Phototropic; some of you may remember that word from your high school biology class. It is an adjective that means growing towards or away from light or taking a particular direction under the influence of light. I like this word and am thinking about it today in the context of human behavior. When I was in my mid-twenties, unmarried with no children, I decided to go through the interview and selection process for the Big Sister Program in Seattle. I was accepted and ended up being placed at The Ruth School for Girls ( aka The Ruth School for Incorrigible Girls) in Burien, WA. It was emphasized to me that this was going to be a challenging post, as no other Big Sister had lasted there longer than a few weeks. I was told that most of the girls ranged in age from 13 to 17 and that each had been judged in Juvenile Court to be “incorrigible.” I looked up the word incorrigible in my old red Webster’s Dictionary and found this: Incorrigible. (Of a person or their tendencies) not able to be corrected, improved, or reformed.
Wow. Ok–I decided I was up for the challenge. I was working at the time for the Highline School District as Assistant to the Art Director. My office was at the ERAC Building, the district headquarters, and I had access to any kind of art materials I wanted to borrow. Marie Dunstan, my supervisor, was fully supportive of my Big Sisterly endeavors and said I could use whatever I needed out of the leftover supplies area.
My first foray into the murky world of Ruth School was much less than optimal. I had gathered a selection of art materials and showed up at the school with a confident smile. I remember thinking, “Hey–I do not flap easily and I had always had a way with young people–how hard could this be?” I was shown by the Matron into a small, starkly furnished room with two old beaten up tables, around which were thirteen young women, each sitting in a green plastic chair giving me her version of the Suspicious Stink Eye. The matron introduced me and asked me to step out in the hall with her where she told me I had ten minutes to choose one girl to “Big Sister.” The unchosen girls would then be sent back to wait until another Big Sister came along. Well, that was one of the longest ten minutes of my life and it was filled with some serious snark and some big-lip attitude. What the program director did not tell me was that I was the only person who had agreed to this placement. A couple of the older girls told me that they had not had a Big Sister show up for over a year and that they had run the last one out in two weeks.
Fast forward three months… You have probably guessed that I did not choose just one girl. I went back in that room and asked those seated around the table if they had chosen to be there or was this something they were told they had to do; they had all chosen to come. I asked them why they came , since it did not look like they were very excited to be there and not too happy to have ME there for that matter. I asked them what they expected to happen during our weekly visits if I decided to stay and let them know I had plenty of art supplies for everybody who wanted to use them. I said that IF we mutually agreed that this was something that we would like to do, I expected everbody to show up every week, just like I planned on doing and if they missed two weeks in a row, they were done. No exceptions. I talked to the Matron, I talked to the Big Sister Program director and it was a done deal.
I showed up in that institutional looking room with the ratty furniture every week, bringing enough material for everyone. We “did art” and talked about many things together over the next six months; life, love, hairstyles, makeup, music and even books. My finest memory is watching those young women, girls who had survived physical, mental and sexual abuse along with drug addictions, sitting around that table absorbed in their art, listening to me as I read them A Girl of The Limberlost. Many of these girls had never had a story read aloud to them before. Ah, Yes. Those day were, as Dickens said, the best of times and the worst of times. There were times when I did not know if I could make it another week, as it was so hard to hear what these girls had been through in their short lives. There were also two of the older girls who never really did warm up completely and they could both pitch the stuff with the best of them.
OK, back to the word phototropic. I believe that these young women were waking up and responding to the light of patience, humor and simple kindnesses. I was just naïve enough to think that some leftover art supplies, my time and a couple of really good read-alouds could help mend these broken hearts and spirits. I have thought about these now-adult women many times over the years and wonder where they are and how their lives turned out. I will never know the answer but I do hope they can remember that time when they were valued for the very one they were in the moment. I never saw these young women as incorrigible. What was given to me that year was an incredible opportunity to learn about what Parker Palmer and Thomas Merton have called The Hidden Wholeness.; that unquenchable, resilient place inside us all.
Remembering this Mother’s Day that no act of nurturing kindness is ever wasted and that it ALL matters a very great deal.