This dinner speech was presented as a keynote address to supporters and staff of a residential school for students with
emotional and behavior disorders. The address preceded an awards ceremony for kids and young adults who had made great accomplishments.
Good evening, and thank you for the invitation to be part of this wonderful event. Gatherings such as this one hearten me. It isn’t often that I get to hear optimism and positive words when we talk about kids who possess emotional and behavioral challenges. Also, as one of their former teachers, and now a professor, it’s not often that I talk to groups of people who are paying attention.
In my mind, working with kids who have the label “ED” or “BD” is like trying to make headway in a gale force wind: You can make progress, but it’s slow; you sometimes slip or even get pushed backwards; and sometimes you get struck unexpectedly by something.
I’ve been there…teaching in poorlly funded, undersupported programs in which getting through the bureaucracy to obtain supplies, materials, or services was like mating elephants…It’s done at high level, there’s lots of bellowing and screaming, and it takes two years to get results. (And sometimes you’re crushed by the outcome.) As a teacher in a self contained classroom of kids with psychological and behavioral issues, I found that I had been deputized to keep my students away from the village that I thought was supposed to raise them.
Even if the system wasn’t broken, often times, we would mainstream youngsters out to general education classes with their bolstered self-esteem and new-found-motivation only to have it shattered by ill-natured, cantankerous teachers who seized the opportunity to strike back and hurt this student who represented the ones who once hurt them. These educators engaged in the same behaviors they punished when kids showed them: bullying, teasing, ridiculing, and gossiping…One victim now hurting another.
Perhaps if they had known the background of the kids they disliked, sympathy, empathy, and support would have surfaced. There’s an old Hebrew proverb (that’s I believe is still said by old Hebrews): “If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough pain and sorrow to wish no further harm upon them.”
I knew their backgrounds. I would read the files of my soon-to-arrive students, and feel my heart sink. I remember growing up as a child (which by the way, is the best time to grow up), when my biggest concern was having my friends laugh at the weird sandwiches my mom would send to school with me each day. Whatever was left over from last night’s supper would be present in my crumpled and bleeding brown paper lunch bag. Broccoli, mashed turnips, creamed corn, and all kinds of yucky stuff I had managed to avoid the night before, now appeared between two slices of Wonder Bread. And on the one day that I brought in my hard earned allowance to purchase a tray of cafeteria near-food, I was the recipient of a eye-opening, jaw-dropping, incapacitating wedgie from the bullies who then pried the coins from my clenched hands! In my mind, I was a decorated veteran of childhood. I thought I had experienced it all.
However, as I read through the social histories of my future students, it seemed as if they had grown up on a whole ‘nother planet…their experiences were that foreign when compared to my supposed agony. Typically the files contained heart-wrenching stories of upheaval and anguish.
Let’s take, for example, Jacinto’s record. While dramatic, it wasn’t all that different from those of my other students over the years….or the girl whose history is described on your school’s web site…At age 16, Jacinto lived with a frail grandmother he hardly knew. She took him in after his second long-term foster family (who promised to adopt him) left him behind when they moved to another state. He was peeled away from them just like he was from the first foster home. Periodically, his drug-addicted mother and rarely present, but abusive father, re-appeared in his life to break their promises of life-lone committment and protection.
The special education teacher to whom Jacinto clung for emotional support gave whatever she was able before finally giving up on him when his behavior didn’t change quickly for the better. Unable to manage Jacinto’s angry emotional outbursts with their ever-increasing penalties, the district then decided that he should be sent to a regional residential school where they could “control” someone like him.
After six months, his sending school called him back because the outside placement was too expensive. He was once again taken in by his angelic, but underequipped grandmother. His return to the district placed him in my special ed classroom most of the day. Jacinto was in a heightened state of emotional turmoil…given the fear of the death of the last person they could locate who still wanted him, and placement with another one of those people whom he resented due to repeated bad experiences and their lack of belief in him…a teacher.
Previous to Jacinto’s arrival, my para and I had been able to create a sanctuary where tough kids could let down their formidable defenses and be kids again. I must admit to days when my classroom was a behavioral malstrom, days when I was so discombobulated that I wanted to call 911, but couldn’t remember the number. I had to call 411 to get the number for 911! But for the most part, our room was a place where we had developed a positive peer culture, and were teaching our kids the skills they were never taught: For some kids who had been neglected, it might even include self-care and hygiene. Heck, I remember the beginning of one year when we were tempted to label Rodney a level three bio-hazard!
For the most though, in addition to academics, it was instruction in anger management, self regulation, values clarification, and social skills. It took a while for the kids to learn the new ways. Change takes time even when surrounded by supportive folks. To assure that their new, more appropriate actions were displayed after our in-class role playing, we shadowed them and whispered advice in their ears when they had opportunities to display the replacement behaviors. We’d remind them of things like: “Remember to wipe the booger off your finger before shaking hands with our visitor.” And when Cruella ordered another student to “Pass the protractor.”, I said “What’s the magic word?” She thought for a second, held up a fist, and shouted “NOW!” It was progress though, and we promoted effort, not accuracy, knowing that motivation to keep trying would bring eventually bring about proficiency. Yes, it’s difficult to break old habits and replace them with new ones. As evidence of this, indulge me for a second…
(Arm crossing activity here)
We’d also work on empathy training: Being able to understand and appreciate the feelings of others…No small task for boys whose only empathetic connection at that point in time was groaning “Awhhh” whenever they saw a movie character get kneed in the groin. (Heck, I just saw a lot of grimaces in this audience) Community service in a home for the aged was used to help develop a sense of caring. Senior citizens were gladly taken out on walks…whether they wanted to go or not.
Well, back to Jacinto. As was our periodic ritual, we began to prepare our class for the entry of our new student. It was always an anxiety-filled time for our kids because roles and ranks would have to be re-aligned, and they feared losing some of the comfort, prestige, and sense of community that had developed. It was also an issue because we had a very small classroom…a typical special ed room. As one of my kids complained. “Mr. Mac, we can’t take another student. We ain’t got no `assroom’ in the classroom.”
When I mentioned that the new fella’s name was “Jacinto”, they looked like they’d just eaten a bad clam. It was followed with “Man, you can’t let him come in here Mr. Mac.” Tall tales, hear-say, and rumors were bandied about in excited tones.
The reports mirrored what I had read in his file. Jacinto was this tall, handsome, muscular 16 year old with a witty, but caustic sense of humor. His disdain for most adults was legendary. He was described as the type of person who would wish you a happy Thanksgiving by flipping you the bird and telling you to stuff it. Teacher reports indicated that there was a sure sign that he was going to cause trouble when he arrived at school in the morning: He’d be breathing. He was likened to behavioral popcorn: You knew he was going to explode…you just didn’t know when.
He got the same disdain in return. I guess that’s because disruptive kids have a contagious disease…they bring out the same behavior in their teachers who don’t have the disciplinary antibodies to help the student while protecting themselves from catching crankiness. As was typical of kids with defiant behavior, his record showed that educators has worked long into the night to try to figure out better ways to punish him for the behavior that emanated from his traumatized soul. When detention and suspension and special placement didn’t work, they sent him off to the day school. They were ready for his return with everything from deportation to lethal injections! (By the way, I’ve always wondered…why do they sterilize the needles used for lethal injections?)
His hair-trigger aggression against other teens was also well documented. While he was viewed by other kids as a leader, he was one whom you admired and feared at the same time.
Tamika was the sole accepting one in the group. With her female love of bad boys, she was probably enamored with the thought of this good-looking alpha male sitting next to her in class. She claimed that he was misunderstood and didn’t have a mean bone in his body. To which Tyrice replied “Yeah, neither do sharks”.
(You’ll get that joke on the way home…it takes a while to fester.)
Perhaps Tamika’s ability to separate the person from the behavior was partly a result of our work. We had been teaching our students to dislike the behavior, but to keep believing in the other’s ability to change for the better with their support. Perhaps her sentiment is best expressed by Mark Twain’s famous quote: “He’s a good man in the worst sense of the word.”
On that fateful day, Jacinto arrived late to my door, no pass in hand. I suddenly found myself staring into the jaws of death…and it had bad breath! I congenially welcomed him and asked “Where’d you just came from?”
“The street man. I come from the street.”
“Yeah, me too.” I replied.
He gave me a sneer and said “You…from the street?”
“Yeah, man.”, I said roughly,… “Sesame street.”
He cracked up. He said he had me figured for “EZ street”, which cracked me up, and we were able to have a nice conversation before I asked him to join my group.
Now, it’s impossible to condense our year and a half together into a few sentences. Long story made short (too late?), his overall behavioral performance inside the school was erratic, but continually improving. He was trying to make the switch at the schoolhouse door from tough street hood to energetic student, but the street often shadowed him into the hallways, cafeterias, and yards.
Overall, though, he was like a dandelion. Here was a kid who had been uprooted repeatedly, treated with poison, and yet was still trying to thrive and blossom. That’s exactly what we hope to create in our down-trodden kids who have been thrown on society’s trash heap…resilience. (Summarize resilient kids research here)
We want to nurture the ability to keep bouncing back, keep hope, and continue striving to be a good person, despite hurdles being placed in their way by those misguided educators who think that “getting tough” is the best intervention. Why is it that “getting tough with them” is viewed as the best way to deal with everyone in the world except us? It’s counterproductive, the educational equivalent of Robitussin cough syrup…We tell them it’s “good for them” even though it leaves a nasty taste in their mouth.
Yes, there were times when I remembered the words of the great American patriot Patrick Henry, and thought “If I have but one life to give for my country, lets make it Jacinto.” Among our staff he became known as “Haywood”… due to his frequent response to being asked to return to task: “Hey. Would you buzz off!?” Ha!…I remember one day, looking over his shoulder, helping him with his writing, I told him the rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition (words like: of, from, to, on, & with). He then proceeded to scribble two words for my purview. They weren’t “Happy birthday”. I told him that “off” was also a preposition, so he’d have to rephrase the statement. Even in those trying moments, it’s important to stand back with a rational mind and see the kid through the behavior; Part of being a valued teacher of these kids is resolving not to take angry comments personally. Teachers of these kids need the ability to “take it” while while using that moment to devise a supportive and professional intervention for a youngster in crisis. Of course, it’s hard not to take it personally, when someone says “F- – - you.” (Tell the “F-you” story here)
Despite the irritating tests, I stuck with my training and the positive program we had developed:
- Set ‘em up to do the right thing.
- Recognize ‘em when they do the right thing.
- When they do the wrong thing, express disappointment, but make it clear to them that it’s because you know they are capable of doing so much better.
- Solve the problem instead of throwing blame and punishment back and forth.
- Find a way to work together to promote positive change.
Jacinto and I were to become allies in changing his automatic, habitual responses. Progress was slow into that hurricane force wind, and we sometimes fell down in our quest to move forward. That tough uphill hike is to be expected. However dysfunctional, his behaviors may have been, they were useful in protecting him from further emotional harm in his life. As with most of our BD kids, Jacinto appeared to be an emotional bull in an educational china shop. To the contrary, they’re china shops inside a bull: Rough, aggressive, and wildly misdirected on the outside, but protecting the highly fragile inside from being gored.
We bonded, two people from very different worlds in the way of age, experiences, culture, …you name it. A mutual fondness developed, and we came to enjoy being with each other every day (or nearly every day). Jacinto even had dreams of becoming a teacher of kids with behavior disorders. (He had those dreams while he was asleep in my class.)
In late April of his second year with me, Jacinto’s path to recovery was abruptly taken off course, and quickly ended. His grandmother suffered a serious stroke. He went to live in the home of an older “cousin” (not a blood relative, but a “friend”) who was involved in the formation of a new chapter of the “Bloods” (a notorious street gang). Not long after, Jacinto was adjudicated to the local juvenile facility after being identified in a number of crimes including
- petty thefts at convenience stores
- the burglary of a house where he attended a party the weekend before
- the pummeling of a driver who yelled at him to “Get your sorry ass out of the road!”
- and a facial disfigurement (The initiation rite into the Bloods gang involves slashing the face of an unknown passerby with a razor).
Jacinto, a kid who felt so abandoned and lost,… did horrible things in order to belong and be valued. He wanted support in this unfriendly world.
Psychologists tell us that the greatest human need is to “belong”. Everyone needs to be emotionally intertwined with others. We all need to hear that we are safe, accepted, appreciated, and loved. Jacinto desperately wanted to belong to a caring and charismatic mentor. He wanted a polestar adult to guide him. But he also feared the rejection that always seemed to come just when he thought he was permanently connected to someone.
When youngsters stick themselves to adults, and are repeatedly pulled away, something devastating happens. I call it the `masking tape effect’. Each time you peel it off the wall, it loses a little stickum, until eventually it refuses to adhere to a new surface. At that point it usually gets thrown away.
So imagine your Jacintos and Jacintas, in a new chapter of their histories, arriving in an unfamiliar and scary place… your residential setting. They’ve been separated yet again… But this time, it’s from everything they know…even their friends, home, and community. It’s another terribly traumatic event added to the already long list of trauma in their short lives.
They’re told that they’ll be living here for the next 6 months to 2 years. They’re told they’ll come to like it over time, because the people are nice and care about them- – - – That claim is true. But given a life history of rejection and maltreatment, would you believe them? Would you make yourself vulnerable and trust their word?
They want so much to believe you folks, but how can they? They’ve lowered their guard before, and seen their trust trampled.
Now while this wonderful place is filled with good people in a orchestrated environment, it is strange and perplexing. They’re disoriented. In an attempt to lessen their vulnerability, disoriented people seek to gain some control over their circumstances. Jacinto & Jacinta use the behavior patterns that have driven well-intentioned adults before. They might also make quick alliances with others who haven’t yet bought into this baffling place filled with a large number of adults… some who will reject you within days… others who will hang on a bit longer before giving up on reaching you. These persistent and attacking behaviors of which we adults complain are an attempt to protect oneself from yet another episode in the continuing series of “Fooled you again!”
Jacinto and Jacinta set out to prove that the staff is just like every other adult who has been in their lives. They intend to expose you for “who you really are”, and get the “inevitable” rejection over with… on their own terms. They’ll wrap themselves in barbed wire. The prongs are long and sharp…hurting those who reach out to help. This barbed exterior that they’ve developed to protect their fragile cores has always repelled those who might inflict more pain upon them. Sadly, it also repels those who would give comfort.
While you are being hastily judged as one who would eventually reject and hurt, all the while they’re hoping against hope that perhaps you might be someone who will pass their test..allowing them to put down their defenses and be a trusting child. So few adults, if any, have ever had the fortitude to continue to reach through the defenses.
Fortunately, the kids here at _________ have been expelled to a friendlier place…a place steeped in a long legacy of helping kids in emotional need. Those who work in your residential and day programs are a part of a special breed. They willingly suffer the barbs, and keep trying to give that physical or psychological hug. Unlike the great teachers in the public schools, they are surrounded here by others with the same idealistic views and persistence. Here there is an extended support system that is based on the legacy established by the___________________________________________ almost a century and a half ago. This place CAN and DOES make a difference in the lives of those who live and are schooled here.
You are like the people I watch on that television show titled “The Antique Road Show”~~ – able to see the value in what others have passed by. It takes even more to recognize underlying worth at a human level and want to restore it to value. You are able to imagine the shine that would be there if we rubbed off the emotional tarnish, made a few necessary repairs, and admired a somewhat flawed piece for it’s distinctiveness.
________ is the last, best chance for kids who are far from the dream. You, and now I, are fortunate to be associated with an organization that keeps doing the right thing…based on the credo: “All children will always receive the care, treatment and support they need.”
As I look out in the audience tonight, I see that not all angels have wings. Speaking as someone who has worked with a lot of these kids, I want to say, sincerely, “Thank you” for what you’re doing for a misunderstood and underserved population. Your reward may not come here, but you earth angels have earned a few more points toward heaven.
Before I exit the podium and you clap your hands in the obligatory applause, please take one of those hands and pat yourself on the back. Then take the other one and pat the back of someone next to you.
At this point, let me turn the microphone back over to our mistress of ceremonies, ____________. Good night all.