This is the third act of the short 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. Act I was presented in the April 2005 issue and may be viewed HERE and Act II in the June issue HERE. If you havenít read these Acts, feel free to enter the conversation here.
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
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 children 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 re-enter the middle of the meeting. They are talking about the eight boys in their cottage.
Bill: One of the girls, Nikki, asked me to rub her back last night.
Shantell (alarmed): Did you do it?
Shantell: Do you think thatís right?
Bill: Iím not sure, thatís why I raised it.
Shantell: Weíll I think it sends the wrong message.
Camille: And what might that be.
Shantell: Itís too sexual.
Camille: Does it have to be?
Shantell: Well I donít see how she can take it any other way, especially after the abuse sheís received from men.
Bill: But fathers and caring men do it all the time with younger children. Seems like itís a very natural thing to do to show care and affection. And itís probably what she needs more than anything else.
Bill: To be touched by a caring man.
Tony: Bill, you used the word natural. My question is natural to who, you or them.
Bill: Well thatís a good question. I suppose it depends on what you experience. But if youĖve never experienced normal caring touch, how do you get to experience it if someone isnít willing to take the risk to try, especially today when men are being sued and accused all the time by kids. I heard at some places you canít even touch the kids. To me thatís absurd. How can you connect if you canít touch. Touch is fundamental to healthy development.
Camille: I would agree, but is a backrub with Nikki the proper place to start?
Bill: Depends I guess on how she takes it.
Tony: And how do you think she took the backrub?
Bill: Appropriately I think.
Tony: Based on what you felt or she felt?
Bill: My sense of both I think. But I guess I should talk to her.
Angie (Looking as if she did something wrong): My God, I hug the boys all the time. Is that wrong?
Camille: I think what we just discussed with Bill applies with hugs as well. What does that form of touch mean, and given what some of the boys have experienced is it something you might want to risk giving off the wrong signal.
Angie: But I wasnít trying to send the wrong signal. Maybe I did though.
Tony: Well one part is to be sure about our intent, but then another part is even if our intent is good how is it received.
Angie: So are you saying we shouldnít hug the kids and rub their backs?
Tony: No. Iím saying that we should do it with sensitivity to the meaning of our touch.
Carlos: What a crock. Look, if you know what youíre doing go ahead. I hug the girls and the boys all the time. Iím not sure if Iíd give them a backrub, but thatís just me. If youíre someone who is trying to sexually abuse these kids or send mixed messages you shouldnít be working here. Give Bill and Angie a little slack. They were just trying to do what felt right.
Shantell: I think itís wrong. I donít think we should be running around hugging and touching kids because it feels right. These kids are confused about touch and itís better to err on the side of caution and to avoid touch except in some special circumstance. I hugged AndrĒ when he left last week, but I wasnít running around hugging him when he was here. He knew I cared about him.
Bill: I donít touch simply because it feels right. I try to consider the meaning. All I was saying is itís difficult to be sure about the message Iím sending, just like Tony said.
Carlos: Look man, you did the right thing. I know Muriel. She is really a little kid inside looking for the affection she never got. If she took it sexually, Iíd be surprised.
Bill: But donít you think I should talk to her about it?
Carlos: Sure, if thatís your thing. Go ahead reassure yourself. Personally, I wouldnít second guess myself. If the kids get the wrong message at first they would know over time that Iím not like that. Most of them already do.
Angie: This boundary work is so difficult.
Shantell: Not if youíre clear about your boundaries.
Camille: Are you clear about it for your self, or for what the kids need?
Shantell: Look, I know who I am, how close I want to be, and they read that in me. I donít violate their space and they donít violate mine.
Carlos: Except when theyíre angry.
Camille (deflecting the direction of the conversation): Strange you should use the word ďviolateĒ.
Shantell: Look Camille, donít try to analyze me.
Tony: Letís get back to Angieís comment. Shantell has expressed herself but Iíd like to hear what some of the others think about boundaries.
Carlos: Well, itís like I said, if you respect your own boundaries and the kidsĒ boundaries then itís fine sometimes to get close and other times to create a little more space. Itís like a little dance. You get a sense of when to move in and when to move away based on the music you hear.
Bill: Thatís insightful. I hadnít thought of it that way.
Tony: What way?
Bill: That boundaries are elastic not rigid ... we create them based on our understanding of whatís going on and our feel for the music or the emotional tension or lack thereof that exists. In philosophy, we sometimes think of it as the existential hum, hum meaning something inside that calls us to truth in the moment.
Carlos: Woa, brother. You really took this to another place, but I think I like it.
Shantell: Whatís next on the agenda.
Carlos (smiling): Whatís the matter you afraid if we continue you might let down your guard.
Shantell: (a piercing glance at Carlos).
Carlos: Look, all Iím saying is that what matters is how you come across to the kids. You might read what I do differently than I do, and I might read what you do differently, but we can never fool the kids. They know if we are real, and sincere about intentions. If weíre filled with self doubt then they donít feel that way.
Angie: But isnít a little self-doubt human?
Carlos: Sure, but not about giving a back rub or hugging boys. If something inside you says Iím not sure about what this means, then Iíd say donít do it.
Bill: But you sound so sensitive to your feelings now and what it means. How come you didnít sound that way when we were talking about gangs?
Carlos: You misread me.
Bill: Well, I was already thinking that there is something about you that comes across in a sincere way, especially when I see the kids huddled around you at in a conversation or activity. They seem to connect with you in a way they donít connect with me.
Carlos: Maybe youíre in your head too much. (Carlos mood seems to change. He is more sympathetic now). Like I said man, itís not always what you say, but how you come across. I know their experience is different than mine and I think they know that when I tell them Iíve been there (Carlos refers back to a conversation in Act I). I just donít want and wonít accept it becoming an excuse for them. Maybe I was wrong to let them stay up and watch the movie, but I think they know I wasnít trying to set anyone up or bribe them by letting down the rules a little. Iíve already talked to them about how they behaved and how disappointed I was.
Carlos (continues as if making amends): I was thinking Shantell that what you earlier about culture was probably true in the sense that my culture is part of me, just as your dignity as a black woman does define us and how we see things.
Shantell: How couldnít it!
Carlos: Itís just that I donít know how big a part. I know Iím not like a lot of my Hispanic friends, and you donít fit the stereotype of the warm caring black woman.
Shantell: What do you mean by that?
Carlos: Well, as you said you donít like to hug the kids. I see you much more like I might see a white businesswoman, dignified, well dressed and somewhat distant.
Shantell: I donít see myself as distant. Iím close to many of these kids. Itís just that I think it is important to keep a little space between us because I know they will have to leave and I donít want them to get too attached.
Bill: I think Shantell provides a good role model. The girls and boys respect her for her commitment and professionalism. But Iím not sure how much culture is part of this. I know I rarely think about my culture or ethnicity.
Carlos: Thatís because youíre a white guy. But to me youíre whiteness is just as much a part of you as being Hispanic is part me.
Bill: What do you mean?
Carlos: You act white. You have this sort of nondescript, bland way of fitting in.
Bill: Iím not nondescript, am I? Iím little too heady maybe, but not nondescript?
Shantell: The reason you donít notice how people react to you is because of your skin color. youíre seen as part of the establishment rather than different. Whereas being black immediately influences what people see, being white evokes little response.
Carlos (smiling, looking at Bill): Look bro, I like you. I see you as unique, the philosopher who really cares about the kids. I was just trying to make a point as Shantell just did about how we are all seen differently.
Angie: How do you guys see me?
Carlos: Raw, young, eager to do the right thing, caring.
Bill: I agree. I see you as a warm person trying to learn the ropes.
Shantell: Sometimes I think you go a little overboard in trying to get the kids to like you.
Angie: But I care about, even love them, and I want to learn to feel the same way about me so they can care for others.
Camille (has been observing and quiet until now): Thatís a little risky. You donít want to mislead them by getting too attached. You wonít be with them when they leave.
Carlos: Maybe in spirit.
The conversation continues ...