Tag Archives: Through a glass darkly

Through a Glass Darkly: Unequal opportunity and invisible scholars

By Shannon Hodges October 20, 2014

One of the criticisms I have noted during my regular overseas travels is that a number of cultures view Americans as overly idealistic. A steady diet of fairy tale conclusions, Hollywood films and “reality” TV seem to set many Americans up for serial disappointment.

I’ve lost track of the number of times a student, a client or simply someone on the street has professed “You can do anything you want.” Certainly hard work and a good attitude can take one far, but parameters are a reality. (Sorry, but hard work seldom makes you rich.) Political candidates play on this theme of golden opportunity, often espousing unrealistic goals. Students generously meriting a B-minus are furious they didn’t get an A-plus, and college rankings tout the supposedly “best” schools, all of which are ridiculously expensive and chock-full of highly privileged students. The CommunityCollegecommon denominator in these societal myths and ersatz rankings is a Horatio Alger-like philosophy that “everyone who wants to can succeed, and if you don’t, it’s your own fault.”

Of course I’m overgeneralizing somewhat, but the have-nots know all too well of society’s callous indifference. “Poor? Well, you deserve it” seems to go another mantra. Never mind the stark realities and stacked odds against those lottery losers born into impoverishment.

When I think about it, we appear obsessed with positive outliers. This is reflected in numerous examples: a multibillion dollar cosmetics industry, plastic surgery, expensive SAT/ACT test prep courses and colleges willing to say anything to attract students. But how is one to manage the harsh reality that eventually the bill comes due? After all, the hardest-working people often are among the poorest, and studying at elite colleges often leads to crushing debt — with no brighter occupational prospects than graduates from more pedestrian institutions have.


In the shadow of the ivory tower

Nineteen years ago I taught general psychology at a community college. My students were an amalgamation of ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. Most were high school graduates, others dropouts, with a couple having served a stretch in prison. The commonality was that all my students hailed from the lower socioeconomic caste and sought a better life through the vehicle of education. Sadly, the statistics on community college attrition, another correlate of lower socioeconomic status, are demoralizing. A college education, long a freeway to the middle class, has too often been a cul-de-sac for students in the community college system.

While some of my more promising community college pupils possibly matriculated to four-year institutions, most were severely underprepared for college work. Few knew how to construct a grammatically correct sentence, to say nothing of writing according to the style guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.

Some were painfully clueless. One student stopped me after the first class wondering whether she was in the wrong general psychology section. “Your name is Hodges, but the schedule says my instructor is Staff,” she said, concern lines etched across her brow. (She was serious!)

An assignment required students to critique a journal article. In the syllabus, I had listed the parameters and provided a list of possible academic journals available in the college library. Yet one student critiqued a National Enquirer story — if heaping praise on a UFO-type story could be termed a critique — and couldn’t fathom why that periodical didn’t fulfill the requirement.

Still, the majority of the students were eager-to-please types, at least once they shed their façade of false bravado. As I became more familiar with these students, my empathy for them increased exponentially. One lived out of an old station wagon. Another worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store, never missing a class despite coming off shift bereft of sleep. A single parent with children from several different men worked diligently, bolstering her GPA in hopes of gaining admission to the college’s nursing program. Practically all (roughly 30 in both classes) were likable people whose misfortune was being born on the wrong side of the socioeconomic demilitarized zone.

I won’t stretch credulity by promoting all as hardworking, diligent students. Some scarcely cracked their text, and the excuses from a couple for missing an exam were downright ludicrous. One, notorious for his dying uncle story, seemingly had his poor relation succumb each semester, only to resurrect, expire and need reburying.

Candles in the darkness

A select few, however, seemed positively heroic, including the homeless student, the convenience store clerk/scholar and the nurse aspirant. Another memorable example was a 30-something man in recovery (successfully) for alcohol use. His dream was to become an addiction counselor and help people like himself. Because I was a counselor and director of the local mental health clinic, he often sought me out.

“Practically everyone in my family’s an addict,” he confessed over stale coffee during my ersatz office hours in the cafeteria. When I inquired how he was able to beat the odds, he replied in a matter-of-fact manner, “God woke me up, of course” — as if everyone should know this.

But the student I recall best was a twice divorced, middle-aged woman holding down two jobs, one of which involved bartending at a dive tavern serving a rough clientele. I’ll call her “Mary.” General psychology was the last course she needed for her associate degree, a significant accomplishment given that no member of her family had ever earned any type of college degree. She wasn’t the “best” student in the scholastic sense, but she attended every class and, diligent as a church deaconess, habitually claimed a front-row seat. Mary was always the first to raise her hand to answer questions, although her enthusiasm far exceeded her precision.

Mary was the type of student who never would win awards or acclaim or draw much attention outside of her immediate circle. Yet there was much pathos in this working-class woman’s quixotic pedagogic pursuit. Born into multigenerational poverty, like too many others she became pregnant in her teens, married an abusive addict and dropped out of high school. At some point after her second abuser left, she earned her GED and matriculated to the community college. Her meandering scholastic path involved passing some courses, failing and retaking others, all while juggling long work hours and caring for her kids. “I love learning,” she offered without guile when I inquired what kept her going.

During the term, Mary faced yet another life crisis. My mind is now foggy on the details, but she called me in tears one afternoon, something about an adult son arrested for drugs and no resources for bail. Stretched perilously thin between work and school, financially and emotionally, she was frantically working to pass the course and participate in the graduation ceremony. Listening as empathically as possible during her rambling monologue, I made a referral to a counselor in our mental health clinic and put her in touch with Legal Aid. Meanwhile, the final exam loomed large as a great white trolling shallow water.

Two weeks before the final, she sought me out after class, desperately seeking advice beyond the trite “reread the chapters and study hard” mantra. I offered a review session, but her dual work schedules made this impossible. So I suggested she call me anytime she had questions (this was before the days when email was common). She took me up on my offer, calling each night during idle moments at the tavern!

The week of the exam, I noted the sheer exhaustion on Mary’s face. Due to unexpected staff changes, she was pulling double shifts at the bar. Concerned, though lacking constructive ideas, I asked how I might be helpful. Shaking her head ruefully, she thanked me for all my help. That night, she didn’t call. No call the following night either. The evening before the exam, the clock hit 9 and again no call. Apprehensive, I decided to call her, then realized that despite all the times we’d spoken, I didn’t have her phone number.

With no other option, I reluctantly drove to the tavern where Mary worked. The watering hole had a reputation as a low-end, seedy dive for serious drinkers, with the occasional brawl tossed in for entertainment. As I crossed the threshold of the dimly lit establishment, rough-looking men and women gave me a cursory glare before returned to drinking or billiards. Mary stood behind the bar expertly working the taps, textbook in hand. Upon glimpsing me, utter shock registered on her face.

I could sense her patrons’ rapierlike eyes on me, and fear crept up my spine as the bar went silent as a funeral home. I’d like to say that undaunted, I went forth like a modern-day Childe Roland to the Dark Tower. Frankly, however, I lacked the courage to turn and face such animus. Suddenly, it dawned on me that Mary’s world was as alien to me as my world was to her. The difference was that each day she took the risk, crossing over that invisible though ever-present social class Checkpoint Charlie.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. Feeling awkward, I stammered out my offer to review the exam. Shaking her head, Mary chuckled, then withdrew her textbook from underneath the bar area. “It’s OK,” she said to her customers, breaking the tension. I occupied a vacant stool, accepted a pint of Pabst on the house and began reviewing course material.

Mary explained that each night, she would reread the chapters in the murky light, frequently consulting flash cards between refilling customers’ drinks. Surprisingly, at least to my middle-class sensibilities, most of the punters accepted me. One even patted me on the shoulder in approval, rough paw as huge as a grizzly’s.


The ends and the means

I like to consider both education and counseling as lifeline occupations — professionals pulling unfortunates from the wreckage of self-destruction, while patched up clients and graduates venture forth with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose. Clearly, my philosophy is ideal at best and naïve at worst.

Fortunately, Mary’s story had a happy ending as she passed the final and walked through graduation, head held high as any Ivy Leaguer. Soon thereafter, I moved from the area and, unfortunately, do not know Mary’s continuing story. What I do know is that in all my years as a counselor and educator, never have I seen a love of learning so manifest in one individual. No, she wasn’t the type of student profiled in glossy magazine pages or an alumnus for whom buildings are named. But I often think of her as a raving success and a far better exemplar of transformative education than all the magna cum laude graduates from the “best colleges.”

As a professor of counselor education, I have met many intellectually gifted people, including some who have earned prestigious awards and often are seated at places of honor during banquets. But if I could choose to hand out awards, the Marys of the world would be my honorees. Unfortunately, the best I am able to do is my marginal prose.



Shannon Hodges is a licensed mental health counselor and associate professor of counseling at Niagara University. He writes the “Through a Glass Darkly” column exclusively for CT Online.


Through a Glass Darkly: Reparative therapy and the politics of counseling

By Shannon Hodges July 10, 2014

Recently, some 10,000 attendees gathered at the Texas Republican Convention to endorse a platform for the 2014 midterm election. The platform made national headlines for endorsing reparative therapy for gay people. Supporters of reparative or “conversion” therapy believe the treatment effective in turning gay people straight despite not a shred of evidence backing their claim. The point person promoting conversion therapy is Cathie Adams, president of the LGBTconservative Texas Eagle Forum. “Nothing is mandatory,” Adams wrote to CNN. “If a person chooses [conversion] counseling, then it should be made available. … It’s a freedom issue.”

Now I’m not surprised that the staunchly conservative Texas Eagle Forum is promoting reparative therapy. While I’m very disappointed the Texas GOP’s platform includes conversion therapy, that’s hardly an unforeseen occurrence given conservative political rhetoric. As a former Southerner long transplanted north of the Mason-Dixon DMZ, I’ve sadly been conditioned to expect Neanderthal Southern politics. I do not mean to paint everyone from the South with the broad brush of reactionary politics, but the Tea Party, voter suppression, anti-immigration initiatives and now conversion therapy thrive in fertile Dixie soil.

In fairness to Republican counselors, let me acknowledge that Democrats have plenty of human rights “sins” to atone for as well. Let’s never forget the 100 years of oppressive Jim Crow laws heavily aided by Dixiecrat politicians, including former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the poster boy for white supremacy. Nor should we forget that Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act or that Hillary only recently came out in support of gay marriage. The pendulum of bias currently swings toward Republican culpability, but Democrats retain a pall over their own house.


Timing is everything

As I was growing up in the rural South in the 1960s and 1970s, politics was literally framed in terms of black and white. Race dominated every public discussion, with Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy pushing integration, while George Wallace, Lester Maddox and practically every other Southern politician pushing back with segregation. Even after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, racist politicians fought integration with riot police, fire hoses, attack dogs and their shadow organization — the Ku Klux Klan.

Fast forward to the present, and although economic segregation is still alive and well, few Southerners are surprised that African Americans serve as mayors, congressional representatives, governors — even president. There has been a level of racial acceptance on the part of most Southerners that people of my era find astonishing.

In no way, however, do I espouse that the United States or the South is today race blind. Just try and get an open discussion going on race in a classroom, in the work setting or among peers. Race remains a sensitive issue and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. The sensitivity is generally less volatile though, as evidenced by the absence of the type of political rhetoric and brutal suppression witnessed through the end of the 1960s. Vestiges of racial politics, generally in the form of anti-immigration bills and voter suppression, both targeting African Americans and Latinos, certainly remain. But few politicians and political action organizations dare openly express racial hostility — just ask former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who a few years back was forced out as Senate minority leader over racist language.

The human rights focus has now shifted to sexual orientation, an issue absent from the civil rights era radar screen, and activists, religious and social organizations, and of course politicians, have rushed to do battle, particularly regarding matrimony.


Changing times and shifting public opinion

Same-sex marriage became a reality in 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that it was unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution to allow only heterosexuals to wed. Currently, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized gay marriage, while judges in another 12 states have issued rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.

The latest Gallup Poll indicates public support for same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high of 55 percent, and more significantly, nearly 80 percent of millennials approve. Conservative religious organizations such as the Eagle Forum have pushed back, promoting “defense of marriage”-type legislation and now conversion therapy.

The counseling profession has a front row seat to the broader debate on sexual orientation. Ward v. Wilbanks and Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley are two high-profile court cases brought by student plaintiffs dismissed from graduate counseling programs for refusing to counsel gay clients. The results of these cases have spurred conservative activists to push “legislation of conscience” (i.e., discrimination on religious grounds) in state legislatures. Arizona recently passed legislation prohibiting graduate counseling, psychology, social work and other programs from compelling students to counsel gays and lesbians if such actions violate their religious beliefs. These initiatives are all being conducted under the guise of “freedom,” but make no mistake — they are ugly, old-fashioned, discriminatory practices gussied up with “mom and American pie” makeup.

Just imagine that a student in a counseling program who refused to counsel a Christian, claiming it violated his religious beliefs, was dismissed a la Julea Ward, then filed suit. Does anyone really believe the likes of the Eagle Forum would champion the student’s cause? Would conservative politicians push “free choice” legislation that supported refusing services to Christians? Ridiculous straw-man rhetoric, you might say, but frankly, it is not inherently different than the anti-gay agenda currently being pursued in several states.


What is our role as counselors?

The debates, debacles and battle skirmishes regarding sexual orientation are in full throttle in the workplace, legislative halls, pulpits and universities. Our professional ethics are clear, as sexual orientation has been part of the American Counseling Association’s nondiscrimination clause for some time, and counselor referral based solely on the grounds of sexual orientation represents a breach of the ACA Code of Ethics. ACA’s stance supports the right of LBGT persons to marry, adopt children and not be fired from a job over sexual orientation. It also implies that counselors should be as upset over sexual discrimination as over racial discrimination.

That stance is a controversial one for some students and counselors. The chair of the ACA Ethics Revision Task Force has suggested that counselors “bracket” their values during counseling. Thus, an evangelical counselor, for example, would set aside his or her own biases and focus on the client’s issues when counseling a gay person. Bracketing is not synonymous with acceptance. Said counselor could continue to believe that “homosexuality is morally wrong,” but as long as the counselor refrains from discrimination during counseling, he or she would be operating within ethical parameters.

Many readers likely are disturbed by that last sentence. Admittedly, the bracketing approach is a pragmatic as opposed to moral strategy, providing the advantage of sidestepping religious convictions. Still, in my opinion, bracketing does miss the finer points of counselor consciousness.

Undergirding the bracketing practice is the foundation of tolerance. Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has helped establish a “Wall of Tolerance.” Tolerance is a not a bad concept per se, but it has a fundamental flaw. For instance, I have tolerated my toothache and have occasionally tolerated annoying co-workers, bad bosses and challenging family members. The more critical issue, however, is affirmation, which implies not necessarily love, but rather an understanding that people different from us — religiously, culturally, sexually, etc. — have as much right to freedom and the pursuit of happiness as we do.

Albert Einstein wrote, “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice.” Likewise, true equality transcends tolerance; affirmation of LGBT persons — like that of the civil rights movement — represents the moral high ground of human rights. My Google search turned up 80 countries where being gay is illegal and 10 countries where the punishment for being gay is death. As a longtime supporter of civil rights organizations and causes, I hope to see social and religious organizations adopt the same advocacy for LGBT persons as has been done for racial pluralism. Changing our minds is not as hard as we imagine. While some religious leaders and politicians toss out fragmented, anti-gay verses from Leviticus, they ignore Scripture that condemns eating pork, verses governing women’s menstrual period and prohibitions against mixing fabrics, marrying an infinite number of wives, etc. Most egregiously, biblical Scripture was cited by Confederate religious and political leaders to support slavery. So, if some religious customs can change — and many have changed —those on sexual orientation can as well.


Toward the future

Discerning the future is an amateur practice fraught with gross speculation and certain error. But as my old high school algebra teacher counseled, do the math. Gallup polls indicate America’s youth are far more enlightened on LGBT issues than are previous generations, and this gives me hope. Actions such as the Texas GOP platform read like the desperate acts of a shrinking populace.

Given current trends, LGBT issues will likely follow a pattern similar to that of race, meaning sexual orientation will remain an issue for the foreseeable future, though likely without the open, hateful, fear-based rhetoric of the past and present.

As a former aspirant to religious life, I’ll close with one of my favorite verses: “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear … as one who fears is not perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-19). The GOP and some religious leaders should meditate on this message.



Shannon Hodges is a licensed mental health counselor and associate professor of counseling at Niagara University. Contact him at shodges@niagara.edu.

Hodge’s monthly “Through a Glass Darkly” columns will now be an online exclusive feature at CT Online.