I’ve spent the past month-or-so, in part processing the demise of my relationship with Zachariah. Zachariah, who I’ve blogged about previously, is an 11-year-old black boy who – while we were spending time together – was living with his brother and Great Grandmother (along with various other relatives) in a small apartment in South Central LA. We were paired up by a well-known mentoring organization that arranges for men and boys to spend time with one another on a regular basis.
Our relationship lasted just under 2 years. It was hard. Zach (not his real name) behaved poorly and tested me at every turn. I would come home after an outing – particularly towards the beginning of our relationship – exhausted and stressed out. I wondered why I was doing this with my time. Things eventually got easier, but by no means did the meltdowns and displays of disrespect end altogether. We’d have a good run, put together 2 or 3 weeks in a row where things would go tolerably well, only to have yet another burst of aberrant behavior.
These outbursts were to be expected, given the boy’s history. I was not told many details beyond that he had “suffered abuse” and been in the foster care system. He and his brother had been taken from their mother’s custody. Drug-use/abuse on her part was mentioned. It took a long time for him to trust me and he never stopped attempting to treat me like a piggy bank. I learned a lot about what a kid like him needs form a male adult and I had to push myself to play that role. I am not naturally a disciplinarian and I didn’t enjoy being one. None-the-less we had some pretty great times together. It was amazing being on hand to see him experience something new, something like deep-sea fishing or hiking or going to Disneyland.
Then one day he informed me he would be moving to go live with his mother again. In about 6 months time he said. She lives about a 3 hours drive away. No problem I thought, 6 months is a decent chunk of time. We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
A month later I called the Grandmother to make arrangements for the following weekend. “Oh, he and his brother moved.” She said. That was it. Relationship over. I asked for a phone number. It wasn’t forthcoming. I eventually got the number of the boys’ mother from the mentoring organization.
I called and left messages. Two, then three weeks passed.
A month later, I tried yet again and left another message. I explained that I at least wanted to say goodbye.
A half hour later I got a call back from the mother’s unfamiliar area code.
“I got a call from this number.” A woman says by way of non-introduction.
“Hello,” I explained why I was calling.
“Oh, I told the lady. He doesn’t want to talk to you.” What lady? What the hell is she talking about? Her words stung.
“Really? I wasn’t told that. I wanted to at least say goodbye.”
“He’s right here. He and his brother are playing a video game. They are just fine. He don’t need you. You can ask him yourself.”
This phone call was quickly becoming a nightmare. She put Zach on. His phone manner is terrible. It’s impossible to hold a conversation with him in the best of circumstances. There was a lot of ambient noise in the background; people shouting; the characteristic chaos of a household that includes children.
“Hi Zach. Just wanted to say goodbye and make sure you had my number in case you ever wanted to talk.”
“That’s what you called for?”
I hate it when he acts like a know-it-all. When he pretends to be cynical or world-weary. Those are unattractive qualities in an 11-year-old boy. If I am able to step back from it, I can make sense of it – that his dismissiveness and cynicism is an understandable emotional coping technique, but in the moment, boy was it pissing me off.
“Yeah, that’s why I called.”
“Oh I got your number, brah.” The little fucker said. The ‘brah’ got my blood boiling. I know him. He’s dismissing my sincere question. All the time I’ve put towards him. This. Us. All the money. And he is prepared to just flush it away like our relationship had meant nothing!? I was reeling. How had this gone so wrong? I was severely off-kilter and caught by surprise.
“Your Mom said… Are you not telling me something? Are you not telling me that you’d rather not see me any more?” I sputtered. The double negative was weird. Even I didn’t understand what I was asking. Clearly he’d hurt my feelings. But I was asking him to confirm that he meant to hurt my feelings? That doesn’t make sense. This is an 11-year-old boy.
“How dare you speak to my son that way!?” The mother is back on the line. She had heard some of or perhaps all of that last bit about not wanting to tell me something.
“What? What are you talking about?” I’m stumbling further.
“How dare you ask my son if there’s things he’s not telling you!” She shouts. She’s angry.
“Listen, I only want the best for you and your son. I want you guys to be happy.” I say. I am on my heels. I feel pathetic.
“Then don’t call this number again! My son don’t need you!”
The call ended shortly thereafter. I was left, sitting alone at my desk. Wondering what had just happened.
I am angry at this woman for the rest of the afternoon. She’s angry. The state or some other potent government force has separated her from her children in the past, but that doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’m trying to help her kid, God dammit!
I know a child is, by definition, innocent. I have to work at it, but eventually I forgive Zachariah. Once I work past the initial emotion I’m able to recognize that he has been a victim of abuse, perhaps physical abuse at the hands of this woman. If not physical, then clearly he’s being emotionally abused. This has been the pattern he has experienced again and again in the span of his short lifetime. He forms bonds with people and then they end. Suddenly. Without reason. Without conclusion.
I care about Zachariah. I was hoping I could stick around to see what his life turned into. He’s a smart kid with a lot of personality. I wanted him to beat the odds stacked against him. And now my part in this boy’s story is over; at least for now. Whether he likes it or not, he’s known me for roughly 15 to 20% of his life. Whether he likes it or not he won’t forget the times we spent together. Despite this situation, some of what I had to say, some of my implied optimism about what he could become if he sets his mind to it, has sunk in. I know it. I’m hoping for the best for you Zachariah. Go forth and prosper. No offense taken, little man.
Your mother on the other hand…
One thought on “Offense Taken”
Sparing myself the onslaught of anger, resentment and frustration from doing so, I will not elaborate much on my concurrence with your sentiments. Suffice it to say, I have been there… More than once. The worst case came in the form of granting employment to a shy, wary, untrusting single mother of four. Her experience with men in general had been an abusive one. And she very much saw everyone outside her specific demographic (single, young, black, female) as “the enemy”. Being a light skinned Jew and someone who spent much of his young adulthood surrounded more by the love and friendship of a diverse group of black peers, than anyone else… I didn’t dwell on her initial guardedness. I saw the intelligence and sweetness beneath. I felt that it was understandable, but that with some time she would see my genuine transparency and loyalty to her in the same way I treated everyone.
What I learned is that when the perception of bias and foundation of distrust is so overwhelming, the act of being treated as an EQUAL is taken as “disrespect”. In fact, no amount if special treatment, financial support, and leniency was enough to escape the disdainful scorn of this person I was trying to help. The other employees, most of whom ALSO happened to be young black single females, were put at a loss. They saw the advantage that was being taken of me, and they themselves felt the repercussions of our entire business being held pretty much hostage by my relentless attempts to quell this person’s animosity towards not only me, but the clients as well.
At this point it was strictly fear which motivated my persistence, as I knew that any rationale for termination of her employment would be happily taken on by any number of sleazy attorneys and wind up in the form of a demand letter.
In California at least, there need not be a real case for this to happen. Attorneys know that no one will spend $300,000.00 to prove their innocence and have the claim and lawsuit documented in public records, when I they could just give the claimant $100,000 to pay the attorney and STFU. Without it ever going further than your desk and theirs. Exploitation. Plain and simple.
Anyway, eventually I did have to let her go. And she did find a lawyer with no morals. It’s not that difficult after all.. And I suffered such an emotional and financial blow that I could not really get past the betrayal and ease with which one could inflict such malicious and thorough destruction…. Bite the hand that tried to feed them, in our society.
I eventually sold my business and left the profession. 30 years of training for a career which is based on sticking my neck out to help others, whether they be my employees of my patients… Yet this current judicial system places ME on the chopping block. But that’s a different harangue altogether. “A different story for a different day”….