Friday, July 17, 2009


For the past two summers I have worked at a state-run residential treatment program for troubled teenage girls. The girls are picture examples of who might be called "products of the system" as the average girl who comes into this program has had 12 previous home or institutional placements. Each "client" is either court-ordered or placed by social services into this program for problematic behavior and almost all of the clients' pasts are riddled with abuse, sexually abuse, drug use or neglect. As you might imagine, these rough backgrounds yield rough personalities and, being that I work as a dorm staff member, I have lots of face time with these kiddos.

Of late, the use of words in my work environment has given me much to stop and think about. More often than not, words that I hear and use while at work hold no real, personal meaning to me. On the average work day, I am cussed out, insulted, bullied, threatened, or ignored by the clients. Coming from any non-client, these might distress me; however when at work I typically let these roll off of my back, recognizing that the girls are "just saying words." When a girl remarks that she hates my ugly guts and hopes that I die, she is just saying words-wanting to get some kind of attention from me for saying these words. When another girl cusses me out, saying words that I could never repeat here, she is just saying words-expressing anger or frustration with herself or indignation about the fact that she is not going to get her way. Someone else tells me a glorious story about the uber secret and complex code that she and her mom communicated through, she most likely is just saying words-compulsive and impulsive lying runs rampant. Or, if a girl tells me that she appreciates me and that I am her favorite staff ever, she is just saying words-yes, she might think well of me, however she also is trying to butter me up to get something else.

In a recent conversation with a co-worker, we were discussing a particular client and her background of abuse and neglect. My co-worker was describing how much she enjoyed working with this particular girl not only because of her much calmer temperament in comparison to other clients, but also for her endearing quirks. When the conversation came around to discussing the girl's mother, my co-worker said, "Her IQ about two points higher than a rock. She should never have had kids."

This comment struck a deep nerve within me. On the one hand, this was not a very charitable thing to say--but it happens sometimes when you work with troubled teens (troubled background + adolescent hormones = Ugh) that you need to vent every so often. On the other hand, a declaration such as "She should never have had kids," by extension, would imply that my co-worker thought this particular client in question should never have been born. I do not think my co-worker fully realized what she said, especially being that she thought so well of this child. However, my "just saying words" mantra could not work in this situation.

I won't deny that there are some people in the world who are simply not well-equipped to be be entrusted with the overwhelming demands and responsibilities of child-raising. Indeed, and most unfortunately, about 65% of the children with whom I work come from such backgrounds. However, this could never mean that any of them should not have been born.

Most of the girls with whom I work probably will struggle for the rest of their lives to overcome or at least cope with the crosses they currently are facing. In the process, they will rely upon the generosity of the state, and thus tax-payers, for housing, medical care, and the like. For many of them, it will appear as if we are wasting our time and resources on them and we might feel inconvenienced by them. The words "She should never have had kids" will be very tempting to think.

So, where am I going with this? Right now, I cannot quite put my finger on it yet--Where do words-said fit into how I experience the world? On the one hand, we should not take all words at their face-value--sometimes people are just saying words for the sake of saying something. Yet, on the other hand, especially when we are dealing with the reality of the dignity of the human person, we cannot allow words to desensitize us to reality because words so easily influence how and what we think, which further affects how we act. Though I might disregard a fair amount of the words said by the blossoming young ladies with whom I work, I cannot do this at the expense of their personal dignity and my respect thereof. For, if I do that, what is the point of my doing this job in the first place?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Word, girl."
- Your big brother