“It’s Jack!” they scream, peering into the pickup. “He came back!”
I climb out of the truck. “Actually, my name is Tom. Jack was the other guy.”
I reintroduce myself to the seven middle school boys I’d met during my training week with Jack and four fellow trainees. I’ve only just started this job in the Blue Ridge, but because I’ve been hopping around to different groups every other week, it’s already been a long month and a half since I last saw these middle school tykes.
They were all still new to the program then; now, several of them are prepping to graduate. Some know their specific discharge dates, and some are blissfully unaware. I’d been hoping I’d get to see them again before they left. Was hoping they’d be happy to see me again, too.
I’m not quite as cool as rapping Jack, but they do remember me. And they seem glad to have me back — this time for longer than just a couple hours.
~ ~ ~
Most kids stay in the program for eight to twelve weeks. It all depends on their personal schedules and progress. They meet with a therapist each week, and she ultimately determines when they’re “ready” to leave – usually to a new boarding school and not their old familiar routine back home.
Before graduating, the kids’ parents will sometimes come out and eat GORP with them, sit around a fire with them, even spend the night with them under a big blue tarp. I hadn’t witnessed any parent visitations my first two weeks, but immediately upon my new week’s arrival, one mom was already there.
The next day, two parents from North Carolina and a father from the United Kingdom would enter our wooded midst. A few days later another mom would materialize, and all told seven kids would be graduating this week.
It would be a happy celebratory week, you’d think.
~ ~ ~
“I’m saving you for last,” the red-headed British boy says to the only other redhead in the group. Avery is a spunky ten-year-old with freckles and an affinity for his homeland’s One Direction. Apparently he has looked up to 14-year-old Duncan all summer long, according to what the other staff tell me.
After Avery says goodbye to all the other kids, he circles back to Duncan and asks him to sit on the ground with him. Duncan does so reluctantly, and then little Avery falls into his arms.
“You’ve been like a big brotha to me,” he chirps in his mouse-like British accent. “I’ll miss you.”
Duncan dabs at his eyes, pulling Avery close. I turn away, my own eyelids fluttering, leaking.
~ ~ ~
The only boy among the seven I’d had time to truly meet during my July training was Nathan. Nathan is a 12-year-old blonde with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, and he was born in Russia, adopted by American parents. Many of the kids here are adopted, the other staff tell me. Lots of parental and emotional issues.
These first couple days, a soon-to-be graduating Nathan is all grins and giggles as he beams about the boarding school he’ll soon be attending. It’s really cool, he says. And it’s only a couple hours from home, so he’ll get to see his family and friends often.
Throughout the week, Nathan and I hit it off pretty well. He’s a good kid, reminds me of myself at his age in more ways than you could know. Soft-spoken, empathetic. He’s not as athletic as the other boys, but he’s a solid conversationalist and he loves art and Starbucks Frappuccinos.
The second to last day, Nathan isn’t helping the group with camp setup, and I ask him to please pitch in.
“I can’t,” he says.
“Why not?” I ask.
“What are you sad about?”
“You don’t have to tell me why if you don’t want to,” I reassure him.
He takes another moment. Then, “Can we talk to the side?”
I walk with him ten paces, and his blue eyes meet mine with a reeling intensity. “I don’t want to go away to boarding school,” he says with elongated sobs, his irises drowning in tears. “I feel like my parents don’t want me anymore!”
Nathan’s innocent little face explodes, and it takes everything within me not to lose control of my own self.
“I just feel so ashamed,” he says.
I put my hand on Nathan’s shoulder and say it’s okay to be afraid. His feelings are valid. That it’s not a shame to feel ashamed. I tell him he’s going to be okay.
Later that evening Nathan is back to his cheery ways, telling jokes and stories with other kids and staff alike. I hope he will indeed be okay.
It is the final day of my most chaotic week yet, a week of two kids’ groups merging into a bigger one, of confrontations and fights and power struggles, and of graduations aplenty. But despite all the moving parts, it’s been my most meaningful week yet.
All week long I’ve officially been mentoring my first student of this job — Duncan, the 14-year-old redhead, here for healthier emotional expression and better communication with his parents.
Duncan is the oldest in the group, a clear leader, a kid who fist-bumps and makes you laugh with everything he says. At some point in the week he picked up a new vocabulary word — “poppin'” — and he uses it constantly.
“That’s poppin’!” he says of my knife.
“That’s poppin’!” he says of his newly carved spoon from my poppin’ knife.
Duncan has been here 11 weeks now, and I’m certain he’s grown a ton. He had a rough start this week with Avery’s graduation and the loss of some packet work, but he always seems to bounce back with an excellent attitude.
I sit beside him one day as he pens a letter to his parents.
“How would you describe your relationship with your parents today compared with when you got here?” I ask him.
“Poppin’,” he responds. He elaborates. “It’s so good. We used to fight and argue all the time. I don’t bottle up my emotions anymore, and we talk things out. We’re so much better now.”
~ ~ ~
I’m leaving the field today, and Duncan still has no idea he’s graduating tomorrow. He hasn’t yet been told by his therapist, and I cannot say a word. “I hope you come back to our group after your off-shift,” he tells me.
“Yeah,” I say, knowing fully well I’ll never see Duncan in these Blue Ridge Mountains again. “Thanks for being an awesome first mentee,” I tell him.
He reaches for a pen and autographs the first page of A Walk in the Woods, the book I’ve been reading all week. It reads: “I be poppin’.”
We hug goodbye, and we both get a little misty eyed. I think that’s the end of it, a fitting conclusion to a crazy fulfilling week. I go over to hug all the other kids, including a devastated Nathan. He can’t bear all these goodbyes.
By the time I finish making all the rounds, I notice Duncan crying more than a misty amount, his therapist beside him, and it’s clear what has just happened.
“Did you know?” he asks me, his voice creaking.
I nod. “I had a feeling.”
He leans in to hug me again, longer this time. I tell him I’m proud of him, and he’s going to do awesome things.
They all are. Duncan and Nathan and every last one of these kids. They are not completing their journeys in these woods; they are merely finding their trail heads from the long lost back-country.
They are learning to receive care, and they are learning to care for themselves. They are learning to communicate with parents and peers alike, not stifle their words. They are discovering the full range of their emotions, not running from them.
They are becoming teenagers, little functional people, and they are uncovering their worth in this universe — one bend in the path at a time.
I pull away from Duncan, and I put out my fist.
“Keep it poppin’,” I say, our teary smirks unfolding, our fists colliding as one.