By: Seth Rockman, LMSW
I am a high school social worker in a large, comprehensive Brooklyn, NY high school. Every day, for many years, much like many of you, I observe, I listen, I feel, and I try. And then I go home, always seeking balance. Our work is exhausting, and the kids and parents provoke in us so many emotions, but the call to help never stops ringing. And we keep answering that call, though often without answers. The following are the words and sentiments I’ve been hearing from kids over the years. Their words come to us through their expressions and actions as much as from their mouths, but whatever form they come to us in, our kids, clients, and students need us to hear them.
Imagine the face and voice of a young person you care about.
You look at us and you don't understand us even though you were once us. We cut ourselves more than you think, we think about suicide more than you know, and labeling us angry is more convenient to you than it is an accurate assessment of who we are and why we do what we do. We have sex before we’re ready, we fight too often, we disrupt classrooms because we doubt our own intelligence, we make excuses more than we work hard, we’ll use your pity to our advantage, we abuse alcohol and drugs, and we’re falling behind at school. We put on shows of confidence and conviction, and you wonder how it is that we don’t make better decisions. We find ways to both disappoint you and inspire you, and just when you think we’ve outgrown bad habits or juvenile ways, we sneak in another mistake and make a decision that to anyone other than ourselves seems completely irrational.
We’re a beautiful collection of ignorance and insight that confounds parents, psychologists, sociologists, and teachers alike...and what’s even more fascinating is that we confound ourselves even more than we do you. It’s not that we do any of what we do because of some master plan. It’s simply that from moment to moment, an emotion, a craving, or a need drives a particular behavior. We are the beautiful who feel ugly, the thin who feel fat, the bullies who are afraid, the intelligent who feel inadequate, the popular who feel alone, the black who feel too dark, the white who feel too pale, the defiant who feel powerless, the achievers who feel lost, the artistic who feel crazy, the promiscuous who feel unloved, the risky who feel overwhelmed, and we are the ones who smile and scream and laugh and yell...yet feel invisible. We wish these weren’t many of our truths, and we know you’d much rather read of our achievements and happiness…but we just can’t afford to have you kept in the dark anymore about how we’re hurting and what we need.
We’re asking for more humility. We’re demanding more listening and less lecturing. We’re asking for more transparency and less pity, and we’re begging that you find thoughtful, empowering ways to hold us accountable for the damage we are causing to ourselves and to others. We ask that you try harder to make your efforts with us about us, and not your own needs to feel intelligent, wise, powerful, or in charge. We ask that you care less about avoiding looking foolish and more about role-modeling real confidence. Give us consequences if we earn them and don’t give in to our guilt provoking tactics. Your lower expectations of us are crushing our spirits and work ethic, and they’re keeping us from developing the fortitude we need to push through the inevitable hardships and challenges that come with being human. We need to feel your faith in us that we can push beyond our traumas, and we need you to partner with us more than you try to fix us. We’re asking that you help us cultivate grace, so that we no longer feel the urges to run from our feelings, or numb them with substances and activities that can diminish our futures.
We need you to sit with us, and show us that we can learn to live with, and appreciate, all the countless emotions that give life texture. Help us look at our demons and scars, but do not allow us to spend so much time with them that we begin to use them as crutches and excuses. Make assumptions about why we do what we do to show us you are trying to see us. Tell us directly that you are making an assumption, but be sure to listen to us if we tell you that you are off target, and then get back to partnering with us to try to figure it all out.
They say no two snowflakes are the same, and though there are and have been many “experts” who claim to have discovered “the roots of our behavior” and have made money off of “strategies, interventions, theories, and techniques” that claim to “fix us kids,” the reality of snowflakes remains the only undeniable truth. No two of us are the same, and as such, it’s going to come down to you, with your undeniably unique texture, having to find the way to partner with us, with our irrefutably distinct flavor. We know that you will make decisions and assertions that you feel are in our best interest, and some of these impositions we will learn from and embrace, while others we will reject and throw back in your face. Just know that your best chance at keeping us safe and yourselves sane is to be authentic, to admit that you don’t know anything for certain, and to try your best to not act from the fears that drive your closed minded, judgmental, reactive, and demanding ways...and when our imperfect storms settle and there’s a quiet moment, be as human, humble, and textured as you are, and show us what quiet presence and genuine care looks like by simply listening to us.
So when, not if, we are frustrating you, confusing you, and breaking your hearts, please, above all else, don’t ever stop trying to be our heroes.
Seth Rockman, LMSW, is a licensed social worker and has been working with at-risk youth and families for more than 16 years. He has worked in inner-city high schools, suspension centers, and intermediate schools, after-school programs, transitional residences, residential facilities, and emergency shelters. He has provided individual counseling, group counseling, crisis management, and case management services to youth ranging from age six months to 21 years old. He has supported and empowered every demographic.