Why I Became a Social Worker Instead of a Dolphin

6 years ago

March is Social Work Month. What? You didn't know this? C'mon. Surely you must be celebrating the profession responsible for removing children from their parents' custody and switching all of those babies around in hospitals.  I mean really, if you watched movies on Lifetime television, you would know what "real" social workers do.  And with that, I'm illustrating why we need a sarcasm font.  I don't often write about my "offline" life when I am in an "online" space, but I think it's time for me to talk about what I've been doing for the past twenty years.

I'm a professional social worker. I have a degree in it and everything. While it would be fairly simple to tell you that I went to college, then graduate school and then I became a social worker, it wasn't all that simple for me. I did not start out wanting to be a social worker. It was a little more complicated at first.

When I was 4, a friend of my mother's asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I answered earnestly and politely, "A dolphin."  Who could blame me? I thought dolphins were really awesome animals. Dolphins could swim. I loved swimming. Dolphins could do tricks in the water. I liked doing tricks in the water. Dolphins are mammals. I had recently learned I am a mammal. Besides, my favorite super hero, Aquaman communicated telepathically with sea creatures and the dolphins always seemed so willing to help. Dolphins seemed to be fun and have a playful attitude about life.  Dreaming I would someday move out of Brooklyn, and into the Atlantic ocean where I would live out my days as a dolphin, I proudly told anyone who asked, that I wanted to grow up and be a dolphin.

Initially my parents thought it was cute. However, as time marched on and I talked more seriously about living with Aquaman, my mom sat me down for a come to Moses meeting about my career aspiration.

"Devra, I understand you would like to grow up and be a dolphin. I know it means a lot to you, but it's only fair that I let you know something. You can't grow up and change species. You will always be human. This will not change as you age. I'm sorry."

Naturally I was devastated. Well, for about a day and a half, after all, I was young and my attention span was pretty short. So I switched gears as I entered school and set my sights on being a veterinarian.

So I switched gears, I entered elementary school and set my sights on becoming a veterinarian.  A veterinarian loves animals, and I love animals. So why not? Well, I'll tell you why not. A few years later our cat became very ill and had to be euthanized. This experience made me realize I did not have the heart to be That Veterinarian, the one who would inform people their beloved pet had to be put to sleep. Once again, I was on the lookout for a new job.

 “I’m named after a judge,” I thought, “I’ll grow up and be one of those.” As I went through middle school I had it in my mind I would first become a defense attorney, helping the underdogs navigate our expensive and complicated legal system. It seemed like a fairly big departure from switching to a different species or veterinary medical school, but given how my mother told the adolescent me how much I seemed to enjoy a good argument, I figured The Law might be a good place for me. I started looking into it more seriously as I made my way into high school.  As I started researching my new chosen profession, I came to understand it would take a helluva long time for me to become a judge. I also understood myself enough to know I am no really all that patient a person. Four years of college? Okay. But even more years of grad school and having to work as a public defender seemed like forever. I no longer had the conviction it would take to become a lawyer.

Given my roller coaster grades (yes, I was the poster girl for “Under Achievement and Not Applying Herself") and my lopsided SAT scores (Hello, 250 Math/780 Verbal, how you doin?) my high school guidance counselor suggested, “Pick a two year business college.” WHAT? That’s crazy talk. I did not want to wind up taking dictation. I didn’t even know what dictation was at the time, but according to what I saw on TV, it seemed like something I definitely would not like.  I began to think about what I wanted to study in college. Both of my parents were Ivy League professors, and while I found Sociology interesting, I knew I could not choose it as my major. I hunted around for a topic that I found interesting, settling on Anthropology.  I started to looking at schools with strong Anthro departments, feeling confident I would not be attending either of the universities where my parents were affiliated. It was safe, and accurate, to say I was not Ivy League Material.

Despite my roller coaster grades, and due to my new and improved Math SAT score (thank you Princeton Prep and Nigel The Tutor My Mother Hired During Her Summer Sabbatical In London) I was accepted into the University of Arizona, ranked at the time as third in the nation for their Anthropology program. During my time in Arizona I delved into different cultures, traveled extensively through Mexico (Cerveza may have also traveled extensively through me, but I digress), spent time on a Navajo Reservation and worked as a docent at the Arizona State Museum. All of these opportunities, in addition to my coursework, gave me the perspective that until you consider a person's culture, not just where they are "coming from, you will not be able to relate on any real level to anyone you may perceive as being different.  So I took this theory of mine along for a ride, married a German/Hispanic Air Force Officer and relocated to Louisiana. Talk about culture shock! It's a really good thing I had spent 4 years on Arizona slowing my Brooklyn roll.

While in Louisiana I was introduced to a woman who was a social worker. Frankly it had been years since I had thought about how my own grandmother had been a social worker, but admittedly I did not really know what she did.  I remember visiting my grandparents in Denver and my grandmother would take me to "go meet The Russians." Sometimes we would bring them clothing, other times we would go visit a construction site where she would talk to someone who looked, at least to me, like Baryshnikov in a hard hat. When I asked my grandmother why she visited the Russians, she told me it was "Mitzvah Work." A good deed. And back from my memory and sitting in Louisiana, I was listening to this woman speak about social work, and I thought about how I had worked in California for a year doing an internship at Planned Parenthood, offering resources and support. I then substitute taught for a year, figuring that if I were to become a school social worker someday, I needed to understand what students were experiencing at school. Particularly since I had been out of school for a while myself, and especially because I had not experienced going to school in Louisiana.   I earned my Master's Degree in Social Work from Grambling State University. Bet ya didn't know I'm a North American Jewish Tiger, did ya? I'm a pretty rare breed.

My experience at Grambling truly solidified my desire to be a social worker. Even the motto of the school, "Everybody is Somebody" underscores how I intrinsically feel about others. We all have value. Each of us is important in some way. And if your kid tells you she wants to grow up and be a dolphin? Social work is a really good second choice.


Credit Image: Loren Sztajer via Flickr