Last school year, I developed a relationship with a 13 year old student.  She wasn't a problem student, per se, but sometimes she would get really upset and I was the only person she would talk to and calm down with.

I always felt like she was a child who had to take care of so many other people and hadn't really had an adult she could trust to take care of her.  She grew to trust me - though I know that when kids have gone so long not having an adult to trust, they don't always know how.  I gave her space to figure that out.

I grew to care a lot about her.  I just wanted her to have some successes in her life.  I wanted her to start making the types of decisions that would set herself up for success in the long run.

I say all that to set up why I reacted the way I did when one of my assistant principals approached me to tell me she'd been spotted one morning sneaking onto an empty bus with a boy that I knew was her boyfriend.  The admins wanted me to talk to her - hoping that they could avoid having to give her a consequence.

I was angry.  If you don't work with middle schoolers, it's easy to imagine them as cute little almost teenagers.  And some of them are.  But increasingly most of them are involved in behaviors we typically attribute to high school students (certainly behaviors that I and my friends didn't involve ourselves in until high school).  They are doing drugs, selling drugs, drinking, having sex -- all that.

And my mind went to all the things she could've been doing on that bus.  I freaked.  I absolutely freaked.  There was very little that was professional and wasn't personal about the way I freaked out in my mind.  I don't want any of the students I work with to engage in risky behaviors, of course, but a student that I'd been working so closely with?  One who had all the potential in the world?  I couldn't take it.

I sought her out in the hallway and told her, sternly, that we would be speaking later.  I guess she could tell how upset I was because she asked a teacher to escort her to my office the next class period.  The teacher told me, "I brought her because I can tell she's scared that she did something to hurt you."

When I got her into my office, she very quickly admitted to me that she had been on a bus that morning without permission.

"What were you doing?"  I asked, sure I didn't want to know the answer.

"Nothing," she replied calmly.  I've been doing this long enough - kids lie.  It's safer to assume they're lying than that they're not.  But, I knew she was telling me the truth.  I was still scared that there was something to all this sneaking, so I double backed.

"If you weren't doing anything, why did you need to sneak onto a bus?"

"It's cold outside.  We wanted to be alone.  But we didn't do anything.  We just talked."

I felt a bit of relief.  Felt like a crisis was averted and I figured this was as good a time as any to see if she'd given any thought to the things that could happen when you're alone with your boyfriend.

"Ok fine.  Nothing happened today.  But what about the next time?"

She hesitated.  "What do you mean?"  She was stalling.

"I mean you're sneaking on buses.  What else are you going to sneak and do?"

She stared at me.  I couldn't read her face.  "I wouldn't do that, Ms. Smith."  The way she said it was very final.  Very cold.  But you can't trust 13 year olds.  They can't trust themselves.

"Ok, I know you think that right now.  But sometimes things happen faster than we think they will and we're not prepared."  I had no idea where I was going with this, but I needed to know that at some point some adult had talked to her about staying safe.

"Look, I don't want to talk about why, but I won't do that..." she trailed off as if there were more - a word she wanted to say, but couldn't get.

"But why are you so sure?"  It wasn't that I didn't believe her.  I just wanted her to tell me what her motivation was.  I wanted her to be purposeful.  I was so caught up in what I wanted her to know, I didn't realize what she wanted me to know.

"Ms. Smith, I've done it before.  I know I won't do it again."

My stomach dropped.  I needed "it" to refer to something else.

"Done what before?  Had sex?" I asked, trying to sound unfazed, but feeling disoriented.

She looked down at the ground - the first time she'd broken eye contact with me.  "Yes."

I still didn't realize what she was trying to say.

"But - sometimes when we've done something once," I began, "it's easier to do it again.  I'm not telling you not to, though I wish you wouldn't, not right now.  I just want you to be safe.  I don't want you doing things you don't want to do on buses with boys you don't know that well."

"I learned my lesson already," she said, still not making eye contact.  Her whole demeanor, I realized, had changed.  She'd been so sure of herself but now she was such a little girl.  I felt like an attack dog, suddenly.  So I sat back in my chair and lowered my voice just a bit.  A tactic I employ to subtly reassure whoever I'm talking to that everything is ok.

"What lesson?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You don't have to, but I do want to know how you plan to stay safe."

There was silence.  She searched my face.  Maybe for a sign that I wouldn't let her down.

"Last year, I had this boyfriend.  I snuck out of my mom's house to go see him.  I got there and we had..." she paused, searched my face again, and continued, "sex."

She stopped, waiting on me to react.  I waited for her to continue.

"Anyway, one of his friends was there.  After my boyfriend was done, his friend got on top of me.  I told him to stop, but he didn't.  I kept telling him no.  He wouldn't stop."

It was like glass shattered around me.  Noise and then sudden silence.  I couldn't hear.  I wanted to get up and grab her up and tell her we'd find this guy and I would kill him with my bare hands.  But I knew she wouldn't want me to touch her.  Not right then.

We talked about whether her parents knew or not.  They did.  They didn't press charges, though she said her dad told her if the guy ever showed his face, he would kill him.  She told me that part with a measure of strength and assuredness she'd lost briefly during our talk.

"My mom told me that's what I get for sneaking out."

It is very hard to explain to a 13 year old that one bad decision doesn't deserve a traumatic experience.

I did my best.



Back when I lived in DC I would take regular breaks from life.  I'd turn my phone off, leave it at home and only go to work and come back home.  I would do this for a week or two -- once I did it for almost three, and only "came back" because I checked my voicemail and some folks were pretty worried.

The other thing I did was spend a night in a hotel every couple of months.  I'd usually drive down to Richmond, VA - it was a nice drive and got me far enough away from the beltway that I felt like I could breathe.  It wasn't the cheapest habit, but looking back, I think it was part of what helped me stay sane.

I'm tired.  Physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally... I'm tired.  Over the last couple of months I've started realizing that my 8th graders are really leaving me and it's occurring to me that some of them aren't ready.  Trying to get them there with just over a month left to do so is no easy feat.

You can't work with kids and not develop relationships with them.  Most are seasonal.  Kids come and go -- that's the nature of a school.  As a counselor, my job is to make every child on my caseload feel like there is someone in the school building who can and will help them with their problems.  Of course, being responsible for 400+ kids makes building individual relationships very difficult, but I manage, I like to think anyway, to be a large part of making my school building a safe place emotionally for the students who attend.

Sometimes, though, the relationships are more than seasonal.  This year I've developed some very close and very individual relationships with a handful of kids.  I really do care a lot about them and I worry about them and want them to be successful, much the way I imagine their own parents do (well, some of their parents).  I work with a low-income, high needs population and so that presents its own set of challenges.  One thing I pride myself on is supporting the kids in their athletic events.  I drive them to their games, I watch them play and then I congratulate them after on their hard work, win or lose.  I see their faces light up when they notice me on the side of the field.  They always check in with me on game days to make sure I will be there and I try to make every effort, though there are certainly some times I can't.

For the ones I'm close to, I spend a lot of time with them.  I'm walking them through everything from dealing with teachers they don't like to feeling as if their parents don't like or care about them.  For some of them and on some days I'm the only person who smiles at them, hugs them and makes them feel good enough.

All of that takes a lot out of a person.  I'm constantly pouring into these kids and I love what I do, but it's draining me way more quickly than I can refill.

But the kids aren't the only ones I pour into.  My coworkers need support, my family, my friends -- as always, I sit here realizing that everyone's got me but who do I have?

I had an uncomfortable exchange with someone I care about, recently.  I can't decide exactly how I care about them and what that means for how I want them to function in my life, but they are someone I consider a friend and this exchange has stayed with me.  Partly because I wasn't at my best, and I allowed them to make me react in an out of control way, but also because I realize that just like so many other things in my life, I feel unheard and disrespected, but I don't know how to communicate that.

I know my friends and my family and my kids and my coworkers love and care about me, but sometimes you need evidence of that to remind you.

My BFF was worried about me a couple of weeks ago.  He sent his former roommate and friend to take me to dinner since we don't live in the same city.  He also insisted that I take a break.  "Come down here!" he text me.  But I can't - I'm not free any upcoming weekends to make an 8 hr drive.  I would love to, but I can't.  I've made promises to my kids, I've made promises to my friends and I hate breaking promises.  He did make me promise to find a weekend to do something for myself and decompress.  So here I am.  Away from "life": my phone is off, the BFF is the only one who knows I'm doing this and I intend to keep it that way.  

God.  Please let this brief respite give me the energy I need for the week ahead.