I had a moment of panic after typing this all up and preparing the pics for the post. Did I say too much? Should I be sharing this? My answer, yes. Because as much as this is about him, it’s about me, too. I have purposefully referred to him as “him.” I could have given him a nickname, but I felt like I wasn’t honoring him by doing that. So, he remains, “him.”
Within My Power by Forest Witcraft
One hundred years from now
It will not matter
What kind of car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much I had in my bank,
Nor what my clothes looked like.
One hundred years from now
It will not matter
What kind of school I attended,
What kind of typewriter I used,
How large or small my church,
But the world may be …
a little better because…
I was important in the life of a child.
I have an excerpt of this poem on a travel mug given to me by a former supervisor when I was still working in mental health. She was always showing her appreciation for us even if it was something as little as a set of fun post-its and a matching pen. She understood the importance of lifting us up so we could do the same for our clients.
The last line of the poem always rings in my head. Every time I see one of those former clients on Facebook telling the world they got a new job, had a baby, or working towards a goal in school.
I was fired from an administrative assistant job back in 1994 right after Christmas. While shocking and upsetting in the moment, was really a blessing. It forced me to go out and get what I wanted whether the woman at the Unemployment Office thought I could do it or not. I never collected a dime of unemployment and found a job I loved with the Kaimuki-Waialae YMCA as a Group Leader for the Afterschool Plus (A+ as it is more commonly known).
I went into my first day with high hopes and feeling on top of it all.
Then I met him.
He was willful, defiant, and loud-mouthed. He would run away when I was getting the rest of the kids lined up to go into the cafeteria. He was the first refuse to participate in new games/activities I planned for the group. If things did not go his way, he blew up. Not out of control blow up, but there was a tirade. His moods determined my days. If he was in a good mood, I had a good day. Bad mood, bad day for Debi.
Anyone who didn’t know him might think he was spoiled or a bad kid. He was neither. He was a kid in desperate need of someone other than his mother to pay attention to him and recognize his worth and potential.
I believed there was more to him than what he let us all see. I believed there was a wealth of untapped intelligence. I believed there was more than the daily cycle of him acting out and me feeling worn out. I knew I needed to harness that belief to get us both moving forward.
My problem was how to tap into that without making it obvious to the other kids. He was prideful and did not like the rest of the kids knowing his personal business. Nor did I want the kids to think I was playing favorites.
I decided to set up parallel rewards systems. A marble jar. Once it was filled, the group got to choose an activity or a treat for me to bring in with a movie. It may not sound like much, but bringing in food of any kind was huge for them because I never did it.
I pulled Morgan aside while the kids were doing homework and I proposed doing the same thing for him and no one but us and his mom would know about it. He beamed. We had a routine of me quietly bringing him over to my box of supplies that included the marble jars and going over his behaviors which ones earned him marbles. He got to choose the marbles that went into the jar. If his mom picked him up before we could do the marbles we’d have the same discussion before he’d leave and I added the marbles before I put my box away for the day.
He flourished. He was lining up with the rest of the group with a smile on that adorable face of his. He was trying new games/activities without complaining. He was getting along better with everyone in the group. He was seeing older kids being more disrespectful than he was and it upset him, along with the rest of my kids.
Not every day was perfect. He had a fantastic mind on top of being naturally athletic. One day, I brought in magazines and had the group make collage pictures by cutting out objects to piece together instead of drawing a picture. Everyone was gluing their pictures down and he sat there trying to fold the bottom and glue the folded part so the picture was standing on the paper. What first grader does that? He did. It wasn’t working as he envisioned it though and he got frustrated. He started complaining, “It’s not working!” Then he became more frustrated and was ready to tear it up before I pulled it from his hands because I saw what was coming. I had to keep encouraging him to keep doing what he was doing even if it wasn’t working how he wanted it to. I didn’t want him to give up and trash his work. He begrudgingly kept at it.
The day finally came when he filled that jar for the first time. He chose a movie and Otter Pops. I brought them in the following week and I asked him if we could tell the group why we were watching a movie and having a treat. I wanted him to take pride in his accomplishment and I wanted his peers to recognize it, too. He shyly smiled and said, “Yes.”
It went something like this:
“Have you guys noticed anything different about Morgan lately?”
“Yeah! He doesn’t run away from you anymore.”
“He plays with us more.”
“He’s not talking back to anyone.”
You see, kids notice. I told them that while we were doing a marble jar as a group, Morgan had one on the side. There were a lot of congratulations and for the first time amongst his peers, I saw him act shy.
I would never say he was my favorite. I treated all the kids in my group as equals. No one was more special than the others, but we forged a bond. While the marble jar gave him incentive to grow, working with him and constantly thinking of unconventional ways to keep him engaged helped me grow, too.
I built a relationship with his mom through all this, too. There were so many adults in his life that had given up and shouldn’t have and she was happy someone refused to do the same.
It was through my work with him that I decided I wanted to go back to school for my Masters in Counseling and Guidance. I started taking classes so I could work on campus while studying for the GRE. I spent my mornings at UH in class or working and my afternoons at Waialae Elementary.
The day came when his mom picked him up and told me they were moving to Canada. All good things must come to an end, right? I told him I was so proud of him I was like a balloon about to burst before he left.
We kept in touch through the years. I watched him grow up from afar through pictures and letters from his mom. I never got my Masters. I moved to Kentucky and married Chaz. I finally got my foot in the door into mental health and worked in that field for twelve and a half years. Ten and a half of those years was spent working with young boys, teens, and their families. I had co-workers encouraging me to go for my Masters in Social Work so I could do therapy. It wasn’t in the cards for me.
He just graduated from college on the 12th. I posted a congratulatory message on his Facebook timeline. This was his reply, “Thank you so much Miss Debi! I know we haven’t been together in a long time but I truly wouldn’t be here without you. You were such a pivotal part of my very important foundation and I can’t thank you enough. I hope all is well with you and that our paths will cross soon.”
If I could have cried, I would have.
He and his mom were driving down to Cincinnati to visit some family before heading back to Canada. Can you believe it? Here I was thinking I needed to figure out a time for Chaz and I to travel up to B.C. to visit and he texts me saying they’re going to be in Cincinnati the next day.
It wasn’t the next day I saw them, but the day after.
They drove over our apartment and we sat around talking about A+ days, what we’ve been up to since then, and what our future plans were. I dragged out a few scrapbooks with pictures from those A+ days. To his delight, I had pictures of him with his best friend at the time. They were inseparable.
He looked me in the eye when his mom left the room and thanked me for changing his life. Every way I tried to tell him it was him that did all the work he came back with, “But if you hadn’t…” I realized I needed to just stop and accept his gratitude.
We went out for lunch and I sat there watching him drink a beer. He’s still that little boy in my heart but he’s all grown up now. That fantastic mind of his? He still has it. And he thinks I’d be pretty cool to hang out with because I have Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.
He is just one piece of proof (I have many more) that believing in a child, any child, can not only change their course, but your own as well.