Joining the Circus
Part 2 of a Series on Work. Contains sensitive themes.
Luckily, I didn’t go into debt for my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Cal State University Long Beach. While I was still in college, well-meaning people suggested I study business. If I had taken their advice, perhaps I would have emerged with more marketable, useful skills that could be applied practically in a potential future career. But instead, I wanted to dedicate my working life to helping people.
As soon as I graduated in 1993, my husband and I moved to Portland and I applied for jobs that were advertised in the classified section of the Oregonian. I would get physical copies of the newspaper every Sunday and use a ballpoint pen to circle boxes with jobs that had some relationship to counseling, social services, or mental health. I kept a running list on a yellow legal pad of the ones I had applied for. My list grew to over 45 entries before I was finally offered an interview for the position I most wanted, working as a Residential Treatment Counselor at the Lane Center for Children.
In my interview, I was asked what I knew about children who had been abused. I drew a huge blank. The only thing I could recall from my Developmental Psychology class, or maybe from television, was that abused kids might wear seasonally inappropriate clothing, say long sleeves in summer, for example, to hide bruises. The woman who interviewed me was very patient and while it registered at that moment for both of us that I knew nothing about abused children, she didn’t make me feel worse than I already did for my lack of knowledge. She gave me the job. It paid $7.35 an hour and had full Kaiser medical benefits for both me and my husband and membership at Portland Teachers Credit Union.
I soon learned that all of the children who lived among the two cottages at the Lane Center were considered Severely Emotionally Disturbed resulting from having been sexually abused. In some cases, the abuse was by their own families, by family friends, boyfriends of their mothers, by neighbors, by foster parents, or older siblings.
I was clueless on the day I began. Children are miraculous and mysterious in how unpredictable they can be. Not only did I know nothing about abused children, but any children for that matter. I had no siblings and did very little babysitting. I would have to draw on my experience as a child, which was not that far behind in my rearview mirror at age 24.
I spent my first shift in the building on the property known as Chase Cottage, one of several huge white structures built in the early 1900s with common areas on the first floor and bedrooms on the second floor. There were two groups of boys in the building and I was in the section known as the Yoshis, named after a video game character. I watched 8-year old Sawyer play Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo console, where he seemed strangely intense about the activity.
Sawyer flicked his black hair out of his face as he stood gripping the game controller and moving his body along with Mario’s as he made him jump or swerve. The boy’s pale skin was a stark contrast to his dark hair and eyes. Another boy named Dilan wanted to hang around and watch Sawyer play and talk to him which seemed fine to me. That is until Cheryl, a masculine-looking woman with closely cropped, spiky blond hair and black-rimmed glasses said in a voice that carried across the Yoshi’s living room:
“So Heidi, I know that Dilan probably wants to do the right thing here, and allow Sawyer to have his time on the Nintendo, just like Sawyer allowed Dilan to have his uninterrupted time when it was his turn.”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” I said. This was a thing, this cross-talk. I had observed some other counselors engaging with each other in this way to inform one another of what was going on, and include the kid, rather than just having a direct conversation about it. It seemed both underhanded and transparent at the same time.
“I’m sure that Dilan appreciated getting his time on the video game earlier,” I said feeling like I was catching on quickly. Was this why I got my college degree? I mean it’s not like they taught us this, but did I maybe learn how to learn? How to bend in such a way as to be malleable in a new situation? I turned to Dilan who had short brown hair and lots of freckles on his face. He was bigger than Sawyer, but his eyes seemed emptier.
“Dilan do you agree that it was nice getting to play quietly on your own earlier? And that Sawyer should be given the same opportunity?” Cheryl asked him directly, which was a bit of a relief. If she had asked me if I thought Dilan thought this, it would have felt absurd. But that’s kind of how the discussions went around here.
Dilan, as it turned out, did not agree at all, and decided this was a good opportunity to start throwing couch cushions at Sawyer, who was completely unphased as he clutched his Nintendo controller ducking the ambush and steering Mario across the screen.
“Uh, oh,” Cheryl said in an artificially caring and cheerful tone. “Dilan you’ll need to take a time out in the hallway,” she said.
“Noooo!!!!” Dilan screamed at the top of his lungs. He started running around the room and when he ran past something he could pick up and throw he would aim in the general direction of me. A tattered Magic Treehouse paperback whizzed past my face, a worn stuffed furless yellow dog bounced off my knee. This kid was nine years old and I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to do to deescalate the situation.
“So Heidi,” Cheryl spoke loudly but calmly as she included me in the conversation again. “I think that right now maybe Dilan’s feeling a little unsafe.”
“Yeah,” I said assuming I shouldn’t also share that I was feeling a little unsafe as well.
“And sometimes when we feel unsafe, it seems like it might help to take control of the situation by lashing out,” she continued.
“Uh, huh,” I responded unhelpfully.
“So I think that if I hold Dilan right now, he might calm down. Dilan, do you think maybe this will help you?” Cheryl went straight to Dilan and wrapped his arms around himself while she held him from behind and hugged him in this position. He did not resist. “Let’s sit on the couch for a bit,” she said still holding Dilan who was small enough compared to Cheryl to be held snuggly on her lap in this way. She rocked back and forth a little while she continued to speak to me.
“Sometimes our kids here need help in keeping their bodies safe, and while this is technically a restraint, it’s received more like a bear hug and feeling close and safe.” Dilan relaxed visibly and I tried to minimize my sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, Sawyer had gotten extra time on the Nintendo because of the melee. When Cheryl reminded him that his time was up, I became worried at how Sawyer would respond, but he became very intense for just a moment before he said:
“Okay!” and put the controller up high on the shelf that held the television, and flipped the TV and the game console off. “Who are you again?” he asked me. He didn’t look at me when he asked, just turned his head in my direction.
“My name is Heidi,” I reminded him.
“Oh, have you ever been here before?” he looked at the ground to his right.
“No, this is my first day working here,” I answered honestly. I wondered if I should add something like how happy I was to be here with him but that seemed lame and he was quick to continue the conversation.
“Have you ever been to the circus?” he asked. He looked straight at me now while waiting for my response.
“Yes, a long time ago, when I was younger than you,” I smiled with my hazy recollection of the huge Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus and the elephants standing on two legs, trapeze artists twirling through the air...
“You know what’s great? Going to the circus,” he said quickly answering his own question.
“Yeah. I agree…”
“You know what’s bad?” he asked me, which I was not expecting.
“No, what?” he now had my full attention as we both stood there on the dusty linoleum, Sawyer’s small figure framed by the doorway, where the other kids were lining up and the staff was bustling to prepare to transition to dinner.
With a dramatic swoop of his arm before he pointed his index finger at me for emphasis, he answered, “What’s bad... is when the circus... comes to you!” He disappeared through the doorway and found his place in line, a space just big enough to fit him.
Afterward, we ate dinner around a low rectangular table, sitting in little kid chairs. The meal was delivered from the kitchen located in an adjacent building. Later, we settled down by reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham to the kids. This was followed by teeth brushing for all, showers for some, and tucking them each into their beds. There were generally two or three kids per room, and after everyone was tucked in, the staff sat on the floor in the hallways, one counselor situated outside of each doorway, so that the kids could see that person from their beds. The lights were off in the bedrooms and dimmed in the hallway. This is where we all spoke quietly in low voices after we were certain the kids had fallen asleep. We debriefed, filled out written reports on each child’s behavior during our shift, and discussed what happened amongst ourselves.
“So, Cheryl,” I ventured to ask. “When Dilan was acting out over the Nintendo watching… is that a common thing? Or do you think because I’m new...”
“Oh, it was definitely because of you. I mean - you’re fine, don’t worry. This kind of thing happens whenever there’s someone new on the floor. And because we’re paid crap, and people leave all the time, it happens all the time.”
It had crossed my mind, as he targeted me with Magic Treehouse books and stuffed animals, this must be common for new counselors. It would understandably take time for a child to feel comfortable with a new adult. Especially when kids have found adults in their lives to be entirely untrustworthy or even unsafe.
Cheryl handed me massive files on each child to read, to better understand their history of abuse and neglect. The case files were written by the staff psychologist who met with each of the kids for individual weekly counseling sessions and wrote their behavior modification programs. Each narrative described every single child as “attractive.” This caught my attention in particular as I read about a girl named Clara, who at age 9 was already obese with a swollen face and limbs so thick they caused her to waddle when she walked. Her eyes were so close together this was the first thing I noticed about her more so even than her size. I was curious as to why such a subjective construct as attractiveness was included in their evaluations? Why not say that Clara was an overweight 9-year-old girl who was shorter than her peers, which described her factually?
I was horrified when I read about a small 6-year old girl named Serenity who lived in the Koala’s side of the building known as Mount Hood Cottage. She had been ritualistically sexually abused by her father and his friends as part of a religious cult. I wanted to put this knowledge back in the box and close the lid. I decided it made more sense to read about the behavior modification programs; what kinds of behaviors the kids were presenting that were problematic, what would trigger them to act out, and how we were supposed to assist them to be successful and make better choices.
What I read about the kids lingered in my mind. The trauma they had endured by the age of six was unfathomable. I remembered being six years old and believing I’d been scarred for life after my mother and her boyfriend took me to see the movie Tommy by the Who; the heroin scene with Tina Turner and the snakes has been forever seared into my retinas. But while it was decidedly a poor choice of films for a young child, I went home to my grandparents’ house where we lived, and had dinner cooked by my grandmother, and felt safe in my own bedroom always. I found a strange sense of guilt seeping into my psyche as I tried, but could not truly relate to the sorts of memories likely floating around in these children’s heads.
I found the girls the most challenging to work with. They all seemed to hate me instantly. The little girl named Serenity who was small and cute, wouldn’t ever do what I asked her to, and would give me vicious sneers when I tried to be kind and loving. Sometimes she screamed that she wished I would die when I asked her to line up so that we could walk from the cottage to the school. These outbursts seemed non-sensical and came out of nowhere. Perhaps there was some root in her backstory.
“Serenity, if you want to make progress on your program, maybe we could try this again,” I attempted to remind her. If she completed her behavior modification program and didn’t require restraint during a whole school week, the psychologist would take her to get an ice cream Friday after school. It was fairly simple stuff.
“But have I already failed?” she asked worried, and it was a legitimate question. She appeared innocent and sad and child-like at this moment. Because she was, although her experiences already rivaled those of adults, recollections nobody should have to bear.
“No, you haven’t been restrained, but it would be helpful if you followed my directions so that we stay on track.” Staying on track meant no time-outs, which could lead her down the path of a complete meltdown that required restraint if she became combative toward others or started scratching and clawing at herself. The restraint was meant to keep her safe, but tiny missteps could escalate rapidly like a fire spreading.
It was harder to restrain kids than one might imagine. I am only 5’1” tall and at the time, weighed around 105 pounds. I didn’t weigh enough to give blood. The 9-year-old boys were still smaller than me, but stronger somehow. One day after I’d begun working regularly at the school on campus, helping the teachers manage behavior issues among the kids, I chased a boy named Caden who had just fled from the school. When I got a hold of him a few feet from the building, he wound up his fist and hit me as hard as he could in the nose. This knocked me down, to a kneeling position, reeling from the pain and holding my nose. When I pulled my hand away there was blood everywhere.
“Oh, no - are you okay?” Caden suddenly seemed human and fragile and apologetic. He was a small child with a strong punch.
“No, Caden, I’m bleeding,” I said crying involuntarily. “I’m in pain.” The pain lasted for more than a year and although I didn’t go to the doctor, I speculated he may have fractured my nose.
This made my husband livid, the fact that I was hit, kicked, or scratched each day when I went to work making practically nothing and could do very little about it.
I agonized over the fear that we weren’t helping these children enough. When I arrived at work one day to discover Maddox had run away and was armed with a spray bottle of bleach, I felt despair. He was a small but particularly strong dark-skinned boy who threatened me by saying he would rape me. He was only seven and probably didn’t understood what he was saying; I assumed he was repeating words he’d heard at home. Maybe from movies watched with his older brother. If he was making such threats at this young age, how would that evolve when he was nineteen? Or thirty? How could such dark beginnings be erased sufficiently for these children to have a chance at normal lives? In some cases, kids became predators themselves, grooming younger kids to become their potential victims, and we were on constant watch to prevent this, to protect more vulnerable kids.
Being a punching bag for children who had been deeply betrayed seemed so small in comparison to their suffering. I tried my best to absorb their inner torment when they lashed out at me, to heal their invisible wounds when I helped them to be successful with their behavior programs. But I would sometimes wonder if maybe I just wasn’t built for this kind of work.
When I’d been there for about a year, I worked with a newly hired counselor named Kirsten. She was a few years older than me, more worldly seeming, and the mother of two. She had a southern accent which made her peculiar to the kids, but she was beautiful, busty, and even from my perspective, motherly. She spoke with ease and agility and seemed perfectly comfortable in the cottages despite the idiosyncratic behavior policies that took me this long to decipher.
I felt ridiculous as I explained such rules as not permitting the kids to say “Dick-dee” and if one of them did, it should result in an immediate time out, so as not to escalate the behavior that would inevitably flare out of control. I had just put Collin on a time out for this, and he was having trouble not repeating the phrase which would be imitated by the other boys within ear-shot, resulting in a chorus of, “Dick-dee, dick-dee, dick-dee, aaaaah”.
“What behavior might that be?” Kirsten asked with her southern twang.
The boys had erupted in laughter, which you would think would be wonderful, but instead, Dilan stood up and started shouting “Dick-dee, dick-dee, dick-dee,” and began running around poking or tagging each kid as if they’d been playing duck-duck-goose. From nowhere, Cheryl swooped in and challenged Dilan to race her to Chase Cottage and back which worked wonders, and another counselor took some of the kids inside to watch television.
I stayed behind with Kirsten to deal with 9-year old Turner who had become angry that everyone was saying Dick-Dee and wouldn’t stop. He was yelling and writhing around in the grass outside of the cottages, screaming and crying as if someone was murdering him.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you Heidi, fuck you funny-talk-lady, fuck fuck, aaaaaaaccccchhhhhhggggg!”
I remained calm, and because I was now a veteran of having worked there for over a year, and was in charge of training Kirsten, I instructed her in cross-talk.
“So Kirsten, I can see that Turner is very angry. Understandably, he’s upset, but I’m thinking we won’t be able to assist him in feeling better until he stops crying, and yelling, and cursing, do you agree?”
“Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh, fuck you Heidi.”
Kirsten caught on quickly.
“Yes, I think that when Turner is ready to talk about what happened, he will be sitting quietly and taking some deep breathes to help him calm down.” She had a good idea, I thought. Maybe because she’s a mother.
Then she said directly to me in a confidential tone, “You know, a lot of this behavior is perfectly normal kid stuff.”
I looked at her aghast.
“Um, I don’t think so. I mean most 9-year-olds don’t yell out the F-word when they’re angry and roll around on the ground like that. And last week, when I picked him up from his camp, he threatened to jump out of the car.” I was emphasizing the worst I’d seen. I had been terrified he would jump out of the van (which I’d slowed to a crawl just in case) and run away and I wouldn’t be able to capture him. He had held the door open about 6 inches before finally closing it and re-fastening his seatbelt.
Kirsten laughed, “Well, actually my three-year-old yelled out the F-word when we were in the grocery store the other day, but he wasn’t angry when he used it. It was more of a comical moment.”
My mouth hung open. I noticed Turner was now calming down and breathing hard, instead of shouting, probably listening to our conversation.
Normal kid behavior?
The next week when I had to restrain a boy in the carpeted room in the school reserved for that very purpose, the boy, Gunnar, bit me hard enough on my upper right arm to break the skin. I was bleeding again, although not as profusely as before. He only calmed down when a much larger man entered the room, and when I showed my colleague my arm, he advised me to clock out and go directly to the doctor for an HIV test and to renew my hepatitis vaccination.
“An HIV test?” I asked startled.
“That’s the advice we’re given when there is a break in the skin like this. We only have access to their psychological records from the county, but not their medical records for privacy reasons.”
It was this, the trauma of going to the doctor for a bite mark that would stay with me for years it was so deep, and not knowing if I would be altered in some other way, that led me to give notice. I had stayed with this job, despite the seeming futility of it, and getting beaten up, hit, kicked, spit on, because of the richness of experience that each day brought. I never knew what would happen when I walked into the cottages. This did usually fill me with anxious nervousness, but also with a more positive thrill of being with these kids. Some of them were so quirky and brilliant in their observations about life.
The most fun I’ve ever had was unexpectedly here with these kids on a snow day. The school was closed and we spent the day sledding down the hill behind Chase Cottage on Flexi-fliers, over and over again, laughing and shouting. When we took breaks, we returned to the cottages shedding boots, scarves, and gloves inside the door, delighting over the pitchers of hot cocoa sent from the kitchen to warm us from the inside out. I had never lived near snow as a child. For a moment, I was a kid again.
In the end, I traded snow days and the unexpected for a stable work environment. I figured I could get a job working in an office job where I would feel physically safe and have the sense of actually helping people more immediately through problem-solving. I had mad typing skills because my grandmother had always told me I needed something “to fall back on.” And after working at the Lane Center, I felt optimistic like I could do anything.
All names have been changed for privacy.