I was a hired thug for tough love

For two years, I led wilderness trips for teenagers who had been begged, bribed, tricked and sometimes physically dragged from their beds to get to us. And, yes, I can still sleep at night.

Published August 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"How the hell do you sleep at night, knowing what you did to kids?"

Twitch was a 16-year-old reporter at Pacific News Service. He had come to us through juvenile hall. He'd lived on the streets, kicked drugs at a younger age than I'd ever done any and had the face and attitude of an arrogant 22-year-old. We were taking a cigarette break outside, and he had asked me what I'd done before coming to PNS. When I told him that I used to work for a therapeutic wilderness program, he froze for a second. "Wait, so this was one of those lockdown camps?"

"Yes," I said, preparing to launch into my Heartwarming Story of How Lost Souls Find Themselves in the Desert.

But I didn't have time. His eyes widened, his face broke open and for a second looked young and scared and hurt, and then it slammed shut. He asked me his question, threw down his cigarette and walked away.

It was a year before he could speak to me without glaring, and two before he would tell me why: When he was 13, he'd been escorted -- kidnapped, he'd say -- to a therapeutic boarding school similar in many ways to the program I used to work for. The school had since been closed down and he was suing for abuse.

So how do I sleep at night?

For two years, during all seasons, I led wilderness trips for teenagers who didn't want to be there, who had been begged, cajoled, bribed, tricked and sometimes physically dragged from their beds before getting dropped in our laps. Once they arrived, their clothes were taken and their piercings pulled, and their Walkmen, cigarettes and makeup were put into storage. Then they were dumped into the custody of two assholes who showed them how to roll up tarp and webbing and a sleeping bag into a pack, marched them into camp and told them that from now on they'd need to inform one of us every time they wanted to go to the bathroom.

As one of the assholes in question, I offered very few answers, even fewer expressions of sympathy, and had little information to provide them about why they were there or what they could expect. We would tell them that they'd discover for themselves what they needed here, and that our job was to teach them the skills they needed to survive and to keep themselves safe.

It was usually at least a week before any of them would stop thinking of me as "that bitch."

Their parents would spend the three weeks of the program planning for their kids' future with the help of an educational consultant. These consultants, often of dubious credentials, would help the parents decide what to do with their out-of-control, drug-using, sleeping-around, disrespectful, underachieving, overmedicated, underappreciated, blue-haired, multipierced, ADHD, ADD, OCD, dyslexic and usually damned unhappy kids.

In the end, the kids were often sent off to yet another kind of institution, generally referred to as "emotional growth schools." These schools often charged upward of $60,000 a year and promised all the happy endings we promised, except more of them and for longer.

And the same umbrella company that owned us also owned these schools.

Sometimes I felt as if I was only there to smooth the kids over, prep them and fatten them up for their next step. We may have been in the business of miracles, but business is still business. And healthy, balanced kids? That was our product.

But I didn't deal with parents or schools or experts or the people above the people above me. I was just out there with the kids and the canyons and the campfires. The miracles.

Like Karen.

Karen showed up with 2-inch-long, fake purple fingernails set with rhinestones. According to routine, the outfitters had taken her clothes and given her the things that she would need for the trip -- everything from a T-shirt and hiking boots to oatmeal and a pocketknife. She was small, with mascara-smudged tear stains under her eyes and long black hair that she braided and unbraided as I laid out the tarp and showed her how to roll it up into a bedroll over her sleeping bag and blanket. I introduced myself and my co-instructor, Rob, and then asked her how she'd ended up here.

Her eyes were flat. "Two fucking goons woke me up in the middle of the night and put me on a plane."

I nodded, unrolled the pack I'd just put together and told her to try it. She stood up and looked me straight in the eye. "Look, I don't know what kind of Outward Bound bullshit this is. And I'll do whatever it takes to graduate and get out of here in 21 days. But if you or my parents or anyone else thinks that you're gonna change me or make me into a good little girl by sending me to boot camp, I'll tell you right now, it's not going to work."

I nodded again, and then went to talk to Rob about the fingernails. We had a hushed conversation. Would she be able to build traps, carve wood, build fires and tie complicated knots with those purple claws? Would we have to file them down? Would she get them caught in something?

We couldn't worry about it now. There were four other kids sitting on their packs 30 feet upstream, all in various stages of discomfort and unhappiness, and we had six miles to go by noon if we wanted to beat the midday heat.

Over the course of the next week, Karen was true to her word. She hiked five to 10 miles a day without complaining. She learned how to set up traps; she learned how to make a fire by striking a rock against her pocketknife; she learned how to build a shelter from plastic, string and branches. She did her journal assignments; she spoke when we asked her to, stayed quiet when we asked her to. And on Day 7, when the therapist drove out in an ATV to meet with her, Karen told her the same thing she told us: She wasn't buying into any of the bullshit or falling for any of the mind games.

By Day 9, the kids weren't expected to spend as much time alone. Now we worked together in a group, sat by the fire in a group and, yes, talked about our feelings in a group. Jason explained why it had been so hard for him to quit cocaine. Christie cried about her parents' divorce. Joey, who had been in and out of boarding schools and rehab for years, told funny stories about other therapeutic hiking trips he'd been on.

And Karen sat, quiet.

Lisa, the therapist, had instructed us by radio that we shouldn't push her -- just leave her be and let her know we cared.

On the night of Day 9, Karen told us that her boyfriend had once broken her arms with a baseball bat. Her parents were trying to break them up by sending her away. But he'd changed, she said, and she was just following all of our rules so she could get this over with and go home to be with him.

We knew from her paperwork that there was more -- an abortion, constant fights with her father, hanging out with a tough crowd. We also knew that she probably wouldn't be going home.

On Day 10, our supervisor drove out and told Karen that her parents had made a decision: When she graduated from the wilderness program, she would go straight to a private boarding school in Texas.

I went for a walk with her away from camp. She was crying and cursing, throwing rocks, clenching her nailed fists so hard I was afraid she'd cut herself. We knew that she no longer had a reason to follow any of the rules. But she had a role in the group: The other kids needed her and there were still places we had to go, wood to be collected, water to be filtered.

That night by the fire, Jason said, "You know, Karen, I'm not sayin' I'm glad your parents sent you away. But I will say this: If I ever see that guy of yours, I'm gonna kick his ass."

Karen wouldn't have heard it from us. But from Jason -- 17 years old, earnest and Southern, always the first to carry gear or go get water -- it meant something real.

But she still wasn't going to fall for any bullshit games.

"I love him," she said. "And he's not like that anymore."

And she was pissed at her dad. When she'd gotten pregnant, he'd called her a slut and refused to take her to the clinic. He wasn't there for her then, and now he was going to take her away from the one person who loved her? She wasn't having it.

Two days later, we brought all the kids into base for a ropes course. It was lousy weather for a course: The heat made the helmets unbearable, and it was so windy that the ropes and poles shook. Karen and Joey were the first to go up. They climbed up a 40-foot pole and then crossed shaky parallel bars with nothing but each other to lean on as they made their way to the other side. Lisa, who was both my supervisor and the assigned therapist, was walking everyone through it, making every step they took into a metaphor.

You know how those metaphors work. Anyone who has ever had to go on a corporate bonding retreat or a scout trip has heard it all before: Climb a ladder and heal your soul.

But after you've spent two weeks hiking, cooking, and sleeping in the canyons, where there are no city lights and no distractions, and nowhere at all to hide from your demons, it's tough to be cynical. When you're up there, you're in it, you're hooked.

They'd completed the first leg when for no reason whatsoever Joey sat down on the platform, curled his arms and legs around the post and said, "I'm not moving." They had been about to embark on the second of three legs, the one you can't do alone. One person has to hold onto the post and support the other, who walks out on a wire, with nothing to grab but a hand, and then leaps for a rope, which takes the person over to the other side. Without Joey, it would be almost impossible for Karen to do.

When Joey shut down, Karen was already out on the wire, and without his hand, she was a good 3 feet from the rope she'd need to reach the halfway point of the course. She could turn around and climb down pretty easily though, and that's what we were expecting her to do.

But Lisa called up, "What are you going to do now, Karen?"

"I'm gonna fucking jump is what I'm gonna fucking do!"

"Why can't you do it alone, Karen?"

"Fuck you!"

"I mean it. Look at him. He gave up on you. He wasn't there for you. So what are you going to do?"

Karen rained down another stream of curses at Lisa, who stood with her hands on her hips, squinting into the sun.

"You gave everything you had, and now you're alone. But you're not falling, you're standing straight and tall. What's next?"

Karen just sobbed. All of us -- Lisa, Rob, the kids -- stood riveted, waiting. "Fuck you, Lisa! I know where you're going, and it's not going to work! I ain't buyin' your bullshit!"

"I didn't ask what you were going to buy, I asked what you were going to do. He left you, and you didn't fall. Do you want to give up, or do you want to want to keep going and see if you can make it on your own?"

I looked sharply at Lisa. It was my 10th trip, and I'd never seen anyone do this leg without a partner. She was breaking the cardinal rule: Never set up a kid for failure.

But Karen shouted, "I'm going to fucking keep going."

We barely breathed as she shook and swayed in the wind 40 feet above us, and then finally started to take mincing steps on the rope, cursing like a fishwife the entire time. We couldn't see her face, just her body shaking against the gray sky. Minutes passed. And then, without notice, she sprang for the other side.

And made it.

Down on the ground we started clapping. And Karen, predictably, yelled at us to shut the fuck up.

Lisa called up, "So now, before you swing down, I've got one more thing to add, OK?"


"If there's anything you want to leave up there, if there's anything you don't want to take with you, you can leave it. OK?"

"Fuck you. I told you I ain't buyin' this shit!"

But see, there was no requirement. She didn't have to finish the course to graduate, or to win a prize, or to win respect from a group of kids who already respected her anyway.

She took a deep breath and jumped. We all ran toward her, but she ran first to Lisa, who held her for a long, long time. And then we picked up our packs and headed back for the canyons in silence, single file.

That night by the fire, after rice and beans, after making ash cakes from flour, after telling stories, she stopped us as we were about to say goodnight. "Wait. I want to tell you guys something."

Jason fed the fire. Christie stopped whittling her bow drill. Tim just looked away.

She whispered, not to us, but to the flames in the center of the circle.

"I just want you to know, I left him up there."

Jason stood up and put an arm around her. She buried her head in his shoulder and started to cry.

"But I still ain't buyin' this shit."

Karen did get sent off to Texas. Maybe she hated the school. Maybe she has never forgiven her father. Maybe she's back with the arm breaker. Maybe her moment on the ropes course was just that, a moment.

But it made for one hell of a moment.

And that, Twitch, is why I sleep at night. Because out in the canyons, Karen was the rule, not the exception. And what she did up there had nothing to do with her parents, or fancy group therapeutics, or watered-down Native American campfire rituals, or the people who owned the people who owned us. It was just plain courage.

And she never even broke a nail.

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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