One of the good things about living in a small town is that I get a chance to do some volunteer programs at the local schools. This all comes about because I'm one of a very small number of vets in town, and clients who work at schools feel comfortable asking me, because we're all just folks here, if I'd like to do school programs.
I admit I love the thank-you notes that I get from the little kids. But there are compensations to the older kids as well.
One of my annual gigs is to go to the local middle school for mock interviews. This is a program in which the kids are asked what they might like to do for a living, and then to create a resume, a cover letter and fill out an application. Based on the kinds of jobs the kids are angling for, the school counsellor contacts local professionals and asks them to come in for a morning to interview the kids as if they were actually applying for a job. The professionals are asked to rate the "applicants" on appearance, demeanor, cover letter, CV, and preparedness. Because my little land-locked town in not bristling with marine and other wildlife biologists or equine trainers to the stars or TV animal trainers, I generally get tagged for those as well, not to mention all the vet-tech stuff.
Now, these are middle-schoolers, so most of them are about 11 to 13 years old. We don't expect them to come in with all guns blazing - although some of them do - and while many of them are laboring under some serious misconceptions about what is involved in becoming a vet, I always try to find something encouraging to say. I don't want to crush their little egos, after all. On the other hand, I also don't want to be so easy on them that they think it's a cake walk getting into vet school - or having a career in veterinary medicine, come to that. It's not fair to them to lead them to expect that it's just a fa-la-la, I decided to go to vet school and they have to take me because I have the tuition. Unfortunately, some of the kids who think they want to be vets are probably barking up the wrong tree. It's not so much my place to tell them "This is not the career for you" as it is to introduce them to the realities of it and get them to think about what they propose to let themselves in for. Vet school is expensive and gruelling, and although it was also really great (at least for me), it's not for everyone. If you're not cut out for it, or vet med isn't really your cup of tea, it's probably better to discover that BEFORE you go to the trouble and expense of vet school.
It's a delicate balancing act; I have to tell the truth but do it kindly and with some finesse. Hm. It turns out that being a vet has trained me to do a few other things besides medicine, because the delicate balancing act is one at which this line of work makes you adept, whether you want to be or not.
Mind you, being a middle child in a large family has instilled diplomacy into me from the cradle. This has come in handy many a time, and often long before vet school. Once as a grad student I was trying to describe to a colleague a particular student who they needed to talk to. A fellow grad student, who also knew the student in question, was standing with us. Well, how do you actually end up describing faces? They nearly always have the usual number of eyes and noses and mouths, and there are only so many shapes a face can take. So I said, "He's about 6 feet tall, clean-shaven, has dark hair and eyes and - um - a youthful complexion - "
The other grad student burst out laughing. "You are SO diplomatic!" she said.
"What do you mean?" asked our colleague.
"She means he has acne!" exclaimed the other grad student.
Um, well, yes. But there's more than one way to present the facts, don't you think? You don't want to obscure the truth, but there's no reason to be harsh.
At any rate, one year when I was doing my interviews, I had in front of me an absolutely petrified 12 year old boy. As always, when doing the interviews, the student had been provided with a list of questions intended to act as a guideline to get them thinking and asking about the realities of the job. I had been provided with the same list of questions (so as to be prepared). In addition, I'd been doing the interviews for several years by then, and had my patter down, my stock answers at the ready. So, when this boy was sitting in front of me, so terrified that his hands were actually shaking, I was able to smile encouragingly at him and wait calmly for him to stutter out the question, doing my best to let relaxation ooze out of me and across the table and seep into him before his heart actually leapt out of his chest.
Maybe that's why I wasn't expecting it.
"Wh-what is th-th-the best thing ab-b-b-out your job?" asked my little student, reading from the paper trembling in his quaking hands. Remembering the interview skills with which he had been coached, he then looked up at me, pupils dilated with terror, but expression trusting and earnest. Maybe it was that, that disarmingly trustful look, reminiscent of a thousand anxious pets and clients I've seen and treated and tried my best to help, that did it: that look that tells me they're frightened, but they have placed their hope and faith in me, and believe that I will not willingly see them come to harm. I opened my mouth, ready to give him my usual answer, and then it happened. Someone hijacked my lips. Instead of what I meant to say, this is what came out of my mouth:
"The best thing about my job is that every day, when I go home, the world is a better place than it was when I got up - because I got up."
The boy nodded earnestly, thinking this over, and completely unaware that I was hearing this for the first time, too - or that, having had something else entirely in my head, I was far more surprised to hear it than he was. My heart gave a deep, thudding beat, knocking hard against my sternum as if to punctuate my words, as if to tell me: Pay attention. This is the Truth.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: twelve year old boys. They'll break your heart. Wide open, sometimes.
Because that is the truth. That's it. That's why I do this. That's why I get up at 4 in the morning and 40 below zero when someone calls me. That's why I am willing to literally crawl through blood and shit to try to save the life of a parvo puppy. That's why I drag myself out of bed after a long night of emergencies in the clinic and go in and do it again: It's because when I'm done, the world will be better off. I'm just one little person in one little town, and I only change this one small corner of the world - but it takes me, specifically, to do that bit of good. These are the skills I chose to learn, and worked very hard to acquire; not everyone has them. So it's up to me to take my brain and my hands and whatever else I can bring to it, and do my little part to make the word better.
It's not like I'm creating world peace or ending poverty or world hunger, and I'm by no means the only person who spends their days making the word a better place. Probably most of us do that, in one way or another, every day. But still. There's something deeply satisfying about building good, one little piece at a time, and being able to see the results of it. And it's humbling to realize that if I don't do this part, the part that is mine to do, it won't get done. Maybe that wouldn't be as true in a bigger community where there's more overlap, but here - there aren't many of us, so maybe it's more obvious the ways in which all of us count.
It's a humbling thing, and one that I am grateful for: to have work that I love, and which helps the community in which I live.
Humbling too, and full of a strange and lovely grace, that I learned this, the central Truth of why I do what I do, from one young, earnest and slightly terrified boy.
Out of the mouths of babes and children....