Most of my career has been spent working with the “labeled” children. Socially maladjusted, oppositional/defiant, conduct disorder, juvenile delinquent, sexual predator, chemically dependent, criminal, alcoholic, clinically depressed, and so on. The ones out on the fringes of society, ignored for the most part, vilified or dismissed out of hand when they are noticed at all. It’s been said that one of the worst things that can be done to an individual or a group is to take away their voice, and these teenagers, like many other groups of outliers, have certainly been unable to speak to the larger community without their labels drowning out anything they might have to say.
The young people I spent my time and attention on had most of the characteristics one would expect, given the stereotype. Mistrust or open defiance of authority, anger simmering just under the surface and sometimes erupting into rage, hopelessness, inability to understand or function in the larger society, helplessness, refusal to follow the simplest norms of language or behavior – all these were present to a greater or lesser degree in the teens I worked with in the classroom or out in the field.
But there was also a side of them that usually gets dismissed as an aberration, if it is mentioned at all. These young people all had, often buried under layers of rage and mistrust, a desire to learn how to be a successful adult, to figure out how the world worked, to learn how to navigate the adult world they were about to enter. They all knew, even though they were reluctant to admit it, that adulthood was coming at them like a freight train, that they soon would be adults whether they wanted to be or not, and that they didn’t know how to be one. They, all of them, wanted to learn. For some of them this desire had been shamed or ridiculed or beaten almost completely out of them, but it never entirely disappeared. Entering the adult world was a step they recognized on some level as inevitable, and they wanted to get it right. One unintended result of being ignored or treated as unimportant is an independent streak, a determination to stand on one’s own two feet. The fact that it is often misplaced does nothing to diminish the validity of the drive; it will express itself one way or another. Misplaced, it can result in an attitude of disregard for others except as objects to be used, avoided, or overcome. Channeled, it is the same drive admired by society at large in our more successful members. It is present in these children, and is a valuable resource indeed.
The strength and potential of this resource is almost never explored or even acknowledged by the larger society.
And that is our loss, yours and mine. What I found working with these children is that, like most groups that we characterize as “other,” they are much more like us than not. Our practice of cutting them off from society, whether actively or passively done, does not make us stronger. On the contrary, it weakens us as a society and as members of the human family.
Boone, the protagonist in the series I am writing, was conceived as a distillation of the young people I spent so much of my time with over the years. He is not patterned after any one of them, but their struggles, prejudices, insights and occasional triumphs are his as well as theirs. He is a modern-day teenage Everyman, stumbling toward adulthood with little in the way of assets and a long list of survival skills that often work against him. He realizes early on that his biggest job is to unlearn most of the stuff his daddy taught him, but finds his father’s voice in his head so powerful that many times it’s impossible to ignore. He has little in the way of life experience that leads him to think of people in general as trustworthy, and so his suspicions often take the lead. The thought of having a happy life is so foreign as to be outside his imagination.
Like the young people I worked with, though, he wants to figure things out. On some level, he is tired of being ignorant and uncertain of what to do or say in the most mundane of societal interactions, and is frustrated with being dismissed or ignored completely. His ability to read people, a handy trait in the average person and a survival skill in those living on the edge, is blunted by his father’s misguided teachings about how the world works and so fails him at important moments both dangerous and potentially hopeful. He is angry at his father for the abuse he suffered in the past, for leaving him alone in the world, but also for the lessons his father taught him that Boone is having to unlearn to make any progress toward a functional life. This anger often hamstrings him but just as often, and more importantly, serves as a driving force to set these useless lessons aside.
Boone is sixteen at the beginning of the series, but could just as easily be fifteen or seventeen. He lives in an unnamed rural area in East Tennessee; the precise location is unimportant for purposes of the story. Boone is the narrator in this first person, present tense series, so the only insights are those Boone himself has. This means, among other things, that if there are several possible responses to a situation and Boone only sees two, he acts on his knowledge that there are only two options. This is sometimes frustrating for the reader who has to endure the results of Boone’s limited understanding of how things work. It is also one of the more difficult parts of writing Boone’s story, but the struggle was not without rewards. Boone is rough-hewn, and angry, and socially inept, but he’s trying.
I wanted to tell Boone’s story because these children are seldom heard and their story, like your story and mine, is rich and layered and worth the telling. And also because they need someone to hear their story. They need someone to listen. Being heard is part of belonging.
These young people, easily dismissed in casual interactions as at best uninteresting and at worst dangerous, are very much like us if we’re willing to look just a little bit below the surface, if we’re willing to do the work that tears down the walls. Like Boone, they know little about societal niceties, but they do know if the person they’re interacting with is genuine. As soon as they sense insincerity, condescension, or a superior attitude they know what game is being played out even if they can’t give it a sophisticated name. If they decide we’re playing that game, they will base their future interactions with us on that decision. On the other hand, if they decide we’re the real thing, everything changes, and our common humanity becomes visible and is a starting point for all kinds of possibilities. But only a starting point.
It doesn’t happen at once, of course. One young man I worked with took years to open up and let us in. An expectation of instant gratification on our part will almost certainly destroy whatever mutually respectful relationship we might be beginning to build, leaving us with the same old adversarial relationships both of us know all too well. Most of these youth have extensive experience of being lied to, manipulated, and treated like something barely worth noticing. They recognize the moment when we give up on them; they’ve seen it thousands of times already. If we are to welcome them into the larger family that they are rightful members of, there is work to be done, no question about it.
Somebody has to go first. It should be us.
Somebody has to refuse to give up. Again, it should be us.
It isn’t easy, but the rewards are significant. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.