CYC-Online 94 NOVEMBER 2006
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SCHOOL practice

The kid underneath: Discovering hidden potential

Edna C. Olive

A youth who is transformed from a troublemaker to a model student offers his advice on what it takes to reclaim kids like himself.

The outside Will
The 14 year-old, ninth-grade boy was clearly struggling underneath the facade of droopy pants, huge bush hair style, nonchalant attitude, and a distinct sullenness obvious to everyone in the room. Will came to the school for troubled adolescent males largely due to his ultimate refusal to attend high school. The behavioral incidents, as his file called them, leading up to his refusal included poor attendance, walking the hallways of the school when he was in attendance, disregarding adult authority figures, declining academic performance record, and an unwilling adherence to the rules established by his home and school settings. His mother was rightfully concerned that he was becoming depressed, and she felt relatively powerless against her son's near-daily rejection of her suggestion that he attend his neighborhood high school.

As we sat with him in the conference room, even his best attempts to hide the true “Will” were inadequate. One could see the brightness in his eyes, the sheer intelligence of his mind, his light-hearted and extremely social nature, and the untapped potential to be someone greater than how he was acting at the moment. We all saw glimpses of the “inside kid.” It was this young man whom we enthusiastically accepted into our program with a promise to Mom to do our best in unearthing the “real Will.”

Will’s mother expressed her gratefulness, but her concern was that Will would simply refuse to attend this school as he had others. We told her and Will that we were up for the challenge and we would dc everything possible to make school a place Will wanted to attend.

Will unfolding
And attend he did. By the end of the school year, Will was coming to school regularly and had effectively integrated himself into the culture of our environment. He worked hard in his academic classes; volunteered to help adults in school programs; won regular academic, behavioral, attendance, and activity awards; and even became a regular tour guide whenever the school had visitors. But all of his turnaround was not without conflict. There were days when Will put on the front of the “outside kid” reminiscent of his earlier problems. He would walk the hallways of the school, join forces with other students who were acting out, and simply refuse to follow adult directions. We always knew that the true Will would return; it was just a matter of when.

Will’s refusal to attend classes or behavior of walking the halls was his way of communicating that he was upset. It became our mission to teach Will how to use words instead of inappropriate behavior to convey his emotions. We knew this was something Will could easily learn to do; it was just a matter of whether or not he would choose to practice what he learned.

Eventually the days of the “outside kid” grew fewer in number while the appearances of the “inside kid” became more frequent. We considered Will’s ninth grade year a success, and his mother was ecstatic that he had attended regularly. When asked how he felt about his progress that year, he responded that he felt okay about the school and his performance, but that he was not sure if he could maintain or improve upon what he had done. We ended the year with Will’s promise to try even harder during his tenth grade year, and we committed ourselves to continue digging for the Will who was now bubbling at the surface.

The next year brought more success, more academic improvement, improved social interactions, and near-perfect attendance. It would be an understatement to say that Will became a leader in the school – he was the epitome of leadership. He participated in practically every club we offered and suggested the development of clubs we did not have. He was an academic, a sportsman, a role model, and a huge support to the school’s overall functioning. When the community was present in the school, Will always volunteered to help organize and facilitate whatever the activity was. Will was a consistent, positive, and inspirational person to whom students and adults could look as the positive model of what could happen in our school.

The transition
It was explained to Will that, while we loved having him in the school, a larger, more diverse school could offer him experiences and resources we simply could not. We did our best to describe the school as having wonderful things, such as clubs, sports teams, scholarships for colleges, as well as many more adults who would respond to his needs. The young man inside Will knew that this was what he needed, but the kid who had come to us only two short years before fought against stepping out into the future. We assured his mom that we believed Will was not only ready, but that this transition was what he needed to become a successful young man in his school, at home, and in the community at large.

The last day of Will’s attendance was bittersweet. We fought back tears as we watched Will walk away from our doors for the final time. We had served him well, and it was time for him to practice all he had learned in a completely different environment. Keeping Will in our school would be like caging a butterfly in a cocoon long after it was ready to fly. He promised to keep in touch and to do his best to be successful in the school he had once refused to set foot in. In meetings with the professionals at Will’s neighborhood school, we assured them that Will was not the same young man they had so willingly released two years ago. Everyone in the meetings knew that it would be a matter of time before Will either rose to the occasion of demonstrating the depths of his potential or returned to the behaviors and attitudes of two years ago. After several months without any drastically negative reports from the school, we decided that Will had done what he promised he would do – he was finally ready to show the world the “inside kid.”

As his tenth year progressed, the professionals who worked with Will began to discover a simple fact; Will was ready to be transitioned back into the mainstream and allowing him to remain in our small, therapeutic school was no longer a service to him and possibly a hindrance. The day we called Will and his mother into the conference room to tell them both that Will was ready to leave us was an extremely trying day. We had begun to discuss transition with Will long before that day and, in every conversation, Will adamantly indicated that he was not ready to return to his large, comprehensive neighborhood high school, particularly when it was the school he had left due to his poor performance.

Potential realized
Two years passed quickly, and Will called to inform us that he was graduating as a National Honor Society student, had been the manager of the girl’s basketball team and a band member. He had done it! He was on his way to college to major in hospitality management, a most appropriate field for the young man who was highly poised with the general public.

We occasionally heard about Will and from all reports, he was doing well in college and was headed for a great career in hotel or restaurant management. I often imagined Will behind the desk of some four-star hotel or restaurant speaking with the guests and flashing his charming smile in ways that let you know you were in the presence of someone incredibly smart and ready to handle any challenge.

A Conversation with the Inside Kid
Two years passed and, out of the blue, I received a call from none other than the 20-year-old Will. Now he was a junior in college, a fraternity brother, member of the Hospitality and Management Club, restaurant management intern, and soon-to-be college graduate. I wondered if he knew how well he had done, and I leaped at the opportunity to ask him to what he attributed all of his success. In typical Will fashion, he made it clear that he was very aware of who he is and where he is headed. I asked Will to share his thoughts with me about what adults needed to know about helping to uncover the potential of young men and women.

Suggestions from the inside kid
The suggestions that follow are completely Will’s thoughts, and they reflect the level of insight many of our youth have if only those around them will support the unfolding of that awareness.

  1. Adults must be willing to talk with young people about what is going on with them currently and then talk with them about what the future can hold for them. Adults must believe that all youth have the potential to do well, even though many youth do not believe they have a future.

  2. Youth need someone to check in with them on a regular basis. Kids want to know that someone cares about how they are doing and that someone will always touch base with them.

  3. Youth sometimes need help in finding something they are really interested in. If they are unaware of what that is, adults can introduce them to some possibilities.

  4. It is important for young people to be aware of who they are. Many young people do not know their inner selves, and adults can help them get in touch with their greatness.

  5. Young people must have aspirations to greater goals. The drive to be great just may prevent youth from becoming “statistics” and encourage success.

  6. It is important for young people to understand the concept of perseverance. Adults have to support kids in knowing that they do have a future and teach them to stick with their goals even when things are tough for them.

  7. Young people need to understand which behaviors help them and which behaviors get in their way. Many young men and women do not understand their own self-defeating behaviors, and adults should help youth be aware of barriers that prevent them from realizing their goals.

  8. Family must be involved in supporting young people. Professionals have to be willing to solicit the support of any family member who is willing to hang in with the youth in challenging times.

  9. Adults must be willing to help young people get involved in something that is creative in nature such as art, music, sports, etc. That creative process may help the young person explore and discover who he or she really is.

  10. Spirituality is extremely important; it is absolutely necessary for any young person to be successful. Spirituality is the foundation of well-being. Many youth lack a sense of purpose or a connection with a higher being. Adults have to encourage youth to get in touch with their feelings about who they are and what they can become.

Final thoughts about the inside kid
It is now clear that “the awesome power of relationships” (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2005) had worked in Will’s life and that he was acutely aware of how the adults in his environment had supported him in uncovering his potential.

So many adults are unable to move beyond the behaviors of the “outside kid” and see who the “inside kid” really is, in other words, who the youth is at his or her core. Until we are able to look beneath the surface, we are unable to see a young person for who he or she truly is rather than the image presented to the world.

When the adults surrounding young people are able and willing to stand with them, there are endless possibilities for youth to realize their potential and contribute to others. In the words of Muhammad Ali:

"Very often great and beautiful things are difficult to discover. Gold is buried under layers of rock. Pearls are hidden in shells lying in the debris at the bottom of the ocean. We have to work to find them”. (Ali, 2005, p. x)

The professionals who were willing to work with Will certainly helped him discover the riches within him. How many other “Wills” are there in the world waiting to be revealed? It is our challenge to find that which is buried and well hidden. We are in the “unearthing potential” business, finding the greatness in all kids, no matter who they might be on any particular day.

Ali, M. (2005). In L. K. Brendtro, A. Ness, & M. Mitchell. No disposable kids. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (2005). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

This feature: Olive, E., C. (2005) The Kid Underneath: Discovering Hidden Potential. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol. 13 No 4 pp. 204–207.

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