Written by Alexis Boucher
*Names have been changed to maintain privacy*
When I was job hunting last year, the last place I expected to end up was at an after-school program as a tutor. After working there for a whole semester, I hardly thought to continue working with children. For most of my post-puberty life, I have been fervently against having kids of my own, and have even described myself as someone who dislikes kids that aren’t in my family. Despite all of this, though, I spent the entirety of the summer of 2018 in charge of over twenty K-2 children.
According to YMCA policy, for every fifteen children, one adult must be present. For me, that means that a group of over fifteen students should require two counselors. However, that’s not the case. So, I was alone in watching and instructing the K-2 group, which, on a good day, felt overwhelming. On a bad day, it felt impossible. However, by the end of the summer, I had bonded with my kids in a way that changed my whole world view.
I don’t believe that any of the kids were “bad kids,” but the YMCA where I worked was in a rougher, low-income area. Many of the kids had trouble listening and following directions. For a first-time camp counselor on her own, I was being thrown in the deep end.
One of my favorite kids, Jason, had behavior problems nearly every day. From not sitting down during breakfast to fighting with other kids. By the end of the summer, he and I had a running joke where he’d run up and give me a hug every morning and I would ask, “Are we going to have a good day today?”
“Are you lying to me?”
Another nod, smiling the whole time.
As much grief as he gave me, throughout the three months of working with him he became my buddy and I would do everything in my power to keep from sending him to the office. When we would line up, he was allowed to hold my hand to wherever we were going. If he started acting out, I would pull him aside before calling my supervisor and try to calm him down. I also made note of the kids that would pick on him to get him riled up. Once I started making these extra efforts, he began to trust me a little more. Sometimes he would come up to me before a problem happened and let me know so that I could correct the issue. Unfortunately, I still had to send him out often, but by the end of the summer it happened less frequently and we both felt bad about it when it did happen.
If Jason was my biggest success in connecting with my kids, Ali was my biggest failure. It was obvious that he had some developmental delays; whether there was an official diagnosis regarding it I have no idea. For the most part, he was nonverbal and would mostly communicate by pointing or saying “no.” Sometimes he would take off running and I couldn’t follow him because I had to stay with the rest of my kids. He was one of the biggest challenges I had all summer because, unlike Justin, he wasn’t interested in talking to me.
Sadly, he was expelled from the program ⅔ of the way through the summer. The last interaction I remember having with him involved a fight that broke out between him and one of the girls in the group. One of his biggest challenges was his tendency to react violently when provoked. This time, he was chasing her around the room before I grabbed him and spun him around to face me. He immediately raised his fist, the universal sign of, “I’m going to punch you in the face.” In a split second, I went through every frustrated emotion that can be experienced when faced with the realization that a seven-year-old is about to give you a black eye. To my credit, I was able to keep from showing my initial anger and held tight onto his waist so he couldn’t take off again. “Ali, you are not going to hit me.”
Every child in that room held their breath waiting for him to hit me, but I didn’t take my eyes off of his. Slowly, he lowered his fist and I was able to get him to sit and wait for our site supervisor. While I’m sure that I would have experienced some personal growth if Ali had hit me and I was able to keep my lid from popping, but I’m grateful that whatever deity is watching out for me didn’t feel the need to test me that day.
Throughout all of this, I was coming home every day frustrated and tired. I would fall into a kitchen chair and yell about my disaster of a day to my mom, who would listen and occasionally interject with a story from the nursing home where she worked. Then, I would collapse into bed and take a two-hour nap before dinner. Every day I thought about quitting, but I was going to study abroad in the fall and needed the money. Plus, as the summer dragged on, I realized quitting would only harm the kids and other counselors.
One of the toughest nuts to crack was Jack. He was the kind of kid who would follow directions perfectly if he felt like it; but, he never felt like it. I tried not to take it personally, and most days I succeeded. Overall, our relationship was contentious; he would constantly test the boundaries of what he could get away with, and I would constantly correct him. However, in my last month of working with them, I managed to break through.
I made a habit of reading to the kids almost every day and, once a week, I would bring in a book from my set of ValueTales that I was read when I was their age. The books teach important values using historical figures’ biographical stories. Since almost all of my group were young black kids, I made sure to bring in as many of the stories about people of color as I could so they would be able to see the stories about people just like them. One day, I brought in the story of Jackie Robinson, and Jack lit up immediately. I had never seen him so engaged in our story time. He would stop me to ask questions, and whispered excitedly to his friends when we got to Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. When the story was over, he came up to me while everyone else was playing with the toys and asked if he could look through the book. As it turned out, Jack loved baseball and was interested in the story because he wanted to play professionally when he grew up. I was touched and when I went home, I found pictures and quotes from Jackie Robinson to show him the next day. It felt great to be on the same page as him for once.
On the last day of camp, Jack came up to me with a note. In his scrawled handwriting, it read: “to mis Gummy thAnk you for All the thIngs thAt you DiD for All the thIngs.”
For the first time that summer, I walked out to my car and cried, not because I was stressed or angry, but because I was sad to go.