“Soft-hearted people can’t work with kids like that.” She’s right. A dear friend of mine said that to me today when I told her this story.
On the first day of summer camp at the Community Center which I work/volunteer at, Angie was having problems. She is 8 and in a large group of girls her age. Angie’s new at the community center. Many of the kids from the center, go there during the school year, others are returnees from last years camp. These kids have formed a bond, so from the start Angie was on the outside. She is a fighter. Doesn’t like the view from the other side of the glass wall. She wants in and will do what’s necessary to get in. By the end of the first day, she fought, argued and pushed anyone that did the same to her. Sometimes she started, sometimes she was the recipient, but it was obvious to the staff that she would need some extra attention.
Fast forward two days. Angie’s had problems but nothing major. I personally felt like she wasn’t very nice because every time I tried to talk to her, she would treat me badly. The camp counselor who worked with her though thought she was good. Towards the end of the day, I had to organize my group. In doing a sweep of the building, I walked in on another counselor having a hard time with Angie. He was yelling at her, trying to get her to obey, which only put her in a “I don’t care” mode. I told the counselor to get the head of the camp Ms. Vickie. He agreed. The young counselor is a good guy. Does well with the kids, I like him a lot, but the situation had gotten out of control. As he left to get Ms. Vicki, I struggled with the young girl to get her to sit down and listen. She was having none of it. She pushed, hollered, and screamed at me. I made her sit down, being careful not to hurt her. When Ms. Vickie came in, I decided it was best to let her handle it. I went to check on my group, who where fine with another counselor, so I then returned to Ms. Vicki, I was a little shocked at what I saw.
When I walked in the door, Angela was on the floor, and a Jr. Counselor ‘Zo was holding her down. ‘Zo is a big kid, but a Teddy-bear on the inside. Angela was struggling like a mad woman, screaming and hollering at the top of her lungs. Her movements brought to mind a scene from the Exorcist where the little girl is being tortured by the demon inside her. Ms. Vickie, was leaning down talking to her, calmly trying bring her back to reality, but the little girl was having none of it. I decided to get on the floor and help out. I spoke quietly, and gently as if talking to a wild animal, trying to calm her, she refused to hear me. This little 8 year old girl, gathered so much strength, she was actually moving ‘Zo. Through the strength of her will, she was able to readjust herself, and sit flatly on her behind, legs out, with ‘Zo holding her arms behind her back. To stop her from kicking, I moved to grab her legs, which put us face to face. I told her to calm down. She looked at me with such anger in between her quick movements, struggling to bite ‘Zo and get free.
In the middle of it all, she screamed, “I want to die!” My daughter is the same age as Angela. They are the same height, complexion, with similar hair style. I could never imagine my daughter saying something like that at her age. Watching Angela, I couldn’t help but think of my daughter. Couldn’t help but wonder what pain she hid beneath her tough exterior. It hurt my heart to hear these words. Hurt in a way I can’t really put to words. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and cry. I wanted to cry for her, her parents, the world at large, hurting children in every corner of the globe that felt like she did. But there was no way in her state I could hug her. So instead I said, “No baby, don’t say that. You don’t want to die.”
“Yes I do!”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do! I’m ugly! I’m stupid! I want to die.” Every word out of her mouth was like a rock shattering the fragile little concept I had of children at the Sanctuary. I knew the kids here had problems. I knew poverty created all sorts of issues for children, but my ignorance, did not really allow me to truly understand how deep their pain runs. Not that kids out of poverty don’t face similar struggles, they do, they just have greater resources. Who will Angela be if no one tells her, her worth? Where will we be when an entire population of bruised and battered children become adults? Are we there now?
All I could think to say to her was that she was a child of God, and that she was beautiful because God made her.
She screamed, “No! I’m not, I’m ugly!”
“No, you are not, you are beautiful. God loves you and I love you.”
She paused at this. I thought I’d reached her. Something broke the shell, but then she reared her head back, and spit in my face. She spit like she was scared of what the consequences would be for her actions. Sprayed. It didn’t feel good, but I thought to myself, well this could have been worse. I couldn’t wipe my face because my hands were firmly grasping her legs. Ms. Vickie stood besides me, and rubbed my back for encouragement, ‘Zo looked stunned. I couldn’t stop though.
“God loves you Angela, and so do I” She spit again. Sprayed.
“I don’t care, you can spit all day and it doesn’t change that God loves you, and I love you too. Because you are a child of God.” I could see a change in her eyes this time. She knew I wouldn’t react negatively to her behavior. She then started gathering spit in her mouth, and she spit in my face. This time it was no spray. I could feel it running down my cheek. I am not saint. I was mad. I wanted to scream at her, leave her there and wipe my face. But I couldn’t. Ms. Vickie continued to rub my back and the whole time, I felt like God was in my ear whispering “hold on, hold on”. When God tells you hold on, what else can you do?
Again I told her I loved her God loved her. Repeat, spit on the other cheek. Again, repeat. Somewhere in the cycle, someone got a towel and wiped my face. Angela screamed at me. She cried, I told her I loved her over and over. She said, she was worthless, I said she was valuable beyond belief. She spit. And then at the crescendo when there was nowhere else for either of us to go, she broke down and sobbed. I knew that type of pain. But I never knew it could come from a child. She wept and wept, and mumbled, “I wanna die like my cousin…” I let her legs go and move to hold her, telling her, “No baby, no, you don’t want to die.” I held her for what seemed like an eternity. She surrender to me for bit, and then, began to push away. Ms. Vickie asked her, if she wanted her to hold her, Angela said yes, and then crawled in Vickie’s arms. It was 3:30 when Vickie carried the sobbing child away.
I wanted to go home. Vickie would have let me go home. I sat in the empty room unsure of what just happened. I looked at the clock and thought, I should just go, I felt like I had nothing left. Everything had left my body. But I couldn’t leave. I knew, word of this incident would spread through the kids. Everyone would know, Angela flipped out, and spit on me at least 4 times, and I did nothing about it. The mentality with these children is “only the strong survive.” So me not responding, was a sign of weakness. Especially if I left early. I sat in the room alone for about 15 minutes, and then walked out. I was determined to redefine strength, for them, and honestly, I was a little bit of pride on my behalf. I wasn’t going to let the heartbreak, beat me. Not now. I stayed until 4:40, watching the clock the entire time. The whispers were getting out about what happened but no one said anything to me.
After calming down and hanging with Vickie for a while Angela come out in the common room acting like a normal kid. She walked up to me and apologized for spitting on me. She wrapped her arms around me, and it was all I could do not to cry. Her foster mother came to pick her up at 4:30, and Vickie told her, Angela could not come back. She gave her a hug goodbye and I watched as she walked out of the building. Vickie came to me, and told me, she wanted to keep her, but we don’t have the staff trained to deal with a child with problems like Angela. It was somewhat a liability issue, but also the truth of the matter is we as much as we wanted to, could not help her. I know Vickie is right. I know it. But it hurts.
I left the Sanctuary feeling like acid was eating my heart away. I called my mother, to tell her something completely unrelated, and started crying. She talked to me the whole way home. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop crying. I just ached for Angela. I prayed so hard that night hoping that God would watch over her, that God would watch over all the children I see in pain everyday. I’ve told this story a couple times, and each time people focus on her spitting on me, and what I went through. But that is not the point. At all. Angela is the point. That she had no other place to put her pain, then direct at me in such a harsh way. That she has no one, nothing, and despite our incident, she’s still in pain.
“Soft-hearted people can’t work with kids like that.” She said after I talked to her about the whole incident, and she’s right. But if people like me don’t work with Angela, who will? If we don’t cry for her who will? If I just walk away from it all, and only write plays and poems about people’s struggle but don’t get my hands dirty, who am I, and what is my work about? Father Greg Boyle said, “God doesn’t want us to endlessly praise God for being compassionate God is hoping that we will spend our time being compassionate. So, I kinda want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not yet arrived.”