6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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December 21, 2005

December 21—the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. For those of us who choose to live here in Maine, that means about 8 hours and 45 minutes of sunlight. The good news? Starting tomorrow, the days will be getting longer as we now move ever slowly toward the summer horizon.

Although we’ve had several days now of below freezing temperatures, we haven’t experienced anything that could be considered frigid. It’s only been this past week that the ponds and lakes have started to freeze over. Still not much in the way of snow. We’ve had a few dustings, and a four incher, but during last Friday’s storm, the changeover to rain pretty much washed out whatever hope we had for a white Christmas.

At work today, we celebrated our annual Christmas lunch with the kids who are in our care. Most of the kids will also be going home to celebrate the holiday with their families, but a few of our kids won’t. For them, this is a time of year fraught with anxiety, disappointment and uncertainty. But as one of them said to me, “It’s better than being at the youth center in Charleston.”

After staff meeting, I started to head out when the young man, who I have been assigned to as his 1:1, came up to me and asked if I was able to get him what he wanted for Christmas. I smiled at him and said, “Well, you’ll have to wait and see.”

Compared to the requests made to the staff by the other students, mine was very simple to fulfill: a pool cue and a gift card from Wal-Mart. We have pool cues at the house, but most are warped and it’s difficult to make a serious shot of any kind. He did have a fairly decent cue stick of his own, but it was rendered useless when another student cross threaded it when he tried to screw the two sections together.

When I was at Wal-Mart yesterday, I had found the perfect replacement for him. “Strengthened with titanium. Will not warp. Break resistant.” Considering the young man I was buying it for, I thought it an apt description. It takes a good couple of months before a young man coming into our program can begin interacting with others on a more personable level.

Usually when students first transition into our program, they bring with them all the signs of gang and drug related culture. The piercings, self-tattoos, oversized pants constantly needing to be pulled up, the rap music of Busta Rhymes and others that they listen to, and the lingo that they express themselves in (“Hook me up, Dog,”) doesn’t feel or seem anything like the rebellion of my youth. The semiotics of my time almost seems kinder, if not tame, compared to the expressiveness of the young people I work with. With them, they’re not talking about their generation, they’re succumbing to it.

But getting past that, though hard as that may seem, is what makes the job worth it. When kids start to get a better sense of who they are in a safe environment that allows them to focus on what needs to be done each day, physically and mentally, self-discovery can become a powerful medicine. They start to think of their future—of where they’d like to eventually be or do—and go on to finish high school or obtain a GED.

As I walked to my car it occurred to me how satisfying the drive to work and the return back home has been. In the morning, about three miles out on 52, I get to see the emerging sunrise. Against the silhouette of the pines, the horizon is bathed in a pink hue punctuated by purple clouds. On the return home, the sky to the west becomes fiery red against the slowly sinking orange sun that seems so large at this time of year. Glimmering faintly to the east, the stars poke through the cold, steel-blue sky.

Against such a backdrop, the tired arguments of our elected officials and pundits in regard to Iraq and the War on Terror almost seem petty and inconsequential. A mile, afterall, is still a mile. With the young people I work with, realizing that can make a crucial difference as to whether or not a child chooses to be flexible. I turned the news off, and enjoyed the ride.

By S. L. Cunningham