(Nonexistent) Spare Time

Photo by TheMarque - used under a creative commons license

Photo by TheMarque at Flickr - used under a creative commons license

In my nonexistent spare time, I’m doing some work at an emergency shelter for teenagers.

I must be getting old.

For fourteen years, I worked on a college campus. In addition, I was a teenager (once upon a time) and I raised a teenager. I hadn’t expected to be surprised by these kids.

About every two hours or so, one of them surprises me. Far too frequently, one of them will surprise me to the point of speechlessness. I’m rarely at a loss for words.

In 13 days, I will celebrate the golden jubilee of my existence. I’m rather excited about turning 50 though I can’t quite articulate why. I am discovering the Big 5-0 is a time for reflection. While I don’t feel it’s possible that I’m 10+ years past the age I was convinced my parents were elderly and on the verge of nursing home care, I do know that I’ve got enough years behind me that every now and again true wisdom pops up in my brain – the brain that still feels 25 in the body that’s feeling every year of 50.

Working with teenagers at this junction encourages that reflection and results in some brief glimpses of insight.

I was the teenager from hell. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I was intelligent and strangely responsible with my delinquent behavior. I had goals and I managed to get through a surprisingly good public school system with a solid 3.92 average. I worked 20-30 hours a week. In my (then) nonexistent spare time, I also partied like it was 1999.

The saving grace was that I loved and respected (kind of) my parents.  I loved them and they loved me.

I told my son there were few things he could do that I hadn’t done; and, unlike my parents, I knew what to look for. While there were days I said to him, in stunned disbelief, “Who raised you?” we managed to get him through those years with minimal trauma.

At this point, I’m probably sounding like a hypocrite.

Those all too brief episodes of wisdom are bearing fruit.

They tried to tell me then and I try to tell them now that they have years and years in front of them, but youth is all too fleeting.

I would love to have the attitude and joy of being a small child again – the wonder at the world and the excitement of discovering it. I wouldn’t be a teenager again for nothing. Folks say they’d love to do it again knowing what they know now. Not me. They’d have to drag me kicking and screaming back to the time of Clearasil.

These kids I spend time with 25 hours a week are a mess. Most of them haven’t willfully done anything I didn’t do. The difference seems to be what has been done to them.  By their own actions and by what’s been done to them, they’re growing up far too fast. 

Some of them are there because of things they’ve done that landed them in the criminal justice system. Others are there because of things that were done to them that landed their guardians in the criminal justice system. Others are mentally ill. Some are there because their parents couldn’t control them and voluntarily turned them over to state custody.

College professors are consistently amazed at the irresponsible and dishonest behavior of their students. They’re further disgusted at the lack of basic skills these kids are coming out of high school with. Some of them put the blame squarely on the kids. Some on the public school system. Some on the parents. Some on all three. Rather than blaming, I’m more interested in figuring out what we’re doing differently with our kids that leads to this behavior and attitude. If we can figure that out, we can stop it before it starts.

In my other job, I work with folks committed to prevention of child maltreatment. The statistics and the research strongly show that it’s far more effective and less expensive to prevent the problems in the first place than to react to them later.

This job offers the flip side. What I see is that we’re dumping tons of money on this problem. Money that needs to be spent. But I wonder about the efficacy of it. It’s a temporary shelter so I don’t get to see what happens in the long term.

What strikes me about these kids in the shelter is how young they are and how old they think they are. The problem lies in that junction. They chafe, in ways I didn’t, at our attempts to control and change their behavior. So many of them have an attitude that this is all there is. Those that do have goals have ones that are shallow and center on the acquisition of stuff or the attainment of fame. They don’t want (or don’t they can) contribute something of real worth. Or they have no concept of what is worthy.

At their age, I felt like an adult. As an adult (and I use that term loosely), I know now that I didn’t feel like an adult – I felt like a teenager with the accompanying raging hormones and brain that had not yet lateralized. Hell, most of the time I still don’t feel like an adult.

It’s too easy to throw up our arms in despair and declare the problem too big to deal with. There’s an old story that makes the rounds of intervention folks – The Starfish Story. It was written by Loren Eisley. In short, a man on a beach sees miles of beached starfish and encounters another person picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. The man points out to the other that he can’t possibly make a difference as there are hundreds of starfish and miles of beach. The starfish thrower says, as he tosses one back into the ocean, “”It made a difference for that one.”

My work at this group home is not onerous. Mostly, I sit and talk with the kids. Every now and again, I get the opportunity to say something that I hope is the equivalent of tossing a starfish back into the ocean.

What I need to learn, and this is probably true of life, is that while I will not get to see if my actions provoke positive results, the simple act of doing is still worthwhile.

I’ve spent this morning bemoaning my loss of free time. This job began as a means to alleviate some financial distress. It’s becoming something more. I’m learning something from these kids and I’m learning something about me. Time will, perhaps, illuminate more clearly what it is I’m learning. It’s possible that the starfish I’m saving is myself.

10 thoughts on “(Nonexistent) Spare Time

  1. I so admire you for the great work you have been doing and are now doing. Those kids need more people like you in their lives and if you can help just one, save just one, then you have truly made a difference.

    I wonder if today’s kids are less innocent than we were. And there was so much we had to do that they don’t – for example, look things up by hand in a dictionary and not on the internet! They take so much more for granted, grow up seeing such unreal situations on tv where 20 year olds live in luxury and everyone gets something grand for nothing. It is truly sad.

    Our sons are now at big crossroads in their lives and we hope that they now start letting us help, advise and work with them to make it all turn out fine.


  2. hey, in some ways, you’re saving us all… I recall when I was pregnant lo those many years ago and I was scared about the pain and difficulty of delivery. I had a very wimpy SIL with two little girls and I would constantly tell myself; if she can do it, so can I. Sometimes that’s all it takes, an example of someone else who has found the path and set forth… Thanks for the signposts.

  3. .
    Good on you. What you’re doing is exactly what’s needed. And it ties in with our conversation on the effect of architecture & city planning on individuals & families.

    The isolation of the individual that is encouraged, if not forced by modern architecture & urban design also isolates the so-called nuclear family from its’ own extended family, and from the other families in the community. It’s this sort of isolation that helps lead to desperate and self-destructive acts out of a sense of hopelessness and lack of alternatives in a bad situation: We literally have no place to go when we’re in trouble at home.

    I think that what you are doing, young as you are, sets an excellent example, Connie. Even if your position is salaried, I’m sure you could make more money for less output elsewhere. Each and every one of those kids will remember your sacrifice for the rest of his or her life. Good on you.

    (See also, this extended rant on the subject in response to this post by Ms. Connie.)

    • Ah shucks. (Connie scuffs her shoes in the gravel.) What I’m discovering is that the doing of this is rewarding to me. I’m not sure what the kids are getting out of my efforts, but I’m a better person because of them. I don’t know if they’ll remember me, but I’ll remember them.

      • .
        Any little kindness you do for someone who’s been slapped around by life will not only be remembered, always, but it will make that person more likely to break the cycle of abuse and treat others with kindness too.

        Whenever they have to make a choice as to how to respond to a good or bad situation, they’ll remember that you showed them that there WAS a choice.

        So, yeah, they’ll remember you.

  4. “I would love to have the attitude and joy of being a small child again – the wonder at the world and the excitement of discovering it.”

    Go ahead.

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