Thursday, November 29, 2012

A New Normal

This year is all about the new:
Taken from the driver's side, on the highway. Thank goodness for mostly empty roads. It's beautiful up there!
I went on a wine weekend to Michigan. Newish: wanting to drink. New: vacation with no family members. Never done that before. How old am I?
Newish: back at the high school level. New: an alternative high school
Newish: unexpectedly on my own again. this one still bruises.
New: Going after what I really want. If not now, then when? This is the time. This includes: standing in line for hours to meet Smitten Kitchen! Unless she's good at faking that nice personality for more than 5 hours at a time (and I was in the middle group at Book Cellar in Chicago), she really is as awesome as she comes off in her blog.

I've been working at the alternative high school in my district now for three months. So far, I have learned:
  • a whole lot more than I ever wanted to know about illegal drugs (omg is ecstasy dangerous. ask me about it. it's fascinating. and sad)
  • lots of new slang
  • high school students make me more art than I ever received at elementary
  • that a closed door doesn't mean anything to persistent teenagers
  • that a locked office door doesn't stop clever, persistent teenagers
  • teenagers use tears as manipulation just as much as my elementary kids
  • no matter how many times teenagers tell you not to treat them like kindergartners, they will continue to act more immature than my former elementary students
  • standing between two screaming students does not actually stop them from shouting at each other
  • it's flattering to be referred to as "the hot psychologist" and have kids estimate your age as anywhere between 18-24, when you're actually 30 turning 31
  • watching teenagers make decisions is fascinating
  • it's easier to be stylish and wear accessories when you're not worried a kid will tear it out off in a fit of rage
  • there is such a thing as "teaming" in schools
  • co-workers are awesome comic relief
  • you have to want to be there every day
  • many of my students are brilliant - and clearly would have benefited from being in a gifted program, which they were most likely never expected to be in because of early behaviors
  • when a student believes you care, they will defend your honor when another student says something rude about you
  • as much as I miss the sweets from my last three years, teenagers are where I belong
  • no matter how bad my day is going, how many students have told me they hate me for  asking them to challenge their pattern of behaviors, there is always another student that chooses to talk to me for help
  • many teenagers love conspiracy theories (or maybe that's just in this particular crowd)
  • that when relationships with students that appear beyond repair, such as when they tell you they hate you, you're terrible at your job, and you should go back to college to learn more, or when they call you the c-word in a language not their own, because blaming you is easier and feels better than accepting responsibility, if you have put in the up-front work of respect and caring, they come back to your office and re-establish rapport.

At least I hope that one comes true for one particular student today whom I had to inform that I talked to their PO. I don't know that I even knew that acronym, or ever really thought about the acronym for police officer before this year. But I definitely do now. Turns out, they're really nice. And really good at their jobs. Thank goodness for them, for caring, for seeing through the BS, and for seeing the whole child.
I hate these ethical quandaries: will reporting to someone that harm is happening to a student damage my relationship with the student? 
More than once when I've had to call DCFS to report abuse, it has damaged my relationship with the student. At the high school level on my internship, because the student felt I had broken their trust despite my explanation, and the year ended before we had enough time to repair the relationship. At the elementary level, it was due to the parent being so furious, that they cut off access to their child. That was really sad - because the family also disappeared after that. I hope they're okay. Most other times, the family has been grateful that I cared or understood that it was my responsibility to do so, and the child has understood, if not appreciative.
Before I spoke to the PO, for whom I did not know yet I would have a release to talk to, I hashed it out with my social worker. I questioned if the student's behavior truly counted as self-harm: attempting to manipulate the system so he would not have to drug test so he could continue abusing marijuana multiple times a day. He kept reporting that he wanted to quit, and drug testing would motivate him to do so, but he said he would try to talk his PO into cancelling that, since the crime (which I did not know what it was) was not drug-related. Having known him now for three months, and seen his skill with words, particularly his skill at never ever letting an issue go until he had his way, I debated if that is considered self-harm.
The PO was awesome. She already had an excellent read on the student, and I really had little to add. The student did not view this conversation that way - he viewed it as a break in the trust relationship. Which I understood, and accepted the natural anger that comes along with that, and the statements that he would never share anything again with me.
What concerned me more, throughout the day, was how vindictive he became as he perseverated. He walked out of my office mad, but not furious. By the time he showed up to my classroom two hours later, he was glaring daggers at me. Another hour later, I had students reporting to me that he was telling them he was going to sue me and get me fired for illegally talking to his PO.
While I know I had a release (as did he, since I told him), and feel what I did was ethically right, I was concerned about potential damage his anger was doing to my relationships with other students, or, since he has the district on speed-dial, that he would draw someone in there, and this would become a much bigger issue than it was. Or, was he going to take the vindictiveness to a whole new level that I hate to even imagine?
I consulted again with my social worker, as he has been through this several times over the last few years, and he was sure the student would come around, given time, but I asked my social worker to speak with him, if only to give him space to vent and feel listened to, and waited by the door at the end of the day, like I always do. I said bye to the student, as I do to every student, and he responded with "bye."

Here's what gives me hope: he put away his papers in class when I asked him to, he toned down the vindictive thoughts after speaking with the social worker, and he responded, without swears or a glare, when I said "bye."

I will miss this kid dropping in my office until he decides to speak with me again. But I also think this was an important lesson: one, when you break a law and you're in school, the system is around you 24/7 and there is no getting away with anything; and two, that while my office is a safe space, it does not mean I am going to condone your behaviors that prevent you from becoming a healthy, successful adult. Caring means making things a little uncomfortable. Or very uncomfortable, as I learned today.

On the other hand, I had a new student to my office today - I've said hello to him, but we've never really spoken before. He was further along the road, had actually crossed the bridge to taking responsibility for his past choices, and was looking to develop a better future. Those are always refreshing conversations.

Do people refer to Oxy-contin as "synthetic heroin" to make it sound more dangerous? Cooler? Kids these days. How the hell did heroin stop being a scary drug? Why is it no longer one that automatically means you have a major problem? I can't believe this is the way I talk now...

I am so glad I am not a kid today -  I really think they have it harder.

But I left school in a rough mood - I take incidents like this far too personally. I have become far too entrenched, working in one building only for the first time in years. On top of that, my congestion is wearing me out, and I can't exercise. Which makes me fear I'm going to go back to the year where I couldn't get rid of it, and I couldn't get better, and I put on weight, and I felt tired all the time, and I missed exercise and running so much. Then on the longer drive home, since I left work a little late, I started thinking, when I couldn't reach any of my social worker or psych friends, I wish I had a boyfriend or husband to share this with. Which led to tears over missing what-might-have-been with M. Even though I actually know the only people who understand are the ones I called. Lonely is lonely though.

Which led to an evening of this after a brief laze on the couch:

Opened the bottle of Michigan wine - all on my own!
Hulu. Wine. Stir-fry from a Paleo book I borrowed from my sister. And (totally non-Paleo, but desperately needed to make me even eat any food) TJ's triple ginger cookies. Seriously addictive.

M would be so proud of my developing love of alcohol. I might even have my own go-to drink, something he'd been trying to get me to have for years. Too bad he didn't stick around to appreciate it.

And the one that told me I'm terrible at my job? She relented after I stuck it out in the conversation to tell me "you're not terrible, really, I was just mad."
And the one who called me the c-word and stalked me out of another classroom to scream at me? He just decorated my office with cut-out snowflakes, which inspired other students to make me ones too. Brings a smile to my face every time I walk in my office door.

Life is good!

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