There are two populations of kids that I work with, one with homes, the other without homes. Most of the time these kids’ actions mirror each other, but there are the occasions when a homeless child peels away their innocent skin revealing an individual who has been pounded, by circumstances, into a figure less representative of a child, and more representative of a grown adult. It’s in these moments that I realize how important love, trust, and empathy are.
Alex is a child who gives me many causes to believe that there most definitely some sort of abuse in his past. I’d love to think that this abuse has stopped, but I really don’t know. He’s a super cute kid with quick wit and a contagious laugh.
Monday night I had planned an activity which required the use of rice. “You get one cup of rice. If you choose to dump it on the floor or table you will not be getting another cup.” I explained “Do you guys understand?” They understood.
The floor had remained surprisingly rice free until Alex got frustrated with his sister. His frustration moved him to pick up a cup of rice and throw it across the room. “Alright, that’s it. Let’s go both of you.” I said in a less than pleased tone.
“We can go back to our room yet.” Alex’s sister told me
“Why not?” I replied
“We just can’t.” A simple sentence which, added with her firm facial expression, spoke volumes.
Instead of taking them back to their room, we sat down and talked about what had just happened.
“Alex, when you threw that rice at your sister it made me really mad.” I told him
“I don’t care.” He replied.. His eyebrows furrowed and his lips pressed tight. A big person getting mad because of something he did was nothing new to Alex. I could see the bricks being laid in his emotional blockade.
“Do you understand why that made me mad?” I asked
“I don’t’ care. She gets to have that cardboard tube and I want one too. It isn’t fair.”
“You’re right. That isn’t fair, Alex. That would make me mad too, but we’re not using those tubes for our activity, and I didn’t see your sister get it.”
“I want you to die.”
I excused his sister.
“You sound very angry, Alex. What’s making you angry?”“It’s not fair!”
Heavy tears welled up in his eyes and he hid his face from me. “Let’s go sit somewhere where no one can hear us or see us, ok?” I suggested as I put a reassuring hand on his back.
His body tensed and he growled in a low tone through his tears “Don’t touch me!” with an extra emphasis on the touch. I was taken aback by the rejection of comfort, and the strange way he said “Don’t touch me!” The situation was becoming bigger than a simple fight with his sister about a cardboard tube. Alex was becoming bigger than a 7 year old, which makes sense because his is a situation far bigger than any other 7 year old’s.
I suggested again “Let’s go sit over in that corner and you can tell me what is making you so sad.”
Tears dropped from his stationary face onto his lap, and he started sobbing. I’ve been with many many crying children at work, at The Road Home, in Ghana, and I like to think that I know when a kid is crying out of anger, crocodile tears, or whatever. The way Alex was crying reflected a deep and profound sadness.
I tried to reassure him again by placing my hand on his back and rubbing. This time he ran to the corner as he yelled “Don’t touch me!”
In the corner he continued to sob, and I left him there to cry and be alone for a few minutes. After the few minutes I moved and sat across from him.
“What’s making you so sad, Alex? Have you had a bad day? Did someone hurt you?” I was making reference to the giant goose-egg above his right eye and the scratches across his nose. He didn’t respond but continued to cry, and I let him cry to himself for a couple minutes.
“I’m never coming to book club again.” He declared
“That makes me really sad. I love seeing you every week. You make me laugh, you make Sam laugh, and you make all the other volunteers laugh. We would hate to see you not come anymore.” I replied“I don’t care.”“What could we do so that you would want to come to book club?”
“Nothing.”“Really? There is nothing we can do? Nothing at all? What if you help me plan next week’s activity. We could call it Alex's super awesome activity day. What is something that you really, really want to do?”
He thought for a moment contemplating whether or not to truly answer the question, and finally said “Make an instrument.” He was starting to warm up. He was looking at me now, and I could feel the bricks begin to tumble.
“Oh that’s a great idea!” I said enthusiastically “What instruments could we make?”
“A guitar out of rubber bands and a tissue box thing?” He suggested
“Perfect! Let me get a pen, I’m going to write this all down.”
The fact that a big person was going to take suggestions from him and write them down seemed to make him happy. It seemed to replace his profound sadness with a sort of self value. I came back with a pen and my trusty little black book and started writing down his suggestions.
“What could we use to make a drum?” I asked.
“Like a cardboard circle thing with paper and stuff. And we could make shakers.” He used his hands to illustrate his point. He was really getting into the idea now.
“Ok, we are going to do this next week so I will find a book to go with it.”
“Can I have a treat?”
“It’s time to clean up. How about if you pick up 12 things from the floor and show them to me you get a treat?”
I genuinely care about Alex, and I think he felt it that night. I felt a little bit of trust built and I hope it continues. I can see Alex doing great things if the right opportunities present themselves. I can also see him doing terrible things if he falls into the traps baited specially for the poor in our country. Its nights like these that remind me why I’m going into Social Work. Its nights like these that remind me that the issues of homelessness, and specifically child homelessness, are far bigger than I am. I can only hope that the little talent I have can be used to make a difference no matter how small that difference may be. Its nights like these that suck the apathy out of me, and make me want to smack the apathetic right upside the head. I’m reminded of a quote said by one of my professors “How can I, who has been given so much, do so little when there are those who have been given so little and do so much?”