The summer after my first year of social work school I worked at a camp outside of New York City. I had never worked with 5th and 6th graders before but I was eager for a job and happy to be working with kids. It was at this camp that I met a 5th grader named Paige. Paige was tall and lanky for her age. She had blue bug-like eyes that almost jugged out of her head. Her mouth was full of metal as she spoke rapidly about the things that 5th grade girls like to talk about. She was almost cartoonish; upon reflection I believe that she looked identical to the young girl superhero from The Incredibles. If you’ve never seen it then please google Elastigirl.
While to me Paige resembled a superhero, Paige perceived herself as having the opposite of magical powers. The week before camp started I had the unpleasant job of reading all of the notes that parents had written about their kids. Paige’s file stood out to me because her mother had written “is very hard on herself” and “could use a self-esteem boost” all over Paige’s file. Comments like these often resonate with me because they are rare. Parents of 5th graders usually write about their kid’s allergies and send them on their way. However, I did not come to fully understand the comments until I got to know Paige a little better, during the final weeks of the summer.
I suspect that the camp I worked at had stock in Mott’s because they served apple juice at least twice a day, during snack and at lunch. Inevitably one of the kids would pour apple juice all over themselves and the table during one or both of these meals. One day I was walking by Paige’s table as she accidentally poured apple juice on herself and a few other girls in her bunk. The other girls seemed to be over it pretty quickly but Paige began apologizing profusely and mumbling that she had ruined apple juice for everyone. She would not let it go and started bringing it up during random parts of the day. During kickball she said, “Remember when I ruined apple juice for everyone? I’m such a jerk.” While spinning pottery during arts and crafts Paige said, “The day is already over because I ruined apple juice for everyone, forever.” This was not a rare occurrence for Paige; she tended to get stuck on things and had trouble letting them go.
During an overnight camping trip Paige was the last person out of the tent while everyone was trying to pack up to leave the camping grounds. Her counselor asked her to make sure that everything was out of the tent before she left because she was the slowest person in the group. I remember hearing Paige sifting through the tent, looking in the tents pockets for things that campers may have forgotten. Then after a few minutes Paige came out of the tent with a juice box in her hand, looking horrified. She said, “If I didn’t ruin apple juice for everyone already, I sure as heck did now.” None of the girls paid her any attention. It became clear that the only person Paige ruined apple juice for was herself.
My own worries and obsessiveness mirrors that of Paige. However, instead of thinking that I ruined apple juice for everyone I become obsessed with comments I make to my friends. I mull over these comments for days and beat myself up over them, only to find out that my friends didn’t remember what I said or didn’t take offense to it.
It wasn’t until months after the summer ended that I began thinking about Paige. I imagined running into her and her mother on the Subway platform or on the Upper East Side. I imagined what I would say to her, things that I wished people would say to me. These imaginary conversations didn’t have words but rather warm feelings and were followed by a sense of understanding. I didn’t have words during these imaginary encounters because I was too deeply into my own worries to say what Paige needed to hear. Or maybe I didn’t have the words to talk to Paige on the imaginary Subway platform because I hadn’t yet told them to myself. Nevertheless, I knew the end result in my fantasy but didn’t know how to get there.
Through my experiences in my last year of social work school I am working on the words to say to Paige and myself. These days I am more mindful of my worries and obsessive thoughts. I can manage them better and keep them in check. Sometimes I wonder if Paige has, or if she’ll ever find salvation from her worries. Maybe one day I’ll work with Paige in another setting or maybe I’ll never see her again. I realize now that until I handled the Paige in me, I couldn’t help the real Paige. And I hope to have the opportunity to work with a kid like Paige again. Kids that are cool and funny and smart and a little neurotic, because with every passing Paige there is an opportunity for me to grow as a social worker and person.