When I tell people what I do for a living they often respond by saying things like, “Bless your soul, that must be difficult,” and my all time favorite, “It’s so nice to see someone not working for the money.” I’m a social worker.
I attended the wounds of people crucified to circumstance. Carry hope and band-aids in my briefcase, share my own scars for street cred. I work with kids who see their probation officers more than their fathers. They wear sagging pants and their parents’ mistakes. Introduce themselves as accidents waiting to happen; they are a Hollyhood casting director’s wet dream.
Tattooed with a temper, do-ragged D-boys, Boyz n the Hood, mi vida loca. They speak in sign language because they have been taught; they are voiceless. Marginalization is the chip on their shoulder. It is so heavy they walk with a limp, pass it off as swag. Their fingers, more familiar with pipes than pencils, eyes smoked closed, paint their world view the color of devils as they search for God, or anyone else they can just look up to.
Each one has a story. Emilio wants to change, so he keeps a lucky penny in his pants pocket along with the quarter. I gave him to call with whenever he is in need. In the desperation of his 15-year-old eyes I see more potential than an idea. Rivera never manifested on a canvas. He makes the city his Scribes pieces of his soul into windows not knowing his pain is as transparent as the glass.
Sprays a masked moniker underneath street lamps so he always shines brighter than the darkness of his insecurities. He left his self-esteem next to a cigarette butt at the bottom of a bottle bought by relatives who see no problem feeding fires. He screams in spontaneous combustion, but believes nobody is listening, so he commits another crime. He likes going to court, because there, at least he knows that someone is paying attention to his sentences. I am his social worker attempting to make sense of his syntax.
He didn’t fall through the cracks; they swallowed him. I have seen it happen in broad daylight. Sun turning the other cheek cowering behind the clouds. Concrete quicksand traps youth like Venus fly Homies who claim to have backs, front, offering no help, and so many of our kids are sinking.
Emilio asks me for direction, but there is only one way to go from where he is. I show him his heartbeat is his compass. We look at the scars on his psyche, I ask if he is ready to replace them with dirt underneath his fingernails; he asks me how he is supposed to escape the sand. I remind him he cannot ask for one to guide his footsteps if he is not willing to move his feet first. I speak in cliches; talk of butterflies and phoenixes, and of hip hop, and of so many ugly things that have bloomed into beauty.
I speak in truths; I tell him I don’t know if things will be OK. I show him statistics are stalking him and prisons plan housewarming parties. I tell him the streets, they don’t change, but I know that people do. Hope is not a helium balloon that’s slipped from our fingertips; we do not have to watch potential float away. I am a social worker.
I work with kids who learn to spell stigma before their first names. But each one is an artist learning to draw their own conclusions. Their pencils are heavy burdens built without erasers on purpose, because sometimes the best thing you can do is not go back. I am a social worker, and no, I don’t do it for the money. I do it simply because I still believe in people, and I really hope that you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and all of you, still do too.