You know the look. If you have been around a while you have seen it hundreds if not thousands of times. You are meeting someone new and you are asked what it is that you do. Struggling to find the simplest, most straightforward answer, you might say…”I work with youth”. The person might ask for more…perhaps, “Are you a teacher?” and while the answer is yes, you are – you may probably say – no, I work in a shelter (substitute group home, residential treatment center, outpatient counseling, wilderness camp, after school program or…) and then, wait for it….the look.
The look is one filled with first bemusement, then questions and then the moment of “oh, that must be rewarding – I couldn’t do it” or “these kids today – they just need discipline” or maybe even “you must be a saint to deal with those little terrors”.
You may take time to explain but often you find it isn’t worth it. The people who respond in this way may never recognize, understand or feel what we do. It is an honor. It is a privilege and it is an enormous responsibility to stand in front of any other individual and say “give me your best shot – I can take it. I believe in you and I am not backing down, running away or giving up on you.” You see their minds working quickly to regain position. “Oh yeah, we’ll see” and then the tests begin. You are ready. You have studied. You have back-up and better yet, you have faith. And, after one or maybe many struggles – you see the other look. The one we anticipate. The one we hope to see. The one we love.
This look is filled with wonder and questions and a glimmer of confidence and self esteem that was hard to see. This look is filled with “don’t you watch the news? We are trouble. There is no point in trying. We will end up making sure that everything negative that was ever said about us is true because that may be the only way we don’t disappoint our families, the system or anyone else that cares to pay any attention.”
Your look in response might be first filled with frustration, and a deep sigh and maybe even an unshed tear says “I know. I know who you are. I see your creativity, your energy, your resilience, your love for the other youth and the dreams that you swallow rather than let anyone hear them out loud. I know. You have made mistakes. You followed the leader or you led others into harm. But we learn. We change. We grow. It starts here and I am by your side.”
The media, the system, the community and sometimes even our own families have a hard time understanding and embracing the youth we serve. It is easier to assign them a label and move on – hoping for better news with the next youth that crosses their paths. As we celebrate 40 years of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, take a moment to think about the youth that called, asked for help, walked into a shelter, received a hygiene kit or accepted a hug. Each one defied the odds, the expectations and took a step toward something different. Your look helped them know whether it was safe to keep moving in the right direction or if it was better to retreat.
Recently, Robin Williams – a comic genius and gifted actor – took his own life. In the film “Dead Poet’s Society” he portrays Professor Keating and he shares the following quote with the boys he is teaching. When speaking about life as a play he says “and that the powerful play goes on, and that you might contribute a verse.” What is the verse you contribute to the lives of youth? How do we support them in creating and sharing their own verses so that their stories blend with ours to continue this powerful play?
Remember that looks reflect what we see, feel and believe inside. Look at our youth with hope even when they push us further than we thought we could be pushed. Look at our youth in partnership. Even when they refuse every offer of assistance that comes their way. Look at our youth with acceptance. Even when who they are challenges every fiber of who you are. Then, wait for it….
Author: Anonymous – Someone who has dedicated their life to serving youth; someone who has dedicated their life to receiving “The Look”.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and we invite RHY Grantees to celebrate with us. Learn how at www.rhyttac.net/news/celebrate-40th-anniversary-runaway-and-homeless-youth-act-us.
All entries must be received no later than Monday, September 22, 2014.