by Scott Yi
The ironic thing was that, having tracked down Bobby after all this time, it turns out he was now living in the same city as me—only a couple miles away actually. It was two months since we had last seen each other. On my last visit we had gone to see the latest Fast & Furious installment, and the whole time we were in the movie theater I remember Bobby couldn’t stop commenting out loud, “Vin Diesel got fat!” He's funny like that. I wanted to be there for his 13th birthday, maybe take him out for an entire day golfing, since the idea of a gold course intrigued him as someone from the rundown cities outside Providence. Bobby and I had planned our outings by cellphone, but when I called two months ago his aunt answered and told me that Bobby would be in a program for several weeks. When I asked what kind of program this was, she said she didn’t know. When I tried again a couple weeks later, that’s when I found out that Bobby wasn’t living with his family anymore. He was moved to a foster family. I kept trying to get in touch with his mom to find out how I could reach him. When she finally did reply, it turned out that Bobby had been moved again… this time to a group home. I didn’t like the sound of this at all.
See, Bobby’s mom is actually his grandmother. Bobby isn’t allowed to see his biological mother because she’s been in and out of prison as a crack addict. So for the longest time, his grandparents had been attempting to adopt Bobby. But before those three years where he was finally allowed to live with his family, Bobby basically grew up in a group home and he absolutely despised it. So I knew for him to return to such a condition, it wasn’t going to be easy. And I still needed to find out what happened that caused DCYF to move him. Bobby’s mom gave me the number of his social worker, and it was from that bit of information that I was able to close in and at last arrange a time I could see him.
The thing is, Bobby’s living situation with his family wasn’t the most ideal, either. In the last month I had been visiting him, he had gotten into all sorts of trouble. He was suspended for bringing a pocket knife to school. When I asked him why he did it, he simply tells me that he doesn’t even remember that he had it with him. The school he attends is a specialized learning center for kids with behavioral disabilities. Bobby is bipolar with ADHD, and although he just finished the 7th grade, his reading comprehension is at a 2nd grade level. On top of that, he didn’t have any positive role models in his life. Because his parents are too old to be active with him, they just let Bobby stay up all night watching DVDs permanently “borrowed” from the library. His house is in a rough neighborhood where the teenagers just congregate on the street corners to smoke pot and buy cigarettes for the younger kids.
When I arrived at Bobby’s group home, the first thing I really notice is the attitude of the staff person who’s in charge of the seven kids living there. As I watch his interaction with the kids, the sense of defeatism was clear. Both the kids and their adult supervisor had that lingering understanding that neither of them actually wanted to be there, but they might as well try to make living with each other kind of bearable. Bobby later told me that one of the older kids was supposed to go to prison when he turned 18, so he was just living there waiting for his time to come.
Bobby is a bright, friendly kid. He had always been good in social settings, and actually if there was any problems it was that he was too forward with people, as he had a talent for getting what he wanted out of people. So that day I could tell immediately that the group home had gotten to Bobby. The cheeriness and natural curiosity were gone. I wanted to find out what his life was like at the home and I wanted him to be open with his feelings, but the first thing he said was that he didn’t want to talk about the home or his parents. He didn’t want to be reminded of any of that. As we drove around the city, I asked him what he wanted to do, suggesting that we could go play basketball or go get dinner. He didn’t want to do any of that either. So I asked him what he did want. He said he wanted me to buy him a Black & Mild.
If you don’t know, “blacks” are cheap cigars that are popular among poor people, and basically every corner store sells them individually over the counter. So yes, on top of everything else going on in Bobby’s life, he was also smoking. In fact, he’s been smoking since he was 8 or 9. Everyone in his family smokes, and during one of the first times that I took him out, I distinctly remember the denim jacket he was wearing, covered in dog hair and the stink of cigarettes. The more honest he became about his life over the months that we got to know each other, the more apparent it was just how often he smoked. He even smoked with his dad—they were trying to hide that fact from his mom, but when she found out she just gave up and didn’t try to stop them. I often brought up the dangers of cigarettes, telling Bobby about health issues I had learned in med school, or describing disfigured customers I had met in my parents’ grocery store, with holes in their necks and cancer eating away their lips. Bobby shrugged it off and said that I didn’t have to worry, because he was practicing moderation. And he was gonna quit anyway.
That wasn’t the case now. For the entire two hours we were together, I took him around the city to find something better that would draw his interest, but he just kept asking when we were going to find the nearest corner store. That’s all he wanted, that’s all he could think about. In the midst of his pleadings I was able to get him to answer some of my questions about what his living situation was like, getting a better sense of his everyday schedule. But still, he was trying every trick he could think of to convince me to buy cigarettes for him. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea and he came up with the most outlandish excuses in response:
“I only started smoking when I was 9, but my mom started when she was 7!”
“The staff at my group home lets us smoke on the down low, he lets us ‘do our business’ in the ‘bathroom’ if you know what I mean.”
“I swear this will be the only time I ever ask you. I’ll even pay you back. I get an allowance every Friday.”
"I’ve been bugging out all day, if I just had one cigarette then I’d calm down and then we could go do whatever you wanted.”
“You missed my birthday, remember? You didn’t get me anything. You weren’t even there for my birthday.”
I think I reached the end of my patience when, strolling around the mall, Bobby kept looking at the people walking past us for some miserable-faced middle-aged man who I could bum a loose cigarette off of. He would point to some sad looking guy and suggest that I could go up to him and ask for a cigarette. So at that point I decided it was time to be blunt.
Me: “I know you don’t like being at the group home, but maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. You said you like the kids you’re living with.”
Bobby: “Can we please just change the subject? I told you I don’t want to talk about that. Man, I thought this was supposed to be fun…”
Me: “Oh, you want to change the subject? Yeah, ok, let’s do that. Let’s change the subject to how you want to take advantage of me so you can smoke without anyone knowing.”
Bobby: “No… no, it’s not like that…”
I told Bobby that it wasn’t a good idea for me to buy cigarettes for him because it was exceedingly clear that at the age of 13, he was addicted. I told him about the importance of saying no to your own urges, and if you can never say no, doesn’t that mean you’re just a slave of what you want? I told him how much I wanted to see him after two months, but I didn’t expect to be treated like this.
… I don’t think it stuck. We just kept going back and forth like this until it was time to bring Bobby back to his home. Disappointed and disgruntled that he had gone through the whole day without a smoke, he skulked sadly out of my car with a mumbled goodbye. On the drive back to my apartment, I was at a loss. Bobby wanted desperately to return to the safety and acceptance of his family, without all the rules and harshness of the group homes that have cursed him for so long. But his old family life wasn't actually the loving environment he needed either, it was just the place where he could be bad in the comfort of his own privacy. And I kept thinking about what I could have done differently. Maybe I need to work on making my tone more convincing; maybe I should have denied him more sternly from the very beginning so we could have actually done something together. Or maybe, going any other route would just have closed off Bobby from speaking his mind. After all, before me Bobby had had a previous mentor for about a year, a banker who wanted to have a family, and in that entire time the guy never knew about his smoking. He settled on pleasing Bobby instead, providing unlimited arcade games and dinners for his sweet little substitute son.
No, our relationship is different, and I’m determined to keep it that way. As I think about the strange place that my mentoring experience has taken me, I know that, no matter how miserable the both of us felt last weekend, I don’t want to hang out with the false version of Bobby—a kid who lies about who he is. Children are such great liars. We adults, we desire so much to see kids be happy. And you know what? Children these days are pretty astute, they know that about us. So as long as they say what we hope they’d say, kids can live an entire second life hidden in plain sight. Kids have all the power not because adults want to keep them happy, but because they’re so good at keeping us happy. But what happens if that’s not the case? What if no one’s happy and we have to live with the sad truth that our children are just as bad as we are?
It means this is when they need us the most.