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122 APRIL 2009
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MOMENTS WITH YOUTH

Something is amiss

Mark Krueger

It’s Saturday afternoon in the “community” coffee shop. The place is crowded. I am writing and using the free Wi Fi. A group of three kids, around 8 or 9 in age, are near the water cooler next to the counter with the accoutrements for coffee and bagels. This is not unusual. Often children come here with their parents. These kids, however, are unsupervised. They have been running in between the tables and filling their cups of water with sugar.

Something else is amiss. Over by the door three bigger kids, all hooded, maybe 11 or 12 in age are trying and failing to look inconspicuous. One of the big kids saunters over to the water cooler, while another circles around on the other side of the room, and the third stands by the door. A glass of water is spilled behind my back where the three little kids are sitting. A young woman comes out with a mop and treats it as if it was an accident.

“Sorry,” one boy says, sounding a little too polite.
"Don’t worry, it’s only water.”
The other little boys smirk. The bigger youth quietly step back to the door, wait.
“There’s another spill over here.” I point to a spot by the water cooler.

The big boys begin to circle again and meet at the water cooler. The little boys move to the rear of the coffee shop. When the big boys step back toward the door, they come forward to the water cooler again. This routine is repeated 2 or 3 times, each time the limits tested. Eventually all of the youth end up by the water cooler, acting like legitimate customers just fixing up their drinks.

The littlest one begins to provoke the biggest one by saying something I can’t understand. He’s in the big kids face, as they say. His courage is admirable, but he is about to get the “you know what” kicked out of him. The young woman comes over and tries to clam things down with a cool head, but you can tell she is uneasy. I store my computer, walk over, and in a firm, still friendly voice say, “What’s up, guys?”

"Nothing,” one of the boys says sheepishly, as if to “put me on.”

Just then the little one lunges for the bigger one. Fortunately I can stop him simply by putting my arm out and firmly pushing him back. He does a few “your mamas” and then begins to shout how these bigger kids were picking on them in the park across the street. I am reminded immediately of my days in residential treatment.

Meanwhile another man has gotten up and says, “Let’s take this outside and talk.”
"Good idea,” I say.
"I’m not going outside with them,” one of the quieter little boys says.
One of the bigger kids punches air.
"I'll take these three outside” the man says, selecting a good strategy to diffuse the situation.
"I'll stay here and talk to these three.”
The leader of the big group “disses” (stares) down the little rivals.

The other man, cool and collected, keeps moving them with body language out the front door. I wonder if he is a youth worker. He has good technique, and timing. The bigger kids give him a little heat, but he doesn’t overreact and manages to get the three of them to go outside with him.

For a moment the little ones break away and start shouting at them in the hallway inside the front door. Stay between the two groups I remind myself. I bring them back in and have them sit with me by the counter that looks out onto the street.

“Where are you boys from?”
“Chicago.”
“What happened?”
“They started beating on us in the park.”
“Why?”
“Because he said something.” He looks at the littlest member of the group.
"You have to stop provoking them or you’re going to get hurt.”
“So, I can hurt him too!”

Once again I can not help but admire him for standing up for himself; yet at the same time feel sad that at such a young age he has become so aggressive. Meanwhile the older boys have gotten on their bikes and are headed back to the park.
“Where are your parents?” I ask.
“They're coming to get us – there they are,” one boy points at a disheveled rather young and overweight woman, and an equally disheveled thin man, perhaps a few years older. High on something perhaps, they look very disinterested as the young boys run outside and they walk off together.

The other man comes back in and we chat for a while. He is not a youth worker, just a student who felt he should have stepped in. “They need some supervision,” I say.
"Yeah, lots of supervision,” he says.
I thank him and say, “I wish more people were like you.”
"It’s the only way were going to solve this problem. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

I agree and sit back down to write this story for my column, saddened by the condition of the boys' parents, and the lives they must live. I am also reminded of the importance of proximity (a technique introduced years ago by Fritz Redl and David Wineman for working with aggressive youth). I am glad I was in the coffee shop with another man who “got it.” Just as I am hopeful that President Obama gets it about education and care for kids. This could have been a much “bigger fiasco,” as we used to say when we “came down” together after a shift. In hindsight, I probably should have stepped in earlier. I’m getting a little rusty.

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