- There are those moments during small-talk restaurant chatter with friends or a grocery-store introduction by my wife, when the subject turns to what I do for a living and I get a bit jittery — feeling both a soft puff of pride and small, sharp jabs of guilt.
See I’m a counselor at a challenging middle school – a second career for me, which adds, I think, to that sweet mystique the job seems to sometimes have — like the aura surrounding Andy of Mayberry or Oz’s powerful good witch Glinda. People generally pause and nod and say something about what a “tough job it must be” or just eye me solemnly for a bit. That could be an expression of their disbelief, disinterest or pity, but some of the time I think they are trying to express some admiration.
And while I’m happy to bask in whatever scrap of back-patting comes my way, I cringe too, recognizing that while my job is valuable in this life-forming stew of middle school, rather than a good witch, I’m more like the old befuddled guy behind the curtains at the fiery Emerald City Oz show, feverishly working the levers
And that metaphor, now that I think about it, is pretty damn good. Because while I don’t exactly send kids off to melt down a fireballing witch, I do pull of a bit of a fast one – on them and any admirers, imagined or not. I hint at ruby slippers.
See, I have found these remarkable, savvy kids have much greater grit (a fashionable word in education) and self-awareness than we (and sometimes they) assume, and are also often likely to be on a somewhat unalterable course. And so I don’t give them much – just help them tinker a bit and do most of the work themselves — with what they have,
Okay, I was well trained at Hopkins with a range of techniques and theory and background about education and the counselor’s role in it. And in the same way anyone with a bit of empathy could , I’m a soft landing for a 13-year-old boy so full of wringing anxiety that I worry that one sweaty, twisting hand might rip the fingers from the other, and a girl so full of sadness she calmly and tearlessly shrugs off crushing memories that repeatedly make my eyes well up. I see kids so angry they gleefully snap off witheringly disrespectful jabs at me and others (carefully and solemnly gauging the reaction), and kids roiling with so much consuming academic disinterest they look explosive when they arrive at my office, sent out by an angry teacher.
I’ve had a three-hour, four-day conversation preparing a 16-year-old to tell her parents the scariest life-altering event she has faced which will inevitably cause them to disown her, and I’ve spit out a short, clear 5-minute pitch to kids on why I must make report inexcusable treatment they’ve received from one of their parents. I talk to these guys about death, and about being heartbreakingly bullied and being emotionally tossed around in an adolescent funhouse full of distorted reflections from parents (with poorly-gauged engagement), from similarly floundering friends, and a culture with so many confusing messages, the fact that they are “mixed” has become a cliche.
I think I’ve talked with every one of my 300 kids about something important to them – some of them nearly daily and some once in the two years.
Quite a few walk away satisfied – the way you might if you had a good experience at a Home Depot return counter. There are a few that take off in the Kansas-bound balloon, more successful and feeling much better. There are also plenty of times it feels more like they are guiding me, almost putting up with me, sensing they should listen although what I offer has been revealed to them the night before in a teen movie or a YouTube video. Sometimes I can see it in their eyes that they know I can’t really help them any more than they can help themselves, though they’d like me to.
But at my best I just let them roll along, focusing on a shifting destination and ways to keep up the exhaustive route and manage the jarring turns. Though it sounds like false modestly and is often taken that way, they do the hard work – and are surprisingly well equipped for it. I try to nudge them away from their worst inclinations and hope, as so many parents do, that they will, in that reassuring phrase: “figure it out.” (I’d love to know what “it” is and I think we all would.) They are smart and savvy enough, but along with growing a brain they have to devote so frustratingly much energy to “becoming” that they can’t just “be”.
And, then, I get to pull that curtain closed, blush a bit and take credit.