I work in a group home for children who have been removed from their homes usually due to abuse or severe neglect. My position, the graveyard shift, is relatively quiet and uneventful. I do laundry, clean bathrooms, make dinner for the next day, straighten and clean the house, file a variety of reports and correspondences, and help get kids off to school some mornings. The attachment counselors have a much more hands-on job which at times includes being kicked, scratched, spit on, yelled and sworn at, and most difficult of all–let in. The pain, confusion, and anger these kids have had to hang onto in their very young lives (our home is all preteen) is heart breaking. It’s difficult. And, it isn’t for everyone.
Today was the last day for one of our attachment counselors. The organization asks for a two year commitment (in part because two years is the normal length of stay for the kids) and for the most part staff stays for two years at least. The young man who left today however, had only been with us for six months. In saying good-bye to him tonight I got the impression he was struggling with a sense of having failed. He was concerned for the kids and how having another adult leave them would impact their progress in the program. He wants to be the kind of person who makes a difference in people’s lives and he is especially interested in children. Even so, this position and this young man didn’t fit.
My co-worker seemed disheartened. I got the feeling his “self-evaluation” was pretty negative as we talked and that he felt like a failure, maybe even a jerk. I wanted to take him up on my lap, much like I might if he were my eight-year old son, and rub his back and let him know he was valued. I wanted to tell him all the wonderful qualities I saw in him and remind him that we only fail when we refuse to learn from our experiences. But he isn’t my little boy and in fact I barely know him, though I have been impressed with what I’ve seen. So instead of cradling him I listened and tried to encourage him in the best ways I could. I reminded him that even though he was leaving he had been a safe adult for these kids and that too is something they haven’t had much of in their lives. The fact it that whoever replaces him will also be safe and so the children in our home will have the chance to see that most adults are safe and they can let other safe adults into their lives.
I don’t know if what I said to my co-worker was as clear to him as it is here but our conversation definitely caused me to think. We often measure success and failure by whether or not it “feels” good. If something feels good we stack it on the success pile. But, if it doesn’t feel good we immediately toss it on the failure heap. What I wished I had communicated to this young man was that I think he had not failed at all. In fact, I believe he has the opportunity to make his experience working with the kids in our group home an on going success because he can continue to allow it to inform how he works with kids in the future. Whether he becomes a lawyer, a child advocate, a teacher, a parent, a coach or simply a neighbor to some kids, he can use what he’s discovered both about kids and about himself and become a better person as a result. The only way he will have failed in the the job he had here is if he tries to forget about the last six months, if he refuses to think about these kids or about what they’ve taught him.
We are not failures when we feel badly about something or don’t perform every given task with instant excellence. In truth, when we are fortunate enough to achieve a goal immediately we may actually fail to learn some valuable coping skills and the strength producing benefits of perseverance. I hope I can learn to value the lessons which accompany my disappointments as well as my joys. And I hope, as I parent, teach, and engage with the world around me I will leave margins for others to learn in the same way.