I’ve worked with youth for a long time now, and as fun and rewarding as the job can be, it’s often just work. Hard work.
Like the time – while teaching in a public school – that I returned from lunch to find that a student had broken into my classroom and urinated on another student’s project. Like the time one student hacked into another student’s school network account in order to alter a book report and leave a collection of threatening images. Like the time a student lied to me – in the face of four witnesses and a mountain of physical evidence – claiming he knew nothing about the broken lock, the ruined (and stinking) project, the compromised account, the death threats.
Sometimes you face a student whose will is stronger than your own. Sometimes you just feel stuck. Sometimes you think about a life where people treat each other with respect and wonder whether you’re in the right field of work, whether there might be enough time to go back to college and start over. Sometimes you just give up. Call the student’s parents. Ask for help.
Sometimes you find that their job’s even harder than yours. And that they need help too.
It’s in cases like these that I face a decision: 1) get rid of the student or 2) get closer to the student. Because that’s how it is in people-related work. You can get rid of the people. Or you can get closer to them. I don’t know of any other way to solve people problems.
And I wanted to get rid of the kid. That would have been easier. Simpler. Cleaner. But I’ve learned that you never really solve the problem that way. There’s always another student – even more creatively destructive than the first. So I’ve developed a philosophy of work with one important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away person.
Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away people, then I have to figure out how to connect with the people I’d like to throw away.
In one case, I might have given a student a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex to clean up a project as best he could. In another case, he and I and his parents may have spent several afternoons negotiating a long-term behavioral contract. Those parents might have started having me over for dinner once a week for good food, a TV show or two, and regular conversations about how things were going in the classroom. Over time, it’s possible that I actually started to like that student.
It’s also possible that as the student grew up, we became friends.
There was a Bible quiz program in which he helped coach a team of younger boys. There was a work trip to the Dominican Republic. There was the time when he left college to volunteer in a drug rehabilitation program in Mexico, using his language skills and his limited medical training to help desperately poor people with serious addictions. I was proud of the work he was doing and of the person he was becoming.
It’s in times like these that it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, that now’s the time to enjoy the fruit of that earlier labor.
But the work’s never really done.
Sometimes you hear from the wife of a friend. Or see a newspaper article with that friend’s name. Or get asked to speak at a funeral.
Which is a completely different kind of work. Though the results are similar. I felt stuck (and a little bit lost). I thought – ever so briefly – about a life where I wouldn’t have to get close to people, a life where I wouldn’t have to lose them, a life where I wouldn’t have to hurt.
Unfortunately, my philosophy of work has another important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away experience.
Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away experiences, then I have to figure out how to connect with the feelings I’d rather not have. I have to learn how to face into the experiences that bring suffering and pain. I have to learn how – each day – to keep moving forward in the work to which I’ve been called. To trust that I’m being shaped in ways that are shaping others. To know that this hard work is work worth doing. And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.
Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough, and the only thing that really helps is to call that friend’s parents. Because they need help too. And the work isn’t really mine.
It’s something we do together.
And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.