Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stacked Deck

In a past life, I used to work with children who had been taken out of their homes for abuse or neglect. In my years of doing so, I heard three words over and over.

"That's not fair!"

Normally, my response was the same one that my father had taught me: "Well, life isn't fair." And I'd meant that in the same way my father had - that you shouldn't expect life to be fair, so make your peace with it. But one day, instead, I said "You're right. It isn't fair. Nothing about this is fair. You guys have gotten a really raw deal." Silence followed. "What?" I said, "It's not like I don't know why you're here." That became the start of a six or seven-way conversation about childhood. While we had a social worker for the unit, and the kids all went to therapy to talk about whatever circumstances had landed them in treatment, I don't know that they often had the chance to simply commiserate with one another over the crap hands that they'd been dealt. I told them about the kinds of things that I was doing when I was their age, and they told me, and each other, about the circumstances of their lives. It was a hours-long round of Misery Poker, where I always had the worst hand. Which was, really, as it should have been.

I was already inured to the horror stories that they would tell - you had to be, otherwise you simply couldn't manage. (It is, perhaps, one of the strange paradoxes of working with children under those conditions, being hard-hearted was almost a necessity.) But if I though that I was a misanthrope to begin with, I realized that people are always up to doing something to get you to dislike them even more.

While it's common for people to say that they learned some valuable lesson from the mouths of children, instead I simply came away with an appreciation for a simple fact that I already knew: Compared to these kids, and a lot of others, I'd hit the parenting jackpot. As much as I argued with my parents (sometimes, because the dysfunctional roles we played were so ingrained that forgetting the script bred suspicions) and as much as they had their flaws, they were really a great set of parents. And as far as the few children that had actually interacted with my parents were concerned, I'd been raised by a pair of real softies (although my own experience of them had been somewhat different). The difficult part was the realization that at a certain point in the future, it wasn't going to matter. Once they got to be a certain age, there was going to be no more sympathy, understanding or even concern. If the kids didn't rise above their pasts, those pasts would bring them down. I hadn't had to climb that same hill.

I didn't follow the children after I left that job. I needed to make a more or less clean break to decompress. And only by visiting regularly could I have kept up with any of them. But I do think about them from time to time, and wonder what life would have been like if I'd drawn the same hand that they had.

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