A Story About A Puppy


I was talking today about a graduate education in clinical counseling. The prospective student with whom I was speaking was wide-eyed, like a puppy caught in the act of discovering the inside of a couch pillow. She wanted me to tell her what to expect.

“Goodness, where do I begin?”

I need not remind my reader that even the scent of a graduate education ignites in me some sort of natural attachment reaction.  I communicate a certain level of parenting that just seems right for me. I express that same character with my sisters and brother, my cherished Volvo and my dogs – especially when they were puppies and needed my expert guidance.

I leaned quite forward, showing my delight.  “Oh, what I would give for a tabula rasa – to begin my discovery all over again!”

I didn’t tell the student, right away, that she was not just taking a two-year journey.  She was, in fact, shackling herself to a lifetime of learning.  She would be expected to write books, lecture, read books, drive twelve zillions miles for an audience that wasn’t quite a large as she had expected, meet people whose view of mental health therapy was pure magic and superstition, write a blog that so few ever read, beg to teach from people who only hired their friends and relatives, and sleep long enough to find the strength to get up and do it again.

But I didn’t want to frighten her away before she was in too deep to escape.

I somehow needed her to stay with it.

I consciously planned to share this valuable information with her somewhere between the middle and latter part of her second year.

It was too soon.

I often begin my discussion with potential graduate students by asking what motivation s/he has identified in h/erself – the stimulus that only becoming a clinical counselor will satisfy – a profession where people expect YOU to solve their problems for them and blame YOU when YOU don’t; where few are interested in anything except defending the idea that other people MAKE them feel, no matter how much YOU try to HELP them think otherwise; where very few people read anymore and are satisfied with what they learned in graduate school or at a mandatory continuing education conference while waiting in the buffet line for a piece of prime rib; where YOU run into so many practicing therapists who are truly nut-heads, who charge (and get) $110.00 an hour, YOU can’t help but wonder, “Can I speak with customer service, please?”

I wanted to savor that puppy-like look on her face, innocent and blameless, before I took her tattered couch pillow from her and pointed a stern finger, “Bad!”  That behavior, however parent-like, always resulted in me making myself feel terribly heartless and cruel.

“What a joy you will have!” I said.

Our system of higher education, generally, runs on representing what has come to look like a classroom education, rather than a true portrait of our highly sought after American institution of learning.  Learning is often an afterthought, left to the discretion of the customer.

Graduate education in clinical counseling, like nearly all areas of education, is an industry whose influence over the process  is undeniable.  Often, and depending on where one attends graduate school, learning and paying money to learn are quite different things. I have often thought that at least 80% of most tertiary education is a simple matter of showing up.  Not necessarily on time.  Just at some point between the beginning and the end of class. The remaining 20% depends on twisting shit into the shape of salt water taffy – a product, however more appealing, is not necessarily representative of one’s best effort.  A great deal of emphasis in clinical counseling education, I find, is placed more on the quality of behaving in such a way as to avoid causing offense to the student.

No one fails, every pays, everyone moves ahead and out the door.

Education in clinical counseling is more an exercise in fee-based freedom.  Students pay their tuition, set the limit of their frustration tolerance, coming and going as they please, dictating the agenda for the course, deciding on the grading scale and evaluating the instructor on h/er willingness to behave and not cause offense to the student.

It’s a vicious cycle.

An education in clinical counseling is often expected to follow an expected expectation of conformity.

“What will become of you, now that you are heading off in this direction?  Goodness, you’re all grown up.  Now you want to be a clinical counselor. LIKE ME! Did I encourage this in you?”

We continued our talk.

Clinical education in counseling is a process NOT of getting a 4.0 GPA OR learning how to help others.  Clinical education in counseling is a challenge more designed for the student to learn about h/erself, fine-tuning personal skills and building strengths that will one day be used to professionally help others to be better in some way than they were before they met the counselor.  From day one, the focus is on self-improvement – not on helping some poor, unfortunate stranger who is just waiting out on the street corner for the student to graduate and finally come to h/er rescue.  The lessons that can come from a clinical counseling education, even in the blight on education I assume we are experiencing in this country, if made truly a personal journey, will result in an undeniable self-awareness and a practical, experienced skill in personal problem-solving.  An awareness of the extraordinary responsibility the learner is accepting is essential, when s/he agrees to help others in such an intimate and personal way.

And so we continued our talk, my future graduate student and I.

I am happy to say she will be starting in January.

I will be with her each step of the way.

Why?

Because she will likely teach me something new.

Maybe I will be less nihilistic, and she will embrace her own mind. Maybe we will both come away stronger clinicians, because we have contributed to our mutual goal for a lifetime of learning.

She might help me remember that.

Maybe I will even amaze her.

Better yet, I am hoping to be amazed, like when I used to catch my puppy eating my couch pillow for the fifteenth time in one day and she still acted as if each time was a just brand new experience – seemingly never really growing tired of living in an imperfect world – just learning to live with it – enthusiastically.