Our youth, my privilege, and a scene from Moonlight.
The other night one of our girls was having a hard time. She didn’t like a decision she was given and started arguing about it. That eventually led her to a lot of negative self-talk about who she is, what’s she’s been through, and a seemingly hopeless future.
I personally believe experiencing these moments with our girls is one the greatest privileges I have as a family-teacher. It lets me hear the stories of these girls, show them that I do care for them, about them, and that I have great faith in them.
I get to tell a 15 year old girl that even though she’s been through many hard and horrible things, and that those things will be a part of her past for the rest of her life, those things don’t define her. How she handles working through her past, understanding how it impacts her today will help her be strong woman tomorrow.
Here’s a girl that has been through all sorts of issues sitting before me, focusing on how she’s been victimized and feeling like she’s worthless. But I get the privilege of hearing her story and of telling her that she is valuable, and that she’s brave, and that she’s capable of great things. I get to tell her that she is going to be an incredibly strong and capable woman. Sarah and I are simply there to help her on her journey. To support her. To teach her. To love her.
I told her that every girl that’s come to Boys Town has needed help in some way. The difference between the girls that leave Boys Town successfully and the ones that don’t is whether or not they were willing to receive the help that was being offered to them.
I told her, “We can’t get through life alone. As human beings we need each other. And as human beings we are wired for connection, with a desire of belonging, and a need for the knowledge that we aren’t alone.”
As she looked out the window away from me she muttered loud enough for me to hear, “But you don’t know how hard it is for me to accept help. You don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know the things that have been said to me.”
After a short pause she then emphatically said,”You don’t even know!”
I told her, “I’ll never say I know what you’ve been through or what you’re going through. I will always try to understand. I will consistently be here to support you. But I promise I will never say I understand what you’ve been through. No one can say that but you. But at the same time, I can promise you’re not alone. We’re here rooting for you every single day.”
Earlier in the day she had told me that we never see anything good that she does. And I told her we see her do good all the time and we point it out to her. It’s just that as human beings we tend to focus on the negative, even if we are told a bunch of positives.
I challenged her by saying that I think that she is the one that’s not noticing all the good she’s doing and the progress she’s making. I told her, “I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. You work so hard. And we notice. I want you to notice that, too.”
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Moonlight, I highly recommend you do, but I’m about to talk about a scene from the movie. It doesn’t reveal anything significant about the movie, or ruin the plot, but if you don’t like knowing anything about a movie before you see it (like me), you can skip to the next section.
In the movie Moonlight there’s a scene where the main character gets beat up at school. He eventually is taken to the principal’s office and questioned about it. He won’t give up who hit him or who else was responsible.
The principle looks at him across from her desk and says, “If you don’t tell us who did this, we can’t press charges, understand? All them damn kids standing around, all of y’all out there and don’t nobody got the heart to say who did it?”
Agitated, he responds,“You don’t even know!”
When I heard him say that I was jolted with a quick burst of emotion. I took a quick yet quivering gasp of air as my ears started ringing due to the rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t just that he said the same words as the girl in my home said them the night before, it was how he said that phrase. I had heard those exact words spoken to me in nearly the same exact tone and emphasis just the night before.
It took a while for my heart rate to return to normal.
That scene helped me better understand my conversation from the night before. I do not understand what she’s been through. I can try to understand, but she will always be right. I don’t even know.
These girls do come to us with complex histories. Oftentimes, if not usually, with histories of abuse and trauma of all kinds. Some of these girls have seen and experienced hell. And now they find themselves being asked to be normal teenagers with chores and homework and bedtimes.
Honestly, our girls do a pretty incredible job of adapting and growing and meeting our expectations. I’m ok with them bucking the system from time to time because it allows Sarah and me to show them consistency. That we are there with them on their good days and on their bad. That when they make a poor choice we might be disappointed, but it doesn’t mean we think of them any less as people. We’re just here to help them learn from their mistakes and learn the skills to help them not make them again. We might not ever be able to know them fully, but they’ll know that we’ll consistently be there for them.