Thursday, May 27, 2010

So much work to do

Our kids have a lot of potential. They're bright, inquisitive, and active. The problem is, when there isn't something for them to do, they get restless and work to find a way to fulfill their need to do something. Unfortunately, this often results in them "experimenting" with things like, "What happens when I throw this paver (that was supposed to go to our garden) to the ground?" or "How hard do I have to throw this rock before it breaks that double-paned window?"

I don't think they have a clue that what they're doing are physics experiments. In their minds...and most times in ours...I think they're just vandalizing property...which is extremely irritating. But the reality is, whether they know it or not, they're experimenting. Our job is to channel that experimentation. And that's not always easy.

I want to say that parents should be more involved and aware of what their kids are doing. But during my social work internship, I was told that, "You can't 'should' all over yourself." So, instead of "should-ing" we've got to go to work.

We have a building that is not conducive to kids' programming...but it's a huge, nice building that we're extremely grateful for. Because of the way it's designed, kids run up and down the halls without us being able to monitor them. By the time we get to them, they've run out one door and in another. When there aren't very many staff people, we have to lock the door so we can monitor who comes in and out...and that doesn't even work very well.

Yesterday, when I walked over to the building, some kids were standing outside complaining because they couldn't get it while another kid was inside antagonizing by making faces at them through the window. The Community Center was closed so the kids who wanted to run around and play didn't have a place to go. Instead, they were wreaking havoc on the staff trying to conduct educational programs (a true testimony of why we need all kinds of different programming in a single community).

Though some of the kids know me, the one at the window did not. When I walked in and asked him to leave, he refused. I usually have great relationships with kids and they respect me even if they don't like what I'm telling them. But he didn't know me. After probably 30 minutes of refusing to just let him slide, he finally walked out the door...but not without commentary.

As he walked down the stairs, he mumbled loud enough to make sure I heard him, "Stupid white lady. You can just go back to Whiteville." Though it's not the first time something like that has been said to me, it hasn't happened in a long time. And though I didn't want it to bother me, it did.

I tried to write it off thinking, "I don't have a relationship with him. He doesn't know me. It's understandable."But the other side of me was saying, "That shouldn't matter. Kids should demonstrate respect no matter who it is." I was irritated that some kids show absolutely no respect for themselves, peers, property, or other adults. I addressed a few more situations in the building, then started to head back to the After-School Academy.

When I left the building, he was sitting outside. Knowing that my job was not done, I went over and sat down beside him. He didn't get up and run off when I sat down. We had a rational conversation about what had happened...well, mostly I talked and he listened.

At one point, another boy his age (about 10 or 11 years old) who knew me came up to me with a big smile and greeted me. I could see the other boy's eyebrows raise as he gave me a side eye like, "You know him??" and because this kid was his friend, I could tell he was thinking, "Wait! You like her??" I could tell my "stupid white lady" status was starting to break down.

The two boys gave each other their special handshake. I engaged the boy I knew and convinced him to teach me the special handshake...which he explained I could only do with about 4 other boys. My coolness factor was starting to come back. I convinced the boy I knew to leave so I could finish my conversation to which he then asked, "What did he do?"...as if he was hoping to find out so he could help me out, go tell his mom for me, or somehow reprimand him for me.

Once I convinced him to leave us for a minute, I finished my conversation. By the end, the kid I was talking to wasn't angry any more and explained that if he would've done what I said, the girls he was antagonizing would have laughed at him. He was trying to save face.

Ahhh...point well taken. So I could have approached the situation differently. We discussed what I could've done differently and what he could've done differently and ended by shaking hands and agreeing to both do better.

The whole situation wore me out. It made me start thinking about how we can structure our programs in a way that doesn't allow them to get to the point of that kind of behavior, but also to figure out how to teach them not just to respect the person they've built a relationship with, but to learn to respect the people and things they don't have a relationship with as well.

I know of one kid who was that trouble maker all through junior high and high school with everyone but me. People said he was just wrapped around my little finger. Perhaps he was. But I also know that I pressed him to be respectful and we had many conversations on how to respond to people even when he didn't like their reaction. Now, at 25, he has worked at the same job for 6 years and tells me about situations he deals with in a positive way in spite of what he wants to say or do. So, I know that what happens when they're 10...even if they only show respect for one person right now...can eventually affect them if they are continuously taught and coached.

It's a big job that takes a long-term commitment and effort. The short-term is frustrating at times and, despite the successes, doesn't seem to reach every kid. Maybe I shouldn't have to play the role of the parent. Maybe I shouldn't have to hire male staff to play the role of the male role model because so many fathers are absent. Maybe I shouldn't have to get such a large number of staff to handle the types of emotional and behavioral outbursts we have. But, again, it's not about the "shoulds," it's about working toward creating a society where we *all* feel safe. We have that opportunity. It's challenging...and there are many people who don't see the need to fund it. But think about the alternative...not just for the kids themselves, but for us as a society as well.

The kids deserve to see themselves in a different light...and the rest of society needs to see what they have to offer. We have a lot of work to do, but creating a sense of hope is never easy.
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