Crooked Fingers

August 31, 2012

My crooked left fingers, August 31, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

It’s been a bit more than thirty years since I’ve had surgery on two left fingers in an attempt to straighten them. These fingers are symbolic of what happens when a family slides off a cliff in the Himalayas into deep poverty, of when a nation doesn’t have an adequate social safety net or adequate healthcare for the poor.

At the very end of my glorious summer of ’82, I needed surgery on the ring and pinky fingers of my left hand to remove two benign tumors. The tumors had apparently been there since I was eight and had caused the two fingers to grow crookedly, to the point where I couldn’t use them. After the hospital strike (see my “The Quest For Work, Past and Present” post from earlier this month) and my ordeal with Maurice had ended (see my post “Boy, Interrupted” from July ’12), my mother realized that I needed to see a doctor, and within a week I was at Mount Vernon Hospital in surgery.

They removed the tumors, straightened my fingers, stitched them up and put them in a cast. If all went well, after a month, they’d remove the cast and the stitching. That, and a few checkups to check the progress and scar tissue buildup on my fingers, and I should’ve been good to go. But that happy ending wasn’t to be. After the casts came off in early September, I didn’t see a doctor again until April ’85.

Why? My mother had been downgraded to part-time status at Mount Vernon Hospital by October ’82, and after the birth of my sister Sarai in February ’83, could not work and take care of five kids at the same time. We went on welfare in April ’83, and with that, received Medicaid services. Those services, as anyone who has spent any serious time in America’s worst poverty should already know, are limited in scope, and don’t exactly cover the removal of post-surgery scar tissue.

Choppers and Westchester County Medical Center, Valhalla, NY, August 31, 2012. (http://nymc.edu)

So, a year or so after my tumor removal/finger-straightening surgery, my left ring and pinky fingers went crooked again. By the time me and my mother had schlepped on the old Bee-Line Route 41 bus to Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla in ’85, my fingers were about half as crooked as they had been before surgery in August ’82. The doctor, of course, misdiagnosed my fingers as having keloids, and offered steroids to shrink them down. Injections, by the way, not covered under Medicaid at the time.

But that wasn’t the only problem. My crooked fingers itched a lot, and made it difficult for me to make one-handed grabs in football tryouts in ’84, not to mention wearing a baseball glove for baseball tryouts in ’86. Some girls at Mount Vernon High School grilled me with questions whenever they noticed them, as if I was a Yeti who decided to visit Western civilization for the first time. One of them told me point-blank, “I can’t go with you — your fingers are too ugly.” A young woman said something to the same effect to me my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t until the fall of ’02 that I finally saw a specialist at Johns Hopkins about my finger, one who confirmed the initial diagnosis of tumors from ’82. Between two doctors and a physical therapist, I gained about two-thirds of my total range of motion in my ring finger, but only five degrees’ worth of motion in my left pinky by the time my son was born in July ’03.

I got to the point where I could finally palm a basketball in my left hand. But ultimately, that was all I could do. It turned out that I’d have to lose a joint in my crooked fingers — to have them fused — in order to straighten them. Otherwise, there was nothing wrong with the bones. It made more sense to leave them crooked.

Maybe this is good thing, though. That no matter my past, present or future successes, that I have them as a reminder of how far I’ve come. They also serve to remind me how many others suffer in the US because of poverty.


The Wussification of Grading

August 29, 2012

Grades Collage, January 24, 2010. (http://hopkins.typepad.com).

Montgomery County Public Schools opened its doors to students for the start of the 2012-13 school year on Monday, August 27. With the start of the school year came some new changes to the report card and grading system, at least for MCPS’ elementary schools. Starting this year, the school district has dropped the old grading system of O, S and N (Outstanding, Satisfactory and Needs Improvement) for first and second graders, and the old A, B, C, D and E system for third, fourth and fifth graders. Instead, they’ve introduced a new grading system for all 1st-5th graders:

Score Description
ES Exceptional at the grade-level standard
P Meets the grade-level standard by demonstrating proficiency of the content or processes for the measurement topic
I In progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
N Not yet making progress or making minimal progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
M Missing data – no grade recorded
NEP Not English Proficient; may be used for a level 1 or 2 ESOL student for no more than two marking periods.

According to MCPS, “[t]he goal of this grading format is to give families a clear understanding of your child’s progress toward end of year grade level expectations.”

Now, I’ve been an educator of some sort now for the better part of two decades, and have worked with several grading systems as a college professor. Not to mention having to learn different grading systems as a student even before that. Trust me when I say that this new grading system isn’t a clear one, and isn’t easy to understand.

But the overall goal is clear. MCPS wants to tie grades to their new yet only partially implemented integrated Curriculum 2.0, adopted as part of the new Core Curriculum for the state of Maryland. It is an integrated, standards-based curriculum that introduces a variety of interrelated themes across the various subjects for K-5 (although fourth and fifth grade will not see any of this curriculum until 2013, when my son is in fifth grade). In theory, this grading system will be more directly tied to students’ proficiency levels in achieving or exceeding state-level standards in reading, mathematics, writing and other subjects for their grade level.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, if a child is proficient in say, the fourth-grade standard for reading, then they would receive a P grade. This is unreasonable, though, and for at least a couple of reasons. For one, it means the entire MCPS elementary school curriculum has become about meeting standards that will be tested at the state-level on the MSA, and at the county level on MAP-R. The curriculum itself has now become integrated into the testing game at the elementary school level.

Second, and maybe even more important here, is the idea that grading-to-a-testing-based-curriculum is a better and more accurate way to assess children. I’m not sure how this helps kids, though. If a student does well enough to score multiple “ES'” on their report card, they’ve exceeded the standard for their grade level. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready for the next grade level. If a student has multiple N’s on their report card, does that mean that they have failed to meet the standards in several subjects at their grade level, that they aren’t making progress?

ESPN logo, August 29, 2012. (http://thebiglead.com). In public domain.

It seems to me that beyond understanding the grading system and the tensions in its methodology is the fact that, in the end, these grades aren’t going to mean much to MCPS’ K-5 students. Or to students across the state of Maryland, for that matter. After all, an A, C, or E is much easier to interpret than an ES, P, I or N (or ESP(i)N, as I’ll begin to call it from now on). Psychologically speaking, while this grading system takes some symbolic pressure off of performance via state and county test scores, it also means that kids won’t have a full appreciation for success, mixed success or failure beyond a curriculum of testing.

It would’ve been smarter to go to a qualitative grading system — something that I know some schools and universities have used over the years — than to this one that ties curriculum and grading systems to testing. At least with a descriptive system of grading, you can get in a single paragraph a fairly focused analysis from a teacher about a student’s progress, their strengths, weaknesses and where they’ve had good or great success. This new MCPS grading system, though, is the academic equivalent of giving every team in a children’s soccer league a trophy, whether their record was 10-0 or 0-10. It pretty much renders grading meaningless, as everything is about standards and measurements, and ultimately, testing.


Moving (On) To Pittsburgh

August 26, 2012

241st Street-Wakefield Subway Station, Bronx, NY, August 25, 2012. (jag9889 via http://flickr.com). In public domain.

I’m now a quarter-century removed from leaving my original hometown, Mount Vernon, New York, for Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh. Wednesday, August 26, ’87 wasn’t my first day of adulthood, but it turned into my first day of freedom from the disappointment that my years in Mount Vernon and at 616 East Lincoln Avenue had turned into. It’s been a long road of triumphs and setbacks, of mistakes and sins, of excellence and miracles (see my post “Trip to the ‘Burgh” from August ’09).

But I’ve frequently wondered what would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Mount Vernon, or, at least, somewhere in or near New York City. Would I have turned out like my older brother Darren, a forty-four year-old who’s never been able to shake off the years of psychological torture he endured at 616? He was caught between my mother believing him to be retarded and being in a school for the mentally retarded as a kid with an above-average IQ for fourteen years. Darren never had a chance to build on him teaching himself to read at three and teaching me how to read at five (see post “About My Brother” from December ’07).

Outside of the upper-crust lily-Whiteness that was his Clear View School experience, Darren’s never known a middle-class adult life, a middle-class education or people he could talk to about his experience in order to move on from it. My brother lives around 233rd Street in the Bronx, as isolated now as he was at 616, trapped in our 616 past and in the warped thinking that has retarded his growth as a human being for nearly forty years.

Or would I have turned into my youngest brother Eri, a twenty-eight year-old frequently angry with the world? He’s been taking solace in a father (my ex-stepfather) who was never there for him and in his father’s twisted sense of Afrocentric Judaism? Unlike me and my older brother Darren, who at least knew what it was like to live in a time when even we experienced some sense of the old American Dream, Eri never had that chance.

Poverty, the grinding-with-millstones kind, and joblessness are really all that Eri’s seen the past three decades. Job Corp and the Army National Guard have really been his only times away from the daily anguish of 616 and Mount Vernon. And with the death of our sister Sarai two years ago, I know that he’s felt even more angst and isolation. Leading Eri to begin the process of re-upping with Uncle Sam for this fall.

Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian passing the 1895 Bryn Mawr Interlocking Control Towerat Bryn Mawr, PA, en route from New York to Pittsburgh, June 6, 2011. (Centpacrr via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-by-sa-3.0.

If I had stayed, my story would likely have ended up somewhere between Darren’s and Eri’s. I would’ve somehow gone to college, maybe Westchester Community College, Hunter or possibly Fordham. But the drama of living at 616 and the constant reminders of the worst years of my life all around me would’ve made demon-slaying a near-impossible task.

It was bad enough occasionally bumping into Crush #1, Crush #2 or one of my silent treatment classmates during the holidays and summers I was away from Pittsburgh between ’87 and ’92. Seeing them regularly and knowing that they only saw me as a twelve-year-old asshole or socially-inept seventeen-year-old? That would’ve stunted me (see my post “The Silent Treatment” from June ’10). I simply wouldn’t have felt that I had the space — geographically or psychologically — to move on from those morbid times.

Even if I somehow found the focus of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan combined to complete a bachelor’s degree, I would’ve needed to make the decision to leave the area anyway. Especially if I had any other aspirations besides helping my mother take care of my younger siblings, including going to graduate school.

All the decisions I made after August 26, ’87, in fact, wouldn’t have occurred if I had stayed at 616, in Mount Vernon, even anywhere in the New York City area. I would’ve been too close to allow my mother to be beaten by my ex-stepfather again. I would’ve been too embarrassed by my father’s increasing alcoholism. And I would’ve been too angry with myself for all of the fun I’d denied myself while my former high school classmates were living what I assumed was the equivalent of Sheila E’s “Fabulous Life.”

There would’ve been no decision to even risk being homeless my sophomore year for a degree — much less actually being homeless for nearly a week. There then wouldn’t have been a decision to change my major to history, much less rediscovering myself as a writer years later. I wouldn’t have ever seen myself as worthy of happiness, or seen myself as handsome, or seen myself through the eyes of others as funny or charming or goofy. Instead, I could’ve counted on anger, rage, disappointment and misery to be my four emotional companions, ever ready to introduce themselves to the New York City area.

We often need change to move on from the demons of our past and present. Thank God I made the decision to literally leave 616 and Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh. That decision has enabled me to remember the past without wallowing in it.


The Quest For Work, Past and Present

August 21, 2012

Down and out on New York pier, 1935, June 2009. (Lewis W. Hine via FDR Presidential Library). In public domain.

Election ’12 should be about how to generate more jobs and how to grow the economy. Sadly, it hasn’t been about these issues, and given the toxic political and cultural climate, it will not be about jobs or the economy when this cycle ends on November 6.

I’ve seen this horror movie of economic downturns and mini-depressions in American society and in my own life now three times in the past thirty-five years. Each time, I’ve been better prepared, more informed, more able to ride out the storm. And each time, I’ve seen the ugly side of what we call the United States of America, a place that has and will continue to punish the unemployed and underemployed for problems beyond their control. Especially if they were and are women, young, over forty, of color, and among the poor.

In the period between ’79 and ’83, when the effective inflation rate for that four-year period was more than thirty-five percent, when we experienced a double-dip recession, when interest rates reached 22.5 percent. My mother’s meager income of $12,000 in ’79 didn’t keep up, even as it reached $15,000 in ’82. We were late with our rent at 616 by an average of three weeks each month and didn’t have food in the apartment the last ten days of any month, going back to October ’81. Things were so bad that my mother, a supervisor in Mount Vernon Hospital’s dietary department, brought food home from the hospital kitchen for us to eat for dinner several times each month.

“Negro Women,” Earle, Arkansas, July 1936, August 21, 2012. (Dorothea Lange via Library of Congress/http://libinfo.uark.edu). In public domain.

The good news was, Mount Vernon Hospital’s employees went on strike for higher wages and increased job security in mid-July ’82. The bad news was, although Mom was a sixteen-year veteran, nearly fifteen of those as a dietary department supervisor, Mom never joined the union. She didn’t want to pay “them bloodsuckers” dues, and said that she “couldn’t afford them” anyway.

I can only imagine how much spit and venom Mom faced on her way to work every day for three weeks. Considering our money situation, which I knew because I checked the mail and looked at our bills every day, picketing and getting union benefits might have been better than working. It wasn’t as if there was food in the house to eat anyway. As much as I enjoyed Mount Vernon Hospital’s Boston Cream Pie, I thought that picketing for a better wage was the way to go.

Soon after I started eighth grade, the other shoe dropped. Mom, so insistent on not joining Mount Vernon
Hospital’s union, was the odd woman out. The hospital’s concession of five percent increases per year over three years left them looking to cut costs. The only personnel left vulnerable were non-union service workers and their supervisors. My Mom had been cut to half-time by her boss Mrs. Hunce. Mom was screwed, but it was a screwing partly of her own making. It was the beginning of a two-decade-long period of welfare, underemployment, unemployment welfare-to-work, with an associate’s degree along the way. So much for hard work leading to prosperity!

I’ve gone through my own periods of unemployment and underemployment over the years. The most severe one for me was between June and September ’97, right after I finished my PhD. It was the first time in four years I hadn’t had work or a fellowship to rely on, and it was brutal. I did interviews with Teachers College and Slippery Rock University for tenure-track positions in education foundations, only to finish second for one job, and to see the folks at Slippery Rock cancel the other search. In the latter case, I think that they felt uncomfortable hiring someone of my age — twenty-seven — and my, um, ilk (read race here).

What made it worse was the fact that I couldn’t simply apply for any old job. I did actually try, too. McDonald’s, UPS, FedEx, Barnes & Noble, among others. I couldn’t even get Food Stamps in July, because my income threshold for March, April and May ’97 — $1,200 per month — was too high. And because I technically was a student for tax purposes my last two semesters at Carnegie Mellon — even though I was adjunct professor teaching history courses — I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.

Shuttered Homestead steel mill, 1989, August 21, 2012. (Jet Lowe/Historical American Engineering Record). In public domain.

I had to omit the fact that I had a PhD to get a part-time job at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which began after Labor Day ’97. I ended up teaching as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University’s College of Education the following year. Still, my income level did not return to where it was my last year of graduate school until June ’99, when I’d accepted a position with Presidential Classroom in the DC area.

I am nowhere near those times of being considered or treated as a statistic, marginalized in media and in politics as being lazy, shiftless, not smart or hard-working enough. But as a person who teaches near full-time and has more than occasional consulting work, I know how precarious and temporary work can be.

Ironic, then, that the people making decisions that have put people like me and my Mom in terrible financial straits have never missed a meal or not paid a bill because they were choosing between heat and not making phone calls. That most Americans regardless of party affiliation shun the poor, unemployed and underemployed is a shame and a pitiful example of how we really don’t pull together during tough times.

These attitudes are why rugged individualism and hard work aren’t enough to get and hold a job. An education, a real social safety net, even regulation of the job market, would help level the playing field for millions. Or, maybe some of us should learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic or Portuguese and move to where the jobs really are.


Defining Loyalty

August 16, 2012

Gov. Mitt Romney and ‘blind trust,’ June 7, 2012. (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com).

One of any number of concepts I’ve had trouble wrapping my head and heart around over the years has been loyalty. At least, what others in my life have defined as loyalty. For the most part, loyalty for the vast majority of these folk has meant surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women, to have people around them who’d prefer the method of going along to get along. True loyalty, of course, is more about supporting a person and their ideals, ideas, calling and purpose, and not just agreeing with their every word and deed, no matter the contradictions, no matter who it hurts.

I’ve seen it in my own life, so many times, in high school, college, grad school, academia, the nonprofit world, and in church. Over and over again, people who believe that leadership means everyone should fall in line and follow someone else’s vision, without question or contribution. It’s the ultimate form of American entitlement, the one thing that all people in authority — secular or spiritual — have in common in our society and culture.

Republican operative Ron Christie, the ultimate yes-man, November 9, 2010. (http://c-spanvideo.org). In public domain.

One example of this was my former boss Ken, who complained about what he claimed was my lack of loyalty to the New Voices Fellowship Program when I made the decision to move on to another position at the end of ’03. He talked about loyalty as if I was a feral dog who needed to be broken and tamed in order to be useful. I said that loyalty “isn’t just about the person, it’s about the work that needs to be done.”

But I’d go a step further than that now. Loyalty in the workplace requires not only the ability of two or more individuals to trust each others’ judgment and quality of work. It also requires a synergy of vision, a sense of purpose that obligates the people in question to provide transparency, constant communication and certainly criticism in the journey to make any vision a reality.

I remembered this a few years after moving on from New Voices, at an interview I had with the head of the Center of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He began with the question, “So how are you going to contribute to my vision of building the kind of world-class center that will attract the attention of scholarship everywhere?” The director lost me with his emphasis on “my vision.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know you, but somehow, I’m supposed to trust your vision purely because you say so. Are you kidding me? I’m to be loyal to you just because — you’re Black, you’re a decade older than me, you’re at an Ivy League university? Really?” To this day, that was the weirdest interview in which I’d ever been a part.

I saw this also at the church to which I’d been a member of the longest in my adult life, Covenant Church of Pittsburgh (which was in Wilkinsburg, by the way). From ’91 to ’97, I attended services, was part of the men’s choir, tutored high school students and went on retreats. I sometimes turned a blind eye to the occasional hypocrisy around sex, money and marriage in sermons versus what I actually witnessed.

One February ’97 Sunday after I finished a year’s worth of battles with my dissertation advisor Joe Trotter — another person who wanted my false sense of loyalty (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11)  — I couldn’t take it at CCOP anymore. After a month-long drive to raise $250,000 above our normal tithes and offerings to buy a plot of land to build a megachurch in Monroeville, our pastor made an announcement and delivered a fiery sermon. The announcement was that God had told him to now up the ante to a three-million dollar campaign for money to build the church on this new property.

Man on a leash, June 12, 2010. (dtoy2009 via Flickr.com). In public domain.

Before I had time or faith to absorb that bit of information, my pastor delivered a forty-five minute sermon that blamed Wilkinsburg’s fifty-percent unemployment rate, gang violence and despair on “homosexuals and whoremongers.” I’d heard other statements and similar sermons like this before, but not for nearly an hour, not after an appeal to worshippers to give more than one-tenth of their gross income to CCOP for a new church.

I knew for a fact that some of my fellow CCOP members were giving as much as one-fifth of their disposable income already. I also knew that their were some CCOP members who were in the closet. To require loyalty to a vision without building a consensus on such, while also denigrating the very people from whom you demand loyalty was just downright disgusting to me. So I left CCOP, never to return.

This year’s presidential election cycle, particularly on the GOP/TPer side, seems to demand the same kind of blind loyalty that my former boss, potential boss, former dissertation advisor and former pastor all wanted from me or people like me. I learned a long time ago, though, that what people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want isn’t loyalty. They want lap dogs, people willing to overlook their own interests in order to help them achieve theirs.


The Human Race Addendum

August 13, 2012

Two years ago, I wrote a post about a curious observation I made about inequality, unfairness and humanity, all courtesy of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce (“Hard Work and the Human Race,” September ’10 – see below). In the thirty-four years since this observation, it’s fairly obvious that the great college football coach legend Barry Switzer was right about how people like Romney think about their station in life. “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his vice-president is a confirmation of the idea that there are folks in America who truly believe that their success came only as a result of hard work, luck and prayer. But to use a better analogy, it’s easy to be a winner when your born in middle of the fourth lap of a 400m race, while someone like me had to fight just to get in the starting block. Politically, Carter and Reagan was the spark for my understanding of economic inequality. Three and a half decades later, the Romney-Ryan ticket reflects the long and winding road this mythology of “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes” has taken our nation. Only, equal opportunities do not exist for most of us, as the track and field analogy illuminates.

===========================

When I was nine years old, my fourth grade teacher at Holmes, Mrs. Pierce — a grouch of an older White woman, really — talked about the human race and attempted to describe our species’ variations. She tried to do what we’d call a discussion of diversity now. It went over our heads, no doubt because she didn’t quite get the concept of diversity herself.

Holmes Elementary School, Mount Vernon, NY [Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce’s classroom in 1978-79 year], November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Like the fourth-grader I was, I daydreamed about the term, human race. I thought of Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, young and old, male and female, from all over the world, all on a starting line. It was as if four billion people — that was the world population in ’79 — were lined up to run a race to the top of the world. In my daydream, some were faster than others, or at least appeared to be, while others hobbled along on crutches and in wheelchairs. Still others crawled along, falling farther and farther behind those who were in the lead, the ones that looked like runners in the New York City marathon. Before I could ponder the daydream further, Mrs. Pierce yelled, “Wake up, Donald!.” as if I’d really been asleep.

A high school friend recently gave me some much-needed feedback on my Boy @ The Window manuscript. Her feedback was helpful and insightful, and very much appreciated. But some of it reminded me of the realities of having someone who’s a character in a story actually read that story. Their perceptions will never fully match up with those of the writer, which is what is so groovy and fascinating about writing in the first place.

One of the things that struck me as a thread in her comments — not to mention in so many conversations I’ve had with my students about race and socioeconomics — was the theme of individual hard work trumping all obstacles and circumstances. As if words, slights, and mindsets in the world around us don’t matter. As if poverty is merely a mirage, and bigotry, race and racism merely words on a page. Sure, a story such as the one I have told in this blog for the past three years is about overcoming roadblocks, especially the ones that we set ourselves up for in life, forget about the ones external to our own fears and doubts.

At the same time, I realized what my weird daydream from thirty-one years ago meant. Some people get a head start — or, in NASCAR terms, the pole — before the race even starts. That certainly doesn’t make what that individual accomplishes in life any less meaningful, but knowing that the person had an advantage that most others didn’t possess does provide perspective and illuminates how much distance the disadvantaged need to cover to make up ground. Those who limp and crawl and somehow are able to compete in this human race have also worked hard, likely at least as hard as those with a head start, and more than likely, harder than most human beings should ever have to work.

2009 London Marathon. (http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/)

Plus, there are intangibles that go with race, class and other variables that determines how the human race unfolds. “Good luck is where hard work meets opportunity,” at least according to former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso. Most human beings work hard, but all need opportunities that may provide a real sprint to catch up or take a lead in the human race. Family status, political influence, social and community networks, religious memberships, being in the right place at the right time, all matter and are connected to race and class, at least in the US.

The moral of this story is, hard work matters, individual accomplishment matters. Yet a panoramic view of the race in which humans are engaged matters more in putting our individual successes and the distance that remains in some reasonable perspective. Without that, we’re all just pretending that individual hard work is the only thing that matters, when that’s only half the battle, or half of half the battle.


Working With Wackos, Part 2

August 10, 2012

Daniel Craig in Layer Cake (2004), October 4, 2010. (http://www.guardian.co.uk).

This is the second of my two posts about my last summer working with a group of misfits and backstabbing micro-managers at the Mount Vernon Mental Health Clinic (as part of Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health) in ’92. I left off by talking about the decision I faced when the head of the clinic, Dr. Williams, wanted me to write a report that would implicate Johnstone as both an incompetent and capricious office manager. It would’ve been a report that would’ve led to Valerie Johnstone’s firing (see my “Working With Wackos, Part 1” post from last month).

Luckily I had the weekend before my last week at the job to think it through. I approached my task the same way I approached a research project. I interviewed my co-workers — at least in a way without them knowing that I was doing a formal interview — about their problems with Johnstone and about their refusal to learn the new computers and billing system for the office. I documented various incidents that I either experienced or witnessed in which Johnstone was far from professional. I even discussed the overall office dynamics and argued that they were the reason why the clinic had fallen behind twice in the past decade on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Medicaid and Medicare billing to New York State.

But I did more than that. I in fact put together two versions of the report. One version was specifically for Dr. Williams, one that could justify the demotion — if not the firing — of Johnstone. The other, much fuller version was one in which I made the case that Dr. Williams and Johnstone were both culpable as they created an unprofessional and chaotic atmosphere at the clinic.

The Things We Think And Do Not Say “Memo” from Jerry Maguire (1997), August 9, 2012. (http://theuncool.com).

I made the point in the second version that it wasn’t just their violent language and their nasty public and private arguments. Nor was it just their disappearances from the office for hours at a time or showing up hours late looking hung over. Their mercurial natures and their lack of respect for the office and each other had trickled down to the office staff. So much so that some summer office worker like myself had no chance of training staff on how to use a computer or a new billing system.

On my last day at work, Friday, July 31, I handed in version one to Dr. Williams, who was giddy with delight, and gave me a hug and a handshake. I left work early that day, and immediately took the 40 bus up to White Plains, to the main Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health on Post Road. I went to Bob Beane’s office (the department’s director), and dropped off version two of my report. Beane had already left for the weekend. I sneaked in and out that day, as I had worked at this office the summer and holiday season ’90, and I didn’t want questions from my one-time co-workers about why I was there.

The following Friday morning, as I got ready to walk from 616 to the Mount Vernon clinic to pick up my final summer paycheck, the phone rang. It was Beane on the other end of the phone, asking me questions about my report. He asked me how much of what was in it was true. “All of it,” I said. “I need you to come into the office so I ask you some more questions,” Beane said in response. Since I was already about to walk out the door, I hung up and went into my warp-factor-9-walk to find out what was going on (and to get my paycheck without a lot of fuss).

Heads Will Roll sculpture, Embarcadero Center #4, San Francisco, June 25, 2010. (http://artsysf.buzznet.com).

I walked into the equivalent of an emotional tsunami. One of my former co-workers was in tears, while another looked completely stunned. Beane pulled me into Johnstone’s office, and closed the door. I explained what had been going on at the office between Dr. Williams and Johnstone over the previous eight weeks, and likely over the previous three years. Beane paused, then told me what had occurred when he read my report earlier in the week. He decided to fire Dr. Williams, while he demoted Johnstone and moved her to the Yonkers clinic. Beane was in the process of meeting with my former co-workers to verify what was in my report.

After he apprised me, Beane handed me my final paycheck. Then he said, “Thank you. What you did here was very brave and very helpful. But you know you can’t work here again.”

“I know. I knew that when I gave you my report,” I said. Thus ended my career working for Westchester County government.


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