God and the f-bomb

This week has been a weird one.  I started a temporary position at a day treatment and residential program for troubled teens, subbing as an English teacher.  Now, my only real qualification to teach here is that I am fluent in the English language.  Well, that and my background as a crisis interventionist with particular experience in trauma and family violence, which effects 100% of the kids in the program.  But I’m no teacher, really.  So, every day from nine to three, I attempt to help the kids, boys and girls from 11-17, learn something about English and just make it safely through the day.  While this sounds simple, it is actually a pretty hefty and difficult task, for me as well as for them.  You see, these are the kids the public schools can’t handle, don’t want.  They are, for the most part, at the end of the line.  The next step for most of them is either prison or full-time treatment for mental and emotional disabilities.  The saddest part for me is the fact that they are so wonderful.  Awesome, smart, interesting… little monsters.  It’s hard even to describe them or the environment.  Walking through the halls, you see kids being restrained by staff for their own safety and accountability, kids running after one another, hear language even the most foul mind would wonder at, slamming doors, yelling… the walls have no decorations like a normal school because posters are torn down the minute they are pinned up.  The classrooms have few supplies and many of the desks are broken from being thrown across the room by angry students.  And yet… it’s okay.  For all of its mayhem, a sense of being safe underlies the day. 

The staff is quite amazing, and they are the source of this safety.  Each group has an adult staff member who stays with them throughout the day, who knows each student, who keeps them together and accountable.  Trained in safe restraint and in crisis intervention, the adults at the center are there not just to teach the kids typical school lessons, like English and Science, but also how to live with each other in the world.  Implicit and explicit lessons about respect, self-regulation, and empathy happen every moment.  As it says on a poster board in the staff office, “Crisis is an opportunity for learning something new.”  They don’t just mean to direct this at the adults.  You might wonder why I’m talking about this.  I’ll tell you why… this place reminds me of God.  I heard one of the crisis staff tell one of the high school boys something shocking yesterday, in the middle of a full-blown fist fight and rampage in one of the hallways.  This kid had torn up a classroom, was in full floor restraint with three grown men helping him to calm down.  The other students, drawn to the noise and the drama, unwittingly re-traumatizing themselves by watching further violence, stood by while other staff redirected them away from the scene.  It was chaos.  As this kid screamed and fumed, calling the staff working with him f—ing a–holes, over and over, telling them he would kill them, their families, would bring a gun to school tomorrow, would find a way to hurt them, one of the men looked at him and said,

 “I still care about you.  You can say whatever you want, but I’m going to hold you accountable.  Breathe.  You’re going to be okay.” 

Honestly, I had to walk away because tears just came to my eyes.  It was the most generous, compassionate thing I’d ever heard an adult man say to a child.   It took my breath away. 

No matter what these kids do or say, we have to refuse to blink or flinch, to force ourselves to see what they’ve seen and understand that there is pain there that can never be stamped out.  It can’t be cut out, ignored, erased.  It can only be healed.  And the only way to heal it is to resist it with love.  The level of love and compassion it takes to heal a hurt like the ones these children have suffered in their lives is nearly unbearable.  It’s unfair.  It’s unjust.  Even their short life times have accumulated so much of the broken jaggedness of this awful, fallen world.  They absorbed it like little sponges, fed off of it when it was the only thing given to them to eat.  No choices in that world, but at Rosemont, choice returns.  Sort of.  They can’t choose whether or not the staff cares about them, whether we refuse to see the tough angry exterior they project and instead see their vulnerability and their humanity.  I have to confess, it’s pretty hard to care about a teenage boy when he’s dressed like a thug and threatening to punch your lights out.  It’s damned near impossible to remember, in the moment when you’ve been called a bitch for the fifteenth time that day for no greater reason than that you said “hello” in the hallway, that these are the beloved ones of God.  That God cries that this is life for them and hopes beyond hope for them to feel loved, if only for the moment. 

So, I was reminded of God.  Not just in these kids faces (and they are shining, beautiful faces, even if they spew hateful words and violence pretty constantly, at one another and at the staff) but in the fact of the people working at the center.  Because isn’t this what God does for us, isn’t God like them?  Doesn’t God sit with us when we can’t move out of our pain, get off our butts in a hallway filled with awfulness because we’re overcome by the feeling of helplessness, when we’re so hurting that we have to hurt someone else?  Doesn’t God do that?  Holding us for our own well-being, telling us that there is love for us even though we’re entirely unloveable?  Give us some space to hope that we won’t always be there, that we can heal, that there’s help?  The kids hate the restraints, but they also appreciate them.  They need them, and most of them recognize that.  They soak up the compliments, even when the first words out of their mouth in response to “amazing job” might be “fuck you.”  They know what they need, and they seek it out, even fumblingly.  So do we all, I think.  For me, I’m just glad to know that there’s never anything I can do that will separate me from the reality of that love.  Because God says it, too, when we’re fighting and hating and hurting: “I still care about you.  You can say and do whatever you want, but I’m going to hold you accountable.  I want you to be okay and safe.  I love you.”  May it  be so for you.  May it continue to be true for the kids at Rosemont.



  1. Julienne Long Said:

    So powerful Julia. Thank you for this reminder. I and the kids have been blessed with your presence this week. You are amazing and through it all it wasn’t…”maybe I won’t come back tomorrow.” It was “I will see you tomorrow.” I love you, with all my heart, I love you.

  2. April Said:

    thank you for sharing.

  3. honeywasp Said:

    Thanks, Juli – it was a blessing for me to be there.

  4. This is incredibly powerful; and a beautiful picture of grace. Thank you for sharing this with us. Blessings.

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