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Monday, December 12, 2011

Goodbye Roberto; A Fond Farewell to A Kid We Couldn't Save

Roberto came to us last year when he was seventeen and had passed only 18 classes in his three year high-school career. A big kid, matching my 6'1" and besting me in weight by a good twenty pounds, he has a kind demeanor and a giggle that gurgles out whenever he's uncomfortable. He won't say much about what happens at his house, but what does leak out is painful to listen to.

He's smart and wants good things for himself, but he's an habitual pot-smoker and smoking has derailed both his plans and his efforts to right his own ship.

Like many of our chronic smokers, Roberto displays many other classic symptoms of PTSD.

But he's eighteen now -- a legal adult with no access to juvenile services so there isn't much we can do for him.

He knows he's got a problem. We've talked about it. He's come to me for help for it, but aside from referring him to counseling services, there's little I can do. He was of age before we got any insight into his homelife, so we can't call CPS. We can't legally refer him to any of the spiritual-based 12-step programs because we are a public school (though I've mentioned MA to him and told him how to look it up), but we can't continue to look the other way as he tries to sort it out himself. He's set off the smoke alarms twice trying to get high in the bathroom and he was busted a third time for smoking three feet from one of our school's ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

Childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is, by some accounts, more common than obesity in neighborhoods like Watts, a byproduct of being chaperoned through childhood by sudden violence and needless tragedy. I'm not a psychologist, but I'm willing to bet that Roberto's seen enough of both. But there are limited services available for those like him that self-medicate against their own suffering. Counseling services have been thinned like all services in the great recession and even though the counselors we have are dedicated and good, they are not enough.

Roberto tries not to smoke, but on the days he comes to school straight, he wanders. He wanders to the bathroom. He wanders to talk with other students. He wanders to the printer. He wanders to the pencil sharpener. He wanders in wide slow circles around the classroom.

When he's not high he can't concentrate.

When he's not high he has trouble sleeping.

So we sometimes look the other way as kids cope as best they can. We don't ignore it. If they show up red-eyed and smiling with a soda in one hand and a can of Pringles in the other, we turn them around and send them home. If they smell like they've been smoking, they don't make it through the door.

But the ones like Roberto, who are professionals, they eat before they come, they change their shirts, they buy Visine at wholesale prices, so they fool most people. But they don't fool us. We cajole and remind and nag and hug and scold and praise and cheer, but we cannot cure.

The kids call him "Mota Man," which embarrasses him. One of the only times I've ever seen him angry was when a student called him that in front of me. He doesn't want to let me down.

He thinks of me as his father. He feels understood by me. He feels loved by me.

He cried when he told me that I was like a father to him. I wanted to cry, too, but I didn't.

On Friday I had to tell him that he was going to be dropped from our program at the semester.

I don't want to, but we can't keep him. We have too many other kids waiting for a space and he's had a year to show some improvement. Even though his attendance is good, his academic progress has been negligible. And he's been suspended a bunch of times.

Maybe the time away will be good for him. He'll be able to continue the counseling and maybe losing his adopted home will be the push he needs to change.

I told him that he could reapply in a while and if we have room he can try again.

But maybe he'll just fade further away, disappearing into the forests of lost young men in Watts.

He's been in my thoughts and prayers since he started with us and he will stay in them when he leaves us. He and so many others of my kids seem to need an act of God to save them.

Maybe if the rest of you all could pray for him, too, it would help.

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