A conundrum, a decision inevitable…

Memory: 1973 Beginning of December.  There we all are; sixteen grade nine and ten adolescent boys and me, their very green art teacher. Rocky, Joe, Moose, Pipsqueak, Mark and Matt are the ones that I have clearer remembrance of. Rocky, for sure I will never forget – he pulled a switchblade on me when I asked him to take his feet from the desk. “Make me!” he said with a snide smirk. Joe is indelibly firmed in my memory. After he was kicked out of school for truancy, he came by my classroom every afternoon, knocked on the ground level window and handed in all kinds of interesting junk he had dumpster dived for. He appreciated the fact we had few materials to work with, so these were strange tokens for his feeling of comfort and belonging in this motley group of juvenile delinquents in a special art class.

“Joe, this stuff better not be stolen,” I cautioned him through the window, as the other boys dragged in and pawed through bits of tangled wire, a length of barbed wire and miscellaneous interesting rusted gizmos of a mechanical nature.

Mark and Matt were brothers, one year apart in age. They had been wards of the government since the age of five and six, and had been moved from one foster home to another. They were tall, thin, white haired, blue eyed ghostly wraiths. Their skin was almost transparent and they moved very slowly as if operating in an unfamiliar ether. They said little as they took up whatever I proposed by way of experimentation in class and gamely carried on explorations as if fascinated by the materials and what they could make with them.

I wondered how these boys would respond to colour, selecting, mixing, expressing reactions to them. I had been reading Johanness Itten’s The Art of Colour and was fascinated by the colour exercises he had given students at the Bauhaus. It occurred to me that perhaps for these boys an exercise where they selected colours they individually found attractive and explored through colour mixing to arrive at personally satisfying pallettes might give them something of a  meaningful discovery.  I was somewhat doubtful that these rough and tumble, somewhat resistant fellows would respond to this exercise, but they took to it as if there was nothing else they would rather do. They were so excited by discovering hue mixtures from the combination of two or three colours, by the addition of black or white or grey, and most especially by having to ask of themselves if the colours they invented were to their own taste. The key reminder for them was, “If the colour you have mixed is yummy and delights you, and you are convinced it is a colour you would love to have around you, then use it – put it into a square.” They were so excited; silent for long periods of time as they mixed like studious alchemists, at other times callling out with great excitement “Hey look what I found!” They talked to each other about how they arrived at some curious combinations, why they were or were not to their taste and what colours reminded them of.

Joe, who during this project skipped out of most of his other classes, arrived on time and handed out materials and equipment. The boys cleaned up as if the art room was an operating theatre. They relaxed around me and talked freely amongst themselves. I listened and watched and marvelled at how engaged and at home they seemd to be. Discipline problems arising were quickly resolved, they monitored each other’s behaviour toward me. Even Rocky, who had pulled the switchblade on me at the beginning of the year behaved as if he cared about what went on in the room and stopped challenging.

Shortly after the beginning of November, after the boys completed their colour exercises and pinned them in prominent spots in the class room, Mark stopped coming to class. When Matt was asked if his brother was ill, he said Mark ran away from the foster home where they were living. But where did he go to? Someone else’s house, maybe to a friend’s? “We have no friends,” said Matt. “He ran off into the bush.” He was reluctant to provide further detail.

I could not wrap my mind around how he could possibly survive in the bush. It was cold. There was snow on the ground. How did he keep warm, what did he eat and drink? Daily I bugged Matt for details. He withdrew from me after announcing he was helping Mark by sneaking him food and blankets while he was supposed to be doing barn chores. I talked with the principal and counselor, wanting to know what was going on in these boys’ situation. Kept bugging Matt. Three weeks went by and then Matt also stopped coming to class. Boys did not just disappear into thin air, in my limited experience. The other boys in class seemed to know more than any of us adults in school did. They said Matt also ran away from home, but the two were managing. Managing? How the hell could anyone manage in sub-zero weather living rough? I pestered those poor kids in the class room.

Then, in the first week of December, Mark and Matt showed up in class and resumed as if they had never been gone for so long. They looked shaggy and even more translucent and frightfully thin. I did not dare question them about how they had got along, just simply said it was a relief to see them again.

The following week, Mr. V., the principal called me,  from my prep-break, on the staff-room blower. “We need to discuss some students at a meeting in my office, right now.”  I had been running off some drawing assignment work-sheets on the Gestetner, and my fingers were nicely purplish-blue, there was no time to clean them completely, so I nipped over to Mr. V’s office with my hands in my pockets.

He and Mike P. the counselor were there, and also a man who didn’t belong on staff, a complete stranger. As Mr. V. did the introductions, this fellow held out his hand for a shake. I presented him my bluish hand along with an explanation and apology for its unladylike appearance. We sat, the stranger, a social worker from the local Government office brought up the sublect of Mark and Matt. He explained the circumstances of their difficulties within the current foster home from where they had run away. He related how the boys now were in a temporary foster home, but didn’t want to go to any of the available foster homes, where they had previously been. They asked to  be  fostered out for a long term, that they would prefer that to any more temporary fostering situations. They had named me as the person they would like to foster them. The social worker thought that it was proper for him to give a rundown on their difficulites in the past, meet me and seek my interest  in involving myself before embarking on all the record checking required of foster parents. He asked how I felt about the situation.

I was flabbergasted. How could a twenty-seven year old single mother with one child under five have the wisdom and wherewithal to presume to sensibly parent two midteen boys who had a history of being moved from one foster home to the next? I posed that question to the social worker. In response, he said there was ample help available locally for foster parents to deal with issues with children. As well, he pointed out that the boys were motivated to have the situation work for them, that they made a choice based on what they obseved about me as their teacher, that they had already expressed a degree of trust roward me.  Would I at least think it over for the next week, and then let him know my decision. He then left me with Mr.V. and Mike P.

I was completely stunned and went through a series of reasonings with these two very sensible cohorts. They listened, posed questions for me to consider in arriving at a decision, and said to not feel pressured one way or the other, that whatever choice I eventually made would be the correct one in the circumstances. Mr. V., father to two boys of that age group, said I could always rely on him and his wife for the necessary support if I chose to foster Matt and Mark.

I went back to the staff-room Gestetner machine and continued running off work-sheets in a daze. The rest of the school day, I looked at my pubertal charges with curiosity – how would it be like to be mother to any of them.  I had not had any experience in parenting a child beyond four years of age, even then there were mistakes I was making, no doubt, but then the process of growing as parent along with a growing child laid a foundation of experience with that individual child’s perceived needs, capacities to allow for more confidence in being his caretaker as he reached his teens.

In the end, after a week of considering possibilities, I arrived at the conclusion that at my particular stage of life, I had not the wisdom, experience, knowledge, confidence nor emotional strength and resilience to be of adequate service to these boys. They needed careful, patient affection; intelligent decisions about the limits to their behaviour and to their increasing needs for autonomy. No matter how much I wished to have an illusion of capacity for care and competence, these boys did not need me to practice with their lives. So, one afternoon, I went to Mr. V’s office and told him my decision would have to be a no. Mike P. called the boys to his office, and I told them with difficulty how I had arrived at a decision to say no to their request. Then I called the social worker, and gave him the news. He didn’t seem surprised, but thanked me for my honest evaluation of the situation.

Mark and Matt continued on in my class room until Easter. They didn’t seem to hold my decision against me. After Easter, they no longer attended my school. They were fostered with a family in another northern town. I never saw them again.

I think of them often. This year they would be forty-eight and forty-nine years old. They were so close and supportive to each other as boys. Maybe they live near other still, have families of white-haired children of their own.

That was my conundrum, with an inevitable decision. I still believe it was the right one under the circumstances; yet I can’t help wondering how life has been for Mark and Matt.

7 Responses to “A conundrum, a decision inevitable…”

  1. mariacristina Says:

    G, I was riveted to my computer screen, reading this tale. Heartwrenching. You must have been an angelic presence to the boys, at your youthful 27 years. What a hard decision to make at such a young age.

    I also loved the description of your art classes. I would have loved your class.

    The blue hands brings back memories – I’ve had that memeograph fluid all over my hands too.

    I’m still feeling your story. I’ll probably start wondering about these “boys” now along with you.

  2. tugster Says:

    teachers find themselves thrust into these roles. i still find that rewarding after stepping into my first classroom 34 years ago. on the other 2 continents besides north america i found this also.

    gestetner!@#@! now that’s a term i’ve not heard of in decades!!

  3. Nita Says:

    wow, that was a very good read! You are a very talented writer! The story too was heart-wrenching as christine said. but your decision was right. one cannot take on the burden of the world…the fact that you felt so deeply is a great thing.

  4. lasmeninas Says:

    beautiful story indeed, and marvellous piece of writing. I particularly enjoyed the piece were you describe the way the boys worked with colour in your art class. Superb. Thank you for this.

  5. the individual voice Says:

    You must have been such a gifted teacher for the boys to choose you. It sounds like you made the right decision, but just having been with the boys for as long as you were in the capacity you were likely made a huge difference in their lives. They carried their period of relating to you, I am sure, in their hearts.

  6. suburbanlife Says:

    Christine – I was hardly an angelic one – could swear like a trooper, for such a middle-class girl, and may have been somewhat fool-hardy in dealing with those boys. But they responded to a tough warmth in a rather courtly way for such tough guys.
    By the way, I remember being with this class when we played around with silk-screening stuff and discovered we could use gestetner stencils for silk-screen stencils. Was that a fun discovery! That blue-purple dye was a colour like the woad the early Celts must have used to colour themselves blue? G

    Tugster- Will – I’m sure you have had many similar such encounters and opportunities as a teacher on several continents. People are much the same, no matter where they find themselves geographically; experiences must be similar too. Don’t you ageree teaching is such a privileged position, one of trust? I feel fortunate for such experiences. G

    Nita – you are so right, “one cannot take on the burden of the world”, but to shoulder a very small part of it makes getting along so much better for all of us, don’t you find? G

    Lasmeninas – colour is such a universal. Sharing discoveries with one another is like sharing magic trick techniques. Such pleasure! Thanks for visiting. G

    TIV – those boys were absolutely amazing, tough/tender, hardened bad guys/ affection seeking kids, challengingly cool/innately curious. They taught me an awful lot. Mostly about not becoming jaded in relationships with people. G

  7. lookingforbeauty Says:

    It is such a conundrum. You want to help; you feel deeply about their welfare; and yet, you know that you are not ready for the care and nurturing of these rough and ready boys.
    Even if you know that, what a difficult decision it must have been and even more so, the task of telling the boys that you could not take them on.
    It would have been a four year commitment or more. And boys of that age need a man’s influence.
    How sad it is that children are abandoned. How fortunate for those of us who have grown up with both parents caring for our welfare and nurturing our development. Sometimes we don’t know how lucky we are!

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