A few nights ago I was enjoying a happy hour with my coworkers when I glanced down at facebook on my phone to see that two suspects had been identified in a Westbank shooting last week. As I do with most of those, I open to see if I know them, or to see if I taught them during my brief stint at Worley. It isn't uncommon to see a kid I knew of while working there get arrested or shot for something. Because I was only there briefly and because they've all grown, I usually only recognize them by their name and try to remember how I knew them.
I opened the page and gasped. Staring at me at the top of the page with darting eyes and an angry snare was the mugshot of a kid whose smile instantly popped in my head.
Before I even had a chance to read down I knew his name, and I remembered his hugs in the hallway, his frustrated moments in which he would pull me aside and tell me he couldn't calm down.
Here was a kid who had every card stacked against him, and the cards won.
I remembered many a happy-hour withe my Worley crew in which his name would pop up and everyone would instantly have some frustrating story about how he'd disrupted their lives on this particular day. He was that kid who would stand up and walk around the classroom for no reason at all. He was the kid who would get angry over something really small, recognize how angry he was, then interrupt your class to try to talk to you about it. He was a kid who DID NOT WANT TO BE THIS WAY. I watched him try. I remember him coming in and telling me almost every day "today I'm gonna do my work." "Today I'm not going to let that kid bother me." "Today I'm gonna sit down through the whole class."
The mental health issues were all over the place. Serious learning disabilities, major oppositional defiant issues, emotional disturbances, etc. His family life was rough. His father actively advocated AGAINST putting him in special education, despite just how badly he needed supportive services, because he felt like the special ed programs were too soft on the kids (they kindof were, but that's neither here nor there).
He might have frustrated the heck out of me, but he made me laugh. He made me feel appreciated. He made five of the most difficult months of my life a little more palatable because he gave me a vision.
When I'm asked why I switched from teaching to social work my answer is always the same - because I loved the difficult kids the most, but I couldn't teach them to save my life, so I wanted a field where I get to spend my day working with the difficult kids. I always have about three or four specific faces that come to mind while talking about it. This kid is one of them.
And now, that angry face from the newspaper is burned in next the one I've always had of him. We lost the battle. At 21 years old, this kid is wanted for murder. This kid will likely spend the rest of his life locked-away somewhere, with little-to-no support. This kid will remain a "thug" in the eyes of everyone who didn't know him. And this is why I do what I do.
Every time there's a horrible news story about a crime, I catch a lot of flack for "sympathizing with the criminal." Let's be clear, this is not a zero-sum game - wondering what was going on in the head of a criminal, what brought them to that point, what could have been done to help them along the way, and feeling truly sorry for whatever it is they were experiencing that brought them there - that does not take away from my absolute heartbreak for a victim and their family. They are not mutually exclusive. But I will NEVER sympathize with you when you call them scum, when you say they don't deserve to live, when you say they are worthless. I just won't.
Because I know them.
I see the kid that has made the last three months of my life unnecessarily difficult because of the tremendous amount of maintenance it takes to care for him, and I see that he is absolutely on the road to be yet another kid on the streets getting arrested left and right and probably ending up killing someone. I see him playing basketball and telling me about his girlfriend. I see him calling me every racist, sexist name he can think of, and then laughing and begging for my attention. I see him terrified and shaking (but of course swearing he's not) when he's being moved to yet another unknown home because whoever was caring for him couldn't do enough. I see him proudly displaying the new beautiful pair of sneakers someone gave to him.
I see myself watching baseball on a Thursday night after moving him to a new facility where he is no longer under my care and wondering how he's sleeping. Is he upset? Did he cry after we left him but try to pretend he didn't care? Should I call and check on him tomorrow? (and I remember the relief I felt when I did and his new social worker told me how kind he had been to her).
I am often given a lot of flack for not carrying a gun to "protect myself" against violent criminals, but my response is that I know I wouldn't be able to shoot them anyway - because every time I see the face of one of those violent criminals, I see my kids. I see their worth. I see that they are loved by a God who knows them better than I do and knows their worth, and it makes me want to know their story, and I would probably die before being able to harm them.
The work I do is hard - like, really exhausting difficult frustrating makes-me-wonder-why-I'm-not-in-business-making-more-money hard, but seeing the face of one of the very kids who inspired me to do this work in the first place as he is wanted for the very thing I work so hard to try to stop these kids from doing, it keeps me going. I'm not writing this to toot-my-own-horn, because I don't think that this work makes me any kind of hero, it is simply something I feel morally obligated to do not just because I see the problem, but because I know I CAN and a lot of people CAN'T and if those of us who CAN don't do it, who will? I'm writing this to beg you to open your eyes to see that there is more to the story. I'm writing so that maybe we might consider that our own world is very small, and there are a lot of things we can't understand but if we take the time to not brush them off, we might be able to gather a little piece of understanding.
Please know that every time you refer to one of these kids as a "thug," as "evil," as "worthless," you are breaking my heart. Whether that matters to you or not does not make it any less true. I know them. I know their worth. Please, take the time to consider that. Consider that they too have a story, and a purpose, and that someone out there loves them and wants to see them do well. I've worked with, quite literally, thousands of kids in the last 9 years of my life. Each of them had a story. Not one of them was worthless.