by: Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P
Goodbyes can be hard for anyone; they are often connected with sadness, confusion, hurt, or anger. Now imagine goodbyes for the put-at-risk youth with whom ENACT often works. Students who have experienced the death of a parent; students who have been bounced around the foster care system; students who have moved schools each year because funding was cut or schools districts redistributed; students who lost a friend, sibling, neighbor to an act of street or gang violence. You can see why a positive goodbye experience with a loving adult figure could be restorative for these young people who have already faced so many challenges.
Yesterday was my last day in the New York City public schools with the young people I have worked with this year. I have provided services individually, in large groups, in small drama therapy sessions, in-school, after school, helping with homework, hearing about test anxieties, exploring fears, and daring to dream about futures. We have covered a lot of ground this year. I know it will only be a few short months before I work in many of the same classrooms again, but no year is ever the same and each kid I interacted with this year has a special place in my heart. It will be odd not seeing them weekly, and I will feel the void.
I’m currently carrying one void more heavily than the others: one goodbye that I didn’t get to have.
Let’s call her “Shanae”.
Shanae is a student I’ve been working with in group and individual therapy for most of the school year. While every young person I meet is special, there are some you connect with more quickly for whatever reason. I had an instant bond with Shanae, a very shy girl, short for her age, but with bright brown eyes that flashed with intelligence. Like many of our students, Shanae was struggling with school attendance and so she was assigned to me for therapy. Although I had an immediate affinity for her, Shanae took longer to warm up to me. Our first few sessions were pretty quiet as Shanae avoided eye contact and softly mumbled short responses to all my inquiries.
“So what do you like to do for fun?” I asked.
“Uhuh” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.
“Do you like to play in the park? Or ride a bike maybe? Or play basketball?”
“So you just go straight home or—“
“Yeah” she quickly blurted out.
I paused for a moment to see if she would say anything else. Finally I ventured, “Well, what about school? What’s your favorite part of school?”
“Technology I guess”
“Oh cool! Like playing on the computer?”
“Neat. I like computers too. Do you play on the computer with any of your siblings?”
Shanae glanced at me and sighed heavily. I had hit something there. “No, not really” she finally responded. Shortly after, Shanae asked if she could go back to class and I told her I would be back to see her at the same time next week. I quickly learned that having a set time to meet each week was difficult because Shanae often did not show up for school. Arriving at school to find that Shanae was present that day was like a small gift, and the more I met with her, the more she slowly started to open up to me.
Through our sessions, I learned that her mother was very sick and her father worked two jobs to support the family, so was rarely at home. She was the second of three children and had vastly different relationships with each. Her much older brother was often very abusive to her and her younger brother, taking his anger out on them. He no longer lived with the family but would show up unannounced, so Shanae lived with a level of constant fear about his potential arrival. Her mother did not or was not able to do anything to quell the brother’s temper and Shanae frequently felt responsible for protecting herself, her mother, and her younger brother. She often did not come to school because she had overwhelming anxiety that something bad would happen if she left her apartment. So, at 12 years old, she took it upon herself to stay home to guard her family and her home.
Once I knew more of her story, Shanae and I did work around the roles she played in her family, at home, and at school. Throughout the weeks we discussed her feeling like “The Protector”, “The Bad Student”, “The Victim”, “The Good Sibling”, “The Weak One”, “The Unworthy Child”, and “The Survivor”. I explained to her what happened to her physically when she had an anxiety attack. She explained to me her feelings of isolation and hopelessness. We made an action plan for how to manage her anxiety symptoms and an attendance incentive to encourage her to show up for school. After a lot of hard work, and many meetings, Shanae showed up for a full week of school (the first time in months) and we planned to celebrate together.
Much to my disappointment, however, quickly after this achievement, Shanae’s attendance dropped dramatically again, making it difficult for us to meet. For weeks I came to the school with a special treat to celebrate Shanae’s attendance achievement, and for weeks I left with the treat in hand, disappointed that I did not see her.
Yesterday was my last day in the schools and my last opportunity to meet with Shanae and say goodbye. Shanae did not show up for class.
As I write this, I am filled with emotion about saying goodbye to the students I have grown to care so much about. For some, the goodbye is not complete because it did not happen. It will never happen in person. So, I’d like to say my goodbye to Shanae here. And while the message is specific for her, the sentiment extends to all the kids I have seen this year who I will carry in my heart forever.
Thank you so much for letting me get to know you this year. Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story and the vulnerability you showed me through your honesty. Thank you for the laughter we shared and the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Thank you for working so hard with me this year. I am so proud of you for the way you showed up for yourself. I know it was not always easy.
I think you are wonderful. You are intelligent, courageous, caring, creative, funny, kind, considerate, faithful, resilient, and much more on top of that. I hope that you remember that you can be whatever you want to be. I hope that you continue to grow and reach toward your own potential and don’t let anyone else’s negative assumptions hold you back. You are special.
I’m sorry that you get scared and anxious. I wish I could take that away and protect you. But I also know that you have everything inside of you to overcome these challenges. I believe in you full-heartedly and hope you can find peace and happiness in whatever way that means for you. I’m sorry that you have had to deal with so much already. I’m sorry that you have been thrust into an adult role when you are still so young. I hope the child in you gets to come out and play sometimes. I hope that smiles and laughter don’t get shoved aside for scowls and fear.
I hope that you can open up to others in the future and know that there are people who want to help you. You are important. Your story is important. I am so proud of you and so grateful for getting to walk aside you for a bit on your journey.
With much love,
*names and identifying information have been changed for confidentiality *
Darci works as a Drama Therapist and the Programs Supervisor at ENACT. She has her Master’s in Drama Therapy from New York University and her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from Missouri State University.