More counselors may avert more school tragedies

May 13, 1999|By FRED J. HANNA

THE warning signs were there. Corey, 15, had become withdrawn and was experimenting with drugs.

His father had abandoned the family seven years earlier. Corey's mother, a registered nurse, worked long hours at a local hospital, leaving him little adult guidance.

Out of worry and fear, his mother sought help for Corey, who had stopped talking to her and was "always angry." Corey had a great smile but it hardly ever emerged from beneath his defiant scowl. He had long, dark hair, and his brown eyes were filled with spite and contempt.

Behind those eyes was a shrewd, scheming intelligence -- the kind that disturbs you when you see it in a child.

My job was to get Corey to open up about his problems: "Corey, your teachers and principal are worried about you. They tell me that you have problems with your anger. Is that true?"

He looked at me long and hard, as if he were deciding whether to dismiss me out of hand. "I am tired of people talking about my anger," he said, then curled his lip and displayed a contorted smile. "Let me tell it to you straight. I hate everybody and I hate everything. OK?"

I watched him lean back in his chair to take in my reaction to this strangely heartfelt statement. I ignored my momentary feeling of alarm and leaned closer. I looked him in the eye and reframed his statement. "Sometimes hating is a way of trying to feel better, Corey. Is that what you are doing?"

An opening

He paused, unprepared. He had not considered this. I could see a window opening and pressed further for an inroad into this child's inner world. After a brief pause, I started, "Can I ask you a question?" He nodded. "Have you ever been hurt?" I asked.

"What do you mean, `hurt'?" he said. I rephrased the question, though I knew he had understood it. "I'm not talking about physical hurt, Corey, and I'm not asking you to tell me who. I just wonder if anyone has ever hurt you."

For just a moment, the scowl disappeared and was replaced by a look of vulnerability and uncertainty. I knew I had begun to reach him. I watched as he decided whether to trust me.

After a few more seconds, he said simply, "Yeah." I nodded and pressed further, "Do you think about it much?"

He looked at me now in a new way. "I think about it all the time," he said with an air of resignation. "Do you ever think about getting even?" I asked. "I think about that all the time, too," he said, now with his scowl returning. He then added, "And I will, too."

"Would you be willing to forgive them and move on with your life?" I asked the question, knowing what the answer would be. "No way," he said firmly and with great resolve. You always hope for a willingness to forgive, but it seldom comes immediately.

But there is a back door approach. "I understand, Corey. Can I ask you another question? "Yeah," he said. "How much of your anger is related to that hurt inside you?" He thought for a moment and said, simply, "Almost all of it." That's a common answer from youths like Corey.

"Well, I wonder," I said, "if your hurt went away, how much anger would you have?" He carefully considered the question and, somewhat surprised, replied, "Not very much, I guess."

I went on, "If the hurt went away, would you lose a lot of your interest in getting even with the people who hurt you?" He looked at me intensely, "I guess I wouldn't care as much," he ventured. He was now catching on to where I was going and his eyes showed a spark of interest.

"Did you know that counseling is a way of helping people to heal that hurt? You can feel better, Corey." He looked at me intensely, then said, "Maybe, but I ain't crazy."

I immediately said, "No, but you are hurting. You said it yourself. Be honest with me now. Has getting high gotten rid of the hurt?" He decided to trust me just a bit further. "It helps for a while," he said with a sigh. I smiled, "Counseling is a better way to heal the pain, Corey. Are you willing to give it a shot?"

He looked at me with a bit of longing in his eyes. "Yeah," he said softly, and with a hint of a smile added, "I'll try it." Corey soon told me who hurt him, what they did and his plans for a violent revenge. In time, he changed, and realized that healing his hurt was more gratifying than indulging his vengeance.

His story is not unusual. Counselors throughout the nation regularly help prevent tragedies like the one that recently rocked Columbine High School in Colorado. Fortunately, I was able to reach Corey before his plans for vengeance took shape.

Sadly, too many children never get a chance to heal their pain and integrate the experiences they encounter in a convoluted and contradictory society. To adequately help such children, we need at least four times as many school counselors and school psychologists as we have now. The average 500-to-one ratio is ludicrous.

Counselors need to be set free from their mundane duties to devote more time to counseling our hurting children.

Fred J. Hanna is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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