Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Very Sad Story

Like all of the children in our care, Jewel Hillock had a very sad story. One day, she inexplicably chose to share hers with me.

I recall Jewel as an affable Caucasian girl of about twelve years of age. She had unruly, medium length, dark blonde hair and a clumsy, medium build. She was an average looking Midwestern girl who would blend right in with a gang of youngsters kicking along down a set or railroad tracks or pinching candy in a run down convenience store. She was, in a raw and authentic sort of way, an All-American girl.

Jewel was discharging from the crisis unit the following morning and would be going to live in a foster home. She appeared rather wistful this day. Although we had formerly always shared perfunctory interactions, today she asked if she could speak with me in private right before I left my shift for the day. So we sat at the dining tables and talked.

“Mr. Dave,” she said, “I miss my mom.”

“Where does she live?” I asked.

“She’s dead.”

“Oh.” I cringed. “I’m sorry, Jewel. I didn’t know.”

“That’s okay. She died right in front of me. I remember that night like it was yesterday. It was the most horrible night ever.”

I shook my head, feeling awkward and unable to think of anything to say. I wondered why she was sharing this information with me now, as she had never before conversed with me about any serious matter. I surmised that perhaps sharing this experience was somehow her way of saying goodbye to me—or perhaps to her mother.

“My mommy and I were sitting on the floor playing rummy in her bedroom, and then all of a sudden she fell over. At first I thought she just passed out, ’cause she was drinking wine. But when I tried to wake her up, she wouldn’t get up. She just lied there.”

Jewel’s blue eyes welled up. “Then I got real scared. ‘Mommy, Mommy, wake up!’ I kept saying, but she just wouldn’t.”

“Oh, Jewel, that sounds—”

“Then I got really, really scared and started screaming: ‘Mommy! Mommy! Wake up! Wake up!’ And I was shaking her. Hard, like this.” She acted out the gesture. “But she still wouldn’t get up. I tried to wake her up for a long time. Her skin got real cold.”

I shook my head solemnly.

“I called 9-1-1 and the police and ambulance people came, and when they got there they drugged me out of the room. I was kicking and screaming: ‘No! Don’t take me away from my mommy! I want to be with my mommy!’ Then they tried to wake her up too but they couldn’t get her to wake up either. She was dead. They said she had a heart attack from taking too many drugs.”

Jewel looked at me sadly and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She then pulled a folded piece of paper from her back pocket. “Anyway, Mr. Dave, I wrote you this letter. But you can’t read it until tomorrow, okay?”


“You promise?”

“I promise.” Jewel looked at me suspiciously. “I swear, Jewel, I will wait.”

Reluctantly, she handed me the letter and I put it in my pocket, intrigued about its content. I gave Jewel a hug, and said, “Jewel, you take care of yourself. Be good in your foster home, okay?”

“I will.”

“And remember to use the coping skills you learned here.”

“I know! When I get angry I’ll write in my journal. Or go to my room and listen to music. Or talk with an adult.”

“Good girl, Jewel. I believe in you. I know you’ll do well.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dave.”

“I gotta go now. Take care of yourself.”

“I will.” Jewel looked down sorrowfully at the tabletop.

“Bye,” I found myself straining to utter, suddenly fighting back an urge to sob.

“Bye!” Jewel’s face abruptly brightened and she leapt up and skipped away merrily to where a few other kids were playing a game of cards at a table. I hastily walked off the unit, rather bewildered at the swiftness in which her mood so completely flipped over.


Later that evening, I broke my promise and read Jewel’s letter:

“Dear mr. Dave,

“You have always be so nice 2 me. I hope we can be freinds when I at my foster home. I fell like I cold talk to you and tell you anything. You are very specal to me and I fell very cloose 2 you, can we be freinds OK????? here is the number 4 my foster home [xxx-xxxx]. I hope you call me please???




I failed to understand why Jewel suddenly felt so close and personal with me, intimate enough to use the word “love” in her closing. She had never before even remotely hinted to me of such sentiments.

The letter was rather unnerving, and I intentionally avoided contacting Jewel for several reasons: I did not know if it was professionally ethical for me to do so; I did not know Jewel’s true intentions and feelings, and I did not want to encourage a crush, if this letter indeed was a sign of such a perilous infatuation; and I did not want Jewel to stalk me, as the potential for it was evidently there. I sorely regretted having to disregard her appeal for friendship, as I’m sure I became yet another adult in her life in whom she was unable to have faith; I was yet another in a long line of big disappointments. But the decision I chose was the only way.

However, I still have her letter stored in a box somewhere in my home. Every now and then, when I’m sorting through my clutter of keepsakes, I come across it and think of Jewel. And wonder how she’s doing and if she is indeed using her coping skills when she gets angry. I hope so.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Assthrax Incident

There were numerous occasions in which a child would attempt to, or would successfully, sneak prohibited contraband into the unit from a home visit. Once, a very clever and disturbed nine-year-old boy snuck in a four-inch long folding hunting knife. We discovered it only as he threatened to press it into his chest during a manic outburst. A coworker was fortunate enough to snatch the knife away from the boy as he was distracted. Needless to say, from that point on we always did a thorough strip search of that child after every home visit.

Another time, a female teen was caught trying to sneak in something a little less dangerous than a knife—yet still a "pointed" implement, if you will. Two female coworkers noticed a bulge in the middle of the teen's chest as they were checking her in from her visit. The coworkers took the teen into a bathroom and had her remove her shirt, and as she did, a vibrator slid out from under the middle of her bra and fell onto the floor. We all had a good laugh over this one, for we really couldn't chastise the girl for trying to add a little excitement to her forced stay in a locked and depressing institutional milieu.

But no other contraband story quite compares to "The Assthrax Incident." This one is a classic.


Joey was an eleven-year-old Caucasian boy who was very devious and sly, and also quite troubled. He once snuck out of the short term residential unit by every day picking away at the caulking around the window fan in the boys bathroom, until one evening he was able to remove the fan and slide through the opening. After noticing that Joey was taking an unusually long time in the shower, a coworker knocked on the bathroom door. When there was no answer, the coworker unlocked the door and went into the bathroom, only to discover it empty and a hole in the window and the fan hanging by its wires.

Apparently, however, Joey's cunning went only so far, as he had a plan to sneak out of the bathroom and onto the fourth-floor rooftop at night, but he had not thought out how to get down from there. A couple of coworkers were able to get onto the roof through a door—one coworker, a big muscular guy, tiptoeing gingerly and slowly across the flat, rock-covered roof; the other, a part-time flying instructor and born into a family full of doctors, bounding across the roof with reckless abandon and absolutely no fear—and they corralled Joey back into the unit.

After this incident, Joey was "demoted" to the crisis unit. Where "The Assthrax Incident" occurred.

One day, Joey went on a home visit and returned a day or two later. Later during the day of his return to the crisis unit, a couple of coworkers found a picture from a porn magazine folded up and hidden under his mattress. Naturally, they confiscated the picture. Antwone later showed up for work and found the picture folded up on the staff desk. Out of curiosity, he unfolded it and took a pleasurable gander at it.

Suddenly, Lara came from the back hallway where the bedrooms were located and screamed at Antwone as she rushed toward him.

"Antwone! Put that down!"

"What, woman? Not like I've never seen something like this before."

"No, you don't understand. Joey had that up his ass!"

"What the—! What are you talking about?"

"Joey had that folded up and snuck it onto the unit by shoving it up his ass. I was just in his room talking to him and that's what he told me."

Antwone immediately dropped the picture. "Shit! And I've been touching my face!" He then sniffed his hands and ran to the staff bathroom.

Lara then stuffed the picture into the trash and followed Antwone to the bathroom to wash her hands. As she entered it, she discovered Antwone in a state that she would often describe later with much animation and laughter: "And when I went in there, he had the hand soap lathered all over his hands and face. His head was like a big ball of white foam! And he was scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing! It was hilarious!"

When I heard about this event the next day, I, like all of my coworkers, had a tremendous laugh over it. And suddenly the label popped into my mind, which I just had to share with Antwone and Lara: "Hey guys, you know, that's forever going to be known as 'The Assthrax Incident.'"

And so it is.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Damn Tooth Fairy

Isaiah was a small African American eight-year-old boy with wide-set eyes and a bulbous head shaped somewhat like a light bulb. He looked a bit like a miniature version of NBA player Sam Cassell. As well, one of his upper front teeth was missing, giving him a cute smile and a tenacious frown.

Isaiah was also born a crack baby and now couldn't sit still to save his life. He perpetually shifted, wriggled, got up, jumped, jiggled, readjusted, wandered off, spaced out, got sidetracked, impulsively spoke out of turn—whatever ... except sit still.

One morning, Isaiah awoke early and approached a coworker, an obese Anglophile man named Calvin Humperdink who never seemed to wear a shirt that would fully cover his rotund, pearly white, baby smooth belly.

"Mr. Calvin, can you throw this away for me?" Isaiah asked.

"What is it?" Calvin asked, looking down at the minute object in Isaiah's hand.

"It's my tooth," he said, holding up the white chunk of calcium and separating his lips to display his teeth. Isaiah had lost the other of his two upper front teeth. "I've had it under my pillow for the past two nights, but the damn tooth fairy never came. So now I just want to throw it away."

"Oh, Isaiah, I'm sorry. I guess no one let the tooth fairy know you had lost a tooth. Why don't you put it under your pillow one more time tonight, and I'll be sure to tell the tooth fairy to come visit you."

"Okay," Isaiah responded in a sad, little voice, and moped back to his room.

And that night, thanks to the grace of Humperdink, the tooth fairy indeed finally paid a visit to little Isaiah.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Please allow me to express that, although this blog focuses on many of the humorous and perhaps even shocking incidents I have engaged in and witnessed in my experience working with children, I and others have done a lot of good work in our time. Though our efforts at times may have bordered on the unprofessional, I think it is because of our willingness to be human beings in front of our clients that we were often able to earn their trust and make progress with them in ways not possible were we to be sterile and clinical automatons who rarely displayed a hint of humanity.

We have loved our little angels, and I think it showed.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hear Ye: Refrain from Farting by Gollum, Lest You Suffer His Wrath

I've got at least one more "natural gas" story that I have to tell. I'll try to keep it short.

Al (referred to as "Alvin" in a previous post) and I one night were dealing with a kid named Chuck, a buzz-cut, pimply faced young teen who liked his rap music. Chuck was one hundred percent white, but apparently he was raised in a black family. I'm not absolutely sure what his circumstances were—I think perhaps his mother married a black gentleman and moved in, along with Chuck, with his family. I dunno.

Chuck was skinny and gangly, and with his short-almost-bald round head and pimple-littered face, he looked a lot like Gollum from "Lord of the Rings." So, Al and I—to ourselves, of course—referred to him as our beloved "Gollum." And sometime "Smeagol."

Anyway, this night was during a time when the clients were allowed to have boom boxes and CDs in their rooms (whoever thought this was a good idea surely had little foresight or imagination). And Chuck got really worked up whenever he'd listen to rap music. He would start pacing in his room, thrusting his fists into the air, rapping along with the CD, and generally becoming worked up into a frenzy of frenetic agitation. His behavior really affected Al and I, because we worked the overnight shift and Chuck's music would encourage him to stay up late into the night listening to it and becoming disruptive with his dance-stomping and sing-along rapping. When Al and I tried to make Chuck turn off his boom box and be quiet, he would throw a teenage tantrum of ample proportions. It was a significant headache dealing with him.

So this night while we were addressing Chuck in his room, threatening to take his boom box away if he couldn't be quiet, the urge emerged. And I let loose from my caboose. But it didn't have an effect Al and I could have predicted.

Chuck, a kid of minimal concern for cleanliness and manners himself—as evidenced by his poor personal grooming habits—reacted to my fart with utter offense.

"Why'd you do that!" he cried out, tearing up in anger. "Why'd you do that!"

He then tried to burst out of his room, and Al and I had to stop him by stepping in his way and holding him back.

"Chuck, calm down," I said. "I'm sorry, it was meant to be funny but I guess you didn't get the joke."

"I didn't think it was funny!"

"Obviously," Al said.

"Look, I'm sorry," I added. "I won't do it again if this is how you feel about it."

We managed to calm Chuck down—but, wow, his reaction was certainly unexpected. I learned to be a little more judicious from then on with which kids I could share a little friendly Bronx cheer.

(Not that I shared it often—it was really a rare occasion, in fact, that I saved for moments in which I thought it would lighten a tense mood or work as a disincentive for a kid to behave in a way that required such an "intervention.")

But Al and I to this day have a good laugh over this incident. Who knew Gollum could be so offended over just a little bio-methane? Who knew.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Big Brother is Watching (or, Weapon of Gas Destruction)

Sometimes a kid would simply tick you off so much that you just wanted to put him in a headlock until he begged for mercy and promised never to do anything bad again. Seriously. If you've worked in direct care for some time—or even if you're just a parent—I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But alas, we live in a society that has its limits and controls and affords us a semblance of freedom only if we refrain from doing bad. And so for moral as well as practical reasons, we must regulate our impulses. Else, we be no different from the anarchic kids I served, who made the ruffians in "Lord of the Flies" look like pansies.

To compensate for not being able to act on one's impulses, however, those who work in direct care with mega-hyper, mega-disrespectful, mega-obstinate, mega-aggressive kids necessarily develop certain strategies for handling the stresses of the job. Also known as "coping skills," these methods vary in their self-destructiveness: some of us take up drinking excessively, some take up smoking, some develop tics, some take prescription sedatives, and some take up chronically cussing and venting to their coworkers. And some take up all of the above.

Anyway, one coping skill I spontaneously discovered one day was to pass gas on a kid who deserved it. Here's how it all began.

Lara and I directed a client to take a time out because he was being rude and disruptive during a therapeutic "team building" group (aka, kickball) that Lara was running. This client, a challenging (to put it mildly) fifteen-year-old named DeShawn, refused to serve the time out.

DeShawn was a challenging (again, an understatement) persona all around, the kind of kid only a mother could love. Except, even his mother didn't love him, else he wouldn't have been in residential placement for the reasons he was.

Now, when I suggest he was hard to love, I'm sure there are people who could find it in their hearts to love this child, including when he crapped in his pants and then refused to shower, when he cussed you out, when he refused to follow your directions, when he spit on you, when he tried to hurt you physically—all on a moment-to-moment basis of every single day, for weeks on end. Yeah, there are surely some Mother Teresa types out there who probably could find a special spot in their heart for DeShawn. But, unfortunately, I just couldn't find this place in mine.

I have possessed overwhelming sympathy for virtually every single kid I have ever served. But DeShawn simply made the list of the one or two kids in over seven years whom I simply could not develop a fondness or feel sufficient pity for, because his behaviors were so aggressive, mean spirited, and intentionally infuriating. I knew his monstrous nature was not originally his fault, but he was a monster nonetheless, and he flaunted this persona by smearing it in your face every day.

Anyway, Lara and I forced DeShawn to serve his time out by grabbing him on each forearm and leading him to the time out area (a particular spot on the floor adjacent to a wall). He offered minimal resistance getting there, but once on the spot he kept trying to get up. So, Lara and I continued to hold each forearm of this rather large young man—nearly six-foot tall and about 235 pounds—and we held him down by pressing down on his shoulders with our other hand.

(This physical enforcement of time outs was standard practice at my place of employment at one time; however, any hands-on method of compliance was later prohibited—in my opinion, to the detriment of the clients. For, they then had the green light to be as disruptive, defiant, and oppositional as they wanted to be no matter the circumstance, as our only allowed response was to verbally encourage them to stop misbehaving. If they refused to heed our imploring, we were essentially powerless to do anything else about it. In fact, many of the staff resorted to bribes, which only made things worse, as some of the kids realized they could always demand more and more loot and keep getting these rewards for their escalating badness. So, the kids were empowered to run the show, and they simply learned that terrorizing others into yielding to their demands pays off—and pays well.)

So, as Lara and I held DeShawn in place, I suddenly felt the urge–as every human does at times—to pass gas. But instead of holding it in, as decorum requires, I got the brilliant idea to vent some of my frustrations toward DeShawn on DeShawn himself, in a relatively harmless yet potent way. Thus, I pointed my caboose at DeShawn's head and let loose.

Lara and I instantly groaned and croaked, trying to stifle our laughter, as we attempted to maintain some semblance of professionalism. But Latisha, sitting at the staff desk, cried out, "Mr. Dave! I can't believe you did that!" And we ached even more to explode in laughter.

Suddenly, the unit phone rang. Latisha answered it, listened for a moment, looked at us gravely, and then hung up. She then turned to Lara and I and said, "That was Brandt (our supervisor). He was watching on the cameras and just asked if Dave farted on DeShawn's head."

Lara and I looked at each other grimly. We thought we were in trouble ourselves.

"Dave, he said for you to be more subtle next time."

God, it hurt so much trying to hold back the tsunami of guffaws now trying to force their way out of my body and head—that I just couldn't do it, and I let loose in an explosion of laughter, as did Lara. And, man, it felt so darn good to finally adequately "vent" my frustrations with DeShawn. So good, that tears came to my eyes.


© 2008 David Lee Cummings

Saturday, March 1, 2008

"Come on, Mistah Dave!"

Yet another Brady—Brady Wyler—also developed a vigorous attachment to me. And I developed a commensurate fondness for him.

Brady W. was an African American boy about twelve years old who I believe was diagnosed with mental retardation, although he didn't have the characteristic physical appearance the term conjures up. He looked pretty much like a normal adolescent child—sans the encrusted snot perpetually caked from his nostrils to his upper lip. He also wore large and extremely thick plastic-framed glasses that distorted his eyes, magnifying them into disproportionately large and goofy orbs. His behavior was likewise goofy, particularly when he cocked his head like a Labrador and gazed at you with his mouth agape, seemingly preparing to say something to you yet not uttering a word ... just gazing silently and without an ostensible reason.

Brady stayed for some time on the crisis unit, and one of his favorite pastimes was to play catch with a Nerf football. I think nearly every night that I worked while Brady was a resident, during free time we played this game of toss-and-catch. It was the main process by which we bonded.

This game was a great deal of fun. Brady would cock his head and look at me out of the corner of his glasses—his comically enlarged eyes opened up wide—and then fling the ball at me in a spasmodic two-handed flick, like he was impatiently swatting at a fly with both hands at once. His throwing motion would make any quarterbacks coach cringe, but somehow it was effective. The ball would fly at me with an incredible amount of thrust, and Brady's accuracy was formidable: More often than not, the ball would be on-target and reach me with an ample degree of velocity.

Catching the ball was a different story for Brady. Usually he would lunge at the ball and abruptly cross his arms in an attempt to cradle-snatch it, the ball ricocheting off of his chest and bounding away. Brady would then chase after the ball with an extreme sense of urgency as it flipped and flopped away, pouncing on it when he finally caught up with it.

The most memorable thing about our game of toss-and-catch was this: Whenever I would throw Brady an errant pass that was out of his reach, he would cock his head and peer at me out of the corner of his glasses with his magnified fish eyes, and cry out, "Come on, Mistah Dave!" His voice would screech out in a high pitch and had a slur to it reminiscent of a drunkard.

His little shout out—"Come on, Mistah Dave!"—was so emphatic and frequent (I guess my aim must have been pretty bad), that it earned a sort of infamous status on the unit, eliciting frequent laughs from my coworkers as well as mocking repetition from them on many occasions. And so, I recall that phrase now with much vividness, as it is inseparable from the source. It will always be Brady's trademark slogan, the sound image married indelibly to the visual image of him, the icing on his endearing cake.

"Come on, Mistah Dave!"


© 2008 David Lee Cummings