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134 APRIL 2010
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Samel at the bat

Thom Garfat

Samel was ten years old when he became involved with us. He had lived in Canada since the age of five and, except for his compulsory attendance at school, he had remained isolated from this new and foreign culture and the other children in it.

He was delivered to, and picked up from, school by a mother even more isolated than himself. When she picked him up, he was immediately spirited home to his room or to the basement, where he would be expected to work on schoolwork until supper. After supper he was allowed to read but television was banned from the home. His contact with other youngsters was rigidly limited in the belief that contact with them would corrupt his values and draw him away from the family. His parents believed that such contact would invariably lead to a life of delinquency on the streets of the city.

At the age of eight, Samel began to run away from home. He was physically punished and his isolation was further increased. Now he was picked up for lunch as well. As the isolation increased, so did the running away. As the running away increased, so did the punishment. This cycle continued and intensified until finally Samel was placed in a residential treatment centre for troubled children.

This has been a totally new experience for Samel. Because of his previous isolation, he has few of the social skills normally associated with children of his age. His only model for social interaction, other than what he saw at school or church, is control and punishment and he brings this orientation into his interactions with staff and other children. He fights constantly with them and because of his aggression he is frequently isolated from them in the centre as well. He is recreating his family home.

Right now, Samel is on the playing grounds involved in a game of casual baseball with the other children and myself. Mostly Samel has just hung around the field seldom catching or chasing the ball. Now itís his turn to bat.

He takes the bat and stands at the plate as he has seen the other children do. Just before I am going to pitch the ball for him to hit, Samel turns to the child behind him at the plate and with the bat raised, threatens to hit him. I have to intervene but I want this to be more than just another experience of control, punishment and isolation.

Situation response
I have just realized something that I should have thought of before I started this game. Given his history, Samel probably has no idea about how to play baseball and probably even less of an idea about how to actually hit the ball when it is tossed to him. My best guess at this point is that the aggression welling up in him is either the result of frustration, fear or an attempt to hide the fact that he doesnít know what to do.

I yell at Samel to get his attention and move towards him. As I move Iím telling him that I need his help, that Iím just no good at what Iím doing. I guess that this approach was different enough to catch his attention. He lowers the bat and looks at me. I stop far enough away so that he will realize that I am not going to touch him.

While heís looking at me I tell the other kids to go on playing, that I need Samelís help for a little while but that I will be right there if they need me. I ask Samel to come to the side of the field with me and to help me. Heís suspicious but follows along.

When we are out of the hearing of the other children I tell Samel that I have noticed how many of them, those who were at bat before him, havenít been able to hit the ball and that I think it must be because Iím not throwing it to them properly. I ask him if he will help me practice. Iím nervous that he will see through my approach but if he does, he doesnít let on. Perhaps itís because it gives him a chance to save face. He agrees, but tells me he canít help for too long because he has to get back to the game. I thank him and we begin.

I throw the ball and he tries to hit it. Whenever he misses, I tell him that it must mean that I hadnít thrown it properly and I ask him to tell me how it would be better for him. He goes along with me and gets into it. Sometimes as I throw and he misses, he criticizes my throwing style. It takes a while but finally he hits one. He tells me that I am learning. After a while, when he misses, he will occasionally tell me that my throw was okay but that the problem was how he was swinging.

We practice until he hits the ball half the time. Gradually he gets better. And then we practice some more. Finally we go back to join the game and the others agree to let Samel have his turn at bat because he has been helping me.

He steps up to the plate and I can see the anxiety on his face. I let my own anxiety show. We are in this together. I throw the first ball and he swings and misses. I shake my head and wait for his criticism. It doesnít come. Instead, he just stands there waiting. I throw the ball again and he hits it and runs to first base. His face is aglow and he jumps around excitedly.

Later that night I hear him tell his mother about it on the phone. Tomorrow heís going to help me learn how to throw a ball so that he can catch it.

This feature: Garfat, T. (1993). Situations in Child and Youth Care: Samel the bat. Journal of Child and youth care, 8, 1. pp. 79-80

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