March 2, 2009

A Tale of Two City Kids (Part II)

This is the second of two articles about two young, African-American men---both abandoned by birth parents, both labeled “learning disabled"—who attended a supportive small high school in New York City. [Read Part I here.] As a school social worker, I counseled both of them. I first looked at JB, who graduated and, after two years, seems to be doing okay. Now, I’ll look at Solo, who didn’t graduate and seems like he’s lost, with his possibilities narrowing to the streets.


Solo, now almost 19, dropped out in senior year. Last I heard, he’d been kicked out of his adoptive parents’ house and was living in a different borough with his pregnant 15-year-old girlfriend and her mother.

Solo came to us from a self-contained Special Education class in elementary school (a small class of 12 to 15 students with Individualized Educational Programs who stay together all day). This indicates that his learning disability was more significant than JB’s. He seemed a little lost and overwhelmed, shy and socially awkward coming into high school (and we didn’t have a self-contained class at that point).

During the first week of school, a cute, aggressive African-American freshman girl named Keisha took Solo under her wing and soon served as his confidante, protector and advocate. She led him to reveal to me in one of our early counseling sessions that he had been getting some pretty severe corporal punishment from his adoptive parents, whom he called Grandma and Grandpa. Best I recall, he had recently punched a wall and hurt his hand slightly, out of anger from the punishment he had received.

Solo had been with Grandma and Grandpa since he was four or five years old, didn’t know the whereabouts of his birth parents and had no contact with them. Grandpa worked for a school custodian and Grandma took care of Solo and two foster children in the house she and her husband owned. They were in their sixties, their biological kids long grown, devout Christians with a “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy, deep ties to relatives in the South and an old-fashioned, country shrewdness. It was one of those borderline situations where I considered calling child protective services (ACS) for excessive corporal punishment and gave Solo a stress ball so he could take out his frustrations on it rather than hurt himself or get himself into more trouble. (I think that frequently, the reason for his adoptive parents’ anger was that he played rough, broke things, didn’t want to stop playing etc.) Solo told me he thought the worst had passed and he’d be okay. At our next session, he further stated that he didn’t want ACS called because “I don’t wanna get taken away from them. They’re mostly good to me, they give me the games and clothes that I ask for.”

The school soon created a self-contained class for Solo, Keisha and three other kids. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a disaster because, in such situations, the students often feel stigmatized and have no positive peer models. So they feed, provoke and copycat each other’s dysfunctions and diss each other all day: “Ape Face,” “Stupid” etc. Also unsurprisingly, when the school abolished the self-contained class, these students resisted re-integration. They were used to being mocked by each other but they really feared being put on the spot by more demanding teachers and looking stupid in front of “normal” students.

Solo: Weaknesses and Strengths

Unlike JB, Solo had little interest in intellectual pursuits or books beyond whatever soft- core porn he could get his hands on, though he could read at a decent 5th grade level. In math, his skills were poor beyond basic whole number computations, and he didn’t know the times tables by heart. He was strong, fast and well-coordinated, good at helping Grandpa with home repairs and yard work.

Solo sought out nurturing relationships with adults, and he could be reflective and insightful in one-on-one conversations. But if he saw a curvy girl walk by, some drama brewing among acquaintances or a new game on somebody’s Play Station, any other thought was out the window. (I learned that he had previously taken some medication for ADHD but like many teens, now was refusing to take it.) He could critique himself later on—with prompting--- but he couldn’t stop himself from responding to the strongest, basest stimulus. This was a set up for trouble as he grew older, developed into a well-built and more socially adept young man, and had opportunities for actual sex.

Socially, Solo was prone to engage in crude, eight year-old boy-style teasing, laughing at the cruelest put down’s and even at someone’s obvious pain or discomfort. Yet he could also be incredibly kind and protective when he perceived others as vulnerable, and himself in a more powerful position. For example, in one of our first encounters, he was trying to help a new Latino student (from the school upstairs), who didn’t speak any English, to find the right office and get his class schedule.

Solo had obviously been scolded a lot as a child, and when he was confronted about something wrong that he had done, or simply out-talked by someone with good verbal skills, he usually laughed out of embarrassment. If it was an adult authority figure, he was likely to then become tongue-tied, say nothing and do anything to exit the situation as soon as possible. If it was a male peer, he was prone to get physical when he felt put down.

Solo: Smart to Teachers vs. Smart to Kids

Solo entered his junior year making intermittent academic efforts, cutting and hiding from classes he found difficult or boring, and avidly following every drama and comedy in the hallways. He refused my suggestions to ask teachers for help, which they would gladly have given, when he didn’t understand. He couldn’t articulate a reason for this refusal, just shook his head. My sense is that he feared looking stupid or slow. Sometimes we agreed that I would talk to a teacher on his behalf and then the teacher would approach him, but he didn’t really persist in tutoring or classroom work with the push-in Special Ed teacher.

As educators, we often ask ourselves about students like Solo: Is he just unable to do the work? Are we using the wrong teaching methodologies? Or is he really lazy? I realized that Solo wasn’t unwilling to make an effort to learn things, but because he wasn’t the most facile learner and hadn’t developed good work habits, he had to prioritize. And his priority was learning about stuff that matters to kids, not teachers. He and his friend, Curtis, from the former self-contained class, took to following like puppy dogs a more moderately learning disabled student named Robert, a basically decent but un-scholarly kid, rumored to be a minor gang leader. Why? Because “Robert tells us about stuff.” Similarly, Solo explained to me that he had to roam the hallways all the time to know what was going on with everybody, so that he wouldn’t be considered dumb by his peers.

Solo: Struggling with Judgment and Impulse Control

That year saw two incidents where Solo’s poor judgment and impulse control almost caused disasters. The first incident, never completely clear to me, involved his foster-sister. She had taken his new Game Boy and wouldn’t give it back. So to shock her and get back at her, Solo snuck upstairs to her room and dropped his pants. The foster-sister then claimed that Solo touched her sexually, Grandma called the police (perhaps doubting the girl’s story but knowing that the girl might tell the foster care agency and Grandma would be in trouble if she hadn’t acted), and Solo was arrested. He told me that the police promised to release him if he “admitted” it, and guaranteed worse punishment if he didn’t. Typically prioritizing getting away from an unpleasant situation and adult criticism, Solo “admitted” it.

This sounded like a disaster—a possible adult criminal conviction for sexual assault—and I did basically believe his version of the story, feeling that childish antics like dropping his pants were in character, but sexually touching his foster-sister wasn’t. So I got on the horn to the lawyer to try and vouch for his character, and checked in with his Grandmother who had never talked to the lawyer, was very stressed out, and said that neither of the kids’ stories fully made sense. Eventually, the foster-sister recanted her story, the charges were dropped and Solo was saved.

A few days before Christmas, Solo walked into my office as classes started and said “I’m about to do something really stupid and I need you to try and talk me out of it.” The previous evening, he and a few friends had gone Christmas shopping and a few guys approached them, demanding his friend Jovan’s expensive jacket. A fracas ensued and the guys eventually ran off, but not before one of them spat on Solo. Solo restrained himself from retaliating for one reason: he knew that his friend Curtis, who is prone to seizures and had suffered serious head injuries, would have stood up for him and might have been seriously hurt or killed in any fight.

Solo had been seething with rage all night and was now determined to find these guys and have his revenge, no matter the consequences. “I’m not takin’ that—I don’t care what happens.” Throughout first period, I offered reason upon reason to restrain himself. Finally I pointed out that if he hit or killed them and then wound up in jail, it was like letting them win because it would really mess up his life. He said somberly “That’s true. So I’m gonna give you these.” Solo then opened his parka and pulled out two long knives (from Grandma’s kitchen, he explained). They didn’t look like very sharp or strong knives but I didn’t think it was particularly useful to point that out. I quickly stuffed them in a file cabinet I could lock and said I was going to call his grandmother, let her know what happened, and return the knives to her the next time she came to the school. Solo accepted this.

Solo: A Downhill Slide

The next year Solo’s attendance was more and more erratic. In the spring, realizing that he was screwing up, Solo asked to re-consider the suggestion that he attend an off-site vocational program for half the day, and stay with us for the other half of the day until we could give him an IEP diploma. This is the lowest level of diploma, basically a certificate of attendance in school for twelve school years from first grade, not good for college. We had a meeting with Grandma and an Assistant Principal, and Solo signed a contract promising he would attend regularly and complete assigned work.

Solo began the building maintenance program, which rotates students through the basic skills required to be a building superintendent: electrical, carpentry, janitorial etc. He soon got stymied by the measuring required for carpentry. I asked him to bring me some assignments and saw that he couldn’t add and subtract fractions. I spoke to the Special Ed coordinator at our school, who agreed to work with Solo during after-school tutoring. But Solo seldom showed up for that. Then, when the teacher at the vocational school noticed this and apparently created a smaller class for Solo and other IEP students who were having similar problems, Solo was insulted. Feeling he was being shunted off into a special class, he attended the vocational program less and less frequently.

For all his withdrawal and intolerance for school, Solo was eager to work and become more self-reliant, and to this end, I helped him apply for a Summer Youth job, which he was offered. At first I couldn’t understand why Grandma didn’t want him to take the job but was insisting that he go with her to visit relatives in the South for the summer. I finally realized, and she confirmed, that while she was away and her husband at work, Solo might invite friends over the house. Given his poor judgment, they might not be the kind of people you’d want in your house. So he resentfully went down South for the summer.

The next October, Solo turned 18. His attendance got even worse, and he was increasingly at odds with the grandparents for staying out late. He realized that legally, no one could tell him what to do anymore. He’d check in after a long period of absence, and several times, I did convince the principal, who could have dropped him for non-attendance, to let him come back and keep open the option of an IEP diploma (which is given at the principal’s discretion and involves no credit or exam requirements). I knew, as did several sympathetic teachers, that he wasn’t going to actually do much work—and I told him that. We just wanted him to come often enough to grab the diploma and have a better chance of getting jobs.

Solo: Sex and New Complications

After one long absence, Solo reported a whole new level of complication in his life. His grandparents had thrown him out, he was staying with his new girlfriend, and she was pregnant.

Solo had accepted a dare from a friend to meet a girl on line and convince her, within a week, to have sex with him. So he seduced Lisette, but then, being a basically decent person, he felt really bad about it, and told her, and started an actual relationship with her. It turned out she was really only 14, (she’d pretended to be older), had been truant from school for a couple of years and was the subject of an open ACS case. Her mother liked Solo and was letting him stay at the house but she didn’t yet know about the pregnancy, and Solo and Lisette were concerned about her reaction. Several times, I asked him if he really thought it was good for his life and his future to be staying with someone who hadn’t been getting her 14-year-old daughter to school. He acknowledged a problem here and several times almost moved back with the grandparents. But he’d stay out too late and they’d get angry, then he’d go back to Lisette. She'd beg him not to leave and he felt responsible to her and his unborn child. And then we didn’t see him anymore.

Solo: What Went Wrong?

Solo wasn’t the slowest kid or the angriest kid or the most distractible kid (though he was pretty distractible) in our school. We had graduated kids with bigger deficits. His biggest weaknesses were judgment and impulse control. I don’t know how to help a kid develop judgment and impulse control at age 15 or 17 when there’s not a previous groundwork for it. I tried all the obvious little techniques. “Before you do something, think of how it will affect you tomorrow, next month and in 5 years;” I talked through the possible consequences; I showed him gestures to shift his thinking and snap himself out of it, etc. But nothing carried over from my office to the heat of the moment, though Solo was capable of solid, if a bit overly concrete, reasoning .

My sense and what I know of the literature and research says that helping a child to improve judgment and impulse control has to begin at much earlier age. And the intuitive working class approach practiced by his adoptive parents--using corporal punishment to reach a child who’s so concrete and so in the moment-- is pretty much the opposite of what’s needed. It doesn’t help a child to develop internal controls, or show him how to slow down and not be just pulled in by the most intense stimulus. It doesn’t model the behavior you want him to follow. It also left Solo with huge resentments of people telling him what to do and never listening to him.

Solo had been prescribed Ritalin when he was younger and then begun refusing medication as a teen, so I don’t know if a drug would have helped him to slow down and focus until hopefully, maturation might have alleviated his distractibility and impulsivity. Maybe if he had grown up in the 1940s when guys could drop out and get a factory job at 16, with decent pay and little stigma, he could have channeled his physical strength and gained the dignity and self-reliance that he craved. I only know that the genuine love of his adoptive parents and the caring of several competent pedagogues in a generally supportive school have not been enough to get him graduated and prepared for a decent job. I hope that somehow, something works out for him.

Infrastructures Needed to Support Young People

Looking at the life chances of Solo and JB in the context of a deepening economic crisis, I believe we face a struggle to re-build two types of infrastructure that kids like them need. For Solo, a program that trains youth of color to construct, repair and environmentally retro-fit buildings and transportation grids—advocated by Van Jones in The Green Collar Economy and potentially fundable by President Obama’s recently-passed stimulus package-- could help. It could provide the job, the income and the organic discipline of cooperative labor that he needs to channel his energy and aspirations for self-determination. And JB’s story shows how essential it is to preserve the social service agencies, the public school system, and the subsidized training programs for human services jobs, which have sustained him.

Of course, the causes and solutions of their problems go much deeper. We need to address what drove their parents to illegal drugs and neglect, and to find other ways besides legal drugs and beatings to help kids control their attention and impulses. Exposing kids to more green space and less asphalt and video screen would probably help. But maintaining and expanding the two infrastructures would be a start.

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