VII. On Becoming a Writer: South Carolina, Part I – Grad School? Well Maybe Not

Following college, I began a Master’s program in English Lit at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. This was shortly after my return from Mexico, which may explain my immediate dissatisfaction with grad school. My experiences in college and San Juan Acozac had been richly interpersonal. My reason for majoring in English had been a love of literature. But scholarship? And literary criticism? These I found pedantic and dull.

After two semesters, I left the University, and did not expect to return or complete a degree. But I had made friends in Columbia and stayed, finding a position as a social worker at a Children’s Home, an institution that in earlier years would have been called an orphanage.

Despite having no degree in this field, I was trained by an excellent supervisor and came to enjoy the work. I was one of three social workers, whose job was to maintain relationships between the Home’s resident children and their families and the agencies that had placed them with us. We were evaluators and troubleshooters, working with local schools and medical and mental health facilities for the wellbeing of our kids. We also served as counselors for the kids, unless more serious counseling was warranted.

More than half of our job was at the institution itself. The rest of the time was spent on the road, keeping in touch with our children’s family members across the state, resolving whatever situations might arise and working through a child’s return to their family. We also collected information and evaluated applications from families or social agencies seeking residency for a child.

This was a time when professionals in the field were coming to understand that long-term care in such institutions is not in the best interest of children. I certainly came to agree with that. But there were still teenagers at the Home who had lived there since kindergarten. Most of our children were good kids and fairly well adjusted (it was our job to help them adjust), but we also had kids with emotional problems, an occasional runaway and others who were challenging to deal with.

I worked with children from the ages of 5 to 19. And once again, I found myself in places unlike any I had ever known when I visited their families: in tarpaper shacks without electricity or running water, in prison facilities and in what at that time was informally known as the State Hospital for the insane. I came to know prostitutes and chronic drunks, criminally abusive fathers and neglectful mothers. I also came to know caring parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who provided safe and loving anchors for many of the children residing at the Home.

During my time in this job, I considered returning to some kind of graduate program. I applied for the L-Sat for law school but didn’t take it. I applied to a Methodist Seminary and was accepted with a scholarship and decided not go. As I approached the end of three years at the Children’s Home, I applied for a Master’s program in Social Work, intending to make this a career. I was accepted into a two-year program and offered a scholarship.

But that was not what I did.

Next up: Back to grad school.