The first time I sat down with a young man who’d killed someone, I admit to being apprehensive. I admit to feeling a bit holier-than-thou in the certainty that this was an act I’d never be guilty of. I admit to thinking that a prison cage was a good place for him to be. I was grateful for the watchful eyes across the room, action-ready, should I suddenly be threatened with harm. I appreciated the unit on my waistband that would sound an alarm with a button-push or sudden change in my posture.
I admit to knowing far less than I thought I knew.
There’s nothing like eye contact to shrink the distance between people; nothing like hearing a story to break down the compartmentalized walls between us and them. For ten years I listened to stories…read files…asked questions. And in that time I learned more from young people than I ever had in school.
Mostly, I learned to put my assumptions in a choke-hold.
With assumptions deprived of oxygen, multiple fissures of possibility opened before me, and consequently, before each young person I was trying to work with. In a room full of possibility, magic could happen. It broke down walls. Even prison walls.
It’s easy (and human) to see a behavior, a choice, an event, and to judge everything about it, even though we know very little. Social media is drowning in judgement. A news story on Twitter or Facebook quickly draws commentary, based on a snippet of information. Conclusions are drawn about the worth of the person, who was right and who was wrong, and what punishment is suitable. If someone points out an alternative thought, they can become the next target of the indictments. The tone quickly becomes rabid, slobbering on all who read the threads. I used to think like that sometimes, too. Until I didn’t.
What I learned, working with some of the most damaged and damaging young people in our world is how close to being them we all are. I learned how fragile our sense of self can be, and how twisted our thinking can become when life throws one rock after another at our heads.
I learned some of these misbehaving kids were once small babies, deprived of consistent nurturing, abused by those charged with their well-being. Or they were babies born with special challenges in their hard-wiring. Perhaps they had differences in their neurology or nervous systems. Many had multiple adverse childhood events, which is now understood to change neurology and predispose a person to physical and mental disorders later in life. Many already carried one or more diagnoses as children.
We now know that a teenage brain is not yet fully formed. The part of the brain responsible for emotional control and planful behavior is still connecting synapses, and won’t be finished until the mid-twenties. Teens are well known for their impulsive behavior…existing in the unpredictable stew of an upsurge in hormones and a downshift in rational thought. How many of us, later in life, have asked ourselves, “What was I thinking?”…
The faces of neglect and abuse are many, but the outcomes are few. They end up in foster care. They end up in detention. They end up committing suicide. They end up not finishing school. They end up jobless and homeless. They end up using drugs.
They end up thrown away by society. Or they throw themselves away.
Were all the kids I saw in detention or behavioral classrooms in public school there because of trauma? No. But many were. And when you treat them like a person, when you value them despite their choices, when you work on the patterns of thinking that led them down that unhealthy path, you could see changes. When they found one person to trust, they would risk looking deeply into those old wounds. They found the courage to rebuild their self-views, brick by brick. They learned to see the world through the lens of what they could do rather than what they hadn’t done, or worse, what they had done.
One of my favorite moments in my previous work was seeing a person break down in recognition of his or her own pain, or the pain he or she had caused someone else. The room shrinks, time stands still, and the air fills with promise. It’s like a wormhole opens to a new universe, allowing the person to explore unknown places.
Some actions are deplorable. Some actions are hard to understand or forgive. It’s easy to get stuck in wanting revenge or “justice”. I’ve come to believe in restorative justice as a means to change people, to keep from having to throw them away. I’ve come to believe that no matter how twisted a person can become, there are sometimes ways to prune those branches and create a new person-bonsai. Not everyone, perhaps, but some.
And I’ve come to believe that if I leave my assumptions aside and try to understand what drove a person to behave as he/she/they did, change has a chance.
One of the greatest challenges to the change is battling the court of public opinion. It’s funny how what others think of us can help us grow or be another stone to knock us down. Society is a mirror through which we often judge our reflection. The view can be deadly.
Did they all change? No. Not while I knew them. But many did, sometimes a bit later, having had time for seeds to germinate. And that gave me hope.
The young people who had killed, fought, stole, molested, dealt or used drugs were not so different from those in my public schools who hadn’t, other than the life cards they’d had stacked against them. I could almost always find something to like in them, despite what they’d done.
And I came to learn they were not so different from me. I could have been them, had I had different parents, different neighborhoods, different teachers, different experiences, different neurology. I was lucky. They were not.
What might we accomplish if we resist the urge to judge without facts, condemn without mercy, or push away instead of reaching out? What might we achieve if we look deeply into the backstories to determine which approach might work best to create change? What might happen if we work to assume the best, or at least remind ourselves that we don’t have all of the story before reaching conclusions?
Some people can’t be salvaged. But I’d like to think many can, and the first step is to check our assumptions and conclusions at the door while we investigate.
Despite sitting across from young people who had done unthinkable things, I never felt threatened by any of them, and they almost always treated me with respect. I never had to push that button for assistance. I’d like to think it’s because they knew I was there to support, not condemn.