Monday morning, and I’m caught sitting behind the wheel of my car: part of the early morning rush of commuters. I look around at the other drivers who, like me, seem to be trying to shake off the lethargy of the weekend. There is shock and irritation in their faces. Clark Drive, another red light and more precious minutes of my finely tuned schedule ticking away. Impatiently, I look around and see the city to the west, the outline of condominiums and office buildings stretching towards the skyline. Vancouver, postcard-perfect city by the sea, a haven for tourists and prairie transplants like myself. My early morning rumination is interrupted by the movement of traffic ahead: I drive towards the mountains, snow-capped Grouse Mountain directly ahead of me, looking gigantic and immutable, a towering monolith in a rapidly changing city.
Approaching the school and conscious of the need to slow my hurried speed, I pass several children playing in the softly falling rain: thin waifs with large smiles. I ease my car into a parking spot on the street. The car ahead of mine comes into view. It is the one with the trashed interior and the expired Alberta licence plates that hasn’t moved for weeks (a grim reminder of the rising vandalism and crime rate in this area). I get out, open the trunk and place my tape case inside, hidden from wandering intruders. My walk into the school is interrupted briefly by greetings and hugs from a brown-eyed child playing side by side with a blue-eyed boy with damp shock-red hair framing his pale face. I muse: The world could learn something from the Inner City human kaleidoscope.
I stop and talk to a parent waiting with her two children outside the door for the bell to ring. We talk about the latest developments in the Gulf War, a running dialogue that has become a daily ritual between us: one more attempt on our parts to make some sense of a seemingly senseless situation. Sounds of voices in the staffroom spill out into the empty hallways: the early morning camaraderie of teachers gearing themselves up for another demanding week. My day officially begins when a concerned teacher takes me aside in the staffroom before the morning bell to express her concern about a seven-year-old girl in her class who lately appears depressed. We talk for a while about her behaviour and then wonder about the possibility of problems at home. I tell the teacher that I will talk to Jamie, as well as to Trent, a younger sibling in kindergarten. I hope that Jamie’s aunt will be in the parents” coffee group this morning, since she keeps a close check on what’s happening in this particular household.
The coffee room is buzzing with an atmosphere of suppressed emotion: revisiting leftovers from the weekend. These are highly coveted minutes of hard-won freedom from children, boyfriends and husbands. Only occasionally does a father brave the invisible female coalition for conversation and coffee. The neighbourhood assistant, with her perennial patience, is listening to two conversations at once, as well as cutting out shapes for a craft project.
After making the round of greetings, I sit down beside Jamie’s aunt and start playing with her 10-month-old who is becoming more determined by the day to stand on his own. The conversation gradually turns to Pat’s niece and nephew. I relay my conversation with the teacher to her. We begin to talk about the situation in the household, and eventually Pat tells me that things are falling apart. Apparently Jamie and Trent had moved in with their natural father over the weekend because their mother had returned to heavy drinking. Pat tells me that she is very concerned about her sister. It appears to have reached the point where her sister has lost her job and that is something that’s never happened before. I ask Pat if she thinks the children are safe with the father, intentionally not defining the word “safe." By the knowing look on her face and her definite affirmative reply, she tells me that she knows what I’m asking in my question. We talk about the frustration and pain involved in dealing with an alcoholic. Pat, herself a recovering alcoholic, talks about the fine line between supporting and enabling a recovering alcoholic for the past four years. As I look into her young face and remember some of her struggles over the past two years I think of how much I’ve learned by being able to share some of her courageous journey. The group gets into a discussion about teenagers and some of the women reflect on personal experiences while growing up in their families. Reluctantly I pull away and go to talk to Trent.
Together we retreat from the noisy classroom into the quiet of my small room. I reintroduce him to my “friend" Buster, an out-sized stuffed white bear. Buster and this room are familiar to Trent: we've spent time together before. Without further delay we begin colouring and occasionally talking. I try not to impose my adult need to talk on his concrete way of communicating. He draws a picture of a warrior-like person with what appears to be a gun in hand, shooting at a much larger shape. I ask him about the warrior. He tells me that It Is “a guy who’s very mad" and “is going to shoot and smash the monster." I ask what the monster is doing, and he tells me that it is “drinking up all the beer." He then goes onto talk about being back with his dad and missing his mom. I utilize Buster who “talks" through me to Trent about how children feel when parents drink and how they sometimes feel responsible. I tell Trent that I am going to be talking to his mom to see if can get her some help. I also remind him of how much she cares about him, even though it may be hard for her to show it right now. We end by talking about the people to whom he can turn for support.
My conversation with Jamie is more direct. We start by “taking our temperature" on my “feelings thermometer" on the wall. She tells me that she’s feeling “very sad" today and is way down in the blue part of the “thermometer." After this revelation she begins talking about her feelings and about the current situation. In her “wise child/woman" way while holding Buster and rocking back and forth on the big rocking chair in the corner, she talks freely about being scared for her mother and worried about what’s going to happen to her. She talks about wondering with whom they will end up living. We talk about her feelings and questions as being normal and about sources of support. I let her know that I’m to try to support her mom to get some help. We also talk about her going long-standlng open invitation to come and see Buster any time. Before she leaves she looks at me with eyes full of resignation beyond her years, and gives me a hug. My heart breaks...
I dial the mother’s phone number and am greeted by a metallic sounding voice saying “this number is no longer in service–" After I hang up I call the father and introduce myself. We talk for a while; I tell him about my discussions with Jamie and Trent, of their fears and their need for reassurance. He agrees to keep me posted and to call me if I can be of any help. I locate the address of Jamle’s mother (Deidre) from the index file and ask the Native support worker to accompany me on a home visit.
After informing the principal and the secretary of our plan, we set off for Jamie’s mother’s apartment. At the door we buzz the intercom, and get no response. We try again and after the third attempt, buzz another parent in the building who lets us enter. We knock on Jamie’s mother’s door. After a few minutes a voice behind the door hesitantly asks “Who’s there?" I recognize her voice, call her by name, and identify myself. She initially opens the door a few inches and then slowly opens it wider. She apologizes for being in her housecoat. She smiles briefly in response to my comment about the fact that I also would have preferred to stay in bed today. I explain our concern at not being able to contact her by phone. I ask her if we can come back another time to talk and suggest that she could phone me. Instead she invites us in, dismissing our insistence that we have no wish to intrude. She makes room for us on the couch and we sit down. I feel awkward at first, conscious of entering another person's private domain. The support worker and I begin to talk, trying to keep the conversation simple and concrete, aware of Deidre’s vulnerable state.
In a short while, Deidre breaks down and sobs, talking about the loss of her job and about her fears of not being able to quit drinking. We listen and we offer support. There is a natural silence, a breathing time. I’m aware of a slowly building inner anxiety and frustration that makes me want to rush in with solutions. I restrain myself and re-think about the difference between serving my agenda and Deidre’s pressing needs. Many tears and silences later the conversation begins to shift to the possibility of Deidre wanting to seek help. She talks about being receptive to the idea of going to see a local Native substance abuse counsellor. I offer to arrange the referral and to support her in getting to an appointment. We end by talking about what her children need to hear from her when she sees them and about the temptation to drink during today and tomorrow.
We leave with many doubts and questions in our minds: will Deidre be here tomorrow when the time comes to go to the appointment? Is she ready to quit? We remind ourselves that we've never progressed this far before. “One step at a time."
We arrive back at school in time to make a lunchtime meeting of the local Area Services Team. Sheepishly, I think to myself, if only human problems could keep on schedule. At the team meeting a local provincial politician is discussing the possibility of undertaking an assessment of community needs. Eventually, the agenda becomes open for discussion about various school issues. I speak of the need to build a support system into social housing projects. With a mental picture of some particular projects I’ve visited in the past (where trashed interiors and used needles and condoms in the underground parkades were the norm), I go on to suggest that perhaps it’s too much to expect to build housing and imagine inhabitants who are in many cases severely lacking in daily skills to survive and thrive. I attempt to draw an analogy between the Parliament Buildings and expecting democracy to occur just because the building has been designated as being judicial. The analogy becomes too abstract, even for me. My face red, I am thankfully rescued by a colleague. (When am I ever going to learn to keep focussed with these discussions, I silently muse.)
The remainder of the afternoon is divided between managing a behaviour-oriented crisis with a Grade 2 student and teaching a conflict resolution and anger management class with the Grade 3/4 class. Four o–clock rolls around and I’m talking to the neighbourhood assistant about a socially-oriented project we plan to do together. The school is once again semi-quiet, and most of the staff have “called it a day." I finish up some last minute report writing and think of my standard “words of wisdom" to my practicum students about the need to be able to establish personal boundaries (all in the interest of avoiding occupational burnout!). I invariably end by saying, “the more you do here, the more there is left to do."
Driving away from the school I find myself once again looking at the mountains, somewhat subdued and distant in the soft evening light. Taking a deep breath, I silently push away thoughts of unfinished work. After all, tomorrow is another day...
The author would like to recognise Larry Haberlin for his support and encouragement in the preparation of this article.
This feature: Chrest, S. One day in the life of an inner-city school-based child and youth care worker. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol.6 No.2, pp.11-15