PRACTICE: A STORY
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and the only place to be was inside. Sarah and I were playing Scrabble and she was beating me and the old ego was taking something of a beating too. Bizarre scene, really, two child and youth care workers playing parlour games in the big old house and only one kid in residence for the weekend – and she (Andrea, sixteen) was (very sensibly, I thought) sleeping! But it was a fixed rule of the program that, no matter what, there could never be fewer then two staff members on duty. Of course we all agreed: it would take just one emergency or unexpected call-out for there to be a “last man standing” situation (as we called it). Besides, no matter how skilled or experienced one or other might be, it was reassuring for there to be a minimum of two people. But this afternoon it looked ridiculous.
Sarah had just put me out of my misery by suggesting that we make some tea when, sure enough, the phone rang. It was Kathleen McBride, sobbing, sounding somewhat under the weather, and saying that there was a problem with Clive. Could I come?
* * *
I felt so sorry for Kathleen. To me, her life seemed to be unrelieved struggle. She struggled with Clive (also sixteen) who had been allowed home for the weekend; she struggled to keep her meagre flat going and her meagre job going and her meagre, seemingly unrewarding, family of herself and her son going. And she struggled with her chronic alcohol problem which by sheer guts she just managed to keep at bay. No matter how much it might have warmed her or distracted her or anaesthetised her, she never let alcohol quite destroy the nest she somehow managed to maintain for herself and Clive. I often thought that given the harsh and joyless life she led, no one would have judged her if she gave up the fight and slid down into a stupor.
When I came in she gave me all the information I needed with her eyes: she welcomed me in, thanked me for coming, and glanced at the door of Clive’s room – and she signified her despair.
And at the risk of being totally maudlin, I must also say that I felt so sorry for Clive! He had been born into this single-parent family and its hopeless, grinding poverty where the sun, literally or figuratively, seldom shone. No matter how one stacked up the negatives and positives, it had always looked like a lost cause for the boy. I tapped on the door ...
“What?!” he snapped — probably thinking it was his Mom.
“Can I come in?” I said, quietly opening the door a crack.
“Oh God!” he wailed.
“Not quite, old son. Just me. Can I come in?”
“Oh God, Bernard,” he said despairingly and he turned his head to the wall.
He was lying on his bed. He had been drinking. He had been sick. He’d made something of a mess of himself. He had been crying.
I sat with him for half an hour, saying nothing. He told me that he felt ashamed, that he didn’t know why he did things, he had hurt his mother. That he couldn’t help it. That we probably thought he was a fool ... that he had let us down.
After a little silence, I asked: “What say we get ourselves back to the centre and get you cleaned up?” I tossed him his coat which was lying on the floor, and pulled it tight around his shoulders as he fumbled to put it on. He seemed grateful for the attention, and looked at me as if to say “OK, I’m ready.”
* * *
My relationship with Clive was quite uncomplicated: I was a young assistant, doing practicums like this while at university, and was not much older than the kids we were working with. We students often shared interests (and therefore different kinds of time) with the older youth, and there was less of a generational or authority “barrier” between us. Sure, we wore the “badge” of child and youth worker, but the informality of a shared age made a difference.
Driving back, I was grateful that the centre was empty and that Clive would draw little attention by his condition. If needed, we also had a good space of free time when there need be no demands on him. He seemed oblivious to such considerations, and sat staring down at his hands.
And then an odd thought hit me: I felt so sorry for Michael Barnes! Who on earth was he, you may ask. Michael was Clive’s Key Worker, one of those energetic and articulate child care workers who was always sharing his theories and impressions. I suppose many of us younger staff hoped that we could be like him when we “grew up” in the work. He seemed so ... sure-footed. When we were fumbling about with tentative guesses as to what might be the problem in a particular case and what might be the best way forward, Michael always hit the “diagnostic bull’s-eye”. Knew exactly what to do. He told of previous challenges he had faced, and of how (so simply it seemed) he had succeeded with this kid and that kid; made a breakthrough with this mother, that family. His stories all had a beginning, a middle and an end – and the ends were usually happy endings.
I think one reason we were drawn to Michael’s ideas was that he was not one of your “beat them into submission” types. The punitive approach, he would say, will always awe kids into some sort of submission – for the moment – until they learn to keep their real behaviour out of your sight – but then you are an enemy and not a “person of influence” in their lives. He was always talking about relationships, relationships, relationships. He seemed to be a willing Mr Fixit on the team. “I’ll have a session with him,” he would say, when we raised the subject of a difficult kid. He would engage with youngsters and stick with them and soon enough he would announce that “everything’s OK now.”
There were times when I would worry about this. What seemed to me to be a relapse he would interpret as a “new” problem or a “different” issue. When a particular troubling behaviour persisted, he would say something like “But it’s not really a problem now; I think it’s going to be alright.” Come to think of it, I had never heard Michael admit that one of his “closed cases” was really not so closed.
Here were Clive and I driving back to the centre on a Saturday evening. Maybe not “Clive-and-I” but rather me with my head in its own cocoon of thoughts on one side of the front seat, and Clive with his altogether different cocoon on the other. I glanced across at him. This was not the angry Clive or the bored, eyes-rolled-up Clive that we knew. His attitude was not challenging me with a “so what are you going to do about it?!” He seemed utterly defeated, and his earlier words that “I have let you guys down” rang in my mind.
And Clive was one of Michael Barnes’ “closed cases”. Maybe when I report this to Michael after the weekend he is going to say that this is now a different problem. Maybe it is. I am still a student and I don’t know as much as Michael does, but I’m not so sure that a surrender is what we were hoping for. Clive’s truanting and AWOLing and drinking were very worrying, and seemed to have developed over a long period out of a truly deprived and empty family life. We had all thought that we were in for “a long haul” with him, but Michael had been so elated at the “breakthrough”, at the “success”, that I hardly wanted to be the one to break the Saturday news to him on Monday.
It was a long evening. I knew enough to know that one should stay with a kid who was seriously down. He seemed merely passive when I helped him out of his messed clothes and into a hot shower, and got his things down to the laundry room. Not surprisingly he didn’t want anything to eat, and just climbed into bed, again face to the wall. I slipped off to phone Kathleen to say that the boy was OK, and called in to the kitchen to rescue a not very appetising dinner which Sarah had put into the oven for me an hour before, and came back to Clive’s room to sit and eat it quietly while he seemed to be going off to sleep. When I finished, I put off the ceiling light, leaving only his small bedside light burning, and made to leave.
“Please don’t go,” he said.
“I’ll sit with you for a while,” I replied, sliding back on to the stool. I put my dinner plate on the floor so that it didn’t look like I was anxious to leave. “Are you OK?” I asked.
No reply. After a while I heard his shivery intake of breath, common when one has been crying. More silence.
Eventually he sat up in bed and turned towards me, looking at me deliberately. “Do you like me, Bernard?” he asked.
“I like you very much,” I answered, being rather surprised by the question but quite confident about my answer.
He looked at me for a long time.
“What are you going to say to Michael?” he asked suddenly. It took me a few seconds to parse his question before I fitted it into the context of all the above.
“What will you tell him?” he insisted.
I was on the spot – the spot where honesty is always the only policy. “We work as a team, Clive, you know that. And Michael has been your key worker ...”
“I know,” he said quietly. “It’s just that he said I mustn’t let him down.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of you letting anyone down,” I replied. “It’s really about you getting things right for yourself in your own life ...”
“But Michael cares about me. He told me that,” he went on. “And for him to care about me, he said I mustn’t let him down.”
I was troubled by this. It sounded wrong, though I couldn’t work out why. My mind raced – and I somehow felt that I was at a significant point in my whole position in this work.
The boy continued to look at me. I didn’t feel uncomfortable with this, and looked back at him. But my mind was doing cartwheels ... and then I understood. This was not “relationship work” between Michael and Clive. This was using, in the worst possible sense of that word, using the promise of a relationship – or the threat of withholding a relationship – in order to get compliance!
In the theory of reward systems one had read that the choice of reward was an important consideration. To put it baldly (if one ever decided to use rewards) as kids grew up, candy ceased to be an inducement; one had to think developmentally, working towards intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. But in Clive’s case, this was almost diabolical: in the tatters and gaping emptinesses of his young life, what he probably longed for more than anything was a relationship with a father-figure – and he was being offered one ... at a price.
The other flaw which suddenly became obvious was the illusion of instant results and “breakthroughs” which seemed so important to Michael Barnes. As I looked across at Clive right now, behind the anxious and rather wrecked sixteen-year-old I could see the six-year-old, the left behind unfulfilments and unmet needs, and I could see the journey which lay ahead if we were to make it possible for him to catch up with himself as a sixteen-year-old. There were no quick fixes.
And I knew that I had two scary tasks which lay in my immediate future. I attended to the first straight away.
Clive was still looking at me, caught, I could see, on the brink between hope and despair, his last words still hanging in the air, unanswered. I sat down on his bed and put my hands on his two shoulders and held his eyes. “Please don’t think about letting people down. People can care about you no matter what you do. Of course we all want you to live a good and safe life, but whenever you may get to sort all that out, in the mean time you don’t have to earn the love of people.”
He took a while to work out all my clumsy grammar and tenses, but I felt him relax. I felt for the first time in my short career the awesome responsibility we accept when we enter the lives of troubled people – and the harm we can do if we don’t have our priorities right.
I tucked him in. Face to the wall again, he said “Thank you, Bernard.”
“I will still sit with you until you get to sleep,” I said, and resumed my post on his stool. Within ten minutes I could hear that he was asleep, and I was left with my second scary task: the panic of how I was going to approach Michael on Monday – but approach him I would, my junior status notwithstanding. What was the worst that could happen? I felt better for having untangled a tricky theory and practice knot, felt better about Clive, and felt better about the career I had chosen.
I knew, too, that this was just the beginning.