To Thine Own Self

How truthful should we be about our prejudices?

My daughter, who’s about to start grad school in the fall, is filling out an online form that’s supposed to help the school assign her to a “field placement”—an actual real-life place where she’ll learn and contribute and grow. She’s worried about the list of questions. Specifically: “Is it all right,” she asks me, “if I say I don’t want to work with old people?” That’s one of many options—AIDS patients, kids, women, gays, inmates, etc.—that she can thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

I know my daughter pretty well, I think. She’s terrific with kids. She’s wonderful with immigrants. She relates well to women. But she’s shy around sick people, old people, those with disabilities. She doesn’t make connections with them easily. In high school, one of her teachers used to take students to work with mentally challenged youngsters who were having swimming lessons. Marcy dreaded those visits. “I don’t know how to help them,” she’d say in desperation—because she’s a good person, and she wanted to relate, to be useful, but she didn’t know how. “I just get so nervous! I hate how it makes me feel.”

And yet she was wonderful with my dad when he was in the last years of his life, visiting him with me every weekend, talking with him, cheering him up, taking him out of himself. “That was different,” she says. “That was Pop-Pop.” Someone else’s Pop-Pop or Nana—she can’t see making the same sort of effort or feeling a connection there.

So—should she be honest on the questionnaire, she asks me? Will the school consider her admission that she doesn’t want to work with the sick or elderly a failing—a black mark? Will it deem her unsympathetic, or unsuitable for the program she hoped and dreamed she’d be admitted to?

That the school even poses the question, I point out, argues against that. And I realize, in discussing the matter with her, that it points up what’s always been one of life’s great mysteries to me. I mention her friend Christine, who’s just graduated from college and is looking forward to teaching special-ed students. There are people who seek out—who are most comfortable in—the precise situations that make Marcy come unglued. There are people out there who aren’t fazed a bit at the prospect of helping the elderly to the bathroom, or sitting with dying AIDS patients, or working with veterans who’ve lost limbs, or consoling the mentally ill—people who can’t wait to do all the things Marcy (and I) find unimaginably daunting. How amazing is that?

There are folks who dream of being accountants, and folks who dream of being musicians. There are men and women willing to fly into outer space; there are those who’ve never set foot outside South Philly. There are people willing to be politicians, for heaven’s sake. That diversity is what makes the world so amazingly, unfailingly fascinating. There are people like me, and people who are utterly unlike me.

“Tell the truth,” I counsel my daughter. “But try to keep an open mind.”