This one and the hundreds that have happened before this moment in time. The aging white woman on one side of a desk and in this case, a African American much younger woman sitting proudly and defiantly on the other side of the desk. She was about to receive a written warning. Her absences had far exceeded the allowed number. She told me she had discussed her day care problems with "The Scheduler". I could see that she thought that discussion made it okay. It did not. The 'rules' are made elsewhere and the rule makers do not care that she is a single parent of a 6 month old and the adoptive mother of a five year old. They also do not care that in order to be at work on 6 A.M. she must drop her infant off at day care at 5:30 A.M. It costs her an additional $20 a day for the privilege to be to work on time. That is an expensive luxury of the half hour of early drop off time. She makes $10 and hour and supports herself and two children on what is left after taxes.
I can hear my voice go through the drill. The chat about the 'team needs every player here on time'. The residents believe we will be there to care for them. I do not say 'no one cares about the infant at 5:30 AM or what time you have to get your young family up to get yourself to work on time.' Even though she now has tears in her eyes, I can see defiance there. She hears the sub-message loud and clear. She silently signs the attendance reminder. The one that goes in her employment record. The one of three that will likely end her job in about six months. She wants to be a nurse someday she says. She tells me she doesn't need this job. She can make more on medicaid and no one will mark her late is she just stays home with her children. I am quite sure that is true. My gaze never falters from hers. I tell her to be on time or she and I will end her employment here. Then I shift. A brief chat about getting to that goal of being an RN. The list of others who've made it. The others who made it with their young families in tow. My mental hand searched for that fine thread of connection that might help her hold on and move up. She made a reach for it but I'm uncertain if she grabbed on tight. Some do and pull themselves up and some don't, only to slide down into an abyss of financial worry and insecurity. She listens. She puts her indignation just slightly to one side. My guess is that she will call-in again before the week is out. She is thinking the short term gain of welfare is better that putting up with an insensitive 60 year old woman who doesn't care about her or her problems. She acknowledges that tuition reimbursement would help her reach her goal. She repeats she would like to be a nurse someday. I wonder once more if they (the whole mass of people who tend to elders) think I need to hear them say they want to be nurses. I don't care about that "I want to be a nurse" part. Some should be nurses. Some should be poets, teachers, painters, computer programmers, stay at home moms and so on. Destiny will carry them forward. I want that destiny to be fulfilling but I also need all of them including this young woman to be to work on time. I will work with her to support her dreams and encourage employment success. The hard part, the 80% piece of showing up on time...that she will have to do herself. Will she make it? I watched her leave my office. She stood tall and exited with a determined stride. I hope she will succeed but I have my doubts. The rules do not work in her favor ~ they are set up to favor the company. She works for them, not the other way around. She has to bend. I think she thinks that she's done enough bending. I think 'we should chat again', when she is the 60 year old woman ~ but alas, I will be long gone.