I finished college at the age of forty. After years of participating in life in various ways, that included running a group home for women as the unpaid director, I was able to document and use my experiences, as well as old college credits, a few classes, and some independent study, to graduate from “University Without Walls” - a school within a school that allowed returning adults a unique educational option. Because I was working with women in recovery from substance abuse, and because I was such a woman myself, this subject was the focus of my studies. I was working on a paper I had been researching for some time; a kind of thesis on women who are addicts/alcoholics and identity. I was brought before a board of advisors who were to make a judgment whether or not I could graduate. I handed out this last paper, but to this day I don't know if anyone read it, since I got the call soon after that they had voted to allow me to graduate with no further requirements.
There been several times in my life when I had a feeling of being infused with a sense of higher purpose, with the absolute certainty that there is a power greater than myself and that I have something to do, or a reason to be. Getting that call was one such moment. I remember standing in my kitchen with my arms raised up high, and I felt an energy flow into me – never before had I felt such pure hope commingled with pure joy. Because I had finally finished college so that I could do something to “help people”. I knew I needed a degree to get a decent social service job. I didn't know specifically what I wanted to do; although I hadn't given it much thought, in the back of my head was a sense that I would be good with kids – in particular, with adolescents.
Three interviews later, I was hired as an outpatient substance abuse counselor for teenagers in a diverse north side neighborhood. The interview could not possibly have gone better. I was full of eagerness as the woman explained to me the job -- working with kids who were involved with the courts and police, who had family issues, substance abuse and school problems, and about being an advocate for youth. She asked me at the end why did I want to work with kids. I said no one has asked me that, and I have been thinking about it and, I don't know why, I just feel like it's something I would be good at. When I left she said don't worry about not knowing why, she said: “I think it's a calling”.
Before I was given my first client, I spent hours reading everything I could find on adolescents and counseling them; how to run groups, on theories about relapse, and harm reduction, and family issues, and working form their strengths. A lot of this I had learned and experienced but only from the woman's perspective. I suppose it was fortunate that my first client was a girl, a 16 year old Mexican girl who was having trouble with her strict parents. I had my first experience of many, in those little counseling rooms, of being a channel, of saying things I did not know I could say, understanding things I didn't know I understood, and doing things I did not know I could do. I was where I was meant to be. I had to learn to continually push myself past what I was comfortable with, to reach out to others. In the first few years most of my clients were Latino, and it was the beginning of an education about various cultures within the generic “Hispanic” demographic. Then there was the gang education; something which in spite of some reading (and a training) on the issue, no amount of academics could have prepared me for. Most of my clients, for the first two years at least, were boys, and most of them were either in a gang or on the periphery of activity. They were my teachers.
My first such client was Juan. He had been in inpatient treatment for his marijuana use and was now adjusting to a return to the outside world. He was on intensive probation which is extremely strict; there are three Probation Officers who keep close tabs on their charges. Juan was a quiet boy, and shy, with me at least. Clearly he didn't know what to make of me - a middle aged white lady with a cheesy sense of humor. He liked the fact that I understood recovery language and for the most part he'd enjoyed his experience in treatment. After some time however our sessions became awkward – he was not about to share other aspects of his life with me, and he insisted he was not in a gang. I believed him. I always believed them when they lied to me. Even when I learned to suspect or spot the lies I still believed them.
That was my role, to be trusting and trustworthy and non judgmental and to believe in them, even when they didn't believe in themselves. What I discovered in a short time was that this is what kids need above all else. It doesn't matter how much they push the adults in their lives away, they want the adults to continue to be there and to believe in them. They want to be good, even if they think they are bad and there's no chance of changing. They want the respect of adults. However this respect is only valuable if the adults can be respected – meaning if they are open minded. This does not mean to ignore wrong actions but to accept the kid as a whole, and to affirm that there are always choices.
Poor Juan, I was so naive at that point, and I learned more from him they he did from me. For instance, once I arranged for him to meet me at an AA meeting but he didn't show up. When I asked him about it he admitted he didn't go because the neighborhood was dangerous for him. I apologized for not understanding this -- which really disarmed him. Still, I was so disillusioned when he told me, truthfully, that one once he was off probation he did plan to smoke “weed” again. And when he did smoke again (I heard from another client), I felt I had failed. I had yet to learn to lower my expectations and to understand that small changes can mean big progress.
Another early client was Lester, a mild mannered boy whose mother had found suicide notes he'd written; we had many discussions about life and family and why he should stick around. “You have to stick around to find out why you should stick around”, was one of the things I told him. Naturally it was not that simple, but we did manage to work through a few things.
Everything intensified for me when Andre and then his little brother Sammy came into my life. At thirteen, Sam was on probation for arson; he'd set fire to a garbage can “to see how it would burn” and it unfortunately caught the nearby garage on fire. I saw him through a drug overdose, an arrest for stealing a gun, various court appearances, the suicide attempts of his brother, mother (numerous ones, in her case),and eventually his own suicide attempt. I helped him look at his issues with marijuana, school and education, the fierce independence that kept him out of gang life, his ongoing fascination with psychic abilities, dreams, and life on other planets -- he wanted to be an astronomer – and his overwhelming questions about the existence of God. In time he also was able to talk about some family issues and his experiences in foster care. When he was almost 17, and I saw him for the next to the last time, he said to me “you changed me”. He said he would still getting into trouble with the law, or something worse would have happened, if I hadn't been there. And I knew that if I did nothing else in my life I had at least had a positive and profound effect on one person.
Other clients had equally difficult situations; Angel was shot in the back for trying to get out of his gang. The bullet went through his body and out his stomach, miraculously missing his spine by a small measure. He had to leave the neighborhood to stay safe. Tom was shot in the leg with a sawed off shotgun – a rival gang situation – and almost bled to death. Virtually every kid I knew had witnessed violence and known someone who had died a violent death. There are so many untold stories.
Though I was rapidly becoming familiar with this underworld I had been ignorant of, I did relate to a kind of shadow life because of my addictions. I knew what it was like to not feel like a part of mainstream society, no matter how much you try to go through the motions. Teenagers don't have as many resources as adults to attempt to fit in, and combined with the need to experience some independence, they rebel. This was something I instinctively understood. I also understood what it was like to suddenly lose someone close to you due to violent circumstance, having lost my brother.
I learned about the fear of simply walking down the street, if you were not in your own, familiar territory. Fear of being with the wrong people at the wrong time was something I already knew; two of my female clients had been raped by members of the same gang, when they were supposedly just hanging out. Having been a victim of rape more than once, I was able to understand their feelings.
Our branch of the youth agency was smack in the middle of a territory dispute that is, as far as I know, going on to this day. Police were involved in various incidents on the streets nearby, and occasionally paid visits to our office to question us or the youth. Yet rival gang members could be in the same group and cooperate with each other. There was a girl who first came into the office when she was 11 years old, and would quietly play with Lego by herself. Gradually another girl joined her, and they would play Uno on my office floor. She eventually asked me to be her counselor, and for the next 6 or 7 years she was a daily visitor at the office, trying to avoid the streets and her alcoholic stepfather, continuing to go there after I left. She was everyone's client. At the age of 18 I helped her move into her dorm room at college.
There was a boy who was a 'good kid', (not a gang member or drug user) who had stabbed another kid with a sharp pencil. It took a group of his friends and months of work before a breakthrough occurred and we could understand why.
There was another boy who had hit an old lady on the street; he was later accepted to a college prep school. Then there the boy who was expelled from a college prep school, who was brilliant in math but could not stop smoking weed. I watched his mother get sober, I watched him graduate from a military school, but he was arrested again as adult due to drinking and driving.
There were the two older boys who had been in jail, separately, from the ages of 16 to 18. I stuck by one through an adult arrest and a short prison sentence, and he has successfully completed his parole. The other had been in adult prison for conspiracy to commit murder. He was painfully honest about everything he had done, he was able to see all his past choices clearly, and we worked with his symptoms of PTSD – he always had to sit with his back against the wall. When I first met this young man he was like the violent criminals you see in movies; his eyes were hard and cold and frightening. A few years ago, along with some other ex-clients, he helped me move. One of the last time I saw him, he was carrying a pan of homemade brownies. He had graduated high school and was going to cooking school. All I did was listen.
Another older client was the most likable boy you could imagine. He was friendly good-humored, and helpful. Unfortunately he could never open up, and always kept certain things to himself. Today he is in prison for attempted murder.
One of my long term clients was Ben, a violent gang-banger who admittedly liked to start fights. When he was 15 and had run away from home to sell drugs, he told me he used go around with a baseball bat and start trouble. He admitted to committing numerous vengeful acts in a matter of fact way, but when I met with his parents and heard his father, who had disciplined Ben physically all his life, tell him he didn't want him in the house anymore, I saw the 17 year old youth break down in tears. I do not know what happened to him. He taught me so much about the “thug life”, and introduced me to a lot of rap music; he would bring cds in and we would listen during our sessions.
There was a girl who was a client for a brief time, but she had been abused by her father and was afraid. I lied for her to help her run away to be with her mother in another state. It was not the first or last time I would break the rules. Ethical and moral choices were almost a daily occurrence for me; and I tried to base my decisions on what I thought was best for the client.
A lot of the kids knew each other and had dealings with each other both in and outside of the office; it was sometimes hard to keep straight who knew what about who, and which situation. There were drug deals that went down, thefts, relationship dramas, and there were all kinds of boundaries being crossed because as a youth counselor I was encouraged to take the kids out to eat, to go on field trips, give them rides, do home visits – all of these things were conducive to making those all important connections and trust building – helping them to be comfortable and to open up. There was fun and tragedy in equal measures. Yet I always felt theconfusion and stress to be worth the price, for those those times of real connection. At the time, I did what I felt was best, and later I dealt with the consequences and emotional effects.
One slow summer (the office was always busier when school started) a young couple brought their arguments to the office and I would attempt to mediate. The girl was a chronic runaway who had been sexually abused by her father and in every other way by her mother. She had alcohol and drug problems, and made spending money by selling her body. The boy, actually a young man in his 20's, was a little “slow” and kind hearted, always taking in “strays” like his mother did. His mother and I, two adults trying to look out for a lot of neighborhood juveniles, became friends. Her son was in a gang, he liked the status it gave him and it built up his ego. He tried to be tough, but over the years I knew him what I saw was a sweetness of spirit, and I sometimes wished he had been young enough to be my client.
At the end of my fifth year of counseling, I had given a month's notice before I went to graduate school, and I got a call that he had been shot. He had been at home celebrating his birthday, opened the kitchen door when someone knocked, and was shot in the chest. He died in his mother's arms. I waited outside the building and watched them take the body bag out, before being allowed upstairs to attempt to console my friend.
It was fitting that this was one of my final experiences as a counselor, officially. The memorial service was crowded with so many young people from the neighborhood – some of rival gang affiliation. It eventually came out that the bullet had been meant for someone else. The “someone else” was also a boy I had worked with.
I was exhausted and full of grief. Yet I could not completely let go. For several more years I remained involved with a small group of kids and I am still in contact with some of them. I became like an aunt to some boys (written elsewhere) -- who, to this day, have an odd combination of innocence and street smarts.
I have been lied to, cheated, manipulated, and stolen from more times than I can count. I have also been treated with respect, apologized to, thanked, and shown consideration and concern in countless small ways.
I have seen the look in a young person's eyes when he (or she) realizes I am not judging him, when he sees I am not going to tell anyone his secrets, when he sees me show up at his court appearance, or his house, or I take him to McDonald's for lunch. I have seen cold eyes warm up seen relief in a hard face as they realize it's still OK to have some innocent fun, to be a kid. I have heard their chuckles as I laugh at my own mistakes, and have heard their confessions, their hopes, their dreams.
I have seen the body language change from sitting tense and alert, to a relaxed slouch as he/she becomes more comfortable; and the intense leaning forward to listen as I give some insight I didn't know I had.
I have seen the surprise when I show I'm familiar with Tupac's lyrics, or use a street reference they would not expect an adult to know.
I have heard those magical words: “I never thought of it that way before.”
Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Would I change some things? Absolutely.
I wanted to get these kids to tell their stories. I wanted to try to make others understand them and how important, how crucial, it is for adults to be there and to continue to be there. I wanted to be there for them in the way I wanted an adult to be there for me, when I was a kid. To experience unconditional love by giving it. And I succeeded, for a time.
You can't cheat kids. If you cheat them when they're children they'll make you pay when they're sixteen or seventeen by revolting against you or hating you or all those so-called teenage problems. I think that's finally when they're old enough to stand up to you and say, 'What a hypocrite you've been all this time. You've never given me what I really wanted, which is you'