The kid underneath:
Edna C. Olive
A youth who is transformed from a
troublemaker to a model student offers his advice on what it takes to reclaim
kids like himself.
The outside Will
The 14 year-old, ninth-grade boy was clearly
struggling underneath the facade of droopy pants, huge bush hair style,
nonchalant attitude, and a distinct sullenness obvious to everyone in the room.
Will came to the school for troubled adolescent males largely due to his
ultimate refusal to attend high school. The behavioral incidents, as his file
called them, leading up to his refusal included poor attendance, walking the
hallways of the school when he was in attendance, disregarding adult authority
figures, declining academic performance record, and an unwilling adherence to
the rules established by his home and school settings. His mother was rightfully
concerned that he was becoming depressed, and she felt relatively powerless
against her son’s near-daily rejection of her suggestion that he attend his
neighborhood high school.
As we sat with him in the conference room, even
his best attempts to hide the true “Will” were inadequate. One could see the
brightness in his eyes, the sheer intelligence of his mind, his light-hearted
and extremely social nature, and the untapped potential to be someone greater
than how he was acting at the moment. We all saw glimpses of the “inside kid.”
It was this young man whom we enthusiastically accepted into our program with a
promise to Mom to do our best in unearthing the “real Will.”
Will’s mother expressed her gratefulness, but
her concern was that Will would simply refuse to attend this school as he had
others. We told her and Will that we were up for the challenge and we would dc
everything possible to make school a place Will wanted to attend.
And attend he did. By the end of the school
year, Will was coming to school regularly and had effectively integrated himself
into the culture of our environment. He worked hard in his academic classes;
volunteered to help adults in school programs; won regular academic, behavioral,
attendance, and activity awards; and even became a regular tour guide whenever
the school had visitors. But all of his turnaround was not without conflict.
There were days when Will put on the front of the “outside kid” reminiscent of
his earlier problems. He would walk the hallways of the school, join forces with
other students who were acting out, and simply refuse to follow adult
directions. We always knew that the true Will would return; it was just a matter
Will’s refusal to attend classes or behavior of
walking the halls was his way of communicating that he was upset. It became our
mission to teach Will how to use words instead of inappropriate behavior to
convey his emotions. We knew this was something Will could easily learn to do;
it was just a matter of whether or not he would choose to practice what he
Eventually the days of the “outside kid” grew
fewer in number while the appearances of the “inside kid” became more frequent.
We considered Will’s ninth grade year a success, and his mother was ecstatic
that he had attended regularly. When asked how he felt about his progress that
year, he responded that he felt okay about the school and his performance, but
that he was not sure if he could maintain or improve upon what he had done. We
ended the year with Will’s promise to try even harder during his tenth grade
year, and we committed ourselves to continue digging for the Will who was now
bubbling at the surface.
The next year brought more success, more
academic improvement, improved social interactions, and near-perfect attendance.
It would be an understatement to say that Will became a leader in the school he
was the epitome of leadership. He participated in practically every club we
offered and suggested the development of clubs we did not have. He was an
academic, a sportsman, a role model, and a huge support to the school’s overall
functioning. When the community was present in the school, Will always
volunteered to help organize and facilitate whatever the activity was. Will was
a consistent, positive, and inspirational person to whom students and adults
could look as the positive model of what could happen in our school.
It was explained to Will that, while we loved
having him in the school, a larger, more diverse school could offer him
experiences and resources we simply could not. We did our best to describe the
school as having wonderful things, such as clubs, sports teams, scholarships for
colleges, as well as many more adults who would respond to his needs. The young
man inside Will knew that this was what he needed, but the kid who had come to
us only two short years before fought against stepping out into the future. We
assured his mom that we believed Will was not only ready, but that this
transition was what he needed to become a successful young man in his school, at
home, and in the community at large.
The last day of Will’s attendance was
bittersweet. We fought back tears as we watched Will walk away from our doors
for the final time. We had served him well, and it was time for him to practice
all he had learned in a completely different environment. Keeping Will in our
school would be like caging a butterfly in a cocoon long after it was ready to
fly. He promised to keep in touch and to do his best to be successful in the
school he had once refused to set foot in. In meetings with the professionals at
Will’s neighborhood school, we assured them that Will was not the same young man
they had so willingly released two years ago. Everyone in the meetings knew that
it would be a matter of time before Will either rose to the occasion of
demonstrating the depths of his potential or returned to the behaviors and
attitudes of two years ago. After several months without any drastically
negative reports from the school, we decided that Will had done what he promised
he would do – he was finally ready to show the world the “inside kid.”
As his tenth year progressed, the professionals
who worked with Will began to discover a simple fact; Will was ready to be
transitioned back into the mainstream and allowing him to remain in our small,
therapeutic school was no longer a service to him and possibly a hindrance. The
day we called Will and his mother into the conference room to tell them both
that Will was ready to leave us was an extremely trying day. We had begun to
discuss transition with Will long before that day and, in every conversation,
Will adamantly indicated that he was not ready to return to his large,
comprehensive neighborhood high school, particularly when it was the school he
had left due to his poor performance.
Two years passed quickly, and Will called to
inform us that he was graduating as a National Honor Society student, had been
the manager of the girl’s basketball team and a band member. He had done it! He
was on his way to college to major in hospitality management, a most appropriate
field for the young man who was highly poised with the general public.
We occasionally heard about Will and from all
reports, he was doing well in college and was headed for a great career in hotel
or restaurant management. I often imagined Will behind the desk of some
four-star hotel or restaurant speaking with the guests and flashing his charming
smile in ways that let you know you were in the presence of someone incredibly
smart and ready to handle any challenge.
A Conversation with the Inside Kid
Two years passed and, out of the blue, I
received a call from none other than the 20-year-old Will. Now he was a junior
in college, a fraternity brother, member of the Hospitality and Management Club,
restaurant management intern, and soon-to-be college graduate. I wondered if he
knew how well he had done, and I leaped at the opportunity to ask him to what he
attributed all of his success. In typical Will fashion, he made it clear that he
was very aware of who he is and where he is headed. I asked Will to share his
thoughts with me about what adults needed to know about helping to uncover the
potential of young men and women.
Suggestions from the inside kid
The suggestions that follow are completely
Will’s thoughts, and they reflect the level of insight many of our youth have if
only those around them will support the unfolding of that awareness.
Adults must be willing to talk with young
people about what is going on with them currently and then talk with them
about what the future can hold for them. Adults must believe that all youth
have the potential to do well, even though many youth do not believe they have
Youth need someone to check in with them on a
regular basis. Kids want to know that someone cares about how they are doing
and that someone will always touch base with them.
Youth sometimes need help in finding
something they are really interested in. If they are unaware of what that is,
adults can introduce them to some possibilities.
It is important for young people to be aware
of who they are. Many young people do not know their inner selves, and adults
can help them get in touch with their greatness.
Young people must have aspirations to greater
goals. The drive to be great just may prevent youth from becoming “statistics”
and encourage success.
It is important for young people to
understand the concept of perseverance. Adults have to support kids in knowing
that they do have a future and teach them to stick with their goals even when
things are tough for them.
Young people need to understand which
behaviors help them and which behaviors get in their way. Many young men and
women do not understand their own self-defeating behaviors, and adults should
help youth be aware of barriers that prevent them from realizing their goals.
Family must be involved in supporting young
people. Professionals have to be willing to solicit the support of any family
member who is willing to hang in with the youth in challenging times.
Adults must be willing to help young people
get involved in something that is creative in nature such as art, music,
sports, etc. That creative process may help the young person explore and
discover who he or she really is.
Spirituality is extremely important; it is
absolutely necessary for any young person to be successful. Spirituality is
the foundation of well-being. Many youth lack a sense of purpose or a
connection with a higher being. Adults have to encourage youth to get in touch
with their feelings about who they are and what they can become.
Final thoughts about the inside kid
It is now clear that “the awesome power of
relationships” (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2005) had worked in Will’s
life and that he was acutely aware of how the adults in his environment had
supported him in uncovering his potential.
So many adults are unable to move beyond the
behaviors of the “outside kid” and see who the “inside kid” really is, in other
words, who the youth is at his or her core. Until we are able to look beneath
the surface, we are unable to see a young person for who he or she truly is
rather than the image presented to the world.
When the adults surrounding young people are
able and willing to stand with them, there are endless possibilities for youth
to realize their potential and contribute to others. In the words of Muhammad
“Very often great and beautiful things are
difficult to discover. Gold is buried under layers of rock. Pearls are hidden
in shells lying in the debris at the bottom of the ocean. We have to work to
find them”. (Ali, 2005, p. x)
The professionals who were willing to work with
Will certainly helped him discover the riches within him. How many other “Wills”
are there in the world waiting to be revealed? It is our challenge to find that
which is buried and well hidden. We are in the “unearthing potential” business,
finding the greatness in all kids, no matter who they might be on any particular
Ali, M. (2005). In L. K. Brendtro, A. Ness, &
M. Mitchell. No disposable kids. Bloomington, IN: National Educational
Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern,
S. (2005). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future.
Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
This feature: Olive, E., C. (2005)
The Kid Underneath: Discovering Hidden Potential. Reclaiming Children and
Youth, Vol. 13 No 4