*NAME IS CHANGED, BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
School was out for the summer and I was no longer getting paid. And yet, there I sat, waiting for the shifty eyed overweight middle school assistant principal to finish heating up her rancid smelling lunch.
“Jay is really difficult,” the assistant principal of the middle school warned me. “We had to give him the same teacher for fourth and fifth grade because it was a male teacher and the only one who could handle him.” She placed her hands flat on her desk and looked at me with exasperation even though Jay was nowhere in sight.
“Can you tell me what specifically makes him so difficult and what works best with him?” As the future 6th grade counselor, I met with the administration from the feeder elementary schools to find out which students needed some extra support in their transition to middle school.
She laughed. Not a pretty laugh. Not a nice laugh. It was a snotty, malicious, and condescending laugh. I didn’t let it phase me. I understood that she was tired. She was overworked; school administrators have a tough job. But still, her response wasn’t kind.
“He’s out of control. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t want to complete his work. We have millions of meeting with his grandparents, but nothing changes.”
And there it was, the first clue: lives with his grandparents. I wondered why and how Jay felt about it. Where were his parents?
That fall, I met Jay. He had a lot of energy. It was as if he was always plugged into an electric socket that produced a low level humming noise audible within about ten feet. I liked him immediately because he was authentic. He didn’t know how to be anyone but himself.
“You’re going to see a lot of me,” Jay told me the first time we met.
“Great,” I replied.
“No, it’s not a good thing. I do really stupid things sometimes.”
I laughed. “Don’t we all?”
“Uh, I don’t know? Probably not.”
“Hmmm. Okay. Well I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
“Yeah, guess so.” He shrugged and by the expression on his face I could tell that I hadn’t won him over. In fact, I might’ve repelled him. I wondered if I was too positive. Maybe he didn’t like that. He left my office and I felt a little disappointed by our lack of connection.
“See I told you,” Jay told me two days later. He was waiting for me in the wooden chair outside my office. His arms were folded while his legs bounced rapidly. This kid could power a windmill with all his excess energy.
“Come on in.” I held the door open for him. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not taking math. It’s so fucking stupid.” He stopped the leg bounce for a moment and looked at me challengingly. It wasn’t a nasty or mean look. It was a what are you going to do about me look? I saw sadness in his face. Defeat too.
“I take it you are not a math fan?” I knew from his records that Jay had an IEP and one of the qualifying conditions was a disability in math. He also had low processing speed and working memory issues tied to his ADHD diagnosis.
“I hate it.”
“Since always. I fucking hate it.”
“Sounds like it hates you too.”
He laughed a real laugh and smiled too, exposing his small front teeth. “Math sucks. Do you hate it too?”
“Actually, no sorry to say. I always liked math because it was either right or wrong.”
“Yeah, well you must’ve gotten it right. I don’t. I don’t ever seem to get math right.”
“That must be really frustrating,” I said.
Together, we made a plan on what to do before his frustration surged out of control and he threw pencils or yelled obscenities. I roped in the math special education teacher, a good friend and one of the most patient and caring teachers. Our hope was to make sure that all of the teachers understood that the reason Jay acted out wasn’t because he enjoyed disrupting the class; it was because he was angry with himself and felt stupid.
It reminded me of my own struggles with writing. I never kicked desks or knocked them over, but the thought crossed my mind. I used to fantasize about lifting a desk and hurling it across the classroom at Mr. Borne, my tenth grade English teacher. He was a condescending asshole with a penchant for CB radios. Rather than teach how to write a thesis sentence, Mr. Borne educated our class on radio waves and communicating with truck drivers. He allowed us to watch movies rather than read books and I struggled to write a meaningful sentence until my freshman year at UCLA in the remedial writing course.
Writing never made sense to me. I could formulate thoughts in my head and say them. However, whenever I tried to put them on paper, I was stuck. Feeling inadequate was a miserable feeling. However, unlike Jay, I didn’t act on my desires to scream and yell. I sat quietly and silently berated myself. You can’t write. What’s wrong with you? It’s easy. You’re so stupid.
Jay and I dealt with our frustrations completely differently. Rather than swallow his feelings or let them echo loudly in his head as I did, he spit them out all over the place. If he was frustrated, he showed it. He didn’t hold it in and internalize all the negativity. He let his feelings out. Sure, he was over the top and hard to control. But he was REAL. He was angry that he didn’t understand math and had no problem letting everyone know.
Jay was an externalizer, more typical for males, rather than an internalizer. Externalizers are difficult to manage in a classroom setting. They’re disruptive and loud. With all the standards and requirements teachers need to meet, having an externalizer can completely upend a lesson plan.
Jay was easy for me to work with because I spent one on one time with him. His outbursts were like police sirens warning of an emergency. I didn’t have to guess or ask a million questions to figure out how Jay felt. He shouted it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, teachers didn’t have the luxury or time to talk with Jay one on one. They had ten, twenty, sometimes thirty other students to manage. His outbursts weren’t fair to other students either. Every time Jay lost it in class, he interrupted the learning for every student in class with him.
But more than that, teachers aren’t counselors. They aren’t trained to look for the underlying psychological reasons, nor should they be expected to. They have to meet learning objectives, create interactive lessons, promote collaborative learning, implement 21st century technology, and so much more. It was my responsibility to figure out how to help Jay manage his feelings without involving or disrupting anyone else.
The first step was gaining Jay’s trust. He needed to see that I was on his side and I needed to see what his life was really like. I set up regular meetings with Jay. It was important that we connected during non-eventful days as much as, if not more than, the tumultuous days. I spoke with his paternal grandparents, the ones he lived with, and gathered their version of his history.
And so Jay and I began to get to know each other. He’d come in for regularly scheduled visits twice a week. We wouldn’t talk for long – fifteen minutes or so. We’d talk about video games and annoying people. Sometimes he’d share his struggles with falling asleep or his dislike for the medications he took. He was on ADHD medication and another type of medication to help him sleep at night.
I hooked him up with two phenomenal social workers that came to our school once a week and facilitated a mixed-gender counseling group. I talked with his teachers often. I warned them in advance if he was having a particularly difficult day and they knew to send Jay to my office if they noticed he was off. Some weeks Jay visited the counseling office multiple times a day. Some weeks, I rarely saw him.
By the end of 7th grade, Jay recognized when he needed a break and would excuse himself before the teacher had to send him out of the class. I saw it as a huge win. Monumental. Jay might not have been able to regulate his emotions, but he was beginning to make great decisions – decisions that disrupted others less. Growth. Jay was growing.
My favorite Jay moment was when he marched himself into my office and asked, “How many days?”
“Suspension. How many days do I get?
“What are you talking about?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“I punched George Mason in the face. Hard.”
George Mason was notorious for his back-handed comments and manipulative nature. I wasn’t his counselor, so I only knew about him from teachers and the other counselors. He wasn’t all too likeable from what I’d gathered.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not really sorry. I mean I know I shouldn’t get physical and you’re probably mad at me, but I would do it again, Mrs. Shortt. I really would. This kid is such an asshole, sorry. But, he deserved it. He is the most annoying kid. You should’ve seen how he was treating Yasmeen and Nas. I couldn’t let him go on. I couldn’t. I warned him though. I said if you don’t shut up I’m going to sock you. I told him. I warned him. He could’ve avoided being hit if he shut his mouth. So, how many days do you think I’ll get?”
I started laughing. Not the appropriate reaction for a school counselor upon learning of a physical altercation, but I couldn’t help myself, just as Jay couldn’t help himself. Jay furrowed his brow, surprised no doubt. He came in to confess a suspendable offense and get counsel before seeing the principal and I was hysterically laughing.
To this day, I’m confused by my reaction. The situation wasn’t funny. There’s no humor in someone getting hurt. I am not a fan of violence. And yet, I couldn’t help myself. My laughter was not the nervous kind of laughter. No, it was more joyful. I think that I was so relieved that someone like Jay existed. Someone messy and complicated. So good. So honest. Jay, with all his mistakes and lousy choices, laid himself out there. He never tried to pretend he was anything he wasn’t. What he thought came straight out of his mouth.
Truth, honesty, and integrity are hard to come by in a teenager, especially one who “fucks up all the time”. I guess Jay has always represented my hope in humanity. This young man with an Adverse Childhood Experience score of at least 9 took responsibility for his actions, protected his peers, spoke with honesty and integrity, and connected. He connected. Maybe his ability to connect is what put Jay in another league. Or maybe, it was his acknowledgement and ability to sit in despair and pain. Jay didn’t shy away from his pain.
Life was not easy for Jay and it would continue to be an enormous struggle. I worried that he’d drop out of high school because the pressure of math and all the information would be too much. The level of expectation for students in the affluent neighborhood he lived in, worried me. I was right to worry; he did drop out. BUT, he went back and finished high school and earned his GED through an alternative education program. He also became a recovering alcoholic by the time he was 17. He broke the law a number of times.
I know all of this because Jay and I have stayed in contact after he left middle school. No need to sound the ethics and boundary breaker alarms. I took a couple years off from school counseling once I had my second child and since I wasn’t an employee of the school district, I gave Jay my number.
He used it. He never abused it. He’d call and tell me about the bad choices he’d made and ask me why I thought he did such “stupid” things. He told me about the alcohol use and his disappointment in himself and also the awareness that it was a disease. He told me about AA and his sponsor. We talked through the reconnection with his mother and he shared his tragically painful and shameful memories of his childhood. And the relationships… we spent countless hours discussing his poor choices in women. He knew he was making bad choices but couldn’t help himself back then.
The calls I receive from Jay now are of a very different nature. He calls me to talk about his career and to get advice on which path he should take. Jay earned his CDAC certificate and works with addicts. His end goal is to become a licensed social worker and is trying to figure out his educational path. It’s a long daunting road – first a Bachelor’s Degree and then the Masters. Math looms overhead and taunts him. However, I have faith in Jay. He’ll do it in his own time, just as it should be. He has a beautiful, loving partner whom he loves dearly. And she loves him just as fiercely. I can’t wait to watch the two of them get married.
Through the years, Jay has relentlessly been himself. And I’ve always been in awe of his ability to sift through his pain, an excruciating process. So often we shut our eyes to what hurts. We refuse to acknowledge or look at our shadow (C.G. Jung). Instead, we adopt slogans like, “Think positive.” “Look on the bright side.” “Keep calm and carry on.”
Jay would say, “Fuck that. Life sucks sometimes.”
Life isn’t supposed to be pretty and perfect. How do we truly experience joy if we haven’t experienced it’s opposite?
Jay, is the most beautiful, breathtaking lotus flower. I am thankful everyday that our paths crossed and so grateful for the life lessons he taught me about being one’s self.