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moments with youth

The Team Meeting: A Short Three-Act Play

Mark Krueger

In this column for the next three months I will present a three-act play (one act per month) that is based on conversations among youth workers that I have participated in and/or overheard. You are invited to join the dialog.

Shantell: A child and youth care worker (26 years old)
Carlos: A child and youth care worker (30)
Angie: A child and youth care worker (20)
Bill: The overnight worker (24)
Camille: The clinical social worker (40)
Tony: The child and youth care supervisor (35)
A Child: Eleven years old
Children from the treatment center

Act One:

The setting: The boardroom at a residential treatment center in a large city. All of the characters are seated around the table. A rhomboid of light is shining through a window like in the opening scene of Beckettís Endgame. No walls or doors. The background is dark except for the light from the window shining on the characters and the table with books on a shelf on the side of the room opposite from the window through which childrenís voice can be heard playing outside. A small overhead lamp shines on the books, a collection of classics in child and youth care work.

Curtain rises. We enter the middle of the meeting. They are talking about the eight boys in their cottage.

Shantell (Determined, her dark eyes shining, body straight in the chair, eyes focused first on one then the other as she speaks): We need more consistency and structure. The kids are getting away with murder. They know how to play us against one another.

Carlos (slouched back in his chair): Thatís not realistic.

Angie (curious): What isnít realistic?

Carlos: To be consistent and structured all the time. Itís not the way we live our lives and relate to others. The kids know right away. They have to learn what its like in the real world.

Bill (bookish): And where would that be?

Carlos: What do you mean?

Bill: The real world ... what real world are you talking about, the one they experience or the one you experience?

Carlos (sarcastically): Very clever, Mr. Philosopher. I know we all make different meaning of our experiences. What I meant is that in life outside the center people arenít coming around consistently enforcing rules, and handing out consequences and rewards.

Camille (professional): Yes, thereís some truth to that, but these are not ordinary circumstances. These kids have lived vary unstructured lives and have seen the extremes of unpredictability from parents who are very permissive one moment and abusive the next. They also have been bounced around from one place to another and need to know there are some places with a structure, routine, and adults they can count on to respond in firm and caring ways.

Carlos (argumentative): Bull. I grew up in a real unpredictable environment and I turned out okay.

Shantell (angry): I canít believe you guys are falling for this. He does it all the time just to cover up for the way he breaks the rules we establish together. Besides he didnít have it anywhere as near as tough as the kids we work with.

Carlos (staring at Shantell): I had it plenty tough. You couldnít have survived a day in the world I grew up in. (Pause, Shantell turns away. Sensing she wonít take the bait, Carlos continues:) Give me one example of a rule I broke.
Shantell (still not taking the bait): So you can debate with us some more and see if you can get a rise out of us?
Carlos (grinning): No. I really want to know.
Shantell: Okay, last night you let the kids stay up late again. Bill told me this morning.
Carlos: (Looks at Bill). Is that true?
Bill (slightly embarrassed): Yes, the kids were still running around after you left and they told me you let them stay up to watch the movie.
Carlos (confronting): Next time tell me to my face.
Bill (reactive): I just did.
Carlos: First before you tell someone else, especially her. (Looks at Shantell)
Shantell: So is it true?
Carlos: Yes, itís true. We were all sitting and watching the movie and I decided we could make an exception.
Shantell: What kind of message does that give.
Carlos: That I am a real human being and that I make decisions based on their needs in the current circumstances.
Angie: I can see that, but arenít you worried that they will think they can get away with stuff with you?
Carlos: Get away with what? Having a nice calm quiet evening together watching a good movie and eating popcorn.
Shantell: Thereís a place for that, but not when we have a rule about bedtime. You know they need time to get ready to go to sleep and you set up Bill by not following the rules.
Carlos: Bill can defend himself, canít you Bill?
Bill: Iím not sure I have anything to defend. The kids were wild and thatís a fact. Whether or not it was because you let them stay up or you didnít settle them down doesnít seem to matter much. You still left me with a mess.
Carlos: Why didnít you come to me first?
Bill: I was going to but then Shantell raised the issue. I had to tell her this morning because the kids were unusually slow and crabby.
Carlos: She would.
Shantell: What?
Carlos: Raise the issue here before coming to me.
Tony (Speaking for the first time. Voice firm, authoritative, chair back from the table. Legs crossed at the knees): What movie did you watch?
Carlos: Brave Heart
Tony: Thatís pretty violent isnít it?
Carlos: Yes, but its also about heroes and freedom and what it means to stand up for what you believe.
Camille: Given what these children have been through do you think it advisable to give them the message that violence is a way of becoming a hero and standing up for what you believe.
Carlos: Look, itís a violent world out there. They know it and I know it. So why should we skirt around it. Brave Heart was violent only in response to violence. Some things are worth fighting for.
Camille: So responding to violence with violence is okay if youíre on the right side?
Carlos: Basically.
Camille: So do you think our children have a clear picture of what is right and wrong violence?
Carlos: Well, just by the way you use of the term violence you make it seem as if any form of aggression is wrong, even self-defense.
Camille: And do you think they can sort out self-defense from other forms of violence?
Carlos: No, but they are learning.
Camille: Is there another way to learn that?
Tony: Excuse me but I have to interrupt. This is an important discussion that I donít think we can resolve now and there are many other things to talk about.
Angie (determined to make her point): Before we move on I just want to respond to Camille. I think there is. What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
Carlos: Oh give me a break. These kids would be dead in a moment it they tried to be like those guys on the streets. Malcolm X is a better role model in my mind. Maybe Cheí.
Camille: I think Angie is using Gandhi and King as examples of how we can resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways. They were just as brave, if not braver than people you mentioned.
Carlos: And where did it get them? They were killed just like the others.
Bill: (contemplative). In my philosophy classes weíve been talking about morality, power, and culture and it seems that all social political ideologies are corrupt when it comes to the development of the self. Ultimately one becomes polarized in one form or another by their rigid beliefs and values. It might be better to just think of this for what it is, in and of itself, without bringing in all this other stuff.
Carlos: So what are you saying? That we should just leave people be as is and everything will work out?
Bill (somewhat paternalistically): No Carlos, that we should just look at the situation without trying to apply so much groupthink.
Camille (frustrated): We are missing the point!
Tony: Which is?
Camille: That these children all have serious emotional problems and that we have to examine the effects of our activities and relationships with them on a case by case basis. But in general we have to be very sensitive to how they interpret acts of violence, especially most of our youth who have been sexually and physically abused.
Bill: Thatís what I was trying to say.
Camille: Yes, but in a philosophical rather than developmental way.
Bill: Whatís wrong with that?
Camille: Thereís nothing wrong with existentialism other than it makes it difficult for us as a group to review our cases in a way that everyone can understand.
Tony: Okay, okay, Iím sorry Bill, Carlos, Angie and Camille, but I think we have to move on. This discussion is moving away from our agenda.
Shantell (determined): Without resolving whether it was okay for Carlos to let the kids stay up late?
Tony (sighs, looks slightly frustrated about how his agenda has been interrupted again): I guess we should. Based on what I know I can respect what Carlos says about the need not to be too trapped in rigid rules. I also think I get a sense of what he is saying Ė what it takes to be a man and to be able defend yourself and what you believe in. I also understand, however, what Camille said about the need for structure and predictability, and Shantellís concern about the message it gives the kids. In this case it is my opinion that it probably was not a good idea. Given what you watched and how you left right at your shift ending, I think you set up Bill for a rough night and that your judgment about the movie was a little weak. If you had had time to process all the violence in that rather long movie, it might have served a better purpose, but this did not seem like the right context.
Carlos: Figures.
Tony: What?
Carlos: Youíre playing the culture card. Hispanic males are machismo. They see these things differently than you Anglos and you donít like it.
Tony: Oh come on! This has nothing to do with being machismo.
Carlos: It doesnít? Well, then why are you trying to win?
Tony: Iím not trying to win. Iím just trying to resolve this situation (Tony pauses then looks Carlos directly in the eyes.) You know what I think?
Carlos: What?
Tony: That for some reason you are creating this power struggle with the team and youíll keep it going as long as we let you. Maybe you and I can talk afterwards, but for now I want to hear what the others think and move on.
Shantell: I agree with Tony.
Angie (the peacemaker): Maybe we can set aside some time to discuss these issues in more depth. Iíd like to learn more. I think several points that were made were valid.
Camille (as if still seething at what Carlos said): Iíd like to be part of that discussion.
Bill (as if obligated): Me too.
Tony (sitting straight now, looking at his watch): Okay, Iíll set something up. Letís move on.

Lights dim, move stage left. A girl about eleven is in a sandbox. An overhead light is shining on her. The rest of the stage is dark. All of the participants in the team meeting circle the sandbox.

Bill: What are you building?
Girl: The world I used to live in.
Bill: Thatís a big job. Let me help.
Girl: Okay.
Bill: (Gets down in the sandbox, pushes sand forward to the child so he can continue): Whatís it like here?
Child: Scary.
Carlos: Whatís that over there?
Child: My new house.
Bill: Where is it?
Child: Another world.
Carlos: Tell me about it.

The others kneel down and listen. Lights dim.