It took me quite some time after graduate school to find my first paid position as a speech pathologist. What didn’t take long was figuring out why my employer, an inner-city rehabilitation center, had used the word “unique” in their help-wanted ad. The majority of patients there were under 50, and missing at least one limb (due to complications from untreated diabetes). An overpowering stench permeated the building. But what really stood out was the volatility that hovered over every interaction. Outbursts were common, and the whole atmosphere was loud and unsettled. Early on, I was charged by a screaming, arm-flailing man because I had turned down his television set (never did that again!).
One day I sat across from a middle-aged, toothless man. We were working on his expressive language skills, including speech intelligibility, after a mugging had left him brain damaged. Just before our session, I had learned he would be heading to his mother’s house the next day.
“Are you excited about getting out of here?” I asked him. After all, I cried in my car every morning before walking into work, and assumed that actually having to stay there would be a horrible experience. But his answer surprised me.
“Oh, I hate to leave,” he told me. “The bed is so soft and clean. And the food is so good. I’ll be back on the streets soon, and I’ll be hungry again now.”
After we finished, I wished him well and then escaped into the dark back staircase, one of my regular hiding spots. I stood on my tip-toes so I could see out the cinder-block sized window, and I cried. But this time it was not because I was scared and overwhelmed, but because I hadn’t seen any goodness in this place before that. I had assumed this was the bottom – the worst case scenario. And that man’s words showed me how naive I was, and how much worse things could be.
Years later, I was teaching an introductory speech and language course at The University of Connecticut. I was my first college teaching experience, and I was very anxious for everything to go smoothly. When I walked into the building on the first day, I noticed a large group of students standing outside the classroom I’d been assigned to. I immediately panicked. It was an 8:00 a.m. class, and I didn’t have a key. I had no plan B! Then, I noticed a second door to the room, further down the hallway. I walked over to it, opened it, and went inside. The students followed behind me and the class proceeded. On the way home I laughed at how thin the line can be between student and teacher: the teacher is sometimes just the person who tries the second door!
It seems that where we are on life’s journey often determines our perspective. Don’t we all, at some point, feel like we’re at the bottom of the heap? During those times, all we can do is look up, and see others who have achieved what we had hoped to by now. But don’t forget, there are people behind you, wishing they were as far along as you are. Reach back with encouragement, and look forward in hope. Take some time to adjust your perspective: maybe where you are right now is where you are supposed to be.
So, appreciate what you have. But, don’t forget to look for that second door. It’s probably sitting there, unlocked, waiting for you.