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CYC-Online Issue 135 MAY 2010 / BACK
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Jack’s guitar lesson

Gale Burford

Jack is sixteen years old and desperately wants to be the world's greatest rock star. He has visions of himself on stage strutting to the rhythm of a cheering mob of admirers. He can’t read, he can’t write. He doesn’t even own a guitar.

Every once in a while he borrows one from someone else, sits down in the corner and takes off to his own special fantasy land. While he smashes on the chords, he begins to sing his version of an old Beatles tune. The room empties before he reaches the second line. His peers have heard him before and his singing is painful to their ears. They–ve all told him to give it up but he knows they’re just jealous so he ignores their advice. At times he tries to join informal garage bands but they always shoo him away like an unwanted cat at the garbage can.

Jack has been living with this fantasy ever since, two and one-half years ago, his mother told him that his biological father was playing in a local band at the time they met. That’s when he decided to be a rock star. He thinks it will make his father proud of him and he’ll come into town to see Jack play. They–ve never met. His mother has no idea where his father lives.

Jack has never taken music lessons. In fact, he’s been advised against it by his school music teacher and everyone who has ever heard him express his angry loneliness on a guitar. Everyone agrees that he doesn’t have the ability to get any satisfaction from playing music. He seems to be tone deaf but it’s all he wants to do.

He won’t play sports; he has no real friends; he’s not interested in anything else. When people tell him he has to think about his future, he reminds them that he’s going to be a rock star, so he doesn’t have to worry about work, education or planning for tomorrow. All he wants to do is watch rock videos and dream about the future.

His mother agrees that he has no talent but she loves him. Once she bought him a guitar but he lost it on one of his escapades. Suspicion is that he sold it for drug money.

Last week, Jack asked the Child and Youth Care worker to get him money from the social service centre to get him a guitar so that he could take lessons. His mother has paid for lessons twice before and is refusing to do so again, and instructors have told her it was a waste of time and money. The money is available; all the worker has to do is apply for it. Jack says that if the worker doesn’t apply he doesn’t want to see her anymore because it will prove that she’s just like everyone else, that she’s got no faith in him.

This worker is the first one to have ever made significant contact with Jack. He’s developed more of a relationship with her than he has with any of the others who have tried to help. She believes that she’s getting somewhere with him. One part of her knows that Jack’s fantasy is unrealistic and thinks she has to tell him so; another part of her wants to support him in chasing his dream.

What should she do?

Situation response
As I approach Jack to discuss his request to be given a guitar, I experience some guilt about how unprepared I am for answering a question of this magnitude with him. I do not know why, or how he became involved with the program with which I am associated and I do not know why he came here in the first place. I do not even know the actual extent of his substance abuse involvement although his behaviour suggests a use of chemicals, perhaps even solvents, which has gone beyond experimentation. I do not know the nature of his “escapades” but they sound self-destructive. As I approach him, I feel a twinge of guilt for not knowing these things and for not having a clue about what overall plan my team mates and I are working towards. The glaring relationship, educational and other skill deficits suggest that his involvements with people like me have not thus far rendered measurable gains. I remind myself that by virtue of his age he could soon fall in the cracks between the child welfare, young offender and adult systems and be one more vulnerable and involuntary graduate of “the system.” Soon he will face a world where his deficits will most surely bring him into conflict with the law. By this time I am feeling quite apprehensive about not having an overall framework, or plan, against which I can consider Jack’s request, his behaviour around that request and his threat to lay his relationship with me on the line over the guitar. I cringe about having described my relationship with Jack to my peers as involving “significant contact” and as representing a more “developed ... relationship ... than he has had with any of the others who have tried to help” without having said what that involved. I wonder if I have overestimated his investment and feel anxious that I may not have sufficient leverage with him at this point for our relationship to both withstand his test and to parlay this initiation of his into a purposeful set of activities in the time we have left. As I make my final approach, I consider that his mother is still in the picture and says that she loves him. She has demonstrated a willingness to support his goals before, and despite the confusion about whether he has ever had any guitar lessons before or not, from her point of view simply giving him the resources did not work out. I remind myself that she will be his mother long after I am out of the picture. As I approach the hall where Jack’s room is located, I remind myself that wanting to find out about a missing father is really quite “normal” and given all the other avenues into trying on identities which this young man does not have going for him at the moment, I decide to exploit this one.

I divert my path into the nearest office and call his mother with the sketch of a plan. She agrees and even volunteers a way of presenting it to Jack. I emerge from the office and approach Jack’s door. After one knock, Jack opens the door and angrily demands: “Do I get the guitar or not?” I take a deep breath, dig in for a siege, set my jaw and say in my most confident tone: “Your mother wants you to have a guitar if you will earn half the money. I said I would help you find a way to do that if you want me to. When you have your half she will authorize me to get the other half. But there is a condition.” Jack is silent but subdued. I breathe and say, “Well, do you want to know what the condition is?” Jack says, “What?” and his tone is less angry. “You have to help your mother and I figure out some other ways to find out what a guy your age needs to know about his dad.” If he asks what the easier and other ways are, I am ready for him: number one on my Easier List is “Easier on my eardrums.”

Burford, G. (1992). Situations: Jack’s guitar lesson. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 7, 1. pp. 79-81.


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