It’s the Thanksgiving holiday, and my sister is standing at the sink washing dishes. She asks me how it’s been in law school, after working. I say, “Well, I don’t have to worry if a 16-year-old girl is going to get killed tonight.” Raped at knifepoint. If I’ll get that 3am call. Spend the night in the hospital. What tragedy will find my phone line after the bodegas close?
I’m not stumbling out of my room after a long call, where we got a taxi to pick up one of our girls trying to escape from somewhere in the Bronx, and I stand at my wide living room windows with a glass of water after, looking at the city because it’s easiest to decompress by seeing that the world is still there. Calmly existing, like nothing has happened.
I’m not sitting in the intake room of the midtown youth shelter with a teenager, joking with her and helping her answer the questions when the tough intake worker drills her for the personal details. We got her one of the shelter’s 300 beds for homeless kids, a lucky night since they’re always full up, but she won’t sleep well because the other kids steal things, and she’s anxious. She hugs me really hard when I leave her, and I hold the tangle of tears in my chest with two bare, empty hands. I walk carrying the heavy emotion in my palms, like a careful gift I want to set gently on the counter in my apartment when I get back. I don’t want it to break. In the hallway of my building in Harlem, I listen to my footsteps in the wide hallways and harbor an angry gratitude for my own home.
I’m not in the empty drop-in center when everyone’s already left to go to the office Christmas party, helping one of my girls pack an overnight bag for the shelter because the holidays don’t mean the world starts being kind. A teenager I love, who is joyous and tough, packs matter-of-factly. One pair of pants, toiletries, essentials. Another night. I put her into a taxi and bend in to give the driver cash and an address before I head to the office party with sadness in my heart. My co-workers ask me if everything is OK when I get there; they understand. I nod and shake it off.
I am no longer armed to listen to young girls talk about nights in strip clubs, stints in adult prison, sex for shelter, violent pimps, fast car rides to other states, easy money, fear and tears, cycles through foster homes, gang violence, friends being killed in the streets every other night. I don’t go through the metal detectors of juvenile detention centers anymore, listen to the heavy metal doors slide locked and shut behind me, as I sit with girls enveloped by orange uniforms and try to bring brightness to the bleak rooms that buzz with a false luminescence. The light has to shine from inside me because I can’t carry anything in with me. The guards make me take off my scarf, always, and leave it in a locker. I once realized it was because they were afraid that one of these beautiful, terrified teenagers might use it to strangle me, or herself. The walls alone were my suffocation. I left the detention centers with steps that begged the sidewalks to free the children I loved.
I tell my sister at Thanksgiving, “I mean, I know those things are still happening, but it’s not my burden to bear right now.” Tonight, I don’t have to worry if a woman will be beat to death; it’s not on my watch. I am not making pajama kits for the weekend when more girls will be pulled from hotels in police raids and sent to shelters or prisons. This weekend, all I have to do is study. It’s nothing.
I feel free and grateful. Now, I only have to think about my study schedule, my commute.
My phone doesn’t ring with crisis calls. It’s easy to forget it ever did. But sometimes when my peers lament and complain, I feel the weight of every teenage girl who ever sobbed into my arm after a beating, after a rape, after another night on the street.
I feel the weightless ease of privilege, of being able to worry about nothing but learning.
Never have I had to work so hard to remind myself why I went back to school. I came to become a better advocate. An advocate for the vulnerable, hurt, and voiceless. I have to vigorously remind myself that I didn’t come to impress people. As the pressure mounts among my peers and myself to succeed, to shine, to surpass everyone else, I struggle to hold onto my heart, to hear the voices of those I came here for.
Late at night in a pile of law casebooks, I’m trying to remember the sound of a woman calling me when I’m volunteering on the domestic violence hotline, and I answer, and her voice quakes. The call comes in late in the cold and the quiet, and I sit in the rocking chair and rock as she talks. She calls every time at 10pm and talks about the same trauma. It’s a calm routine, needing to be heard, over and over again. Once for every time in twenty-five years of marriage that he beat her silent.
I’m listening to the elementary school teachers sit around after school and talk about the blonde second-grader who is being abused. They say quietly to me, “You know, we lost one last year.” A dead kid. I hear the 6th grader, who has bruises but always pulls down her weather-inappropriate long sleeves to cover them, say for the second week in a row that she fell.
I’m listening to the “dial 1 if you are a mandated reporter” where the recording of protective services is eerily routine, and the calls are second nature.
I’m still trying to hear the voices.
When I trained to become a domestic violence crisis hotline responder, the agency staff members called me twice in practice crisis calls to test me, and afterward, one staff told me I have a calm voice – the social worker voice—relaxed and comforting in crisis. I ease into crisis with steady reassurance.
My law school peers all say they’re scared of the one professor who yells when you’re not prepared for class. What scares me is violence and complacency. I remember the calm that takes over my body when someone else is in danger. When I start to feel afraid of being “cold called” in class, I chide myself: It didn’t scare me to stand between a 16-year-old and her pimp in the Bronx court waiting room when he stood up and called me “her fucking squad.” A classroom shouldn’t shake me.
In November, I am commiserating with the girl who sits behind me in torts about law school and what matters at the end of the day. The boy beside me says, “Grades don’t matter. It’s about being the best lawyer. That’s what matter.” I suggest, “Well, what matters is being a good person.” A good person first. The rest second. Who are you to the core?
I try to remember to send email updates to my advisor from social work school who always helps me remember what matters. He used to tell me about rural villages in China where trauma workers were sent to help after a series of disasters. The only village that recovered was the village where the person who was sent in didn’t know what he was doing, who was unprepared, so he asked the village to tell him what it needed to do to heal. The village said, “To heal, we dance.” So, they danced, and they healed. In the other villages, the experts came in with their own expert trauma care, and no one healed right.
Sometimes I wonder if I am over-training myself. Am I trying to be the expert when all I need to do is roll up my sleeves and say, how can I help? I got a social work degree. Not good enough. Getting a law degree, will that be good enough?
The stress in school is always palpable. Students are frenzied. I say over and over again to myself and to those who will listen, you don’t need a good grade to prove your worth. You need a heart.
Every night I remind myself that I have one, and that’s what’s important.
In the middle of exams, I make a mistake by reading the news on Friday night, avoiding the contracts flashcards piled around me. For an hour, I sit in my chair at my desk with tears streaming and streaming down my face. I was worried about an exam. An exam. About a point here or a point there. About proving to a professor that I matter. When Syria is burning and lives are falling apart. There I was that morning, worried if the coffee I drank with Advil would ease my stress and my headache in time to concentrate for the exam. And Syria burned. And climate talks in Paris continued. And someone was paying a teenager for sex. And someone was beating a woman up. And a child got shot.
My world now has stopped being about other people, and it’s both refreshing and horrifying. My social work degree was all I lived for – the trauma work I did, so crushing and frightening but so rewarding and life giving. There was never a day where I felt I didn’t matter or that I hadn’t been able to help somehow. That’s all secondary now, a mere passing memory or thought.
I feel grateful and free. Now, I worry about nothing but learning.
And lives go on falling apart, without me.
**some identifying details in this post changed for confidentiality