Do You Have Any Idea What It’s Like Growing Up Without A Dad?

In 1994, after meandering for better than a decade along the path to a college diploma, I held in my hand a business degree from Ohio State University. Mind you, I had no idea what to do with it, so I did what all recent college graduates do when they have no idea what to do with a business degree: I applied for a job working with at-risk youth in the wilderness. It wasn’t long before a recruiter called me from an organization called Eckerd Family Youth Alternatives (today known simply as Eckerd). She told me about a counselor position she had open at a camp in North Carolina. With enthusiasm hard to explain at the time, I boarded a plane bound for North Carolina from my lifelong Ohio home.

From the outset I had no idea why they invited me for an interview. I had no related work experience and my diploma said business, not counseling. On paper and in life I was more qualified to be a troubled youth than work with one. I could provide a couple of thousand references to vouch for that. But I had been transparent with the recruiter, so I trusted the organization knew what they were doing when they paid to fly me down there.

When I arrived, I met with the program director. He told me a little bit about himself and the Eckerd program, and then asked me a few questions to get to know me a little better. After that, formalities out of the way, he turned serious, borderline stern, and warned me of the following: “You need to take a close look at this job over the weekend. If you’re not absolutely convinced you can commit to do it for two years, don’t take this job.”

For a couple of reasons it seemed like an odd start to an interview . First, the insinuation seemed to be the job was mine if I simply decided I could do it for two years. I knew the commitment was an important part of the deal before the interview, I just didn’t know it was the deal. Second, I was never asked to explain what talents or gifts I had that might influence the kids at Eckerd, or how my presence would benefit them any more than if spent the next two years selling vacuum cleaners in Idaho. Maybe they were reading more into that Ohio State degree than they should have. Or Maybe they really just wanted someone who was willing and able do the job for two years.

In addition to odd, the interview process itself was unconventional. After meeting with the program director I was sent into the Croatan National Forest to live with a group of 10 teenage boys and their counselors for 48 hours, simulating the counselor role I would inherit if the organization hired me. At the time, I thought I had been thrown into a modern day game of survivor. I was convinced the kids had been paid handsomely before I arrived to make my visit as miserable as possible, probably to test my mettle and to ensure death threats were heavily considered when I thought about the whole 2-year commitment thing. I would discover later, however, I hadn’t spent the weekend with well compensated teen actors, but instead real-life kids being real-life kids.

I took that job. I looked the program director in the eyes and told him that even if someone decided to vote me off the island, I was all in. It was something I knew I could do for two years.

I spent most of the flight back to Ohio questioning my sanity, but two weeks later I showed back up in North Carolina ready to start my new life. It didn’t take long for things to get rolling, or in this case, floating. A few months later, in the middle of a hot, southern summer, I found myself canoeing for 3 weeks down the Edisto River in South Carolina. I was joined by 10 teenage boys and 3 other counselors. The program director told me a major trip that early in my career would be a great learning opportunity. He could not have been more prophetic.

About a week down the river the heat and exhaustion began taking a toll on us all. I discovered with a little bit of coffee, though, even the kind brewed by soaking a sock filled with coffee grounds in water heated by the flames of a small fire along a river bank, adults can forge on.

Kids, on the other hand, especially kids who have no idea how to manage the stresses life throws their way, have no interest in forging. They would rather explode.

One late afternoon around this time we pulled over to a small clearing in the woods along the river to set up camp. One of the young men, Jimmy Forest, became agitated because he felt the counselors were asking him to do more than his fair share of the work setting up camp. His protest started with an angry look and quickly escalated from there. He began cussing at the counselors and the rest of his group members, whom he obviously thought were complicit in the plot to unload all the work on him. Counselors, even a new one like me at the time, handle being cussed at with relative calm. Kids who are the final second on the timer for a time bomb — they do not.

That’s when one of the kids had heard enough of Jimmy’s accusations and decided to shut him up. He charged after Jimmy. The lead counselor intervened. One of the other counselors hurried to assist him. For a few moments, as the counselors tried to build order out of chaos, bodies intermingled and whipped around like they were unknowingly trapped inside a high speed blender. Then, almost as soon as it was turned on, the blender stopped. Jimmy lay still on the ground, one counselor securing his torso and the other his legs. I had witnessed my first physical restraint.

Restraints were an ugly part of camp. Over time a movement grew to eliminate them from camp and other youth-serving organizations across the country. But the reality is they were often necessary to prevent kids from hurting themselves or each other.

Further, and I can’t prove how much the two are related, but it was my experience that some of the most life-altering conversations took place in the aftermath of some of the ugliest problems.

I don’t know how much our conversation altered Jimmy’s life after he was restrained, but it impacted my life as much as any conversation I’ve ever had in my life.

Jimmy eventually calmed down. He and the counselors re-joined the rest of the group. Then we did what we always did to solve a problem. We huddled together and discussed it. Some discussions went well. Some not so well. Some carried on for hours in chaos and confusion before all of that came together in the middle of us as wisdom and understanding. Our discussion with Jimmy was an example of the latter.

I don’t remember much about the first several hours of that conversation. The chaos and confusion. We talked about a number of unrelated things, I’m sure, from the most popular gangster rap artist at the time to how much better a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese sounded than the can of beans we would heat over an open fire for dinner that night.

But here is what I do remember; I remember every word and every tear of how that conversation ended.

I remember Jimmy asking us if we wanted him to tell us what was really bothering him. I remember the silence that fell over each of us when he asked that, and not because of his words, but because of his cold and watery eyes. I remember when he took a step toward our lead counselor, purposeful, but with no remnants of his threatening demeanor from earlier. Instead, Jimmy pointed his finger at him, and with the tears now streaming down his face, he asked him,

“Do you have any idea what it is like to grow up without a father?”

A lump barged into my throat, crowding everything from my breathing to my thinking. Then Jimmy spun around until he located another counselor, the tears now beyond his control, and asked him the same thing: “Do you have any idea what it’s like to grow up without a father?”

Then came the moment I knew was now inevitable. Jimmy looked at me, both of us now clearly lost in this moment. His finger, the one that had gone from unknown to dreaded in a matter of minutes, bolted toward me. I’m sure in his mind the movement was slow and deliberate, but in mine it was a missile. My hands were all but covering my ears, determined to protect me from his words. But still the question came.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to grow up without your father?”

That question rocked my world, and I’m not talking a rocking chair rock; I’m talking a rocky mountain high rock slide rock. You can read about it here:

Good Dads Stay