I sat with my student as we waited for the ER nurse to call him up. “Jonathan” went AWOL on his home visit, leaving his mother and older sister in a panic for 24 hours until he wandered home exhausted but otherwise fine. He’s mentally impaired and his mother worries that he could get taken advantage of, hurt, or even killed on the frequent occasions when he absconds on a home visit to attend the neighborhood parties, clubs, and pool halls all night and well into the following day.
It took 20 minutes of coaxing and three adult women (his mother, my co-worker, and I) to get Jonathan into the school car and to the emergency room. Officially, it’s protocol for students to go to the hospital after an AWOL incident, to run tests for any substances they may have imbibed and to get a physical so we know they are returning to school uninjured. Unofficially, the tedious wait in the emergency room gives an opportunity for staff to ease the student from a state of wild freedom to mild structure and responsibility before the student returns to the program.
I sat frustrated and fed-up: this was Jonathan’s first home visit after weeks of consequences for his last AWOL adventure, and he blew it! Just the week before, I pleaded with his mother on the phone to give him a chance for another visit. Now I looked the optimistic, foolish intern! All of a sudden, as if he heard my thoughts, Jonathan turned and said to me “Jen, when I was in that pool hall and it turned 6pm, I heard two voices. One said, ‘You need to go home’ and the other said ‘You should stay.’ And I listened to the wrong voice … I keep making the same mistake…”
My frustration crumbled with his admission of guilt. Jonathan, as are all the students at Casa De La Salle, is classified as “emotionally disturbed” by the New York State Board of Education. They earn this dramatic title essentially by doing so poorly in regular education and public special education schools that they need to live in the same building in which they go to school for five to seven days a week. Some of them do poorly because they are developing severe symptoms of mental illness, such as hearing voices, many because they have lower IQ’s (on the lower 2% of the bell curve), some because they have low impulse control and cannot focus for even a short period of time without great external help, and all have highly fractured home lives. I hate the title “emotionally disturbed” because of the stigma and because each student looks so different from the other in terms of behavior, struggles, and strengths.
Jonathan’s mention of hearing the two voices didn’t set off my “we need to call the psychiatrist” alarms. It pulled me down to earth. It reminded me of our shared humanity. It was one of those moments where I wished it wasn’t inappropriate for a 23-year-old case manager to give her 20-year-old student a big-old-rib-cracking hug.
I told Jonathan that everyone hears those two voices in tough situations; we continually face choices between what we ought and ought not to do. He did not make the right decision that evening, but he at least saw the two options, and knew the wrong from the right. That is what it means to be human: to have these types of decisions and to struggle everyday with them. We just have to pick ourselves up each time we choose wrong, face the consequences, and try to do a little better on the next go ‘round.
My students are emotionally disturbed, but what that means first and foremost is not that they have mental illness, bad father figures, or uncontrollable hyperactivity without medication. It means most of all that they are human beings who need more structure than average to help them make the right decisions in school, on the weekends, in life overall.
Jonathan has AWOL’ed multiple times since, but I’m trying not to let my frustration affect his treatment. It’s his Achilles heel, and we all have one or two (or twelve) of them. The Lord’s Prayer tells us to forgive others as we want to be forgiven. I find myself listening to the “wrong voice” far too often, and I’m not the one with a label from the State of New York. Jonathan and I are more alike than we are different. We’re going to try to work as a team – staff, mother, and especially Jonathan- to help him listen to the right voice each time we trust him to take a new chance. It’s an honor that my service position constantly gives me the opportunity to help someone in that way.
Jen Coe, 12-14, Martin De Porres, Queens, NY