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Pat Myers Jul 6, 2011

The Atticus Finch Effect

As a university professor for the past 17 years I have come to cherish summer break. Time off from school allows me to recharge my mind, my spirit, and my aging body. Typically I spend summers reading as many books as possible, watching as much baseball as possible, and working in my garden for as long as my back and my knees allow. This summer I am preparing for written comps in my doctoral program. Wanting to be intentional about my preparations, my goal was that my only reading would be professional. That intent lasted for about a week and then my soul cried out to be fed. Fear not my dear doctoral advisor as my fun reading is limited to however long I can keep my eyes open at bedtime.

Since I’d already spent my allotment of book money on professional books, I went to our bookcases to find something I hadn’t read in awhile. Harper Lee called my name. So for the last few nights I’ve been dwelling in Maycomb and picturing Jem, Dill, Scout and Atticus (Who of course is Gregory Peck). I came across a line that has left me pondering for the past days.

Atticus is explaining to Scout that times are going to more difficult for the family since he has taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson. Scout asks him why he is willing to risk hardship for this man. Atticus replies, “Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine…” (Lee, 1960, p.83). I started thinking about what this meant to me as a counselor and a teacher. Do I have a case in a lifetime that affected me? As I thought back over the years, my answer was a quick no. I could not count just one single case as the number of clients who have been instrumental in affecting and changing me, in small and large ways, is uncountable. Some of the clients who came to mind brought both smiles and tears. One of my first clients was a girl of about 9 or 10. Her parents had split due to dad’s alcoholism. She was so jumpy I couldn’t use my hands when I talked as she thought I meant to strike her.

I have thought of her often over the years as shortly after she finished working with me, her father murdered her mother. I have also never forgotten the 5 year old boy whose parents were heroin addicts. Mom was trying to get clean but life was pretty hard. One session we were playing checkers and he kept dropping pieces and eventually knocked the board off the table. He flew across the table into my lap, sobbing and asking if I would be his mother. I thought about saying yes for longer than I should have. Or perhaps the client that most affected me was the young mother who disclosed horrific episodes of childhood sexual abuse and who struggled to reconcile a loving God to this deeply wounded inner child. Her courage, sensitivity, and honesty still amaze me.

Maybe it was the male college student who trusted me for some unknown reason and began to drop by my office. At first it was just to chat about school or sports but gradually he disclosed the real pain. He sat in my office and cried. His resilience taught me that it is possible to withstand great pain and com out the other side a better person. Or was it the young woman who told me her story because I had noticed in class that she had cut her hair. Because I noticed her hair she trusted me enough to show me the cuts on her arms and asked me to explain why she needed to hurt herself so badly. I learned from her that people can look very good on the outside while they hide enormous pain on the inside. All it took was noticing her and inviting her to share.

I could keep going on for pages. The more I think about this questions the more images from the past are revealed, the more faces come into focus, and the more stories are remembered. The faces change, as do the stories, but the common thread throughout it all is courage and trust. These people trusted and honored me with intimate details of their lives. They came to me unaware of their own deep well of courage, resilience, and strength. How could I be witness to that and not be changed? Being a counselor is an honor and is an ongoing invitation to be open to be affected by others. As you think about your career as a helper, who are the clients who have most impacted you? How have you changed as a result of this experience? How are you a better counselor? More importantly, how are you a better person?

Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.

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