At the end of last week, Ashleigh and I brought home a new car for me to zip around town in. It is replacing my Toyota Sienna, which was turned into a heap of twisted metal thanks to a Ford F150 that didn’t believe in stoplights. A new car, therefore, meant that I had the exciting task of outfitting my new Subaru Impreza, a task that included trying to fit a van’s worth of stuff into a car. Some things stayed, and some things had to go. There is one item, however, that will always have a place in any car I own. It was something I made sure to grab as I was crawling out of the wreckage of my van, because it was, truly, the most important thing to me in my van. It is also the item that receives the most quizzical looks from passengers, and often is the catalyst for this question: “Uhm, Terry? What is that mess of pipe cleaners doing hanging from your rearview mirror?”
Well, let me tell you.
When I was attending Kalamazoo College, I served as president of a fledgling student organization called Men Against Gender Violence. We weren’t much. In fact, a lot of the time I was pretty confident I was the only member. Despite my efforts, I had a terrible time recruiting members, and by the end of my sophomore hadn’t felt like I had really contributed anything to helping other men learn about gender violence, nor was I actually solving any problems. I wanted to actually “do” something. So, I headed to K’s career services department, and found an internship with the YWCA Domestic Assault Shelter in Kalamazoo working with their children’s coordinator. For that following summer, I spent about 20-25 hours a week there, splitting time working with K’s Facilities Management cleaning bricks all summer (the internship didn’t pay, cleaning bricks did).
I learned more about the world that summer then at any other moment in my life. It was definitely one of the most valuable experiences I had during my time at K. It was a difficult work experience, particularly as a male: this was a DV shelter, full of women who had been abused by their male partners, and packed with their children. Security was tight. I had to be announced over the PA whenever I got there, because there were rarely men on the premises (“Attention Ladies, there is a MAN on the floor” – we got that changed to “Terry is here!” after I expressed that the previous statement didn’t exactly make me feel like part of the community. It was a new experience for all of us). Once the residents got used to me, though, things went very smoothly. I was welcomed into the shelter with open arms.
My primary role was to work with the children. I spent a lot of time in the playroom, organizing field trips for the kids and events at the shelter. We tried to do whatever we could to make their time there a happy experience. It was also a chance to give the mothers a little break: the model was set up so that these women could be empowered to support themselves and their children on their own. This meant they needed time for counseling, financial and job search help, and to locate a new place to live. The primary reason women return to their husbands is because of an economic dependence, and the fear that their children wouldn’t be supported financially if they left. The shelter’s objective was to make sure they left the shelter with more options and a plan, and that took time.
I also sat in mother’s groups with the children’s coordinator, did group children counseling, and also worked with some of the boys one-on-one. This was the hardest part of the job. I remember listening to an 11 year old boy tell me about the time he defended his mother from her boyfriend. Her boyfriend who was wielding a kitchen knife. It became abundantly clear to me that the children I was working with had more life experience than I probably would ever have. I remember working with mothers who had been dealt every raw deal in the book, yet were continuing to fight for themselves and their children. I remember an 18 year old mother of five, who was determined to get her family to North Carolina, where she would become a registered nurse. These were strong women, and they had strong children. It was my job to help these kids get ready for these changes, and, particularly as a man, give them a glimpse of what a positive male figure looks like. It was everything I had hoped for in an internship experience: every day I felt like I was making an impact.
There were certain kids who made an impression on me. The boy who defended his mother was one. We spent a lot of time together, and I hope I helped him be a kid: his mother treated him like the man of the house, and he carried a lot of responsibility for being eleven. Another was the youngest daughter of the woman moving to North Carolina, who was a year old. She was adorable, and when I first met her, was told that she was afraid of men. By the end of my summer, she lit up whenever she saw me (to be honest, I lit up, too). I always wonder where she is and how her life turned out; I have a framed photo of her and I playing that I treasure. Another was a little girl who was a bundle of energy. She and I developed a special friendship, born through a trip to the beach. We became “swimming buddies” that day. She had an infectious personality: usually cheerful, energetic, and up for tackling any challenge. She also liked to speak her mind, and got upset when things didn’t go her way.
One day, I showed up at the shelter and was presented with a gift from my Swimming Buddy: a chain of pipe cleaners. It was more than just that, however, as she explained: “This is a necklace I made for you. You have to wear it at all times”. With most kids, you’d think you could nod and say, “of course, I will always wear it”, but I had trouble lying to these children. They’d been lied to plenty all ready, and for me to lie, even about something as small as this, didn’t feel right. Plus, I’d get caught: I’d have to wear this necklace for the rest of the summer. With that said, I also couldn’t very well wear a pipe cleaner necklace for the rest of my life. So, using my slick negotiating skills, I made a counter offer. “How about my car wears it at all times?” I suggested. “That way I can always remember our trip to the beach whenever I’m driving.” My swimming buddy was immediately pleased: anything that would plaster the memory of our trip to the beach in my mind was alright with her. We shook on it. The deal was done.
That was three cars and nine years ago, and the necklace has been attached to my mirror ever since. I see it every day when I go to work, to the gym, or to run an errand. It dangles from the mirror when I take trips. It has served as a wonderful conversation starter (particularly on a first date with a certain girl I’m currently engaged to marry: “I used to work with kids at a DV shelter” is a good way to start a date). It encouraged me to get involved in Sexual Assault Prevention at Michigan State University during graduate school. But most importantly, it reminds me of a promise that I made to a little girl whose life was in a tough spot. The simple promise was to keep a string of pipe cleaners attached to my car mirror, but the bigger promise was to never forget. To never forget that there are always people who need help. To never forget that there are terrible things that happen in this world, and that I have a role to play in solving them. To never forget that I am a fortunate, lucky, privileged man who has a responsibility and the power to make the world a better place, even if that is just keeping a promise to a six year old, or helping make someone smile. So, every day, when I get into my car, I’m reminded that I made a promise to a little girl to make sure that I do something good that day.