Saturday, March 18, 2006

Needing To Be Wanted

I was watching Law and Order SVU (or more accurately, I was in the room while Law and Order was being watched and trying to ignore it), and one of the characters was a brutal murderous member of some horrible prison gang who showed no remorse for anything he had done and continued to make threats to kill people. Anyway, I was trying to not watch that and the realization came to me suddenly: This man was a little kid once - innocent and lovable - and this is how he's turned out. (Yes, I realize Law and Order is fiction, but unfortunately there are an infinite number of real-life examples). I've had these kinds of realizations before, but this time it hit me so hard that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

There was a quote I read once in my credential program by some educational behaviorist someone who said that as he was looking at the "Wanted" signs at the post office, it ocurred to him that if these criminals had been wanted when they were children, they wouldn't be wanted now. Sounds trite, but it's true. It's hard for me to not take this all on and put the responsibility on myself for their entire future. But it's also frightening to realize that not feeling wanted/loved/approved drastically affects people for THEIR WHOLE LIVES.

I think the reason why the Law and Order episode hit me so hard is that one of my students from last year is trying (fairly successfully) to start a gang. He's only in 4th grade, so the gang right now consists of getting a bunch of kids who need to belong or be noticed and go around to other kids, saying things like "That's a nice coat. You want to keep that coat, you'll have to give me $3 every day." It is small now - although mean-spirited - but I can see exactly where this kid's going to end up and it terrifies me.

There are any number of reasons why this particular student is "at-risk": he was out of school for two years because his mom didn't have it together enough to enroll him, she's working as a prostitute, she's got substance abuse problems, she's in abusive relationships (every time I saw her, she'd have a new black eye or a tooth knocked out), he was being raised by his disabled grandmother who couldn't handle him, his dad is in and out of his life as he is on and off drugs, he was abused... and he has turned into a mean-spirited manipulative cynical bully. At age ten.

I got to see into this kid's heart a little last year on a field trip. We were at the Lawrence Hall of Science observing some animals, including a dove, a snake, a bearded dragon lizard, a chinchilla, some other stuff I don't remember, and a big rat. None of the kids wanted to go near the rat - we have rats aplenty in East Oakland and everyone agrees that they are NASTY - and this child, this big, mean, dirty child who no one likes and is mean to everyone... he worried that the rat would get his feelings hurt.

So he stood by the rat for an hour, talking to it, and telling me periodically that he thought the rat had probably taken a bath, so people should not say that it smelled, that it probably just needed attention. He cared for that rat like he was its mother. This kid was showing the rat the kind of love and security that he needed and he wasn't getting. It's not hard to see why he started him a gang. And he'll continue to go down that road until he's locked up or dead. I know that's hard to hear/read, and I appreciate that some people won't want to hear it. It hurts my heart to write it.

Forget prisons and rehab centers - everyone (especially men, please!) go find one kid who doesn't think anyone cares about him or her and mentor that kid. Tell him that you love him no matter what he does or doesn't do. And mean it, because they know when you're not genuine. Find the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or find a teacher or pastor in the inner-city and ask them where you can find one of these kids. Unfortunately, there's way way too many of them. No kidding, if we helped them all feel wanted, we really wouldn't need the Wanted lists any more.

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