I was working as the grade 7’s counsellor at a middle school in the South Bronx when my field supervisor asked me to take a student out of class and speak with him. I was often assigned mandated students; and similar to previous cases, I was to see Jon because he had just returned to school following a suspension. I didn’t know the terms of his suspension, but as in previous cases, I was to learn the reasons from the student.
I recall walking back to the counselling offices with Jon thinking to myself how surprised I was that this 13 year old boy already had a moustache growing on his upper lip and exceeded my own height of 5”9. Kids in the South Bronx really grow up fast I would soon find out to be in more than one way.
My idea of an ideal counselling office would be opposite to the set-up the counsellors had at this school. This cramped space was closed off into three sections by overflowing bookshelves creating mock partitions. It was hardly an ideal healing environment. However, we had important work to do in the space provided. I watched from across the table as Jon looked around the forged ‘office’ and asked him:
“Do you know why I picked you up from class today?” Truly curious, as I still did not know why he had been suspended.
Jon looked at me, furrowed his eyebrow, and then as if a lightbulb just went off in his head, lit up and replied lightly with;
“Oh! Does this have to do with me stabbing Nick with a pencil?”
At the time, the only thing on the otherwise empty table between the two of us was a pen… that I picked up, showed to him, and asked:
“With something like this?”
He nodded. I placed the pen on the seat beside me, out of his reach.
This thirteen year old stabbed another student,… don’t think you wouldn’t have done the same thing?
Over the next 40 minutes of our first session, my perception of Jon changed completely. I learnt that by his own initiative he had already taken steps to make sure he does not burst with anger in the future. He was ashamed of his actions. He told me he had hurt the other student in order to protect his girlfriend who was inappropriately touched by that boy. It became clear to me the reason Jon acted out his anger this way was that his role models never showed him anything other than violence to solve conflict. By the end of the session, my perception of him changed from a dangerous and aggressive youth, to someone who was resilient, misunderstood, and intrinsically driven to change for the better. He was an angry kid, but did not want his anger to define him.
The two of us worked together for a few months once a week, and throughout that time more layers to Jon’s story revealed itself. Abuse in his infancy, abandonment in his childhood, gang violence killing close friends. It was perfectly clear why he was angry. This 13 year old has gone through more traumas than anyone should experience in a lifetime. It was clear that Jon hadn’t chosen to grow up fast; rather he was forced to do so in order to survive.
I won’t ever forget when Jon described to me how during the last school year he had carried a razor blade in between his lip and gums for protection. Nor will I forget that despite his continuous denial on countless occasions, he finally admitted he was involved in a gang… but only sharing that information once he was safely out of it. Jon’s decision to risk his life in order to leave his gang because he no longer wanted the violence in his life was incredibly inspiring.
Now, this is not the full picture of who Jon is. I will forever remember him as the funniest student I met, his quick wit and stories having me in stitches, telling him I won’t be surprised if the boy gets his own television show one day. Jon was a selfless individual. He cared deeply for those around him, and he endlessly loved his friends and family. Jon’s selflessness extended to those he did not even know. He went out of his way to pursue a peer support group for students who were involved in gangs; and he shared his story in hopes that others would hopefully leave before its too late.
Even though Jon had a tough exterior, he was a thoughtful and giving individual. When I was thirteen I could not have been more void of responsibility, and yet Jon shows maturity of someone much older. When one is forced to grow up in such adverse circumstances, it seems they are forced to grow up fast and take responsibility at young ages. My experience with Jon will forever be ingrained in my mind as the ultimate “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story.
It would have been easy to ‘label’ this kid as ‘bad’ after hearing he stabbed someone else. If I were to have done that though, I don’t believe I would currently be in the right field of work.