I read a really powerful essay awhile ago, so I thought I would share it here. Even if you don't interact much with kids in an inner-city context, it includes a lot of insight in it that would be helpful when working with any child who has experienced traumatic life circumstances.
To the caring and capable adult who wants to help me, but sometimes does not want to see me; To the one who plays with me, and who shows me lots of fun, but then like a grandparent, sends me home again when I get too tiring; To the one who faithfully comes into the neighborhood twice a week and never misses an appointment; To the one who really does love me with all their heart, but who still recoils when I get too close because of my smell, or my runny nose, or my ringworm; To the one who buys me stuff, even though I ain’t their kid; To the one who reads books with me, and helps me with my homework, and mentors me, and comes to my court review. This letter is for you. Thank you. I don’t say that very often, do I? At least, not in ways you hear. Even though I may not show outward signs of appreciation, you must realize how important you are to me. You take time out of your busy life to come and visit me. I am a kid you don’t know too well, and one you don’t fully trust, but you come see me anyway. You are not my mamma or her baby daddy, and the courts didn’t make you come here. So when you spend time with me, I know it is because you want to. I’m too tough to tell you, but I need that kind of care. I crave it. I love you for doing it.
But you got to remember that you and me are different, okay? You got to remember that there are some things that I know better than you. You drive into my neighborhood to work, but I live here all the time. That’s not a bad thing, I am glad you come to see me. But you got to remember that you’re the guest here. You are not in charge all the time. You don’t always set the agenda. Long after you leave, I will still be here. When you are waking up for work and drinking your morning coffee, I am dragging my younger siblings out of bed and dressing them and making sure they eat something so we can get to the bus stop on time. And I don’t wake mamma. When you are sleeping in your bed at night, I am curled up in a trembling mass in the corner of a shadowy den hoping and praying that my new daddy don’t come home drunk again. I know you want to help, but you got to remember you don’t make the rules. I need to drive sometimes. I know I am a little kid, but there are some things that I know better than you.You forget that sometimes, but hey, nobody’s perfect. I know you like to visit me, but I also know that I scare you. You come from somewhere different than me and you can’t figure out why I act like I do.
For example, when you give popcorn to the kid on my left, I want some too. Do I simply ask for some, or patiently wait my turn? You wish I would. “Hey! No fair! Why does he get popcorn? Where’s mine? Gimme some!” This is my default. There is a whining sound in my voice that annoys you, or I sound angry and aggressive. What I want to say is this: “The popcorn looks delicious. I would like to have some, please.” But I don’t know how to say that. You tell me I have poor manners. You tell me I am rude. Well, I don’t know much about that, but I do know that you are trying to rip me off. At home, and everywhere else I go, the assumption is that I am going to get screwed. See, I live with my mom and her boyfriend, and he has kids of his own that he brought with him when he moved in with us. And my brother has a different dad too. At my house, there are favorite kids. At my house, I don’t get a new toy just because my brother did. At my house, I get left out. But my mamma doesn’t say anything because it might make Joey mad. So, at my house, I am on my own. Then you come along, and you seem nice enough. But how do I know that there is enough popcorn for me? How do I know that you are going to serve me just like you served that other kid? How do I know that you won’t ignore me? I don’t. I don’t know until I can trust you. Because, even though I am here in a church or school or kids club, I forget that I don’t have to fight. I forget that you try to be fair. So, I will demand popcorn if I have to.
I say “fuck” a lot. And “bitch” and “shit” and “pussy.” You tell me I am bad, but really I am just talking like everybody else. You got stuff you say, and I got stuff I say. It’s not because I am dumber than you, it is just my language. I need you to fight against something. You will be tempted to judge me based on my speech patterns. My informal register will cause you to feel intellectually superior, and my use of profanity will cause you to feel morally superior. Battle those urges with everything you’ve got. I need you to talk to me without lecturing. I need you to include me in discussions. I don’t need condescension, I need conversation. I know you’re convinced that your language is the “correct” one and mine is somehow broken. But Jesus speaks Ebonics too.
By the way, it is okay for you to talk your talk. I don’t mind. But don’t try to mimic me, because I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t need someone who looks like me and sounds like me. I don’t need someone more ghetto or someone who fits into the neighborhood. I need someone who truly cares. I need the love that turns things upside down. That will be enough.
I like to laugh, just like you do. I want to have a good time. But I laugh at different things than you. You laugh at clever remarks and ironic situations and cunning satire. I laugh when I tease the boy next to me until he cries. He walks funny and his clothes are too big. (My clothes are too big too, but I crucify him for it.) Then I flip open my cousin’s cell phone and show everybody an animation I downloaded for $1.99. It is Scooby Doo having sex with Daphne. I laugh loud and long so everyone around me hears. I pass it around because there is great value in being the entertainer. You tell me I am mean and inappropriate, but I don’t know how else I am supposed to laugh. The only things funny to me are people and sex. And when I showed it to my uncle, he laughed too.
That animation on my phone is the best way for you to understand me. That animation shows the clash of two worlds. Scooby and Daphne: icons of silliness and youth. Graphic depiction of sex: a mysterious siren song beckoning me to the big people world. I clash with myself every day. I am a kid, a normal kid, just like in your family. I go through all the same phases and want all the same things. I am just as likely as your kid to beg for a toy or have a scary dream or cry when I don’t get my way. I am just as likely to bite my Tootsie Pop or enjoy Dr. Seuss or forget to tie my shoe laces. And sometimes I just need a nap. But I am also an adult, a small adult, who sees the real world every day. I go through all the same phases and want all the same things. I may not understand it, but I am likely to be intrigued by sex and marvel over money and watch while my brother gets high. I look up to Scarface and I’m wary of police and I see through your lies about school. And sometimes I just need a drink. I’m kind of schizophrenic. A half-kid half-adult hybrid. That’s why I can be vulgar and innocent at the same time. That’s why I will tell you of my sexual exploits in graphic detail and then ask you to blow bubbles with me. That’s why I will quote the movies “How High” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks” over dinner and laugh just as loud over both of them.
You might think I have no impulse control. You might think that I am overly emotional, or terribly dramatic, or blatantly offensive. You can’t figure out why I act like I do. You feel like you can’t get close to me because I fly off the handle every now and then, or I am cold or hostile toward your sappy Christian advances. I’m totally inconsistent and you think I may be mentally imbalanced.
You know nothing stays the same? Ask me my phone number. I probably won’t know it. Ask for my address. I might be able to give you the street name we just moved to. Ask me who my parent or legal guardian is, or which of those kids is really my cousin. I’m not being rude when I don’t answer. I just can’t keep up. And I don’t know if my mom will bring home groceries, and I don’t know if I will make it to middle school. I don’t know if I am safe in my bed, and I don’t know where my daddy went. The things I don’t know far outweigh the things I do know. I can’t control what happens to any extent, and I have trouble predicting outcomes. Things happen to me. I don’t wake up and plan for my day. I wake up and brace myself.
That’s why I cry at the drop of a hat, and that is why I launch into manic fits. That is why, when my brother asks for help on his homework, he may start fuming and kick the hell out of something. We’re wearing roller skates on a merry-go-round. We can’t catch our balance and no one is helping us up. We are trying to climb the wrong way up an icy sliding board while the bully at the top keeps throwing snow balls. We’re in a cage match with reality, and there is no way to tap out.
And so we do things.
Maybe you’ve seen those scars on my arms. No, not the cigarette burns. Those came from something else. I mean the cuts. Those straight and narrow cuts that criss-cross all over my skin and make patterns like a railroad track. They look suspiciously like I put them there myself. You wonder about it when you catch a glimpse, but it takes you a couple of weeks to ask. Let me tell you about my day. Let me tell you about my day that is the same day every day, and how boring and tedious it becomes to climb out of bed. Everything seems broken sometimes, and I don’t believe it can be fixed. There is nowhere to go from here, nothing to do. I am bored. Boredom leads to apathy, apathy leads to numbness, and numbness is the enemy of hope. I am the walking dead and it doesn’t take long for me to yearn to feel something. I want to feel that little sting, that rush of endorphins, that cleansing release as I purge my body of pent up self-worthlessness. I feel something. And I am in control. I am causing the sensation and no one is doing it to me. I am causing the sensation and I can make it stop.
Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. Don’t talk to me! I hate you! I hate you!
I’ll run away and hide from you because you’re getting too close. I will say things just to make you hurt inside, and sometimes I get satisfaction in knowing you cried over me. I’ll cuss at you sometimes. I will jump out of your car and refuse to get back in, telling you the whole time that you are a liar who doesn’t care about me at all. Then I will walk home by myself in the rain, tossing the gift you gave me on the ground. And I will watch over my shoulder to see you driving slowly behind me until I arrive safely at my destination.
I’m mad at you. I am not speaking to you. We both know that it’s not your fault, but I want to be mad at someone. I fume and vent, and you shrink and listen. You will try really hard in this situation, but I don’t want you to win. I want you to come back, but I don’t want you to win. I’m pissed.
I need you to be patient. Most people stick around until I lose my temper, or steal from them, or resist their love. They get tired, or hurt, or bored, or mad and I never see them again. When you wipe my spit from your face and search me out in the streets, I get it. Then I start to believe you. I’ll be baffled by your mercy and puzzled by your grace, and the yearning of my heart will be satisfied by your faithfulness. I’ll probably still act mad for a while, and I may teach you some new choice phrases. But I will also end the conversation with, “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” So, thanks for reading my letter. I don’t know if you’ll understand what I am saying, I am really not that articulate. I don’t know how to express these things. Sometimes I have to wrestle with my tongue to make the words come out. But I still wanted someone to hear me out, to engage my opinions, to recognize my voice.
And I cherish you for doing that.
From the kid you want to work with, but keep at arm’s length; From the child you pick up for church on Sunday and play basketball with on Monday; From the one who loves your reading voice and wishes he had a dad like you; From the boy who needs to learn to shave and the girl who needs a chick flick night; From the 1 in 4 who is living in poverty; From the one who is close enough to touch. I’ll see you tomorrow.