Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Simple Equation

Despite all the counseling, outreach, curricula development and trainings I do as a social worker, sometimes it is an unplanned moment that allows me to make the best breakthrough with a troubled child. That is exactly what happened last week with Michael, a 15 year old student in my school. I don’t know a lot about him, nor do any other staff or administrators at our school. What we do know is that he missed over half of the last school year, and his parents are totally unresponsive to outreach. However, I have had a feeling since I first met Michael that behind his seemingly intractable outer shell, he is intelligent, vulnerable and kind. I got a chance to validate my intuition about him last week.

On Monday the State English Language Arts  exams were administered citywide and Michael took his in Partnership with Children’s class room. He finished early, but had to stay in the room until the period was over. He started asking me about the tattoos on my arms. It wasn’t the first time - he has been interested in my tattoos since he started at the school, probably because he has a large one of his own, also on his arm. I told him about the meaning of mine, and then asked about his. As I suspected he got his done by a non-professional in the projects where he lives. Needless to say I encouraged him to be safe and warned about the dangers of using unclean needles.

I brought the conversation back to school by asking if he was nervous for the upcoming State math exam. What he said next struck me as a metaphor for his life, though he didn’t realize it. “I hate math” he said. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Because, you can do everything right, and then if you do one part wrong, the whole thing turns out to be wrong. Then your teacher thinks you’re stupid. I’m not stupid," he answered. “And I hate my math teacher.” His statements reflect his life experiences. He can try to be good and to do well in school, but he feels if he slips up and makes a mistake, he will automatically be labeled as being a bad kid, lazy and unintelligent by the adults in his life.

I told him I could relate to his feelings because I also disliked math when I was in school. “But,” I told him, “I never let my teachers win. I asked other people to help me, and ended up doing pretty good in class.” By using the terms of winning and losing I knew I would appeal to his ego. I also revealed to him that even I, an adult and “teacher”, could be vulnerable too.

But the best part of the day came later: after classes were released, Michael came back to Partnership’s room and knocked on the door. I opened it, and Michael asked “Do you think you could help me with my math?” I don’t know if I was surprised in that moment – I think it was more that I was overwhelmed by a sense of success. I had made a breakthrough with Michael. You have to see that in the context of Michael’s life, to open up even a little bit to an adult, no less a “teacher” like me, takes a lot of courage, and to then ask for help takes even more. He’s showing that he needs someone else, that he is not the tough, self-reliant street kid he makes himself out to be. I can’t orchestrate these moments, but I live for them.