“This son is quite the opposite from his older brother in almost every way.” These were the next words spoken after the mother of a previous client reintroduced herself to me. Her oldest son and I had worked together two years previously when he was applying to college. I asked myself, “Could her two sons be that different coming from the same family? Could she be exaggerating in trying to make her point? I thought back about her older son remembering him as small and slight in stature. He had been an “ideal” client for writing essays. He was very chatty, engaging and introspective. What I learned soon enough was that his mom’s description of her youngest son was dead on!
I wait for my new client to walk in the door. In comes a big, burly man and when we sit down to brainstorm essay ideas, he is a man of few words. We start with the usual chatting to break the ice so we can get comfortable with each other. We go through the niceties and I let him know that I am there to support him, whatever that looks like to him. I share that our goal is to create the best essay topic, which is one that gets to an essence of who he is and tells that narrative in his voice. My challenge: I hadn't heard his voice...yet.
I begin the process of brainstorming possible essay topics. I use my many approaches/tricks of the trade. I ask him multiple leading questions coming from many angles as we try to get to an essay topic that is meaningful to him-he’s got nothing. I ask open-ended questions. I ask specific questions. Nothing. I ask him to think of people who know him well and how they would describe him-don’t get much more. I head down Memory Lane and ask about fond memories that stand out as if he were writing a movie and these were the individual scenes. He’s got something! He takes the “hook!” He likes to fish. GREAT! So, let’s talk about that. Nothing. I put on my inquisitive hat and ask him, “What do you like about fishing? Where do you fish and why? How do you feel when you fish? Who do you fish with and why?” The questions keep coming and as they do, I see that certain look of animation and knowing in his eyes -that spark that is visible when we are onto something. With each client, I keep a look out for this particular light in the eyes, which lets me know that we are in honing in on a strong, authentic essay topic.
As I edited his written essay, we unburied layers that revealed the depth of his feelings. Still waters run deep and not just in the fishing ponds and lakes. He enjoyed fishing in Louisiana because he could be with his cousins who lived there and valued family. He also appreciated the laid-back local culture there of, “Don’t worry. Be Happy.” There was the enjoyment of the competition - the fish against him. He also enjoyed nature and the peaceful feelings it brought to him.
As his personal story began unfolding, he opened up more. We were onto something. I got to know a uniquely personal part of him-a gift of the work I do. One of the best parts of my experience as an independent college counselor is getting to know people in a more nuanced and special way, the process revealing delightful awakenings and sweet surprises for both the client and me!