At the beginning of the summer, I wrote a blog post that was, in part, about the terrible stories I hear in doing my job. I was at the zenith of my burnout, as I am every year in June. This past Friday, I went in to the office for a few hours to get some preliminary work done, and I started thinking about the really great things I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve done this job. Most of them aren’t things I ever talk about to anyone outside of my office, for confidentiality reasons. Even if you’re not using names, you get used to keeping things to yourself. The strength and self-knowledge of a 16-year-old kid can be an amazing thing to witness, and I want to remember these stories. I was thinking about The Breakfast Club on Monday, and realized that since I’ve been in my job, I’ve met and gotten to know students who remind me of all five of those people. I’m going to use their names to tell these stories.
Bender was referred to social work for a mandatory three sessions, following a suspension for damage to school property. He spent all three sessions facing the therapist’s door, with his arms crossed. The thing is, though, he kept coming back after the three sessions were up. He kept facing the door. Until one day he sat down, with his arms crossed. Then one day he talked, with his arms crossed. Then one day, he uncrossed his arms while he talked. Eventually, he talked enough that so that he could be removed from his abusive mother’s custody, and he moved in with a local host family. Two years later, he graduated. He went to community college and studied psychology. He’s a therapist, and does motorcycle repair as a side business.
Andrew’s father cheered him at every football match, then beat the shit out of him on the weekends, being very careful not to hit him anywhere obvious. The first time he hit Andrew’s little brother, Andrew came into my office and reported his father to Child Protective Services. Dad was arrested and the little brother never got hit a second time.
Claire found out her best friend was cutting herself, and dragged her into the department and demanded to see a therapist, while her friend cried and swore she’d never speak to her again. Claire’s circle of friends ostracized her, and her own mother screamed at her in my office that you never, ever tell. It took 18 months for her friend to talk to her again, but the friend was hospitalized (twice) and got help and stopped cutting.
Brian was nearly run over by another student in a car, a boy who had been bullying him for months. He reported the incident, and found out that the other student was the son of a prominent and influential community member. He decided to press charges anyway, against his parents’ wishes.
Allison got her drunk mother out of bed every morning for the three years I knew her. She bathed her, dressed her, and fed her breakfast. If these measures failed, she called her mother’s office with an excuse. Then she got her little sister out the door to grade school. She then arrived late to school herself. She managed to keep up a B+ average and won an art scholarship when she graduated.
There are dozens of other stories I could tell. A senior boy who was told he had a degenerative eye disease and would be blind before he finished college. While completing his senior year, he also completed a life skills course and then enrolled in a training class so he could help other kids who would go through the same thing. A girl who has been diagnosed with a neurological disorder who decided to remain in school as long as she could while her own mind turns on her. She keeps a journal so she will remember who she was. An autistic boy who is fascinated with dates and incorporates the numbers into staggeringly complex and beautiful self-portraits. More students than I can count who have reported their friends’ suicidal ideation, drug use, self injury or abusive homes, and have literally saved a life. I’ve seen children perform acts of enormous selflessness, bravery and love that were beyond the range of the adults who are supposed to protect and care for them. Yes, true: my job takes a toll. It’s hard to watch suffering, particularly in children. I’ve felt many times that this job has crowded out my capacity to be a careful and supportive listener to the people I love, whose stories I would choose to hear. There are times when I’ve missed cues for help from people close to me who needed me, and I wish that wasn’t true. But my job is also an incredible privilege. It’s a privilege to be trusted with someone’s story, and to be trusted with their comfort and safety, however briefly. I don’t regret that, and I don’t want to forget it.
(Claire didn’t end up with Bender. She dated Brian. They met sitting in front of my desk, waiting for the cops and their parents to show up.)