what we’re up against

i love stories, storytellers and storytelling

it’s no surprise then, that this blog came about…eventually…it was created, after all, to share stories…with my children, family, friends and the world at large…

the stories recounted here are about the up’s and downs of working with kids…what i refer to as herding cats

and often times, the stories i share deal with the challenges of this kind of work…

in reading these (non-fiction) tales, you can begin to understand this kind of work from the perspective of someone who has done it for nearly 20 years…from someone who still enjoys it, despite the demands inherent in the job…

but, reading about these challenges is quite different from…seeing them, experiencing them, or navigating them–in the moment…for yourself…like a youth worker, teacher, counselor, or parent has to do every day…

in truth, the best thing for a person to do if they really wanted to see what we do–in real life–would be to follow us around for a while…shadow us in our work, if you will–however, that’s not always an option, that’s not always possible…

so, to help in the understanding…i would like to share a movie clip with you…from one of my all-time favorite flicks…good will hunting

[the entire film is ‘quality’ and still holds up to this day–check it out]

and despite the fact that the movie itself is fictional, matt damon’s ‘troubled young man’ is the absolute closest portrayal, the most accurate rendering of what we’re up against…when we encounter a young person who has come up through some hard knocks in life–a young person who wants to challenge us, be defiant, put up a fight, push our buttons, test us, or make mischief…just because they can…

take a look at this scene where will meets his counselor (played by robin williams) for the first time…

q: is this scene a bit dramatic?!

a: sure

q: i mean, can we strangle or ‘choke out’ the kids in our charge…who push our buttons?!

a: no–well, maybe at some of the schools in ‘the south’ 🙂

q: have there been times when we-professionals-have imagined strangling someone–in those moments when we’re pushed to the edge?!

a: absolutely! (if you’ve been a loyal reader/follower of the blog…then, you already know the answer, my friends!)

in my experience (especially, from what i’ve seen in schools and juvenile prisons)…this is exactly the type of behavior and attitude you can expect to be up against…with a difficult young person…it is very true to life…

so much so, that what you didn’t see…in the next scene (and i’m really glad they included it, because it also rings true)…was will’s counselor…who, while he was at home (with a stiff drink in hand), stayed up until all hours of the night…thinking about will…because of what went down in those few moments in his office…

and that’s a really important thing to realize–the stuff you see, the stuff you have to deal with, the stuff that’s said to you…can be some of the most brutal stuff you’ll ever encounter in your life…it sticks with you…it sticks to you…it’s not something you just shake off or leave at the office…not at all…

not only that, but the whole idea (that’s casually passed around) of having thick skin…and ‘how you’ve got to have thick skin’ in this line of work–that’s bullshit, people (as my friend, kip, would say)…it’s a lie people tell themselves…and that’s not to say that youth workers, counselors, teachers, coaches, paras, and parents aren’t tough…they are…the good ones, the ones who stay in the fight–the ones who still work, strive, hope, pray and care for their kids…day in and day out…have some serious stones

but, make no mistake…we also take with us…the scars from the battles we’ve won and (most often) lost…

from what we’ve been up against

beyond tradecraft

“you do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going…what you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― thomas merton

one of the toughest kids i ever worked with (he’s on my top 25 list of all-time toughies-coming in at #25) was a high school student i encountered at summer camp…the place was the outdoor lutheran camp called luther heights bible camp (mentioned in several previous posts) and the summer was 1995…

note: just because you’re working at a bible camp doesn’t mean all the kids you meet are angels 🙂

anyways, up until this point, my experiences working with kids included working one-on-one with an at-risk, elementary school student in an after school mentoring program (for two semesters in college) and coaching soccer at sports camps (for four summers)…i had not yet delved into the world of juvenile justice, church youth work, or teaching…

i was an apprentice…

at herding cats

and he was a master…

at defiance 

and he was in my cabin group for the week…meaning, i was his counselor for the week…so, i was responsible for leading him and about 12 other high school boys through each day at camp (at the same time, there were about seven or eight other on-site cabins filled with the same number of high school students and a counselor)…the days would include games, challenge activities, morning/evening worship (a super-scaled down version of what you might encounter at an elca lutheran church on a sunday morning–to this day, i still prefer it to the formal sunday church stuff;), hikes, an overnight, special interest activities, talent show, bible study, etc…

usually, high school week is one of the best weeks of the summer…i mean, you’ve got kids who you can reason with and have relatively serious conversations with…ones who get your jokes…and often, ones who are really engaging and give you hope for the future of the world at large;) …but, this week was a tough one for me…because of carl (his name has been changed for this story)…

and no one could predict or foresee what was to transpire…at the end of our week together (and beyond)…it was unimaginable…it was unbelievable…or, so i thought…

anyways…

right away, when he got to camp, he had a major attitude–especially with anyone in authority–which revealed itself in an edgy tone and (sometimes) harsh language…i got the feeling that he had come through some hard knocks…given this, carl took up most of my time and energy that week…it began on sunday afternoon (that’s when the kids arrived–the typical week went from sunday – friday)…and each day his demeanor seemed to get progressively worse…no matter what we were doing–he opposed it, was non-compliant…and worse, tried to get the other guys in the cabin to follow his lead and join his rebellion against me…interestingly, he was quite charismatic and had a bit of charm–(his face reminded me of a young leonardo dicaprio–i didn’t care for the young dicaprio much either;)…so, he had some influence among the other guys…which doubled-down on the challenges for the week…

funny thing–this was summer camp…about as far as you can get from the responsibilities of work or school or home…so much of what we did every day was really fun…and it was that fact that made the whole week together so much more exhausting…in retrospect, carl’s behavior was a lot like that of my 2 year-old son…who says ‘no’ to just about everything i tell him to do…even if it’s the most fun thing in the world…that’s exactly what carl said to me…’no, no, no, no, no’…for 16 waking hours a day for an entire week…

by mid-week, the rest of the staff knew what i was up against…there were a couple of instances when the program director (kt) met with him and he received consequences for his behaviors…but, he was undeterred…he kept coming…

and all i could think about was friday…when the week would be over…for me, it couldn’t come soon enough…

over the course of the week, my fellow counselors supported me the best they could and i tried to keep a positive attitude…and hang in there with him…but my resolve was fading…

he seemed unreachable…

then, thursday night arrived…

we came to the final evening worship of the week…the one that usually carries a little more weight, because it’s the last one of the week and the kids will leave the next morning…and go back home…

honestly, i don’t remember worship being anything special that night…that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was lacking in any major way–more likely, it was because i was lacking…i was fried-stick a fork in me, i’m done! 

so, worship came and went…and we were dismissed to our cabins…

as i was herding my group towards the trail that led to our cabin, i realized that carl was not with us…so, i looked back to the fire ring where we had been seated for worship…and i could see him in the firelight, sitting there, like a statue…my first thoughts were, what now?! are you serious?!  so, you’re gonna take it to the limit?!

quickly, i caught the attention of one of my fellow counselors (one who was on support staff and didn’t have a cabin that week–all of the counseling staff had to serve a rotation on support staff…where they would help with cleaning dishes, maintenance, meals, leading random games and activities, preparing campfires, etc) and asked him to take my guys back to our cabin…

i watched my guys head back up the trail for a moment, then i turned back to the fire ring…i took a deep breath and walked back to where carl was sitting…and sat down right next to him…

i asked him…

so, what’s going on?

there was a moment of silence…then, i heard him…

carl started crying…it was the full-on, shoulder-shaking kind…

so, i sat there…waiting…

after a while, he said…

i’m so sorry, i’m so sorry for the way i’ve been acting–for the way i treated you…all week…

[i couldn’t believe what i was hearing, i was floored]

after a moment, i said…

it’s alright, don’t worry about it…

we talked for a little while longer…and he gathered himself together…after a while, we headed back to the cabin…the next day, it was like he was a whole new kid…no attitude…we were good…except for the fact that i was in complete and total shock at what had happened…

later that morning…his ride came, we said ‘our goodbyes’ and he headed home…

i thought that was the end of the story…but, it wasn’t…

one year later…

i was walking through camp (i went back again, in the summer of 1996, for tour #2) when i heard someone call out my name…

hey, dett!

[since there was another dave working at camp they called me ‘dett’–short for my last name: dettmann]

in response, i turned around and was surprised to see a face i would never forget–it was carl…so, i spoke up in earnest…

hey, carl, how’s it going?!

we talked for several minutes, he was enthusiastic and positive…then, he said…

good to see you, dett…hey, i’ve got to go…got to get back to my campers…

i was confused by what he said, so i asked…

campers?! 

he responded with a smile and said…

yeah, i’m one of the counselors for my church group that’s up here this weekend…look, i gotta get back (some churches utilized the camp for their own programs at times during the summer-usually when we were running a smaller camp on-site–as was the case this weekend)…

immediately, he took off after his campers…and i stood there in the middle of the trail, dumbstruck…

to this day, i am still struck by what happened all those years ago…by the realization that while we can do great things in the world…sometimes, what happens is beyond anything we can do ourselves…or, beyond any special talent or skill we might have…sometimes, what happens is truly extraordinary…

so, in closing, i would like to share this poem with you…forwarded to me by my friend/pastor katie sanders…i think it comes the closest to capturing what this experience means to me…

a future not our own

[by ken untener]

it helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
the Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

we accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
no statement says all that could be said.
no prayer fully expresses our faith. no confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
no program accomplishes the church’s mission.
no set of goals and objectives include everything.

this is what we are about. we plant the seeds that one
day will grow. we water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
we lay foundations that will need further development.
we provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

we cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
this enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
it may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
we may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

we are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs.

we are prophets of a future not our own.

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