Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me …
Gerardo* was a legend at Royal Family Kids’ Camp, but being a legend at a camp for foster kids isn’t always a good thing. It takes real dedication to excellence to dysfunctionally stand above 100 abused, abandoned or displaced kids, but Gerardo had been up to the challenge last year. He then spent the time between camps training, polishing his skills, and gearing up for year two. In other words, Gerardo brought his A-game in 2013.
*not his real name
All told Gerardo punched 8 DIFFERENT people in 5 days, and that’s not counting repeat incidents with the same person. The situation was almost always the same – Gerardo would verbally antagonize kids around him, the kids would say something back, and since Gerardo is actually, secretly a very sensitive soul he would be deeply hurt.
For Gerardo, being hurt, attacked, embarrassed or even lightly teased all feels more or less the same: an overwhelming negative emotion he is incapable of processing. All humans have these moments – tidal waves of emotion that surge over the walls we’ve built to hold them back. Gerardo feels this every 10 minutes or so.
And so he punches. Hard. He punched a fellow cabin-mate who also had severe anger issues. He punched a cabin counselor too authoritarian for his liking. He punched his personal counselor Adam, even though he knew Adam was almost his only friend at camp. He punched a lifeguard too, although if you knew Gerardo the guy almost, but not quite, had it coming.
A few hours after being told he’d be kicked out of camp if he punched another person, Gerardo lost his cool when someone provoked him and he felt like a counselor wasn’t listening to him. And so the counselor got punched. Realizing what he did and that he would almost certainly be sent home, Gerardo fell to the ground and starting balling. In the middle of the dorm. In front of 5 other campers. Adam bent down, picked him up, and carried him out like a mom would carry a fussy baby.
What comes up must come down. Matter isn’t created or destroyed. Gerardo punches. These are irrefutable laws of nature. Gerardo didn’t know how to not punch any more than he knew how to reverse gravitational pull.
It’s both easy and hard to sympathize. On one hand Gerardo was a bully. On the other hand Gerardo was a victim. Gerardo was violent. But he could be sweet, like when he told Adam he loved him or when he unexpectedly told his archrival, Eric that he believed Eric could swim all the way across the pool and that he would be praying for him.
Gerardo was obnoxious and loud and anti-authority and funny and kind and violent and rude and polite and all in a 5 minute span. Gerardo was all of humanity’s anger issues, and parent issues, and secret sins, but without the tools to hide it. In other words, Gerardo was me. He was all of us. Maybe that’s why he didn’t get sent home …
A few days later Gerardo got in another fight, this time with a girl (who was both older, bigger, and very, very good at antagonizing). I was the only counselor around at the time and as I tried to find out what happened the girl told me Gerardo had punched her twice in the stomach and called her a bitch.
Gerardo was many things, but liar was rarely one of them. “Yeah, I did that” he said, when I asked if that was true. She had been calling him names. I told the girl I’d handle it and asked her to walk away. I bent down on my knees and looked Gerardo in the eyes. He glared back at me with what I’d learned to see as anger, sadness, confusion, and rebellion. The cycle he was in was exhausting, but it was all he knew and he was absolutely ready to shove my attempts at discipline back in my face.
Because that’s what I had to do, right? I HAD to raise my voice, yell at him, tell him it’s absolutely NOT okay to hit girls ever, ever, ever and he is already so far beyond his 3rd strike that he’s struck out for the entire team and ended the inning. I had to report him and get him sent home even though camp was ending in 18 hours. I had to because there are rules and the only way to curtail bad behavior is to bend that person’s will to the irrefutable laws of nature.
I locked eyes with my personified inner-id, opened my mouth to tell him how bad what he did was and …
“Gerardo, I love you buddy. I’m glad you’re here this week.”
I have no idea where it came from. It wasn’t what I planned to say. I opened my mouth to give the law, and grace came out instead.
And Gerardo teared up, tumbled into my arms and hugged me.