My heart hurts. That sounds pretty dramatic but it is the best way to describe how I feel today after spending time with a twelve year old boy who I will call Lee (not his real name). For those of you that don’t know, apart from the work I do with the children living on the streets, I also teach Life Orientation in a grade six class of a small school in Woodstock (an immediate suburb of Cape Town CBD). Over the few years that I have been involved in the school I have also done individual counseling and work with specific students that are highlighted by the teachers as “problematic” or “troubled”. That is how I met Lee.
Last year the school was having a number of problems with Lee. He absconded quite often and when he was at school he was unruly and acted out the majority of the time. He had a short temper and would explode at the slightest provocation of a teacher or another student. He would frequently become aggressive and vulgar with other students, yet seemed to have leadership qualities that would cause other students to follow him, mostly in defiant behavior. The school asked me to meet with Lee and try and “get to him”. Unfortunately, I only got to meet with him, formally, one or two times because I go in on Mondays and that seemed to be his “day off”. But I did study up on his case and would occasionally get to casually speak to him out on the playground.
Lee was born to a single mother. His dad is currently in jail, and I believe is involved in gangster activities. When Lee was about three years old his mother decided she wanted “nothing to do with him”, a convenient form of post-contraception that is all too common in the world today. His grandmother grudgingly took him in, but it was apparently clear from the beginning that she resented having to do so because he was merely a “distraction” to her partying way of life. She has a boyfriend that is mean to Lee, and she blames Lee for any argument that her boyfriend starts with him. They both drink heavily and are abusive to Lee. So last year seeing that little eleven year old boy, so full of anger, hurt and pain, feeling like nobody “wants” him, it was no wonder to me as to why he acted out in the way he did.
This year the school decided that they could not afford to take him because of his negative influence on other students. This Monday the principal spoke with me about Lee and said that he is losing sleep thinking about him. He has had many people approach him who have seen Lee in Woodstock and they report back all sorts of negative stories and situations they have seen Lee in. The principal does not have any contact details for Lee but has heard that he is not living with his grandmother anymore. He asked me to see if I saw him and try and speak to him and find out “where he is at”. So when I saw Lee sitting on main road Woodstock today I nearly slammed on my breaks, did a u-turn and went to speak to him.
Lee seemed excited to see me as I walked up to him. I sat and chatted with him for a while and he explained that he is having trouble getting transferred to a new school because the old school has not given his release papers to him. I asked him about where he is staying now and he told me he was staying with his auntie. I asked if I could go with him to visit her and he seemed eager to the possibility and so we began walking to her house. On the way there he told me, “She is not my real auntie. She is just looking after me and lets me stay with her. She will tell you about it.” We walked down into the “rougher” part of Woodstock, near Gympie Street (for those of you that are familiar with Woodstock) and approached a dilapidated house. He told me he would call her and entered into the house. A few minutes later out came a lady who warmly invited me in.
At first glance, she looked like a character out of a movie. I know it is not good to judge a book by its cover, but if I were casting for a movie and needed someone to play a “tough gangster prostitute”, she would have the part. She is as thin as a skeleton, full of tattoos, has a complete set of gold teeth, and was wielding a knife as she walked to the door. She even had some word tattooed on her knuckles, which you don’t see all that often on females. She immediately noticed and admired my body art and I realized that my tattoos in those situations have stronger credibility than my social work degree from U.C.T. After asking me about my tattoo artist she began by saying, “I will just be honest, I used to deal drugs but I am not involved with that anymore.”
She told me that her daughter, who was sitting on the other side of the room, had met Lee in Woodstock and noticed that he was sleeping in a broken down car, because his grandmother couldn’t “handle him anymore”. She felt pity for him and took him in. She told me about how she treats him as one of her own and about her efforts of trying to get him in another school and even how she had already bought him school clothes. I could see that though this might not be the most ideal of living situations for Lee, at least someone showed interest in him and care for him, and he seemed to be eating it up. Besides, it is definitely a step up from living alone in a broken down car, at the age of twelve. I informed the auntie that I would speak to the principal and would help them get Lee back in school. She was thrilled. After our chat with “his auntie” Lee walked me back to my car.
On the way he told me about a case that he now has against him for stabbing another youngster. As he spoke I could see the fear, hurt, pain, and heart ache in his eyes; not just about the court case, but about everything: his entire life. Before I left, I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him deep in the eyes and said, “I know it is not easy! But you have to understand, whatever your mother and grandmother have done or are doing, really and truly has nothing to do with you! No matter what they say! You are just a kid and you should not have to live through the things that you have and they are supposed to look after and care for you no matter what! It is not your fault, and I understand why you act out in school the way you do, but it also doesn’t excuse it. You have the choice to use these things that you have been through as an excuse to go on in the way you are now, or you can decide to walk a different path, and prove everybody wrong! I believe in you and I think you are a great kid, and I want to try and support you in whatever way I can. Do you understand?”
He looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes and nodded his head yes. He was trying hard not to show emotion because it is not beneficial to do so in that part of main road Woodstock. But I could see that he heard me and my words were sinking into his heart. It is so sad to see a kid that literally has no one in the world that is on his side. His own family does not want anything to do with him, and that is no secret to him or anyone else. When I look at him I just see a little hurting kid that just wants to be loved and merely have a place where he belongs. Unfortunately, in that part of Woodstock there are plenty of places to find belonging but majority of them are unsuitable places for a kid to "belong". In that particular part of Woodstock, for every one person there is that is willing to take in a kid like Lee for all the “right” reasons, there are at least fifty more that are willing to take him in for all the wrong reasons. Lee is just another example to me of a kid that is in a situation, out of his control and yet totally unfair!