Last week I had my first private conversation ever with an elected official who represents me. It was terrifying at first and I had an anxiety attack, but everything turned out “okay,” even though she’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.
I know, crazy talk.
So I did it again on Monday. Last week it was by telephone, but this week… He came to my house. Eek.
It meant I actually had to clean up. It was a hefty price to pay to engage in mediocre advocacy, but I was willing to make the sacrifice of having clean floors, cleared surfaces, dust-free furniture, and an absence of mildly gross smells in the kitchen.
This time my assembly rep, Dan Knodle, came over. He actually agreed to come to my house! He wanted to come in the afternoon, his aide told me. I explained the situation in basic terms to make sure Dan knew what he was stepping into: two potentially feral children in the house. He said it was okay.
I prepared the kids over the weekend. In particular, I made sure Jesse knew and was on board about us discussing her mental health journey through the school system. Some of the conversation might be painful for her.
She said yes. Also, she insisted on calling him “Mr. K-noodle.” So did Nick. Much giggling ensued.
I prepared for the worst.
* * * * *
At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a clean-cut, straight-backed, snappy-casual gentleman knocked on my kitchen door. Definitely a politician. I was nervous, of course, and feeling significant anxiety. But then in stepped Dan and I realized I was on terra firma, my own kingdom, the place where I am the boss of all things. I felt good. It occurred to me that Dan has some courage to visit strangers, albeit constituents, in their homes.
Any stranger who comes into my house with an agenda of any kind is immediately at a disadvantage, because the very first thing you have to do is take off your shoes. I try to be nice about it, but Americans like their shoes. With Dan I said something like, “We have a strictly shoe free house. Would you mind taking off your shoes? If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay, but also you could put on my husband’s slippers to be more comfortable.”
I invited Dan in and suggested we stay in the kitchen, because the furniture in our living room is beyond disgusting, thanks to the existence of children. And there we sat in my kitchen and talked, for a full hour.
It was a sprawling conversation, but I only want to tell you about the important things.
* * * * *
Dan arrived with very little idea of what I wanted to chat about. So I gave him a copy of the mental health initiative that’s in Governor Walker’s budget. Six million dollars to provide staff training and to increase mental health services on school campuses. Dan took it in like a good Republican: “This is new money.”
Yup, I said, it’s new money. It’ll probably require a new employee in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). And it’s really important that we spend the money, though I would prefer a “zero” after the “six.”
I’m not sure he thought that was funny.
In fact, he said he wasn’t aware of the provision at all until I brought it to his attention.
GOOOOOOOOOOOL, screamed a tiny voice inside my brain. I just scored a tiny point, because the first voice Dan was going to hear about this initiative was mine, and the first story he was going to hear about it was Jesse’s. I never underestimate the power of a first mover advantage.
* * * * *
What followed was a long discussion about how children with mental health challenges are, as I sometimes say, the bottom dwellers of school intervention, relegated to the counselor’s office as disciplinary problems and truants. Teachers frequently don’t even know what clues to look for to identify basic symptoms of common disorders like anxiety, OCD, tic disorders, and depression — let alone how to work with them in a classroom setting. And there’s still this wall of stigma, which leads people to believe that “developmental disabilities” are things schools can address, but “mental illnesses” are best left to the private medical sector.
I made my big picture pitch. When it comes to disabilities, the broad arc of history in our public schools has been one of expanding inclusion and comprehension. We used to exclude pretty much everyone with differences from “regular” classrooms and schools. But now we have this growing awareness that schools can and should, through well-trained staff and in collaboration with parents, ensure a robust and inclusive education for people with physical disabilities, birth defects, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and a wide range of differences. My kids’ school system commonly and confidently provides supports to students with a ton of different issues.
So why should we not provide the same confident supports to people with mental illnesses? Why can’t we start to see those as “disabilities” as well? They are, after all, lifelong conditions that people have to learn to cope with, live with, deal with, just like any other disability. We’re not asking schools to treat mental illnesses through teaching staff, but rather to do the same thing they do for other disabilities: provide supports, develop accommodations and modifications, show compassion and understanding, refer children to private therapy if that’s appropriate.
I think I got a little excited. I discovered I was leaning forward in my chair toward Dan (I hope I didn’t get in his personal space, because he would be too polite to tell me). My arms were flapping around in big arcs, apparently to demonstrate my vision of expanding services for children. I think I was getting bug-eyed.
Dan expressed some surprise. He apparently had not been aware that mental illnesses like Jesse’s aren’t viewed as “developmental disabilities” and don’t provide as good a passport to services.
GOOOOOOOOOL!! Screamed something inside me. I just scored another tiny point.
I taught my representative something. It wasn’t because I’m an amazing advocate. It’s just because we were talking, and he was listening, and he asked the right questions. All I had to do was take the chance of answering them.
Dan, a Republican, shared his thoughts about how spending money like this on early interventions will likely cost the state less in the long run because of improvements in outcome for people at risk. Yes, Yes, I said. I, a Democrat, shared my thoughts on how lucky Jesse is to have well-to-do and well-educated parents who can provide private supports and advocacy, and how I would like kids whose parents can’t provide those supports to still have as much success and support as my Jesse. Yes, yes, said Dan.
We were seeing the same coin from two sides. We connected, I think, on fundamentals.
* * * * *
As we wound things down, Dan offered me a couple eye-opening thoughts.
Now that he’s aware of this provision in the governor’s budget, if it ever comes up on the chopping block he’ll be able to say, “I have a constituent who cares very deeply about this budget item.” In his little list of budget issues, there’s a “K” for keep or a “P” for protect next to this item.
My tiny voice made that happen. How cool is that?
If and when this is voted in with the budget, he added (and he seemed to think it has a good chance of making it through), I would have homework to do. I could make sure my school district applies for a grant under the program that’ll be set up with this new money. If there were any hiccups, I could follow up with Dan and our state senator to ask for their assistance in the grant process.
I can do that?
Yes. Apparently, as a voter and constituent, I can. I actually have tiny power that goes along with my tiny voice.
What a concept.
* * * * *
I suspect I threw a whole lot of words and information at Dan, and maybe I got too excited at times, and sometimes I made no sense, and I was having a bad hair day, and maybe I was offensive? I don’t know, I really don’t.
Plus every five to ten minutes, one of my kids came into the kitchen with important matters for me to address.
“Mom, can I have a frozen yogurt?”
<Jesse drapes herself over my back and stares silently over my shoulder at Dan.>
“Mom, can I play with the Xbox?”
<Nick stands very close to Dan. I manage to blurt just in time, “You’re not allowed to jump on Mr. Knodle.”>
“Mom, I’m going to the basement so I won’t interrupt you. Okay? Can I do that?”
All of that makes me a pretty mediocre advocate and human being, I guess. But I still feel like I did the right thing, inviting Dan into my home, and taking time to tell him too many details about what’s on my mind when it comes to mental health issues. Someday maybe it’ll be something else, something more controversial or more important. But Dan and I know each other just a little now, and I hope we’ve laid a good first paving stone on our journey as representative-and-constituent.
We may just be two tiny voices in Wisconsin, but we’re listening and trying, and I have to give myself (and of course Dan) credit for that.
If you’ve ever had a pack of goldfinches land in your yard, then you know that it doesn’t take many tiny voices to make a beautiful noise. So whoever you are, reading this, if you haven’t done it already, go make your tiny voice heard. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens, even in these challenging times.