Lunchroom Intake at School Parent Night: A SSWN Memoir by Michael Kelly
Editor’s Note: From 1992-2006, I worked as a school social worker in the Chicago suburbs, before I finished my PhD and became a social work faculty member at Loyola Chicago School of Social Work. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir of my school social work practice years that I will be publishing on SSWN over the next year, talking about what it was like to do school-based family counseling at our school’s Parent Night. Happy School Social Work Week! Michael Kelly, SSWN Co-Editor
September 1995: School Happy Daze
It’s a mild September evening, and I am doing intake at a school lunch table. It’s Parent Night here at our school, and after the obligatory welcome from the school administration, the parents of our junior high students start to follow their child’s nine-period schedule. They look as harried and anxious navigating our massive building as their children did the first day of sixth grade. Some parents wisely enlist their middle schooler as their tour guide for the evening, and the fierce sullenness that marks so many preteens is replaced by a prideful gallop as they take their parents’ hands and say, “No mom, jeez, oh my God! THIS is the way to the lunchroom…”
“Lunchroom Intake” has become a yearly tradition for me. After going to their kids’ first few classes, the parents of our school break for refreshments during their child’s scheduled lunch period. I set up a table to greet parents and hear their concerns.
Inevitably new clients emerge. A soft-spoken mother approaches and asks me to see her son—he was just caught shoplifting and she thinks having a “man to talk with” might help. She gives me permission to talk to her son’s probation officer (I hand her a release of information to sign and bring back to me later that night), and I make a note to meet with her son, and then call a meeting with the family and the probation officer.
Clad in matching Chicago Bulls championship jackets, a Mexican-American mother and father fret about their 14-year old daughter’s continuing poor grades and wonder, “what can we do to get her to try harder?” We schedule a family session later that week to explore the problem further, also including one of her teachers that her parents say she really admires.
A stocky Italian-American father that I worked with two years ago nervously circles my part of the lunchroom for what seems like forever, avoiding making eye contact with me. Finally he comes up when nobody’s with me, and stammers out a bombshell: that he and his wife are finally separating after many years of fighting about their kids and his wife’s problem drinking. He tells me that he’s worried about how his 6th-grade daughter has responded to the news, as she is close to her mom, and “my daughter just worries about everything, even things she shouldn’t.” He asks me if we can meet with her together sometime so that he can talk the situation through with her.
I say yes to meeting, and to my surprise, he calls his daughter Jenny over. She has been sipping Hawaiian Punch and laughing with her two girlfriends. She bounces over to us and offers her dad some of her punch.
“Jenny, this is Mr. Kelly. He helped your brother Joe a few years ago and I want you and I to talk with him later tonight.” He looks more confident now than when he came over to see me.
Jenny briefly smiles at me, and then stares blankly at her dad and says with the practiced exasperation all 11-year olds have for their parents, “Duh dad, everybody knows Mr. Kelly. My friend Katie and her mom go to see him. Meeting later? Cool, whatever. Dad, we gotta get to the next class. See ya, Mr. Kelly.”
Her dad smiles and tells Jenny he’ll be right there. Then he turns to me and says, “thanks for being here.” I shake his hand and smile. “I mean it,” he says, and hurries on to catch up with his daughter and her friends.
I am a school social worker doing school-based family counseling in a junior high lunchroom, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.