Two young, African-American men---both neglected by birth parents, both labeled “learning disabled’--attend a supportive small high school in New York City. JB graduates and, after two years, seems to be doing okay. Solo doesn’t graduate, and, at the time when he should have, seems like he’s lost, with his possibilities narrowing to the streets.
Why? Did we, as teachers and counselors, do something right in one case and wrong in the other? And in the face of bigger factors, things beyond our control, how much difference can our efforts really make?
As a high school social worker, I think about these questions a lot. On the one hand, I don’t really believe that the majority of human beings will be secure and fulfilled without deep social upheaval that overthrows structural oppressions (white domination, the rule of big corporations, patriarchy etc). On the other hand, I think it’s important if I/we/schools/social welfare institutions can help some young human beings at society’s bottom to grow up and “make it,” even in this messed up capitalist system. My definition of “make it” is a modest one. I just mean holding some kind of job that channels and recognizes some of their skills or talents and is therefore subjectively bearable if not thrilling (instead of dying on the streets in their twenties or rotting in jail), and sustaining some rewarding human relationships. “Making it” usually requires, but is definitely not guaranteed by, a high school diploma or GED.
So here’s my attempts to understand the stories of JB and Solo (not real names of course), two kids who I counseled for four years (due to their IEP requirements) and like very much.
Following federal and state law, schools must write up and carry out an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for each student who is determined by a psychologist’s evaluation to have a disability (often a learning, emotional or sensory difficulty, broadly speaking). The IEP might mandate that the student receive a certain number of hours of instruction in a smaller class, get extra time on tests, or receive services like speech therapy or counseling. That’s how they get to me, and often see me at least once a week for their four years of high school. I also counsel kids who don’t have IEPs but are emotionally upset about something, though that contact tends to be less regular.
JB was my first mandated counseling student at this new high school. At 14, he was a sociable, attractive kid who demanded a lot of attention in a peer group or a classroom. He liked to talk with peers, move around a lot, and argue with or challenge adults, but not in a hostile or mean way. Unlike many teenage guys, he didn’t resist mandated counseling and said he had become used to getting counseling from his foster care agency over the years. Nor was he embarrassed about other kids finding out that he got counseling.
While JB was not into recounting a coherent story about the past (more like details and fragments when he felt like it), I pieced together a picture from our conversations and his file. He was the second oldest of five kids of drug-abusing parents. All were removed from a filthy, chaotic home when he was about 6 or 7, and then placed in foster homes or staffed houses, sometimes all together or in pairs or trios, sometimes singly. He seemed to be the least damaged of the children, and worried a lot about a sister who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was often hospitalized, and a younger brother who was acting out aggressively. There was no contact with the birth parents, and he never wanted to talk about them much.
Throughout the four years of high school, there was a fair amount of drama about JB’s living situation. He knew how to work the system and had manipulated to get himself and two siblings out of a staffed house (I’m forgetting the exact technical term) and placed as foster children with one of the staff whom he liked. However, once in her home, they clashed and he moved to two homes after that. This pattern of growing close to an adult figure and then becoming very angry when that figure doesn’t live up to unrealistically high expectations is an idealization/devaluation syndrome common to kids whose early caretakers didn’t provide consistent nurturing. (Not to mention that the adult’s behavior also changes, and must change to some extent, when you’re the one in charge of a kid 24-7, versus being the worker they like to confide in.) JB would say, “She’s on me all the time” and complained that he was being blamed for everything that went wrong in the home.
JB: Best Not Too Close or Too Far
But JB did much better with relationships that were structurally more distant and secondary and not so potentially engulfing. He got to our school because the psychologist at his elementary school was very concerned about him finding a supportive high school, and accompanied him to the high school fairs. They were still in touch occasionally.
JB was labeled as “learning disabled,” a cover-all term in IEPs which always needs to be broken down and concretized, and balanced by an assessment of strengths. On the weakness side, what the teachers and I noticed was that he was somewhat disorganized, had trouble sitting still and finishing work, and would say, especially of math problems, “I really can do it—I know how to do it--I just get bored.” Many will recognize this pattern as typical of young people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is often not mentioned in New York City IEPs because it’s not included as a handicapping condition in New York State regulations.
When we raised it with him, JB resisted the idea that this new label might apply to him—especially since, if his foster care agency were to explore it, it might end up with him taking medication. But when I framed it as not a stigma or barrier but a way of understanding some weaknesses for which he could work to compensate, and then loaned him a memoir by an academically successfully teen with ADHD, he did acknowledge the resemblance and look at some of the tips for success. (I think he kept the book too, kinda forgetting to bring it back--which always happens with my best books.) This was a crucial acknowledgement, since without it he would probably fall into blaming teachers when he didn’t do well, or complaining that they were picking on him or didn’t like him. And a key part of my job was helping him to build and preserve the alliances with teachers that he needed to graduate—rather than withdrawing, devaluing, antagonizing etc.
JB’s Intelligence and Ability to Bond
JB had several key strengths. One was a keen interpersonal intelligence that allowed him to understand where people where coming from, got him a lot of (mostly female) friends and girlfriends, and made him an excellent peer mediator. Not to say that he didn’t have his own fairly intense conflicts with peers, but he usually kept them to a verbal level, and we spent a lot of counseling time processing his feelings about these relationships. His desire to understand himself and other people, and his openness to new insights, made JB a stimulating counseling client and student. Several teachers enjoyed conversing with and took him under their wing. JB also was what I like to call a “natural intellectual”—a working class kid who grasped, seized on and dug abstract concepts. This got him through Social Studies when the name/date/place details were not always engraved in his memory.
JB reinforced my sense that, when a kid who’s been through a lot is able to bond with me and benefit from counseling, it’s not primarily because I’m a brilliant social worker, but because the young person has developed this capacity to form relationships as a key survival mechanism. JB had an openness, curiosity, humor and spirit that over the years, drew many adults in his agency and his schools to want to help him. This quality is recognized as a key aspect of resilience, and I think it’s a large part of why he was able to graduate. It also didn’t hurt that he only had to take the RCTs (New York State’s minimum competency exams required in the major subjects) rather than the more difficult Regents exams, which were just being phased in.
JB Graduates and Flounders
JB graduated without a very clear plan for college and it was hard for me to track him. I try to balance between the therapeutic ethos/protocol of ‘terminating” and encouraging the client to move on, and the pedagogical ethos/protocol of wanting to know the progress of a young person, and welcome them back for a visit and check in. JB came back to visit the school once (his girlfriend, two years younger, was still a student) and told me something vague about looking for a job and applying for college. I was not too surprised that he was floundering a little because, unfortunately, few graduates from my school are really ready to succeed in college with its demands of independent reading and writing—despite our best efforts.
There were two hopeful signs, however. First, JB was still living with a foster parent, maybe the fourth one since I’d known him, with whom he got along better. Many kids in foster care hate the system so much that they bolt when they reach 18, refusing the considerable college or vocational tuition aid and other benefits available until age 22 to those who maintain a relationship with an agency. And secondly, he had maintained the relationship with his girlfriend Ramona, a pretty and kindhearted girl who was not into too many head games, from what I could tell.
A couple of times, I asked Ramona how JB was doing, and she would say, “He’s okay…” From her tone and vagueness, I sensed that things might not be going so well. But it wasn’t appropriate to pry or make her feel pressed or awkward —because now my obljgation was to be available to her, a current student, if she needed me. (I see both regular and special education students).
This past June, Ramona graduated, and there at graduation was JB, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. He grabbed me in a big hug and said how happy he was to see me. I said the same and that I had been wondering how he was doing and asking after him. “You asked about me?” he said, with a quick aside to Ramona, who was preoccupied with congratulations. “You didn’t tell me she asked about me!” He told me to me that he had been “really messed up” for a while but now had a job working with retarded adults and was taking classes for certification as a nursing assistant—through his foster care agency. “The science isn’t really hard,” he said, ”just sometimes the words are hard.”
JB said he felt good and could imagine himself studying for other licenses or degrees. I said I thought it was great that he could turn all the struggles he’d been through into compassion for other people who had big problems and needs. “I deal with really low-functioning people, I mean I have to change their diapers and stuff like that. Maybe I should be ashamed of what I do but I don’t really feel ashamed,” he said. I could only reply that he should be proud because he was actually helping people, even though our sick society doesn’t value that work enough.
JB’s putting himself on a good path after so many struggles, and I must admit, his happiness in seeing me and his expression of appreciation for my work with him—made my day.
JB: Saved by Fragments of the Welfare System
One key lesson I draw from this last part of the story is the importance of JB’s foster care agency, and the other shattered fragments of a welfare system that still remain in this country. For a kid who had neglectful and inattentive parents over the first six years of life, it’s not easy to establish an ongoing bond with a parent figure in later childhood or adolescence, no matter how supportive and caring that person is. But the consistent presence of the agency and the availability of programs that could take him from age six through career training has been a crucial constant in his life. He’s now at the point where he can name, and is determined to take advantage of, every benefit it offers.
Yes, his primary agency worker was usually an under-paid or un-paid social work intern who left after a year, and their supervisors stayed bit longer but also came and went. But these more “loosely coupled” relationships with a succession of good-enough advocates/confidants provided the right combination of consistency with a bit of distance, where no dyad became too intense or threatening for him. Similarly, his relationships with the elementary school psychologist and me, though longer-lasting (JB once said to me, ”The agency has a new worker every year but you’re always here for me”), were productive and tolerable for JB because they were limited in scope.
Somehow, the messed up special ed/school system, and the messed up social welfare system, combined with his own resilience, have sorta worked for JB. I think, cross fingers.
[Part II, Solo's story and some conclusions, coming shortly.]