I began a ten day vacation yesterday, another step in a much needed self-reconstruction. I've been working at my job for eighteen months now with almost no time off, and before starting this vacation had accumulated nearly three weeks in leave time. I had been unable to take any more than a day off here and there up to this point. I am one of two full time third shift people at my job. We work with two people on the overnight at all times, with the exception of times when we require a third person due to problems or potential crisis situations. This means the two full timers cover ten out of fourteen available slots on third shift, requiring us to keep part time and relief persons available to cover the other four slots as well as when we are off. Often our part time and relief people leave to take jobs elsewhere or move to day shift work, or, as sadly has been the case over the past year, our minions have been fired or forced to resign for absurd and otherwise inappropriate behavior.

And, well, every time I've tried to take time off I've had to get called in to cover because one of our part time or relief people has left the building.

I work at a shelter for troubled teenage girls, run by a faith-based organization and integrated into the New Hampshire legal system. My job makes me part counselor, part janitor, and part prison guard. I like to think of myself as sometimes Scatman Crothers in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and part The Man With No Eyes from Cool Hand Luke. Sometimes when I'm trying to quell a nighttime disturbance of some kind I feel like shouting out, "This is my job, motherfucker!" and sometimes I want to get cold as shit and put my sunglasses on. These times are relatively few and far between. Most of the time I'm working hard to make myself seen as a positive male role model who is safe, non-threatening and as "cool" as possible. A lot of these girls come from backgrounds where they have been abused physically or sexually by male figures in their lives and it takes them a few nights to get used to having a man they know nothing about sitting outside their room while they sleep.

Some of these girls are scared to death, finding themselves "locked" in what is theoretically an institution after either getting themselves in trouble with the law, losing control of their lives due to drug and alcohol abuse, running away from abusive family situations, or, in a situation which has been on the rise in recent months, becoming homeless. It seems a large number of single parent families have been drifting deeper into poverty and that parent has become unable to feed, clothe and shelter their child or children as they struggle to simply support themselves. Some of these kids are absolutely blown away by the concept of receiving three meals every day.

On the flip side of that are what I call the "party girls," who engage in activities and behavior we used to call "normal" back when I was a teenager, drinking at parties on the weekends and engaging in the smoking of marijuana from time to time. The underbelly of "no tolerance" is many of these girls (and boys as well, I'm sure, although our facility is girls only) are generally doing well in school and have relatively stable home lives but end up being looped in the system due to failing random drug tests or being caught drinking alcohol. Instead of graduating high school they end up with a GED and a record that negatively impacts their future.

Recently I got to know a girl who comes from a troubled home with a single mother whose own life problems and state of mind has had a serious negative impact on her daughter, who despite being quite intelligent and having never used drugs or drank alcohol, has developed a serious inferiority complex and was often truant from school due to bullying and the like. A huge difference maker in her life has been a woman who has treated her with great respect and kindness and helped her see that not everyone is out to get her. While this girl's mother never visits her at the shelter, this woman comes to see her regularly and recently took her out to get new clothes for an interview she had with a program she really wants to be accepted into. She has dreams of becoming a lawyer, and while her mother has spent the better part of her life shooting down her dreams, this woman encourages her dreams and has done much to help rebuild the girl's shattered self-esteem.

This girl and this woman found each other through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and for anyone wanting to do what they can to help the many boys and girls out there who lack positive role models in their lives, I recommend you check their program out. While I know little about the program other than how it has helped this girl out, the impact it has had on her life makes me want to give it a thumbs up. Whatever we can do...

I've come to believe that most of the problems in our society come from our children being ill-prepared to meet the challenges ahead of them. The more children who grow into adults feeling angry, dispossessed, or apathetic, the more adults we have who just don't care any longer. Children without hope grow into adults who commit crimes, carry their own history of abuse into abusive relationships, are emotionally unprepared for the challenges of life, and give birth to a new crop of children who will fall into the same cycle. We can say our children are fine because we've done all we could for them and place the onus on the parents for their failings, say they shouldn't have reproduced in the first place and so on and so forth, but these children exist. They will continue to exist. There is no "us and them" when you boil away the oceans of our creation, there is only "us." The world is colored in shades of gray.