Leaving Their Marks

All great providers of critical social services to vulnerable people know that the relationships we forge with so called “clients” is not one way. The kids we see teach us, help us heal, and show us transformative new ways forward.

We see this every day at Tennyson Center for Children, where the strength and resilience of kids who enter our world rub off on us in profound ways, helping us be stronger and more resilient as well.

I am reminded of this simple truth every time I walk into my office, as my walls are covered by paintings from kids who have journeyed through Tennyson and left to rejoin old families or build new families.

They leave their marks and tell stories that continuously and profoundly reshape me.

This new tradition of painting started with a young boy who literally dared me to allow him to paint on my wall before he was discharged to live with his aunt.

He was excited to live with his aunt in large part because it meant he would finally be reunited with his sister who had settled at his aunt’s house about a year before. They had been separated for years. He came to Tennyson 40 lbs. underweight, quiet, fearful and distrustful of all adults as the adults in his life had so frequently let him down.

Over time, trust was built between him and our staff as they forged new relationships and journeyed together to a new place of healing. A place where he could be reunited with his kin and begin anew.

His therapist always tears up when she speaks of him, and recalls how their journey together taught her what unconditional love actually was. Words made real through the courage of a “client.”

His rollercoaster painting was the first on my wall, and the hand prints are from him and his sister. The rollercoaster represented his time at Tennyson, and he drew the last line upwards, insisting he was taking off now and would be able to manage any dips along the way.

He is 12.

Another young girl drew a flower and her hand prints, insisting she was blossoming and ready to take on the world. She had come a long way, and word has it that her painting was prophetic as she is top of her class back in regular school.

Yet another is a depiction of a wolf howling at the moon. An 11-year old girl drew this with her hands — no paint brushes. She used to morph into a wolf to “get away” from the troubles that engulfed her.

Now, her head is up. Her story reinforces one we see quite often — of inspiring kids who have the resiliency and courage to move ahead even while grappling with their challenges.

More recently, their visual art is incorporating a play-on-words. My favorite is from a young girl who seems to have found her optimism again, and it is infectious. Her constant referencing of “hope” exploded on my wall when she indicated that, for her, it stands for “Hold On, Pain Ends.”

My favorite drawing is actually the smallest. When this 8-year old came to Tennyson he too was underweight and his silence was profound. He quite simply never talked. And he barely acknowledged anyone’s presence as he took his horrors and life story deep inside. He brought his words with him as a way to cope with the trauma he was facing.

He stayed that way for a long time, until one day he muttered “train” when a teacher complimented him on what she thought was a particularly great drawing of a car. It was said quietly but carried enormous weight. He was slowly blossoming at Tennyson and as he began to find his feet and his voice, we found — a kind, caring boy.

Christmas came around and Santa visited, of course. Kids unwrapped presents and celebrated as all kids should. Santa pulled out a rather big box that was wrapped tight. He put it in front of this boy’s desk and we all waited. Slowly the boy rose and unwrapped the present and saw a beautiful train set.

He sat on his knees for a moment with mouth ajar and then looked up with tears in his eyes. He rose, walked over to Santa, gave him a hug that had been buried deep inside, and said “Thank you, Santa.”

He has been talking ever since and he is the most courageous boy I know. In ways that make a mockery of the idea that it is us helping him, he too left his mark on my wall and on all who journeyed with him.

Edward D. Breslin (@NedBreslin) is the Tennyson Center for Children CEO