Friday, August 10, 2012

Reconnect Part III: What We Leave Behind

Uncle Bill, circa 2011


One of the main differences between disconnected youth and their more successful counterparts is that successful young people tend to have a better support system. Positive Youth Development theory holds that young people who have a network of concerned and caring adults (and peers) in their lives are more likely to have beneficial outcomes such as completing school, having healthy relationships and generally becoming a decent, productive, law abiding citizen.  Key to these relationships is their sustainability, as young people, particularly those deemed "at-risk," tend to regard people who arbitrarily come in and out of their lives with suspicion.

In my youth, I was fortunate to have a number of supportive, concerned and caring adults around me. They encouraged me to get involved in activities, answered questions about anything I wanted to know (and I had a lot of them) and pointed me toward resources that could help me be successful in life. Some of them were people I knew through my church. Others were teachers or counselors I connected with in school. The bulk of my support, however, came from my family.

My mother had been a single teen mom from a working class background. My father had very little interaction with me after the first few years of my life. This put me squarely in the "at-risk" category long before I knew what the words meant. When my mom remarried and we moved from upstate New York to Long Island, I suddenly gained a large extended family that immediately accepted me as one of their own as if they'd known me from birth. Chief among them were my Aunt Lena and Uncle Bill.

When Aunt Lena came into my life, she was no longer working steadily owing to growing health concerns. As a result, she became the default caretaker for me and my legion of cousins after school and sometimes over the summer. Her husband, my Uncle Bill, worked the night shift at a center for the developmentally disabled so was often around when my cousins and I were making mischief  throughout the house during the restless afternoons and long summer days. Aunt Lena indulged our questions and volunteered plenty of wisdom, both solicited and otherwise. Uncle Bill had a little less patience for our nonsense than she did, but always seemed to take genuine joy in spending time with all of us, which was a skill lost on many men of his generation.

As I grew older, I saw them less, but still stopped in from time to time. Like many of the supportive adults in my life, they expressed their love, well wishes and strong belief that I was destined for great things. At that point no one had any reason to doubt that would be the case. I'd received a Most Likely to Succeed award from my peers, recognition from politicians and community leaders, local and regional media attention and a few special scholarships from my church and elsewhere. I was the poster child for the effectiveness of the Positive Youth Development stratagem.

As I've discussed elsewhere, the definition of disconnection is a broad one. It mostly focuses on the end result, but the causes are manifold. While there are typically a cascading series of events that lead a young person to opt out and stay out of the traditional path to success, a common trend I've witnessed in my work is that young people come to a Critical Moment. When you examine student records, you can almost narrow their history down to the exact day when they suddenly decided school was no longer a priority. Their attendance, once steady, starts to get spotty or unpredictable. Their grades go down. Occasionally, discipline problems escalate. Pinpointing these dates on a calendar allows for more informed counseling as you're able to simply ask a young person what happened at that moment. In many cases I've dealt with, there was something. Maybe they got involved with someone who had an outsized negative influence. Maybe they had a family member who disappeared from the home suddenly (sometimes due to death or incarceration). Maybe they abruptly relocated to a different region or school and had difficulty adjusting.  Invariably, the young person faces some form of significant upheaval and when it comes, the social supports around them are either inaccessible or inadequate to the task of salvaging their fragile sense of prioritization.

In my case, the circumstances leading up to my disconnection were far less dramatic, but when I faced my own Critical Moment, I blinked. It seems incomprehensible (and certainly contrary to youth development dogma) that someone so well heeled and connected could've had this circumstance befall them, but it happened. As I've finally come around to trying to right the course of my life, I've thought a lot about what went wrong back then and realized it wasn't that the process was ineffectual, but that I had abandoned it.

When the Critical Moment arrived after I left school, rather than returning to those caring, supportive adults who had guided and nurtured me, I avoided them like the plague. My church community, my teachers, and even some of my childhood friends were completely erased from my life. I refused to go anywhere near them. I didn't call or write and ducked the few entreaties they made at getting ahold of me. The irony is that these were the very people who would've worked with me to overcome any barriers and get back on the path to success.

Why did I do it? Because the shame and guilt of letting them all down weighed too heavily on me. I couldn't bear to face the people who had sacrificed and believed in me until I had achieved some undefined measure of success.  The years went by and I continued to avoid them. I promised myself I'd return, but not until I'd done something big. Something I could show them that would validate my decision to take a different path and not make me look like a colossal screw up.

My Uncle Bill passed away last Wednesday. Cancer had spread through his body and taken him not long after he'd joined my long infirm Aunt Lena is a nursing home. The news hit me like an earthquake in a year that's already been marred by its share of tragedies. I thought about the hubris that had kept me away all those years and how idiotic I'd been to delude myself into thinking the judgments I was casting on myself bore any relation to how the people who truly cared felt about me.

My Uncle Bill's last words to me, spoken over the phone over the holidays last year, were "We still love you, you know. Don't forget about us." I know you did Uncle Bill and I'm sorry I didn't have the courage to come and tell you I never forgot.

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