Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

In 1985, I accepted a job as a Human Resource Technician, Sr., at a mental health center in South Georgia. My job was to meet with mental health clients and make an assessment as to how they were doing on their current regimen of medication. There were four of us at the mental health center; a woman who served as the center director, a woman who provided day treatment activities, a woman who performed secretarial duties and me. All three of my co-workers were natives of the small South Georgia town.

On Tuesdays of each week, I conducted intake appointments with brand new clients. Theoretically, we had an M.D. on staff, but in truth we had a retired, hard-of-hearing, elderly doctor (age 91), who really depended on us to diagnose and determine starting dosages of the psychotropic medicines available at that time.

I had a great big Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) on my desk, along with a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). I was given a list of the most common psychotropic drugs and told how to determine starting dosages for the most common mental disorders. I would meet with a client and run through a barrage of questions designed to determine what their problem was. Sometimes I had a little information before I met with them. (“Johnny exposes himself to the grocery clerks at the Piggly Wiggly. He says Jesus tells him to do it.”) Sometimes I didn’t know a thing.

After I had met with the client, I would go to see the doctor. I would present the information I knew, in a very loud voice, along with a suggested diagnosis and a suggested medication and starting dosage. The doctor would say, “That sounds fine”, and then he would sign my case notes in the client’s file and sign the prescription that I had written up.

All of this seemed very reasonable to me. Years later, when I was working on my graduate degree, I realized that I could have killed someone, or that a misdiagnosis or an inadequate dosage could have caused the client to go do something terrible, which could have caused harm to someone or to themselves. But I didn’t think about any of that at the time. I was just following directives given to me by the director. It didn’t occur to me that she might be being stupid herself. She was a LOT older than me and had been working in the mental health field for a long time. She seemed very confident in my abilities and I stupidly allowed her confidence to persuade me that all of this was quite normal.

I was so unconcerned about what I was doing that if I had talked about my 15 months working there any time within the first two years following my departure, I would not even have mentioned the fact that I was diagnosing patients without the benefit of any training beyond a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. No, what I would have talked about is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

You see, the three women I worked with at the mental health center all used the N-word with ease. To them, all African-Americans were called the N-word without hesitation. They weren’t angry or being combative when they used the word. That was just what they called people who were African-American.

My parents raised their children to believe in the equality of the races. They worked very hard to ensure that we understood the importance of race relations and they made sure that they taught us to be keenly aware of racism and the insidious nature of inequality. By the time I was working at this mental health center, I had lived in North Carolina, Japan, Massachusetts and Georgia. I had spent quite a bit of time in Virginia as well. I had seen racism and I had heard people say shocking things and I had seen people do shocking things.

But these three women purported to be professionals in the field of mental health. So I was shocked! I made a critical error when I spoke up about how I felt. I specifically asked that they not use the N-word around me ever again. I said that I was deeply offended and would appreciate their cooperation. But they saw me for the unarmed, inexperienced woman that I was. My request simply incited them to do everything in their power to annoy and offend me.

That brings me to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday of 1987. My boss told me that although that Monday was a holiday, that they would all three be coming to work and that I needed to be there too because it was a stupid thing to be taking a day off to celebrate the birthday of that n!&&@$. The other two women laughed when my boss said this to me. I summoned up enough courage to say that I would not be in and not to look for me. They harassed me up until the minute I left the office that Friday afternoon. “See you Monday!”, one of them yelled out as I exited the building. I could hear them laughing behind me.

Like I had on so many other days, I went home and cried on my husband’s shoulder. I was five months pregnant with my son and I’m sure my hormones were a wreck, but the situation created enormous stress. I would cry and cry when I got home. Then we would fix dinner, eat, watch TV, and then go to bed. I would wake up during the night and cry some more. This pattern continued for the entire length of my pregnancy.

I didn’t go to work on that Monday. Instead, I attended the MLK Day event at a local university. The speakers focused on perseverance and doing right and God’s expectation that we treat each other with dignity and respect. Sitting in that auditorium, in the midst of men and women who were celebrating justice and good, I felt so empowered and comforted. My battle was such a small one. I knew that I would survive and that things would get better for me.

Things did get better. My healthy son was born three weeks early in April. I used all of my sick leave and all of my vacation time. Then I quit. I was never so happy to leave a job, before or since! Within the next six months, I started a new job at that same local university where I had attended the MLK event. I would be working with high school students, many of whom would go on to be the first in their family to go to college. Those students lifted my heart almost every day. Many are still my friends today.

So, for me, MLK Day is symbolic of embracing the lessons of the past, both small and global, and letting my heart be filled again with the hope that there will be better days ahead. This lesson never ceases to be fresh for me. I need to learn it over and over again! So I thank Martin Luther King, Jr., for teaching that lesson to me. Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Gwendolyn Brooks

A man went forth with gifts.

He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was a warm music.

He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
reading the world.

His Dream still wishes to anoint
the barricades of faith and of control.

His word still burns the center of the sun,
above the thousands and the
hundred thousands.

The word was Justice. It was spoken.

So it shall be spoken.
So it shall be done.

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