December 31, 2008

A Tale of Two City Kids (Part I)

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's Story

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).

JB Re-Appears

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.]

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December 30, 2008

Straws In The Wind #2: Philadelphia Library Revolt

[In April, I started posting sporadic economic bits called "Bite Size Bad News." The idea was to highlight the unfolding economic meltdown by examining one or another particularity from the economic news. I stopped because no one likely to read FotM really needs my help to understand that we are in the early stages of something mighty like a depression.

Hence, this new feature. "Straws In The Wind" posts will focus on how the burden of the crisis is being placed on ordinary working folks and on their developing consciousness and resistance. I am taking the liberty of renaming my most recent post Straws In The Wind #1. That makes this #2.]

As 2008 draws to an end, and with it the tax year, we are seeing what will rapidly become a tsunami of cuts in public services starting to gather force around the country. Every state and municipality will be hit in different ways, but no place is gonna stay high and dry.

Want an example? The estimable Suzy Subways (one-time literary voice of Brooklyn's bike delivery folk) has done my homework for me. Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia announced just last month that 11 of the city's 54 libraries will be shuttered, effective New Year's Day. This has produced a riptide of anger in neighborhoods all over the city, and several City Council members have gone to court to block the closings.

But I recommend a look at this cable broadcast of one of the neighborhood meetings Nutter and Library Director Siobhan Reardon held to try and quell opposition to library and other cuts.

It's a long meeting--folks in predominantly Black Southwest Philly are steamed--but Suzy has put in the time to transcribe the highlights, and included time checks so you can slide straight to the exchanges she typed up below.

Do these folks seem like they are gonna sit quietly and watch their communities stripped of libraries? Not to me. I'm gonna be checking the news from Philadelphia over the next few days.

TRANSCRIPT (courtesy Suzy Subways)

Minute 25:50
Crowd chanting, “Tax the rich!”

Minute 58:26
April Turner – “You said once our libraries close, our children can go to their schools or they can walk to the library…. Can you tell me how many schools do not have libraries in our area? I need this answer from you!” Nutter scrambles but has to admit he doesn’t know.

Turner -- “Wilson Alexander School is the only elementary school right here that has a library – that will be only operating 2 times a week.”

At Minute 59:51, she asks about Kingsessing Library getting sold. Nutter actually says, “I never said anything about selling the libraries, ma’am.” You can hear people yelling, “Liar!”

Minute 60:20

Lucille Walker -- “Being a schoolteacher, I know what it’s like to lug books from this library to Mitchell school. I know what it’s like to bring my students to the basement of this library to listen to storytime, because we didn’t have a library at Mitchell School! And not only did I work at Mitchell School, I worked at Huey School which does not have a library! …I know a lot of parents that have volunteered in the libraries. They have volunteered because there’s no librarians!”

Minute 94:38
A woman with her elementary school age daughter – “I’m a single mother of four…. When they say, ‘Mom, we need to look up something on the internet,’ we don’t have internet. Where do I say go?” [passing the mic to her daughter]

Child – “The library.”

Mother – “The library. When there’s things I don’t understand, and I need to educate myself, I go to the library…. My children’s schools don’t have Apple computers. They don’t have laptops they get to carry around. You say they can go to the schools, but there are no books in the school….
[she continues speaking at Minute 97:44] Thank God I drive, because I have to take my children to the high-class neighborhoods just to get a good book. We can’t get DVDs. [To daughter] Where do you get your DVDs?”

Child – “The library.”

Mother – “At the library!”

Minute 125:20

Young Man -- “I spoke to you at the first town hall meeting, and it seems like you’re still getting a lot of heat, and there’s a lot of confrontation that’s still going on. And the reason is these people are tired, massa. We’re tired, boss. We’re tired of the oppression, we’re tired of the abuse, we’re tired of the neglect…. I don’t think that you really understand the effect of what you’re doing right now as in taking away these libraries and taking away these pools….

You’re not going to feel that effect. Every last person up there is content, y’all are comfortable with the positions that y’all are in…. It don’t harm y’all, because you have power…. I just want to know, how do your wife and kids feel about the decision that you have made?”

Nutter – “It’s the toughest decisions that I’ve ever made….” He asks community members to do more volunteering, etc….

Young Man – “The financial crisis that we’re going through right now, are all of you being affected by that financial crisis?”

Nutter – “well, I’m personally affected by the decisions I have to make, I’m personally affected by reducing my pay.”

Audience -- “How do you sleep at night?”

Young Man to audience – “We need to come together!”

Minute 138:55

Carolyn Morgan – “[Library Director Siobhan] Reardon, I find you to be an enemy to the Southwest Philadelphia area, to the libraries throughout the city, because it stands to reason and you show it, you have no intention of even wanting the libraries to survive.…

[to Nutter] Your children don’t suffer….Talking about our children walking 2 miles [to the nearest library], that’s 4 miles a day. Is your daughter going to walk 4 miles a day? That’s putting our children in danger…. Don’t you tell me, buddy, because I was born in this neighborhood 66 years ago! And I’ve lived 66 years in this neighborhood! So don’t tell me! You and Reardon come up with your asinine idiosyncrasies, and we’re not going to tolerate them! We are not dumb. We are not stupid… We are tired of y’all smudging our faces and our children’s faces, our grandchildren’s faces. We are not going to tolerate it. Now is the time for you to piss or get off the pot, both of you. And I’m tired of you trying to cut our throats!”

Minute 146:50

Young Man – “From the beginning, your administration has really demonstrated a pretty base abuse of power. From your campaign, like the proposal of “Stop and Frisk” policy…. Taking the libraries away, and then this recent announcement of allowing cops to carry bigger guns, up to .45 caliber. This is actually for you, Mr. Ramsey -- and hopefully you’re better at lying and dodging questions than the mayor, but -- are you a sociopath?”

Police commissioner Ramsey, rising from his chair, leaning over the table and pointing his finger – “I don’t need that from you! You got a problem with me, we’ll talk about it, you understand what I’m saying?”

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December 20, 2008

Straws in the Wind #1: A Word From The Woods

My friend Jay is a logger, a good one--self-employed, honest, insanely hardworking, ecologically savvy. He cuts in the tri-state area: NW Connecticut, Western Mass and Eastern NY State.

As in scores of other often-overlooked sections of the economy, the economic meltdown is starting to bite into logging, hard. It figures, right? Housing starts way down--there goes the market for hardwood and veneer. Advertising pages down and newspapers and magazines going belly-up everywhere--forget pulpwood. Hell, the collapse of oil prices is about to pull the rug out from under the recently growing heat-by-firewood trend.

Well, Jay has a message for the ones who landed us in this mess and he's not shy about letting the world know:

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December 10, 2008

Scarface Drops Science about the Economy

Scarface is a rapper. He made his bones with Houston's legendary Geto Boys in the late 1980s and into the '90s, along with Willie D. and Bushwick Bill.

No superstar, he still makes a living from hiphop. And Scarface has a few things to say about the economic meltdown:

This game ain't about flossing no more, man. Ain't nobody got no money...

When Merrill Lynch merged with Bank of America, it was just the beginning of some frightening shit. I remember when Bank of America was Nation's Bank and Merrill Lynch had all the money. Now it's definitely real in the field. Dope money is even funny right now. Niggas better hold on for dear life, man. Really.

It boils down to class. It's the rich, and then there's the poor. If someone gets rich, just know that somewhere, somehow, somebody is suffering from [that person] getting rich. Y'all can sit in your big houses on however many acres you got and however many billions are in the bank, but looking down at the have-nots--no bank account, no meal, living government check to check--is an insult and needs to be corrected.

Everybody's suffering. Some mu'fuckas got money, but they got cats standing next to 'em that ain't got no money at all. [But] if America got enough money to go to war, then America should have enough to keep the economy going."

{From XXL magazine, courtesy of the folks at Rock & Rap Confidential.]

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December 3, 2008

Losing Odetta (and Miriam Makeba)

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Damn! Odetta's gone. And only three weeks before her, Miriam Makeba.

Two strong Black women, each an inherent part of the tide of liberation that swept Africa and America in the 1960s. More than that, each a gravitational force in her own right, helping pull that tide higher and further. It is hard for those not around in those long gone days to understand how much it meant to have Black women in the public eye standing up for themselves--simply by doing that, they were standing up for all Black women, and for a better world.

And neither stopped there. Both were actively political, in the best sense of the word. They lent their voices to the Black freedom struggle in the US and to the battle to smash apartheid and settler rule in South Africa. They sang songs of the oppressed and they sang songs of freedom.

And they did it for their whole lives, their whole lives. The threat they posed to the high and mighty meant they had to face redbaiting, blacklisting and exile. It never stopped them.

Nor did age. When Miriam Makeba suffered her fatal heart attack last month, she was on stage, performing in Italy at a benefit to support anti-mob journalist Roberto Saviano! Odetta's last big concert, sung from a wheelchair, was at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the Bay Area in October.

There's plenty of Odetta and plenty of Miriam Makeba available at YouTube, to help you meet or remember these two remarkable women. I have chosen to close with another video, a trance-y instrumental by a new Cali duo, Rabid Kangaroo. They first saw her, I understand, at that Bay Area festival and were inspired to compose this and crank out the video in three weeks.

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December 2, 2008

There Is Such A Fact As Death

149 years ago today, at 11:15 in the morning John Brown was hanged by the neck until dead in Charles Town, Virginia, for the crime of trying to start a slave insurrection.

Henry David Thoreau said in his breathtaking A Plea for Captain John Brown:

This event advertises to me that there is such a fact as death; the possibility of a man's dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived.
I read Thoreau’s piece this morning. Rather than quote it at length, or editorialize about John Brown, I encourage you to take a little time today and read it yourself.

Today, as in 1859, there are great crimes being committed on our soil and around the world by the rulers of these United States, committed in our name, with our taxes.

Let John Brown’s example encourage us to try and stand, like him, "with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you."

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