Driving along the aptly named Ocean Road in Narragansett, Rhode Island feels like a journey into another world. On both sides of the road, beautifully constructed homes of a variety of architectural styles dot the landscape, bikers and runners wave to each other as they cross paths, and landscape crews meticulously trim the tall hedges and trees that act as pseudo-walls for many of these residences. Everything along this road seems to happen with strangely serene-like precision. If one were to pull up to the Christian Brothers Center, they may assume that they have reached the apex of their journey. The Center itself sits prominently along the picturesque scenic road adjacent to a stony shore leading out to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of trees and concealing hedges, a modest stone wall about four feet high separates the road from a vast lawn, giving passerby an open and inviting view to the property
Facing the front of the Center, one notices three distinct buildings. To the right stands Stevenson Hall, a three-story retirement community home to sixteen Christian Brothers and countless guests throughout the year. In the middle is the Conference Center which hosts many outside groups for meetings, retreats, dinners, and other social gatherings. The building on the left is home to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Star, a spacious place of prayer for both the Brothers and the public. On the surface, one would think this is the last place on Earth they would expect to see any signs of chaos or disturbances. Instead, one sees a peaceful and organized religious community. However, tucked away behind the Chapel, often hidden from view from the people who visit the Christian Brothers Center, is the Ocean Tides School, a residential school for court-adjudicated male youths.
Walking through Ocean Tides presents a far more unique experience than one would have by passing through a traditional high school. Indeed, the school stands as a stark contrast not just to the rest of the property, but to the surrounding environment of Ocean Road and beyond. The layout of the school is familiar enough. Offices of administration members, education specialists, and social workers line the halls of the ground floor. The basement level is home to the classrooms, as well as the residential section of the school. What sets Ocean Tides apart from the thousands of other schools is, of course, the young men who occupy it.
It’s challenging to summarize the average student at Ocean Tides. Given the nature of the program, and education itself, each student is truly unique, though there are some common threads among them. Most of the students are from lower to working class neighborhoods in towns and cities throughout Rhode Island and even some parts of Massachusetts. Quite a few of them have Individualized Education Plans. Of those students, some are on closely-monitored medication. Their reasons for being placed at the school range from possession of drugs or weapons, property destruction, theft, and violence, sometimes gang-related. Incident reports of these students often cite resistance to authority, threatening language, and otherwise destructive behavior towards themselves and others. All of this information can be found on paper in neatly organized and categorized boxes and lines. I have found, though, that to truly understand and ultimately appreciate and care for these young men, one must go beyond what they see.
My service at Ocean Tides puts me in a unique position. My service position title is “Recreation & Activities Coordinator”. I am not in the classroom with these students lecturing them about formulas or historic events. From the minute they are out of school to the minute they go to bed is when my job is active. I am part of a team that researches, plans, and implements a variety of recreational and extra-curricular activities for these students. This gives me a wide berth for creativity. Of course, to know what to plan requires knowing the students whom I serve. This necessitates the effort and intentionality of spending time with them as much as I can, whether it be playing basketball, bringing them to the beach, taking them for a drive, or going on a bike ride. It may all seem like fun and games to the uninitiated, but it is truly taxing work. These students often have knee-jerk reactions to any disturbance to their established routines, which can result in confrontations with staff members or other students. Once I learn more about these students, I also learn which personalities do not mix well with each other. Learning what makes these students tick, as well as observing how they mold with other people in their lives, is perhaps the most interesting part of this experience. It is also the most rewarding.
I find myself getting more and more out of this role by observing these student’s experiences and comparing them with what I have learned by working with them. The same student who got into a fight earlier in the day also treats his favorite Christian Brother with the utmost respect and sincerity as he is working in the kitchen and serving him dinner. Similarly, a student who cursed out a staff member is also working an internship at an auto repair shop with the plans of going to a technical college soon. Even a student arrested for gang-related activities has a promising career recording music. Spending time with these kids presents me these sorts of conundrums of figuring out just who exactly these students are and how I can be of service to them.
The dichotomies of order and chaos, hope and despair, and what is seen and unseen are ever-present at the Christian Brothers Center. The property is an amalgamation of both years of educational expertise represented by the Christian Brothers and years of socioeconomic disparity represented by the students. When they come together, it is an exceptional environment where your eyes only see part of the picture. To view and understand it in its entirety requires the intentionality of placing myself among these students, the patience to respect and appreciate their backgrounds, and the belief that their identities and potential go far beyond what I see.
Jeff Lucia is a 2nd year LV serving at Ocean Tides School in Narragansett, Rhode Island and is a 2015 graduate of La Salle University.