The Ethic of Care, Part 4: On the Measurement of Care (and the Messiness of Humanity)

Part 4 in a 4 part series based on, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates.

In light of our obsession for measuring, quantifying, holding accountable…, consider:

One time I had to send a senior boy home from school. (We’ll call him by the pseudonym Jeff here.) I didn’t think there was much of a choice. He had been struggling with addiction issues and was strung out, irritable, argumentative, disruptive to everybody. He wasn’t having a very good day. I called his dad to come and get him.

It was no surprise that Jeff blew up as I walked him out to his car. He escalated, called me every name you could think of. He screamed that I didn’t care, I didn’t understand, I was an idiot. It went on and on, and was interspersed with every word my mother told me never to say.

I stayed calm. I didn’t react in kind. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking at that time- that, of course, his habits created this situation, he had to take responsibility, he was sick, he needed to get better. I didn’t react to his pain by adding to it. I didn’t add to his shame. This wasn’t easy- I was hurt. I was angry. But when Jeff finally got in the car with his befuddled father, I was proud of myself. I’m no hero- I can write lots of stories that wouldn’t put me in a positive light, and this certainly wasn’t much, but in a unique way I had cared for him at time when, despite his behavior, he really needed it. And at least this one time, in this one instance, that care was displayed by a lack of response to his anger, frustration and deep pain. I refrained from piling on. I acted from this care, rather than reacting from my own vulnerable, hurt ego.

A half hour later, Jeff called me sobbing, ashamed and apologetic.

Working with a great staff, we finally were able to help his family get Jeff into a full-time drug rehabilitation program.

Before he left, Jeff stopped by my office to give me a ceramic work that he had made. He just said, “I want you to have this.” He didn’t try to voice anything more, or he couldn’t, it was kind of like a dog bringing its owner the gift of a dead bird on a porch, unspoken but so loyal. After all we had been through together, it meant a lot to me. He knew I cared.

I keep it on my book shelf still.

Another time a student left a note on my desk.

“Dear Bill,
Love Liz no matter how much she pisses you off.

Words to live by.

Hard to test for.

You see, we work in the real world, with real students. Things are complex, people can be messy.

The poet, William Stafford, wrote in A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star….

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

The darkness around us right now is indeed deep. As educators in the trenches, we must be awake and be clear. There is no doubt that there is a pattern that others are making in an attempt to prevail, a pattern of those with money and institutional power, but not the power of experience of genuine care that we attempt to enact daily.

Let’s stay awake.


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