How To Be

There is something I think about daily, as an advocate for the poor, as a mother and now as a grandmother.  Who teaches us “how to be”?  And how does that happen?

When I was raising my sons, I had to teach them how to drink through a straw, how to blow their noses, how to take a shower, and so on.  I don’t remember being taught those things, but obviously I was.  So these basics must come from the people who raise us.  But what if those people never learned these basic skills?

My kids did not know how to call a friend to invite him or her to play.  I had to teach them to start off by saying, “Hi, this is XXXX (his name).  Would you like to come over and play?”  Otherwise they would call and issue the invitation without ever identifying themselves.  It did not occur to them that that was necessary, because THEY knew who they were.  This fascinated me because I did not think of talking on the phone as a skill to be taught, but it was.

Now along comes the grandson.  Watching him learn things has been the most fun ever.  Apparently he was born knowing how to use a straw, because no one ever had to teach him.  He doesn’t know how to blow his nose yet, but he can wipe it with a tissue.  Lately I have been letting him feed himself yogurt out of the little container, using a tiny spoon.  He would take a giant spoonful that dripped all over, so I tried to show him what “a little bit” means.  I took his hand and tapped the side of the yogurt container with the spoon so that the excess yogurt would fall back into the container.  Then I said, “Good!  That’s a little bit!” and he would eat it.  We’ve been doing this each Friday for weeks.  I had no expectation that he would learn this, because what toddler doesn’t want the biggest spoonful of anything yummy?  But last Friday, he spontaneously tapped his spoon and fed himself just a little bit each time.  This isn’t the world’s most essential life skill, but I got to watch the light bulb go off in his head, and now he OWNS that skill.

This process of how each of us learns these things perplexes me, because so many of my clients do not know “how to be.”  I had one client who needed an appointment with a psychiatrist, so she would have medical documentation of her illness to win her case.  I explained the importance of this to her.  Several weeks later, I met with her to find out how the doctor visit went. “I didn’t get an appointment,” she said.  “WHAT?” I said, ready to jump into my attorney costume and sue the Medicaid system for denying medically necessary treatment to my client.  It turned out that every time she called the doctor, an answering machine answered.  She did not know how to leave a message.  She kept calling, day after day, hoping that the doctor would answer his own phone so she could make an appointment.

Who teaches us how to leave a phone message?  What happens to people who are not taught this seemingly minor, but really quite essential skill?  So many clients call my office but do not leave a message.  Our system allows me to see the missed calls.  About a month ago, with the intent of encouraging them not to be so intimidated, I changed my message to say, “It’s really important that you leave a message.  If you do not leave me a message, I won’t be able to help you.  PLEASE just state your name and phone number and I will call you back.”  I’m still getting lots of missed calls.

I don’t blame the clients.  I blame a world in which children are raised by parents who are so impoverished – socially, intellectually, culturally – that they cannot (not “will not”) teach their children these basic skills.  What are the implications for people’s future in the work force if they don’t know that they should call their place of work to say, “I am sick and I can’t come in today”?  They simply do not show up and then they get fired.  When they get fired, their public benefits are taken away as well.  The law says cash recipients cannot remain eligible for benefits if they lose a job, unless there is “good cause.”  No one knows what “good cause” means, except legal aid lawyers.

At least we now have the so-called “Obamaphone,” which gives a phone and 250 free cellphone minutes a month to welfare recipients.  Before that, people applied for jobs or tried to leave messages to make doctor appointments but had NO PHONES with which to receive a call back.  How do you get a job if no one can call you to invite you to an interview?

I continue to wonder, with some despair, how our society can ever begin to provide all of us with an equal shot at success, starting with the most basic of life skills:  personal cleanliness, how much to put on our spoons, and the ability to leave a phone message.


2 thoughts on “How To Be

  1. I am constantly overwhelmed and humbled by how much there is to consciously teach… our children, our students, our employees. It is also so much more than I think we had to face as kids. Even a simple phone call is no longer seven numbers. First you unlock the phone, find the call icon, press the dialpad icon, press nine or ten numbers, and then send! Yikes!


    1. Yes, it is overwhelming. What about for people who don’t speak the language or who don’t have graduate degrees???? And beyond the mechanics of making a call or leaving a message — manners, customs, appropriate dress and proper behavior in all the different settings of our lives. I used to tell my kids that if they cursed around the house or with their friends, it would become a habit, and then they would one day forget where they were and curse at the principal! They thought that was so hilarious and outlandish, but I did not, and I still don’t. We are many different selves — who teaches us which one to be when?


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