Magical Thinking

21 Apr

By Rob Lavender

John Wesley is thirteen, a small thirteen. Maybe 80 lbs. Just under five feet. He looks like a child seated at my table, along with the other adolescents. He’s been bounced around some, like a stuffed animal that somehow keeps finding its way back to the Salvation Army donation pile after being welcomed into the heart of a new family. His new placements never last. He’s been in DHR custody since he was five, removed from his parents’ custody. A few relatives have taken him in, only to decide it’s more than a labor of love, so they’ve given him back to DHR numerous times. He’s been in and out of a children’s home three times. Currently, he’s been living with an aunt and uncle who have his siblings in their home. Now he’s in a psych hospital.

He’s watching me with a reluctant look on his face as I tell them about the class. I see this face a lot, which makes me worry that he doesn’t know how to read or write that well. He keeps looking at Robotripper James, who has his head down on the table. I know John Wesley is thinking, “How does this guy get away with not listening or participating?” I let him think it, knowing James will rise and get a picture and write another story about bullying. But John Wesley doesn’t know this about James. He doesn’t know James is on high-powered antipsychotic medicine that’s kicking his ass and making him keep his head down. He doesn’t know much about anyone at the table. They hardly ever do. It takes two or three days for them to hear each other’s stories.

Once I finish my daily explanation of the class, James rises and approaches the board. Ten other adolescents stand with him. John Wesley is still seated watching them choose their pictures.

“You think you can do this?” I ask.

He makes an unsure face.

“Give it a try. See what you can do.”

He goes to the board and chooses a picture of a tiger that is becoming human. On the back of the picture I’ve written, “Tell me a story about a man that becomes a tiger. How did it happen? What does it feel like?”

I watch to see if he begins to write. Some get a picture but never write. I take them into the hallway and ask them if they can read and write. If they can’t, I give them another project.

If they are literate and refuse to write, then I send them to the observation room for not participating in the program. That’s just the way it goes. I’m not trying to punish them, only motivate them, because the time is short. They will be discharged so fast we may not even crack open their problem enough to see inside. And a short stay in the observation room usually shakes them from their defiance. Four concrete walls and a tiled floor are not worth refusing to write. Sometimes I only have to threaten to send them there, then they get busy writing, only to discover they enjoy creative writing. It calms them.

John Wesley looks over at James writing in his notebook. He taps the top of his with a pencil. Suddenly I realize the look on his face is helplessness and hopelessness, not defiance or illiteracy. It’s a why bother attitude—nothing is going to help my situation. It’s the look of a wounded dog that has been backed into a corner. I’m sure he’ll bare his teeth if prodded too much, so I give him some room. I circle the table, jotting down their names and a description of the picture they’ve chosen, so later, when I’m putting the book together, I can remember which one they’ve chosen and include the pictures with their stories. By the time I round the table, John Wesley is writing. The room is silent except for pencils scratching out their imaginations.

Five minutes later, I ask John Wesley to show me what he has so far. His writing has trickled down to doodling in the margins. He hands it to me with apprehension on his face. His eyes doing the work of doubt in his heart.

I read it.

“It’s a good start. Now tell me what happened to make him a tiger. Did he drink something, do something, or get cursed by someone? Then tell me what it feels like to be a man-turned-tiger. Where will he live? In the city? In the jungle? Something like that.”

“He’s going to live in the jungle,” he says with newfound direction in his voice.

“Perfect,” I say.

I hand back his notebook.

He takes it and gets down to work—writing faster, as his tongue hangs loose at the corner of his mouth.

Once the twenty minutes is up, I say, “Okay, take a couple of minutes to finish up. If you’re done, I want to read it.”

I read each one before I let them read them aloud. I take notes about character’s names, places, different situations that stand out in the stories. At the end I give them a test over what they’ve heard in each other’s stories. If they pass the test, I reward them with soda and candy. I tell them they can take notes and use them for the test. Everyone usually takes notes. Soda and candy are rarities in the program. It’s my little way to keep them listening and involved while their peers read their stories. But it never seems to be a concern. They like listening to each other.

John Wesley extends his notebook toward me. I take it and read. I chuckle at the line, “The one regret the tiger has is he will never have a human girlfriend.” I look up and smile.

“It’s good,” I say.

I hand it back.

He smiles.

“I like the line about never getting to have a human girlfriend. It’s funny.”

Amidst all of the troubles this man is having about becoming a tiger, he still has love on his mind.

I read the rest of the stories and take notes.

“Okay, who wants to read first?”

John Wesley goes third. Some of the adolescents laugh along with me at the girlfriend line. I tell him again that I like it. His face turns red.

When he types the story, he leaves off the sentence about the girlfriend. I don’t notice its omission until the books have been printed and he’s reading the story at the book launch party. I never ask him why he deleted it.

The third day in class John Wesley needs no prompting. He’s the first at the board and chooses a picture of a man that has the word homesick tattooed on his body. He’s the first to begin, but he stops after a couple of sentences and says to me, “I’m going to write neater today.”

I give him praise.

He smiles.

When he finishes, he hands it to me as if it’s a story I’ve never read, as if he’s giving me the key to his life.

Once upon a time, there was this kid named Glen, and all the places he went to live with family, he always screwed it up and had to go live with foster homes. He said, “I’m stupid and going to go to prison one of these days.” Glen was so homesick. He felt like he might die if he had to stay away from family any longer, but he felt stupid and had too many anger issues for life to be happy. And his parents put him through most of it because of their drug and alcohol abuse. Now he’s one of the dumbest children alive, and in a mental hospital. But he promised to never give-up or lose hope, because one day God was going to answer his prayers.

The story ends up reading like self-help, and I see how messy it is inside him. I give him a high-five. “Best story you’ve written so far,” I tell him. “Neat handwriting, too.”

He smiles.

I see our kinship inside the story. I notice how we both lay blame at our own feet for what our parents did to abandon us.

John Wesley’s fourth day in my class will be his last. He’s being discharged today. The therapists said in staffing this morning that his aunt and uncle were returning him to the children’s home. They don’t think they can handle his outbursts any longer. It will be his third time to be abandoned at the steps of this modern-day orphanage. I ask him where he’s going to live, in hopes that he will open up and talk about it.

“I’m going to a children’s home,” he says. Then he looks down.

I notice the tears.

I say, “If I owned that children’s home, I would open my door wide to you. This is how much I believe in you. The thing that scares me right now is how you’ve reverted to that boy who feels helpless and hopeless again. I watched you bloom in here. So I want you to promise me something.” My voice cracks. I clear my throat. Then I say something I know I shouldn’t. “You’re worthy to be someone’s son, and if I had the money to make it happen, I’d make you my son.”

He looks up at me. His eyes glistening.

“I mean that,” I say. “So please stay strong.”

I say this as if it will somehow make it all better. But it’s just another empty promise. I know this. Still, it’s worth mentioning.

“Will you promise me that you will stay strong?”

He nods.

The hospital tells us on a regular basis, “Always remember, you are employees, not messiahs.”

But what is the goal of mental health? I’m not sure anyone has a right answer when it comes to a boy like John Wesley. I guess the greatest tool we possess is compassion. And we should never squander the opportunity to extend mercy and love, which means we must be present in ways of vulnerability. We should feel their pain with the upmost control. So I tell John Wesley my own story of abandonment. He doesn’t respond. He only listens with eyes of starvation.

After he finishes typing his story, one of the therapists comes to the door of the classroom and retrieves him. She’s young. Right out of graduate school. She says, “I’ve got good news for you.” Then she leads him into the hallway.

I can see them through the rectangular window in the wooden classroom door. John Wesley puts his hands over his head as if the world is coming at him at a blinding rate of speed and he’s thrown up his hands to thwart it.

I hear him crying.

It’s 11:15 AM and class is now over. But John Wesley and the therapist are still in the hallway. The other adolescents file past them on their way to lunch without even asking if he is okay. It’s never just okay here. Tears are a daily occurrence.

I step into the hallway to see why he’s so upset.

The therapist asks him, “Do you want to sit in Mr. Robert’s class for a minute and get yourself together? Then we must go.”

He walks into the classroom and plops down in a chair. He pulls his T-shirt over his face. “I’m so stupid,” he says. “I just want to be with my family. Why can’t I be with my family?”

The therapist says, “We just discussed this. Your aunt and uncle love you, but they feel it would be best if you were away from your sister for a while. It’s final. I can’t change DHR’s mind.”

According to John Wesley, his uncle told his sister and him to fight it out when they got into an argument. Then when John Wesley began getting the best of her, the uncle broke them up and blamed the fight on John Wesley. He said John Wesley attacked his sister. Who knows where the truth lies?

“I’m just so stupid,” he says again. “I wish I could just die.” He sobs hard.

I don’t say anything. Sometimes we can say too much and run the risk of patronizing. So I make him stand, and I hold him against my chest. I let him weep there, the shivering, the abandonment. I imagine how it must’ve felt the day at church when I came apart in Patti’s arms. I wonder if this will be the last blow that will eventually push him into the prison system, the one that signals the end of any possible hope. 

After a few moments, the therapist tells him it’s time to go. The next time I see him, he’s standing in the lobby with a psych tech and the woman representing the children’s home. He’s still crying. He still has his T-shirt partially hiding his face.

The woman says in a sarcastic tone, “What’s with all the tears? You want to stay here or something?”

I start to say something to her, but I don’t. I fail to defend him. I only fall hard inside, realizing this woman is no Patti Whitehurst.

I watch John Wesley and the woman cross the parking lot, headed to a white minivan. I watch until he disappears around the passenger side of the van.

Later the therapist says she can’t believe he reacted the way he did. “He knew he wasn’t going back to his aunt’s house. We prepared him for this reality. And I can’t believe how quick he went from being okay to a state of total devastation and self-hate.”

I say, “I think he still believed in an outside chance that his family would want him back. Magical thinking, I guess.”

But maybe it’s newfound hope that’s once again disappointed him.

I go back to my empty classroom and lock the door. I shut my eyes and wonder if maybe my writing class is a whacked adventure in magical thinking. Did I somehow offer false hope? Did I somehow set him up for this disappointment?


One Response to “Magical Thinking”

  1. Former Student of Señor Robert Just Stopping By :) at 11:02 am #

    So sad, and thanks for sharing….you do a great job giving us newfound hope, e.g. eye contact in my case….thanks for being you!!

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