A friend of mine once got hit in the face with a wiffle ball while her son was in her arms. It broke her nose and ruined the friendship she had with the wiffle ball batter. Balls in the face can do that.
I have been working at a residential facility for adolescents as a youth employment program director. It’s been a great and challenging job. Unfortunately, I am in anticipation of the grant running out and me being without a job, so I have been picking up extra hours working evenings on the student housing units for some extra flizow. Turns out working the units is just as unpredictable and risky as sitting with a kid on the grass during an impromptu wiffle ball smash.
There is a lack of leadership and consistency in unit supervision that I have to note before the story begins. In my opinion, this issue makes working the units somewhat like working the streets of Hunts Point in the Bronx. It’s chaos, crisis and anarchy. Without structure, purpose and high expectations, children (and adults) inevitably revert to what they know until they know better. That is supposed to be our job there – to teach them a better way. Which brings me to the story of Maisee.
Maisee is a solidly built black girl with a buzz cut. She has beautiful eyes and finely formed cheek bones. She is a beautiful girl with a propensity to beat the shit out of anybody who pisses her off or gets in her way. Everyone knows this and everyone (including staff) avoids upsetting Maisee at all costs…except me.
Maisee was on house restriction for some fiasco she was involved with the previous morning. After 48 hours indoors, she was getting agitated and asked to go for a walk. The lead staff gave an okay for a 15 minute isolated walk and assigned me to take her out. Now, Maisee stands a good six inches over me and weighs a good sixty pounds more than me. If anything went wrong, it wasn’t going to be my physical presence that would set things right.
I laid out some ground rules, which she agreed to and headed outside.
As soon as we stepped out the door, she took off in front of me straight towards the baseball fields where a game was going on and people were hanging out. Already breaking rules 1 and 2: you have to walk beside me and you can’t talk to anyone. As I am yelling toward her to stop and reminding her of our agreement she reaches the baseball field and heads straight for the kid who is at bat. She takes the bat (no one argues with Maisee) and reels around toward me, bat raised and ready to strike.
She is laughing at me. Trying to get me to submit.
I see a staff member from my unit walking toward us and I tell Maisee, “You can hit me in the face with that bat or you can put it down and walk back to the unit with me. Either way, another staff member is coming and there are enough of us here to MAKE you go back to unit. But I would rather you make the right decision for yourself and put the bat down.”
She swings the bat at a student who ducks out of the way. She looks back at me, threatens me with her eyes and I decide to stand tall and dare her back. We stare at each other for a few seconds. My heart is pounding. I am picturing my nose based on and my cheekbones shattered. I am wondering if I will still be loved with brain damage. I glare at Maisee harder.
She throws the bat toward the field and my second staff arrives. We negotiate her going back to the unit. I tell her I am proud of her decision making today. In reality, I was scared shitless and was relieved. I wanted to go home and never come back.
The next day found me on the same unit again. Although I feel that I need to move on to a place that better supports true change in children, a part of me just can’t give up on these kids now.