Saturday, January 24, 2009

Little Joe and a String Attached

I write this Blog with a sense of inspired Honour. As most of you know my background is in social work and my formal education in all matters of social theory as well. This month I am going to tell you a story that has now come full circle.

One of my first jobs in social work was at a youth facility for troubled or hard to reach kids. This was front lines social work which can often get quite intense. I went into the world of social work with a mission that I was going to change the world. That is why I studied it, why I earned a degree in it, and my passion was why I picked up several scholarships along the way as well. My inner world view at the time was that everyone would get a fair shake from me. And as much as I told myself I was true to this mantra, the fact was it wasn’t true at all.

Little Joe was a “live-in” case in the toughest unit at the facility. No one liked him. I know I certainly didn’t. He was loud, prone to violent or verbal outbursts, obnoxious, dangerous, and he didn’t take care of himself very well, to the point where he smelled bad and would have to be told to clean up, just so we could tolerate him at meals or group sessions. Several times Little Joe would have to be physically restrained and usually for the most frivolous reasons. Anything could set him off. He had a mouth a sailor would envy and his favourite word was that “c” word, which I always found especially vile and offensive. And he would deliberately use it around me to provoke me, and engage me.

Truly, I didn’t like him that much.

The staff had come up with an idea that every time he used foul language he would have to do 20 push ups. Since every other word he uttered was foul, I saw no purpose in this. Truth be told I was right. All that practice did was give him attention for a behaviour we were trying to eliminate. I saw right through it, so I would not participate in it. Instead if he was talking to me and he used such language I would either walk away with no explanation or I would take immediate interest, again with no explanation, to another kid near by. Several times I would leave him in mid-sentence and walk into the office and shut the door. No explanation.

More often than not, he would pound on the door and yell and scream. ‘F--- You’ I hate you!” I would not respond. This kid had really got to me and everyone else. All the staff could talk about was when he would be gone out of there and be someone else’s problem, and how he was at least getting used to “institutionalization” since everyone knew this would be his life, no doubt about that.

The energy on every shift was always one of tension, and everyone attributed that to Little Joe.

One night I came to work on the night shift. All was quiet. That could only mean one thing. And yes, before I arrived Little Joe had to be restrained again and was locked in his room. Alright I thought, a quiet stress-free night for me. In fact it was so quiet I began going through the “good kids” files. There was seldom any time for that. On a lark and well, just plain old curiosity and since he was the topic of the evening, I decided to go through Little Joe’s history as well. As usual there was a common thread here.

Truth be known, for about half the kids I ever worked with in social work, it wasn’t the kids that needed institutionalization and structure, it was their parents.

Little Joe’s situation was more of the same. In fact there were all kinds of notes on what a good and normal and happy kid he had been up till his life changed through no control of his own. His acting out behaviours that landed him in the facility were actually not all that evil. In fact I had probably done worse growing up, and I never got in to the kind of trouble he did. But once in the system, his behaviour and demeanour just changed for the worse.

It got me to thinking. My job wasn’t to like him or not like him. My job also certainly wasn’t to “fix” him. That attitude always bothered me about the people who chose social work, who were doing it more to meet their own needs than any true commitment to the work at hand. It also became obvious to me that his situation seemed to always arise out of behaviours laid out for him that he was to abide in; and if he jumped through these hoops, he would be deemed successful, but if he didn’t, then he was a problem kid. It struck me just how intelligent he was underneath all of what he presented to everyone.

I changed my tactics with Little Joe. And even though I tried, I still did not like him, at all.

One night he started again with his vulgarity. But instead of reacting I had now been contemplating Little Joe for a while. I responded the only way that was possible at the time. I restrained him with help from other staff, and locked him in his room. However, what I didn’t do was record the event in the “incident” log. At the time the kids were allowed to read whatever was recorded in an “incidents log” if it was about them. They couldn’t read their file, but they could read an incidents log report so that all facts of the incident were in accord.

The next morning apparently Little Joe was even more shocked that I had not recorded the incident. He was reported to have said “F--- him, I hate him.” I know this because he was of course, reprimanded and punished for his disrespect. The next night I came to work, Little Joe decided to “up the ante”. He was even more belligerent and ready for violence than before. The pattern of physically restraining him and locking him in his room had to be repeated. From his room he yelled “F--- you, I hate you!” I remember saying back to him, “let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate”

But once again, I refused to file an incident report. This could of course land me in trouble as well. But I wouldn’t do it. I can’t even say that at the time I was smart enough to know why. It was just a hunch. The next night I worked he was even more hell-bent on a confrontation. This time I man-handled him, flung him in his room. He yelled from his floor, “F--- you, I hate you.” But something changed in him when he saw me turn around and instead of leaving the room; I locked the door, and faced him. I said to him, “you seem to really like violence. I can relate to that. You also like to think you don’t have to play by the rules, and I can relate to that as well. So here’s the deal, you can now react to me any way you want. You know I won’t file an incident report and now it’s just you and me. Make your move.”

He yelled “F--- you, I hate you.” I responded, “Let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate.” Before I left the room I paused and faced him so he knew leaving was my idea.

My next few shifts, Little Joe kept his distance from me. Not out of fear, that wasn’t his nature. But I think he knew I was on to his game, even though I certainly didn’t consciously know that myself. Some time later I found myself again on the night shift. Little Joe couldn’t sleep. He came downstairs and appropriately asked if he could sit up a while. I allowed it. I turned the television to the music video channel which was all the rage back then. I engaged him as to what was his favourite video. He would tell me. I asked him why. He would tell me. This started a constant engagement between us over the next few weeks.

You know, all of a sudden it occurred to me I didn’t notice that Little Joe had body odour. I don’t even recall it at all now, except that I read it in his file. I also realized that I didn’t, in fact, “not like him.” Were things changing, or was I changing? As usual in life, probably a little bit of both.

But I was supposed to be the professional. And as a professional I also found it ironic that a troubled youth could consistently dictate a mood and energy of tension in a house full of professional adults. It struck me how much personal power that really represented.

I started giving Little Joe modest assignments. And I would spend as much time engaging him on his work as he spent doing it. It was directly reciprocal. Then one night after Little Joe had had yet another outburst with a different staff member on a different shift, I engaged him in his agitated state with another assignment. I made it sound really important to take his mind off his outburst. I seemed to have his minimal trust at this point which wasn’t much, but it was certainly beyond the other staff members. Before I gave him the assignment I said to him, “there are only two rules, say what you mean, and mean what you say!”

Little Joe worked really hard on this written assignment. In fact he was gone so long and was so quiet we had to check on him to make sure he wasn’t up to something.

But, there he was writing feverishly. When he came and presented this assignment to me, there must have been 5 pages full of writing front and back. I took it in my hand. I looked up at him and said “Little Joe, did you say what mean, and mean what you say!” He replied, “oh yeah, just wait till you read it!” But I didn’t read it. I crumpled it up right in front of him and threw it in the garbage can. He looked at me stunned and howled, “F--- You, I hate you!” As usual I calmly reiterated, “let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate.” His reaction to this was to yell back the same profanity and I couldn’t blame him. I never got to make my point.


He didn’t speak to me for a couple of days. He didn’t speak to any staff actually. He was such a strong-willed kid. In fact he was starting to remind me of, well, me. I was waiting for him to engage me so I could rekindle that conversation. But he beat me to it. One afternoon, he came completely composed and peaceful into the office and asked, “why did you do that to my assignment, that I worked so hard on. I really wanted to know what you thought?” I told Little Joe, you know what Little Joe that is the point. The whole point of that assignment is to always “say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Don’t look for anyone else to tell you its right or wrong or good or bad. If you start everything you do with that sentence, it will lead you where you need to go.

I’m not sure Little Joe understood a word of it. Lord knows I deal with all kinds of intelligent adults who don’t get it. I’ve forgotten it myself several times over the years since then. Then I said to him, “When you say F--- You, I hate you", make sure that is what you mean to say, and say it if you mean it.” But also Little Joe, know that when I say “let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate;” that I also am meaning what I am saying, and saying what I mean.”

Suddenly it was like time stopped but also like it moved ahead to some other parallel universe. We seemed to be engaged in a real conversation. The conversation was about nothing, but oh it had such meaning attached to it. At the end of the conversation, Little Joe noticed that I had been playing with a piece of string. It seemed so inconsequential. I can only even recall it now, because of the significance it ended up having. Little Joe made a quip about the string I was wrapping and unwrapping around my finger as we talked. I unwrapped the string, held it up to him, and said “See this string Little Joe, it starts here, and ends here. Take this piece of string, wrap it around your finger or whatever and tell yourself, “it starts and ends with me.” Think about all the times you’ve been restrained or locked in your room. Look at the string and relate to the concept, “it starts and ends with me.” Think of all the times I had to come to your room and know that I also hold a piece of string and I also hold the notion that my interactions with you all start and end with me.”

Joe took the piece of string. He wore it instead like a bracelet. We never spoke of it again, but it was always there and it always meant something. I think in retrospect it seemed to represent the maturation of the both of us. I never had an issue with Little Joe again.

In fact going to work became lots of fun. We all did things together. The staff, the kids; it was all starting to mean something other than managing behaviour.

Then my contract expired. It was time to move on. Sometime over the next couple of weeks, when I was checking in at the front desk at the gym, there was a message for me. Everyone at the gym knew me of course. The girl at the front desk handed me one of those pink phone message slips, and told me, the “guy made me promise to hand it to you directly.” I unfolded the message and it said:

“I am going to say what I mean, and I mean every word. Thank you. I’ll never forget you. I will never lose my string bracelet.”

A couple of years later I got a Christmas card. It said “Scott, it’s Little Joe, I graduated high school, and I still have my string bracelet. Thank you, I will never forget you”

Several years later I had moved and was quite busy with my bodybuilding career. I had gone back just outside my home town to do a guest posing appearance and seminar. The local newspaper did a big article on me the day prior to it. The day after the event, while walking through the mall several people stopped and asked me for pictures. They had seen the article and recognized me. Several minutes later someone tapped me on the back. He said, “You are Scott Abel, I saw you in the paper last night, this is so cool.” Being a little full of myself and assuming he was just another fan, I was surprised when he asked, “do you remember me?” Indeed I did not. He then told me how he was one of the boys at the youth facility I worked at, and how I changed his life. He introduced me to his wife. She said “he’s been going on and on about you since he saw the article last night.” I was indeed very touched.

At that moment I started thinking about Little Joe and wondering about him. I remember hoping that he was all right as well.

Very few boys with such backgrounds turn out to be real men. I couldn’t picture a life for Little Joe of someone controlling for him, what time he went to bed, what time his lights went out, what he would eat and when. Such is the life of institutionalization. And it was what suffocated Little Joe even as a youth. His spirit would be too great to handle it as an adult. And then of course my mind went on to other things.

Not long after that, maybe a year or so, I got an email.

Dear Scott,
You used to call me Little Joe. I hope you still remember me. I now go by my full name, and he spelled it out. I just graduated University with honours, just like you. Thank you. I will never forget you. I still have my string bracelet.

And the truth remains I would never have remembered that piece of string or maybe even Little Joe had he not looked me up and reminded me of it so often, and the meaning it holds for him.

And then everything came full circle. This Christmas I heard yet again from Joseph. He no longer would refer to himself as Little Joe, not even in an email to me.

Dear Scott:

Its Joseph ..... I tracked you down from the internet. Great website by the way. I want you to know that I finished my MBA and am now doing well. My wife and I have a daughter, and we just had our first son. This is why I am writing you. We are going to give his first name David and his middle name Scott. I hope that is all right with you. I told you, I would never forget you, and thank you. But as for that piece of string, I have changed it. I now wear a small elastic band around my wrist as a bracelet. And although I still believe and have counted on all these years, “that it all starts and ends with me;” I also realize that people like you come along and stretch and expand us, so that “ME” keeps adapting and stretching and expanding always to new lengths before, like an elastic, it goes back to its original shape.

Thank you for stretching and expanding me. I will never forget you.

Yes; and the student becomes the teacher. It allowed me to recall the mentors in my own life. My academic advisor: And real mentors that never tried to fix me or change me. No. These mentors were beyond their own needs. What they did is enable me and stretch me to help me know and discover a much stronger me, than I knew existed. I am so grateful for them.

Little Joe, thank you man. You taught me to be a better teacher. I no longer judge people by files, emails, or other people’s accounts. None of that matters. I don’t coach people by rules, instructions and formulas. No. I coach “people.” And the truth is Little Joe stretched me as well.

I learned to no longer care what people think of me. That is life. Some people will like us, some will not. Some will attract, and some will attack. I am attacked practically every day on some website somewhere. It doesn’t faze me. The real lessons for me, that Little Joe taught me is that it is not who doesn’t like me that counts. That is just my ego and pride: But who I don’t like; Ah, there are lessons there. When I address why I don’t care for someone, usually at the bottom of that answer is something about me, not something about them.

And again, I stretch and grow as Little Joe puts it.

Mentorship is not about dominance and submission. It is instead about sincere commitment. And “it starts and ends with me.”

The truth was never in trying to change Little Joe or getting him to abide by some arbitrary house rules. The truth was in awakening his fighting spirit in a direction that served him, that he could count on, and he could grow from. In fact the truth was in mentoring what was already there, not changing it or fixing it.

Real work isn’t accomplished by trying to rescue someone or be their hero. The real work is done when a person, as an individual can say what they mean, mean what they say, know in their own heart, “it starts and ends with me.” The real work is when they become their own champion, their own hero. Helping anyone to find their inner map, and then find the strength to travel that territory that is revealed is all anyone can ever be to someone.

Sometimes a bird just needs to be told to trust his own wings, and fly.

Little Joe taught me the difference between reacting and responding. And he had to endure that journey in me first hand. That is unfortunate. He also showed me how strong people can take a mess and make it a message. And all these years later Little Joe also taught me to “treat every interaction like it matters!” You will never know what “strings” may be attached.

To Little Joe, I mean Joseph, let me say “Thank you. I will never forget you!”

Some of you will get, some of you will not.