AJ and I were sitting on the floor playing Connect Four during our most recent session. I always let her go first since she is only 9 years old and takes every game we play very seriously. It's a surprisingly difficult game to win when you don't get to make the first move, so I need to truly focus just to win every other contest. Currently I'm down seven games to three.
"Yeah, my mom said it would be nice if we talked in Hebrew while we played."
Mom is definitely spot-on about the talking part. Play therapy ideally involves conversation about a child's difficulties while engaging in a playful activity. In fact, the game itself can serve as a medium for conversation. Some practitioners use board games such as the "Talking, Feeling and Doing Game" (which basically involves sharing emotions while moving pieces around a board in a game format that doesn't allow anyone to win) to help a child express him or herself in a non-threatening environment. I myself prefer to utilize games that a child is already familiar with and enjoys so that he or she wants to return to future sessions. I always let the child win the first game or two so that she feels good about herself, but also will win a few rounds (or at least try to win) in order to see how a child handles disappointment.
In AJ's case, I'm currently hoping to learn more about her fear of school (called a "Specific Phobia" in therapist terminology). Rather than sit her down on the couch and demand "Why are you afraid to go to school?," we play and talk about Connect Four while I periodically throw in questions and reassuring statements like, "What are some things that kids your age hate about school?" and "I've helped other girls your age who have been nervous about school, maybe I could help you too." This therapeutic style lets AJ know that sessions with me aren't all about her explaining or defending herself, and it tells her that she isn't the only person in the world with this sort of difficulty.
"I actually don't know any Hebrew," I confessed, wondering why the conversation isn't about school, but rather my language capabilities.
"You don't remember any from Hebrew school?"
"I never went to Hebrew school like you."
"But you're Jewish, right?"
"No, I'm not."
AJ recoiled in horror, like I had just handed her a jar of my own urine. "Are you Christian?"
"No, I'm what they call 'agnostic.' Do you know what that means?"
"Everyone is either Jewish or Christian, unless you're a terrorist," she said with a hint of fear in her voice.
"Actually, that's not true at all," I said, trying to be reassuring. "There are lots of religions in the world."
"No no no! Terrorist!" she screamed and ran out of the office.
I pulled myself up from the floor and worked my way to the waiting room, empty save for AJ cowering behind the left leg of her very large non-Agnostic (and therefore non-terrorist) father.
"What the fuck is going on here?" thundered Mr. AJ.
"There was a misunderstanding with AJ. She thinks I'm a terrorist."
"Why would she think that? Are you from the Middle East?" he asked me, probably the whitest person in New York City.
"No, I'm agnostic."
"What the hell is 'agnostic?'"
"It means that I'm not sure if there is a God or not. I think it's from the Greek word..."
"Jesus Christ, Dobrenski" said Mr. AJ. "This isn't religion class, it's counseling."
"She asked me, and I don't lie to my clients. And I would appreciate it if you wouldn't use curse words or blaspheme in the waiting room."
"He's an Anti-Semite!" screamed AJ.
"AJ, I am not an Anti-Semite."
"Since when did you turn Goyum, Dobrenski?" queried Mr. AJ.
"I didn't turn Goyum, I've always been non-Jewish," I said, starting to feel defective for my non-Chosen status.
"I guess it doesn't matter, just keep the whole anti-God thing to a minimum in future sessions, okay? See you next week."
"I was just trying to do play therapy..."
By now AJ had heard enough and took off, running out of the office, into the elevator, and presumably onto 6th Avenue.
"Wow, you really scared the shit out of her, huh?" said Mr. AJ. "I'll talk to her, see if she wants to come back again."
Mrs. AJ wasn't as understanding about my agnostic status, and so I was essentially fired two days later, via telephone. "You're all well and good, Dobrenski," said Mr. AJ, "but we really need someone with a more religious bent. My wife isn't too keen on this whole 'agnostic' thing. You could be a Goddamn Devil-Worshipper for all we care, but make a commitment for Christ's sake! Mrs. AJ said she's pretty sure you're not a terrorist, but that we can't be too careful these days. Who knows what you're capable of!"
That was the first client I lost due to my perceived potential for mass destruction.