The work day begins and I’m already exhausted. A good night’s sleep just doesn’t cut it anymore. They file in, take their seats, trade complaints over the homework they never did, and I just sit and stare in amazement. Maybe it has something to do with being removed from the identity of a student or perhaps this is a view of life post-coming of age. But from my vantage point, it is hard to watch young men and women throw their lives away on a daily basis.
With one hand I cup my mug of coffee, with the other I squeeze the stress ball.
Most mornings, these two are all that keep me going.
I work with teenagers cut from the coarsest cloth. They are stubborn, hard-hearted and all around pain in the ass two-year olds. Everyday, it seems, I watch them approach the schoolhouse door, laughing in their little cohorts, innocently roughhousing, only to transform into something sinister as they part from the outside world.
But what they lack in manners they make up for in shields. Through their eyes- teachers are out to get their students and their friends have their best interests at heart. There is more than a poverty of income in today’s low-income kids. There is a poverty of trust.
The other day one of our worst was well, at his worst. He was pulling kids out of class, shouting slurs into his cell phone, and came close to damaging school property. After each incident I would ask him what made him tick, or more specifically, what the hell did the world owe him? He would respond, every time, with a smirk and an, “everyone here knows I’m a pain in the ass, get used it.”
Sip the coffee.
Squeeze the ball.
I pursued him, peppering him with questions, but trying not to be interrogatory. That didn’t work so I presented the problem to members of the staff. I wanted to know why he wasn’t in some form of therapy to harness in his bad behavior and why the teachers were letting him act like an animal rather than demand a little discipline. What they went on to tell me made my jaw drop.
A few weeks ago, this kid had gotten arrested, not sure what for exactly, but something happened in the trailer park where he lives to land him in jail for the night. The community expressed their concern in one of the cruelest ways possible. They told his family that they had to choose whether to pick up and leave together or kick their son to the curb. And what should have been an easy answer ended up being the cause of this kid’s spiral into desperation. His own folks threw him out.
It wasn’t easy to digest this. I guess it never should be. But suddenly, this kid was not a pain in the ass, the world was.
The following morning I returned with a resolve to pay more attention to his needs and to what he wasn’t saying. Standing in the hallway, sipping on my coffee, squeezing my stress ball, I waited for the teens to come piling through the door in no more than 5 minutes. These five minutes were mine to muster up motivation. Mine to remember why I was doing what I was doing.
Hearing the handle turn, I looked up, and instead of a storm of students, I saw a little woman shuffling towards me . She was carrying a large number of envelopes.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“I’m ______’s mom, here’s his mail. Um, I was also wondering how he’s doing. Do you know?”
I cringed as I told her how he had been acting up and seemed distracted from his studies. She then asked where he was living. I told her that as far as I knew he was staying in his car. She left. I cried.
What I really wanted to ask her was- how dare you? Who the hell told you that you would be a good parent? By my definition you are negligent and an abuser of one of the finest privileges mankind has- tell me, how do you sleep at night?
This mother intentionally drove to her son’s school to arrive early enough where she wouldn’t have to see him to drop off his mail and make a brief inquiry into what his homeless life looked like. I don’t know if she was more ashamed of herself or her son.
What I have been trying to do on this page is elevate the importance of stories. Of people’s histories. Of life behind the facebook feed, drug habits and criminal records. The experiences of roofless nights and ruthless days, of heartbreaking betrayals and brutal beat downs. What I call the complex context. The parts that aren’t put down in paper. Those throbbing places in between the lines that we never see until we ask.
Our records, failures, and achievements reflect a fun house image of our real lives. She may have been a mother on paper, but she was no mother. He may have been a criminal and rebel-rouser, but that didn’t mean he lacked a conscience. His story, her story, are both ones of free will, but also cause and effect. I once mistook him for a troll, but now knowing his complex context- I can’t see anything but a kid who got a dealt a shitty hand of cards.
I wonder what I would see if I saw her hand?
More than anything what the past several days have shown me is my continual need for perspective. The outlook of others makes me remember my blessings, and also the tendency of my fists to close at begging hands. Catching a glimpse of life through another’s eyes reminds me of the importance of storytelling. Why we all need it. Why we need the mess and complexity to understand empathy. Why empathy is Kingdom Come. Why when I cried for the kid I felt more human than I have in a long time. Those tears were a way to worship. But after worship comes the word, and after the word comes the work. And the work may be the trickiest task of all.
Here’s to seeing.
Here’s to hearing.
Here’s to trying.