Friday, September 9, 2011


We've spent a lot of time lately thinking about why T seems to alienate some people completely, and totally endear others. I have never known anyone with quite this effect on people. Older people, babies and small animals flock to him like he's Saint Fancis of Assisi, and at the same time, police, school administrators and hallway bullies fixate on him like he's got a bull's eye on his back. In any setting, we could take a poll, and half the respondents will tell us he is smart/gentle/thoughtful/helpful/mature, and the other half will tell us he is a out-of-control/angry/controlling/difficult. The people who love him RAVE about him - from teachers to school nurses, administrators and friends of the family. The people who don't "get" him tend to come quite unglued describing his misbehavior - they almost seem fixated by how frustrated he has made them. We've been thinking about why he has this extreme effect on people, because all our lives took a bizarre turn this summer after he really alienated the director of the program where he was getting addiction treatment.

First of all, I think strangers struggle to make sense of him, because he is highly intelligent and mature on some levels, and almost infant-like on others. At home, he is often like a young child - he likes to be close to us and spend more time with us than most 17 year-olds spend with their parents. Abandonment and neglect as a young child left him with an unfulfilled need that we're quite happy to fulfill. But when he is separated from us, he often becomes anxious and unruly. What would be perceived as quite normal in a young child is hard for people to understand in an older kid of his size. So he gets misinterpreted a lot.

Also, there is an element of racism at play. As a young Black man, his tantrums and irritability are readily interpreted as aggression or hostility in some settings. What might be seen as brattiness in another child gets read as threatening behavior because of stereotyping to which he is vulnerable because of his physical size and the color of his skin. In a few settings, including the treatment house, he's been accused of being "threatening" despite having never once laid hands on another person or purposely caused anyone harm.This can be a real challenge when you have a kid with complex mental health needs that you're trying to address. Because people don't perceive him as vulnerable, it can be hard to get him the services he deserves -- and the help for which he is asking. He is tall (six-foot-three), and dark skinned with enormous Bambi eyes, a sweet baby face, and tremendous gentleness. But he is often held to a different standard in terms of how vulnerable he's allowed to be, because of the stereotype-infused lens through which he is sometimes perceived.

I also think his instincts are cranked up much higher than is probably healthy, because of his abuse history, and for this reason he is exquisitely sensitive and easily triggered. Someone's tone of voice, their smell, a facial expression, a gesture can all set him off. His perception is exaggerated or even distorted because he is an elevated state of vigilance pretty much all the time. This is improving, gradually, the longer he lives in safety. I have tried explaining this vigilance to officials involved in his schooling or his care before, with mixed success. About half the time, I get a variation on "Well, he's a big guy, nobody is going to hurt him." See paragraph three, above. It doesn't matter if he is actually in physical danger in the present moment - he was hurt, badly, as a young child, and some part of his brain still reacts to everyday situations from that position of pure instinctive self-preservation.

Finally, I think he is smart and independent, and some people love that and some people aren't comfortable with someone so self-assured. Particularly in combination with his sensitivity and vulnerability, his confidence and intelligence are confusing. He sends conflicting signals all at once. He's extremely funny. He talks back...and he's often right. He is articulate when he wants to be - sometimes unusually so. He can be profound, and he can also be painfully dismissive of that which he perceives to be beneath him. All that makes for a complex personality. I happen to like complex personalities. But not everyone responds in the same way.

We've decided to home school him. Despite his difficulties, he's managed to be ahead on his school credits, eligible for early graduation. One of us can work from home, and there's a home schooling option in our district that provides structure and weekly check-ins with a teacher at a local campus. He'll take an elective at a local junior college where he can get a taste of life post-high school. He can sleep a little later in the morning. He'll get a little more time with us. He can still build social relationships with peers but he can do so outside the classroom, on his own time in less provocative circumstances. Eventually, he needs to learn not to push buttons, to take direction and to keep himself in check. But it takes time to move beyond the chronically stressed limbic state where he got stuck. Meanwhile, I like the idea of keeping him out of traditional school, because of the extreme reactions he tends to provoke in other people, particularly officials.


Jen said...

What a great idea to home-school. I'm so glad you have that option.

M and M said...

Your plan is a good one for T. I really loved the way you unpacked the racism that gets dialed in when people deal with your son. I've thought alot about this with my 'cute little 3 year old black boy' who will one day soon be a big black teenager. It hurts. Thank you for unwrapping just a little bit more of your understandning of this tough stuff.

Gab said...

I hope that T can find continuing support for his sobriety. Maybe he can find an NA meeting that feels comfortable to him?
I hope he can take the base of safety he is establishing at home (and the level of trust you have created is so strong, I can feel it) and be able to engage with the world in a positive way.

Jessica {Team Rasler} said...

This has to be tough on all of you, the polar opposite reactions to T. I hope that home schooling ends up being the right decision for him and for you! It would be a relief to have fewer officials to deal with, I'm sure.

Brynaleh @ It Takes a Shtetl to Foster A Child said...

Doesn't it hurt so badly to know that our vulnerable little man-babies (mine is not even 11, but he is tall and starting to grow into a young man) are perceived as a threat, or as invulnerable, or as strong, or as scary, because they are Black boys/men? It really cuts.

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