With his slicked-back hair, boyish grin, and flashy faux diamond earrings, Patrick sported the kind of deceptively confident look you would not expect on someone in such dire standing. You see Patrick had the misfortune of traveling on the wrong side of not one but two sets of laws, Florida law, as enforced by the juvenile justice system, and street law, as enforced by a notorious Miami-based gang. The gang had allegedly sought retribution for some unidentified transgression, and judging by the bruising along his arms, chest, and neck, I could tell he wasn’t speaking in jest. But there was more.
His psychosocial assessment and intake impressions were, to be perfectly blunt, troubling. Single-mother home, two brothers, both in prison, multiple priors, and a laundry list of other risk factors including learning disabilities, gang involvement, and recreational drug use. Relative to the median client sent for diversion programming, Patrick’s case file was a sociological “perfect storm”. My familiarity with his file aside, I had not met Patrick. As I was going to be facilitating his anger management training over the next five weeks, I wanted to get to know him beyond the manila folder of jargon and legalese which effectively distill all of our clients into a series of Likert scales, checkboxes, and free-response fields. This was, after all, social work. I began by asking about his background, interests, and anything else of significance he wanted to share with me. An all-too-familiar quiet filled our cramped space.
Like many clients at their first face-to-face session, Patrick met my invitation for small talk with a contemptuous glare and a concomitant silence. So I preempted his snub with a discussion of videogames, a safe bet for conversation among 16-year-old males of all stripes, and a field I had worked in and actually knew quite a bit about. I then disclosed why he was receiving anger management training, what the state required of him during his three month diversion, and, more broadly, how the confluence of his many risk factors served as a strong predictor for graduated criminal offenses and a more precarious life course.
Patrick became enraged. Perhaps it was the simple matter-of-factness with which I proceeded to educate Patrick about his reality that ignited his fury. Or perhaps he was merely irritable and I had unknowingly stepped in the face of inevitability. In either case, his rebuke inadvertently provided me with an elegantly simple and lucid insight into the morally ambiguous world in which he lives:
[Spanish slang], you don’t get it. I hit [the kid] and I get sent here for three months. I don’t hit him and I have Latin Kings on me. You say ‘chemical dependence’? I got sucker punched today and I didn’t even do anything. What would you do?
I was thrown. Despite training in solutions-oriented therapy, a thesis on juvenile delinquency, and four years of education from two of the finest universities in the country … I had no clue how to answer his question. And he knew it. He had sized me up, exposed the irreparable chasm separating our worlds, and, in effect, showed me how little I really knew—or could offer him.
I left feeling hollow and defeated. Even as I recognized that Patrick had presented me with a zero-sum proposition, I could not help but feel as if the integrity of my knowledge and my competency as a counselor had been justifiably called into question. I expressed my doubts to my co-workers. They cautioned against drawing too many inferences from one session and assured me that I had met the standard of care. Their confidence aside, I fully expected Patrick would request another counselor or, more likely, be so uncooperative as to require his being kicked-back to the state attorney. I had consciously written us both off.
When Patrick showed up the following week, sat down without hesitation, and demonstrated readiness to begin the session, I decided to interpret his gesture as a pardon of my misstep. Even if I still lacked his trust, I had learned very early in this line of work to suspend judgment and always err in favor of compassion. I admitted to Patrick that although I could not relate to his situation and was wrong to indicate otherwise, I could help him graduate this program and thereby avoid any permanent juvenile record. So I proceeded to counsel Patrick to the best of my ability. I offered him unconditional positive regard, consistent eye contact, an active ear, and an open mind. I got off my soapbox entirely and kept our meetings purposeful, rarely deviating from the topic at hand and issuing opinion only when it seemed especially relevant. Over our five weeks together, I learned what set him off, what he responded to, and what he really valued. And I did my best in our limited time together to connect these insights to the tools Patrick would need to exist less violently in a violent world.
For his part, and despite all the chaos around him, Patrick generally cooperated and appeared to derive some limited benefit from our discussions. In our meetings together as in life, he continued to find some way to stay above water, never quite able to advance against the upward current, but never giving up too much ground either. And when the time came for Patrick to leave, I extended my hand in friendship, wished him well, and joked that I hoped we would not meet again—at least not professionally.
Months have passed; neither I nor the other counselors know what has become of Patrick. In truth, his many persisting risk factors foreshadow greater future legal troubles, a prediction supported by both my academic background and clinical training. But Patrick has already shown me the danger in treating these foundations as articles of faith, and, likewise, that even as our options are narrowed and indeed dwarfed by forces beyond our control, there is dignity in simply making the best of a bad situation. I can only hope that, just as before, Patrick will keep his head above water long enough to escape his troubles, and that he’ll find his way to the other end, wearing his oversized smile, slicked-back curls, and diamond stud earrings, advancing towards a better life.
My experiences working with Patrick and other youths like him naturally inform my interest in pursuing a career in the law. Even as I do not apologize for my desire to toil in the world of ideas, I realize that ideas offer little value in isolation. The law provides an ideal compromise, a field which permits journey into the abstract even as it is inexorably grounded by the practical hardships of those invoking it. It is precisely because the black letter of the law exists in a dialog with human experience that I believe I not only stand to gain tremendously from its study but will also be able to contribute much as well. Indeed, whether it has been helping draft policy papers on behalf of Katrina victims, coordinating ongoing education for California’s prisoners, or working with youths like Patrick, I have been profoundly sensitized to the suffering of ordinary people whose day-to-day struggles orient my worldview and compel my pursuit of social justice. In law school, I look to build upon, draw from, and ultimately refine my perspective and in so doing lay the foundation for a practice of law guided by humility and compassion.