After working with angry, injured, neglected youth for over 40 years, I am accustomed to having a mask presented to me when I first meet a teenager who psychologically is “in the world alone.” Indeed, he usually prefers to brandish a mask at the initial introduction.
See, I’m crazy. Really, I am bad.
If brave enough, the young person searches my eyes, seeking to know what I have already heard about him, if I have read the usually thick case record which documents his noncompliant behaviors, his diagnoses, or worse yet, his family’s betrayal. A few moments of silence. Then, in return, I always respond: You are safe here. I know that you are not bad and you are not crazy. You are just a kid. I smile. The look I get back is a puzzled one, but that was my purpose. Catch the youth off guard. Make him curious, attentive. So where do you want to go when you leave? I ask. Our relationship begins with his answer. Home…Independent Living… I don’t know.
So I was not surprised when the 18-year-old rushed into my office unannounced, with staff following closely. Interrupting my meeting, he protested that he had waited too long for his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) update and his special education placement in an alternative school. The mask was down. He went on to say, “It is easier to go to jail than to do what is right, and get into school.” I sat up and took a long look. Now he had my attention. I recalled his history. He had been abandoned before he began kindergarten and bounced around in countless facilities and jails. Now in his last year of high school, he wanted to be like the other residents. Despite his special needs, he really wanted to go to school in the community. I picked up the phone. It was time to expedite the process.
It is easier to go to jail than to do what is right, and get into school.
Those words continue to echo. When the youth actually does let the mask down, he is highly vulnerable to adult betrayal. Once again, or maybe for the first time, he is just a kid. As responsible adults, we will ensure that he is assigned a school placement that meets his needs and delivers academic success. Perhaps, then, he will never again need a mask.