The first time I picked up Jack* for his counseling session, he stomped out of his classroom with his arms swinging, his hands in two tight fists. As he walked down the hall ahead of me, his legs bowed out as if he’d just jumped down from his horse. But this was Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And Jack was only six years old.

This was pretty much the way Jack always walked. There was nothing wrong with his legs or his arms; he just wanted to make sure you knew how tough he was. And since he’d been referred to this special day treatment school for punching his teacher in the mouth, his tough guy walk was no little boy’s empty bravado.

When I opened the door to my office and Jack stepped inside, he stood looking around at the bookcases filled with toys. There were two of them, one on either side of the room. They held dolls, trucks, clay, blocks, plastic cowboys. My office was nothing fancy, just a big room with a linoleum floor, a desk, table, a couple of metal folding chairs, and the toys. Jack looked up at me, questioning, his hands still curled into fists. A ringlet of brown hair drooped over his brow. He had a head full of brown ringlets. “Would you like to choose a toy to play with?” I asked.

Without speaking he strode over to one of the cases, his arms swinging. He grabbed one of the trucks and threw it to the ground. He looked up at me. I didn’t say anything. He grabbed a doll by the head and threw that to the floor and then a plastic cowboy, then a Transformer. Then with both hands he scooped toys off the shelves, throwing everything to the floor. When he finished with that bookcase, he dashed over to the second one and threw those toys onto the floor too. Toys were scattered all over the floor in an ugly mess.

A doll with its nose pressed into the linoleum looked like an innocent victim of Jack’s war. I said nothing. I only watched.

This was Strawberry Hill Day Treatment Center and my new job. The treatment center was the place where kids who couldn’t be helped or managed in the usual public schools were sent. We were in the middle of Bedford-Stuy, which was considered a dangerous neighborhood back then. They always stuck these places in the worst of surroundings. Our kids ranged in age from three to sixteen. Most were African American and Hispanic, but a few were white. Jack was Hispanic.

This was my first week. The day before I arrived there’d been a riot in the lunchroom. Police had been called in to settle things down. I was glad I missed that, but signs of it had not yet gone away. Kids roamed the halls outside their classrooms looking for someone to attack. The place was seriously understaffed, so for a time it looked as if the kids were in charge. Besides being understaffed, many of the employees were untrained. That was usual for places like this in the eighties. Untrained staff can cause more problems than they solve. Most of these kids were volatile; setting them off was easy. One wrong comment or response could do it. The staff made “wrong” responses all the time. They didn’t know that you must never get into a power struggle with a kid unless you really do intend to kill the kid. The kid is going to win, and you’re going to end up looking foolish, and more frustrated and angrier than you were when you started. Ultimately you were at risk of being unable to function in your job.

Sometimes it took hours just to get these kids seated in their classrooms. One time when a group of kids came charging down the hallway, tearing posters off the wall, I heard a classroom teacher say to a colleague, “All these kids need is a good beating. That would get them in line.” What the woman overlooked was that many of these kids were wild and out of control precisely because of the frequent beatings they’d already received at the hands of people who were supposed to love them. Now they were taking their revenge.

I came to Strawberry Hill to find meaning. I was always looking for meaning. Okay, I know, that’s what everybody’s doing, but with me it was an obsession. I’d been doing it since I was eight years old. I overheard my father say to my mother—I think it might have been on his birthday, June 1—”Well, my life is over. I’m thirty-five years old. No more dreams.” I left the house after hearing that and walked around the block. That’s what I usually did when I was confused and upset. I’d walk around the block trying to figure things out. Dad’s words struck me deep, and I said to myself then, “Not me. My life’s never going to be over. Not while I’m still living it.” I think that was when I became obsessed with finding meaning, a purpose to being alive.

By the time I was twelve I could barely function because I was so afraid my life would come to nothing. I remember one winter evening I came home from one of my walks and went upstairs to my bedroom. My mother followed me. She wanted to know what was the matter with me. “What’s the matter with Vanda?” was a pretty popular question in the family back then. My parents were scared, I later learned from my kid sister, whenever I went on one of my walks. “What’s the matter with her?” they’d whisper.

Mom sat on the bed next to me. I sat there, looking miserable, still all zipped up in my winter coat, despite the radiator spitting out heat. “Vanda, what’s the matter?”

“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” I said.

“But you’re only twelve years old. You have plenty of time.”

I couldn’t explain it to her. I knew it would be useless. She just wouldn’t get it. I was dealing with something that was vitally important to me, but to my mother, I was “only twelve years old.”

I went on to higher education, the first in my family, so that I would find that life of meaning. I saw no purpose in the life my mother and father led: Mom a housewife and Dad an eight-to-four factory worker. Neither of these were paths I wanted to follow. When I didn’t find meaning after receiving my BA, I tried to be an actor while supplementing my poverty with meaningless junk jobs; when that didn’t work I went on for my master’s degree in psychology. When that didn’t do it, I continued on for my doctoral degree. Finally, I was a licensed psychologist working at the New York City Board of Education, where it was my job to test one child after another. There were no important questions I had to answer about each child; there were no vital reasons for the testing. That’s just what psychologists did at the New York City Board of Education in the eighties. They tested special-ed kids; so I tested and I tested and I tested, day after monotonous day, for about two years. I was doing assembly-line IQ testing. I had become a factory worker after all.

When I entered Strawberry Hill to find that elusive meaning, I discovered I had landed in the middle of something frightening. Angry, angry kids. Kids who literally wanted to tear you apart. I won’t say I wasn’t scared because at times I was. But the immediacy of emotion, the rawness of it all, made me feel something terribly beautiful was going on here. Here was where I might find what I was looking for.

I had had extensive training in counseling adults and teenagers using nondirective techniques first developed by Carl Rogers; however, I had very little training in counseling young children— just a course or two with no supervised practical experience. I never expected to work with little kids, never wanted to, so I didn’t prepare for it. I was not the kind of woman who was eager to have children, and I’d never been particularly nurturing toward other people’s children. I’d been a terrible babysitter. There was no reason that I would head toward a career as a play therapist, except that a job opened up at the right time. I had to get out of the Board of Ed before I drowned. I was promised good supervision with the staff psychiatrist if I took the job, but it turned out he was rarely there.

As a nondirective counselor, I turned to the only nondirective play therapist I knew: Virginia Axline. Axline had developed a system of nondirective work with children based on the techniques of Carl Rogers. I devoured her books: Dibs: In Search of Self and Play Therapy. In nondirective therapy, the therapist accepts the individual just as he or she is without trying to force changes. The therapy is based on the idea that even within the most troubled person there is always a true, best self trying to grow beyond the symptoms that inhibit it. The therapist’s job is to create a safe space for that self to emerge.

During my first few weeks on the job, I mostly tried to protect the younger kids from the teenagers when we walked through the halls to my office. After a few more weeks, things calmed down some. The administrators hired some men who had once worked as guards at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. These men were giant friendly bears who found working at Strawberry Hill so much easier than Rikers that they befriended the kids and became father figures to them. That doesn’t mean the problems vanished, but the violent outbreaks in the hallways became less frequent.

For our second session, Jack once again stomped down the hall like John Wayne. When Jack was two, his father wanted to make a man of him. He took his small son, a baby really, into the snow and punched him repeatedly on the arm warning him not to cry. So being a man, being tough, was very important to Jack. I don’t know what happened to his father, but he left a very hostile little boy for Jack’s young mother to cope with.

Once in my office, Jack marched again over to the shelves and proceeded to throw everything on the floor. “You seem pretty angry,” I commented in true Virginia Axline style. He started to pull on the bookcase, trying to tear the whole thing down. I had visions of it landing on his head. I rushed over to prevent it from toppling over. “Someone could get hurt,” I told him. “In here no one gets hurt. That’s the rule.”

Jack looked up at me, considering. He pulled his hand away. I don’t know why he didn’t just ignore me and keep trying to pull the thing down. He would take on anyone: adult, teenager—it didn’t matter. He often had to be held back from punching some teenage boy in the hallway. He certainly didn’t pay attention to what his teacher or mother said. His teacher couldn’t wait for me to take him out of the classroom for a session; she needed the break. Maybe it was because I wasn’t yelling at him, setting my power up against his, trying to win something. I was simply stating a fact. This is the rule and it applies to both of us, not just you. No one (not me, not you) gets hurt in here. This is a safe place.

During the next several sessions, Jack would come into my office and throw the toys on the floor and then kick them around the room, but he never again tried to pull down the bookcase. Still, throwing the toys all over the floor session after session wasn’t getting us anywhere. And I was getting tired of hurrying to pick up his mess before my next client. One day just as Jack was about to toss things from the shelf, I said, “You know Jack, I’ve been thinking. Every session you come in here and throw things all over the floor and that just makes a mess. Is that fun? I wonder what it would be like to play with one of the toys?” Again, he glanced up at me and I saw that look. I wasn’t sure what that look was then, but I would see it many more times. He was weighing his options, considering what I was saying. After that day Jack no longer threw toys on the floor. We both sat on the floor playing games that he invented.

First, he started playing with the Transformers, then he went on to the guns. All the counselors were women and had some degree of discomfort with keeping toy guns in the play areas of their offices. Some were so philosophically opposed that they refused to do it. I was torn, and Axline had nothing to say on the topic. It was very apparent, even to those counselors who didn’t have toy guns available, that not keeping guns in the office did not stop the boys from finding a gun to play with; they’d just turn a doll or some other object into a gun. It is an unpleasant fact that boys seem to have a need to play with guns, and pretending that this need doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. But I discovered there was more to it than that. As I continued working with the children at Strawberry Hill, I learned just how really important it was to keep guns as one of the choices. Over and over again I saw in the beginning of therapy that boys immediately picked up the guns and the girls immediately went for the dolls. Predictable. But it didn’t end there. As counseling progressed and a deeper trust developed, boys began to play with the dolls and the girls began to play with the guns.

As a small child I had been a tomboy. I ran around the block hiding and shooting at little boys. I played only with boys then. If you gave me a doll I would shoot it. When I was ten I began having symptoms of a disorder that caused my legs and arms to grow weak and useless when I ran or played my tomboy games; I could no longer be physically active. When I was finally correctly diagnosed with familial episodic ataxia at the age of thirty-three, I was given medication that controlled my symptoms. By the time I started working with Jack, my symptoms had been under control for about five years.

Jack went from playing quiet games on the floor to shooting the bad guys all over my office. He made me his sidekick, and together we fought crime. We climbed on top of the desk and crawled under the desk shooting imaginary villains, Jack directing the plot. This wasn’t exactly what Axline had in mind when she wrote about nondirective play therapy. She always took the stance of an interested observer commenting on the child’s actions. But I was in the action. It was as if I were picking up my childhood again. We were having fun, and I know something disastrous ought to have happened from my enjoying Jack’s and my play that much, but as I tell my students, “Sometimes your biggest mistakes will lead you to your best results.”

Jack’s games became more complex. He built a Batmobile out of plastic milk crates. He dubbed me Robin and we would fly around the office capturing bad guys. Jack was always in charge of the plot, and I was always his helper in the games—the deputy to his sheriff, Robin to his Batman. Given his antagonistic relationships with adults, it was significant that he always cast me in a “helper” role and not as an enemy. Something important was happening in these sessions despite my getting a little lost in Jack’s games. Jack was feeling safe with an adult. Research tells us that it’s not so much the theory to which we ascribe that brings on the healing but the quality of the therapeutic relationship.

Then we hit our first big block, and I began to question what I had been doing.

“Jack, it’s time to go,” I told him at the end of one session.

He stood, crossing his arms over his chest. “No!” he said, shaking his head, his brown curls flapping.

“You wish you could stay,” I commented. “But you know the rule.”

He shook his head again, and pronounced, “No!”

I felt my own anxiety rising. “Jack, we have to go.” I tried to remain calm. I knew yelling at him would simply make me like all the other women authority figures in his life. That would be bad for our relationship, but I didn’t know how to maintain the therapeutic relationship while also ending the session on time. And the session had to end on time. One reason was purely practical. I had another student waiting to see me. But more important was the effect it would have on Jack and the work we were doing together. If Jack learned that he could extend a session simply by acting out, we could no longer have any productive sessions. I held out my hand toward him. “Come on, Jack.”

He stomped his sneakered foot, “No!”

I breathed in and took his hand in mine. He jumped away. Anger shook my body, and I scooped him up into my arms. His body went limp. It was like lifting fifty pounds of wet cement. I hauled this heavy load down the hall and deposited him in his classroom, not feeling at all good about this “solution.”

I knew how to deal with adults’ reluctance to leave, but this . . . I hurried to my dog-eared copy of Dibs: In Search of Self. Early in his sessions with Axline, four-year-old Dibs had refused to leave the office too. That was good. That must mean Jack’s behavior wasn’t caused by my direct involvement in his play. At first, Dibs ignored Axline when she told him it was time to go and just kept playing. When she told him again that it was time to go, Dibs shouted, “No! No go now. No go ever!” This was great. Dibs was acting just like Jack. I skimmed ahead in a hurry to find out what Axline did to solve the problem. After acknowledging Dibs’s desire to stay, as I had done with Jack, Axline put out her hand, and a reluctant Dibs took it. They left the office. What? That’s it? This was not helpful. I was on my own.

My next session with Jack was the same, but this time when Jack refused to leave, he ran under the table before I could grab him. I crawled under the table after him, frustrated, aware that I was going to be late for my next client and angry at both of us for my inability to solve this. I grabbed Jack by the belt and yanked him out and carried him back to his classroom.

The next session was a repeat, except when he dashed under the table he wrapped his arms around one of the table legs. He held on with all his might. Under the table I couldn’t get the correct leverage to pry him loose. I had to call security. I prided myself on being able to handle my clients with words without resorting to physical help from security. When the big burly man came in to get Jack, I felt like a failure. I felt worse when Jack cried and kicked in the security guard’s arms as he was carried down the hall.

Then from an opposite direction came shouting. I ran toward the sound. A crowd had gathered near the staircase—teachers, students, other staff. A girl had barricaded herself in a classroom, blocking anyone else from entering. I think she may have had a weapon, but I couldn’t see. Why doesn’t security get in there and grab her, I wondered. She’s just a skinny eleven-year-old kid. Her counselor was called to diffuse the situation. They sent for her to “do something.” I was sure glad that kid wasn’t mine. I would’ve hated to have to prove myself in front of all these people—most of them already thought psychology was a lot of nonsense. I was beginning to wonder if they weren’t right, with the way things were going with Jack. The counselor made her way through the crowd toward the girl and was greeted with, “Get out of my face, white bitch!”

The kids in the crowd laughed. “You don’t talk to me like that,” the counselor shouted back. “You show me respect.” Oh, jeez, all these people know psychologists are full of it, and she says that? I wanted to hang up my license right there. That kid’s been pimped out by her mother since she was nine years old to pay for her mother’s drug habit, and this counselor wants “respect”? What is it that hurts that counselor so bad that she can’t take a little name calling?

The girl laughed and said, “Go to fuckin’ hell with your skinny white ass!”

“Don’t speak to me that way!” the counselor shouted back with equal anger.

That counselor was handling the situation so badly. Still—I don’t know that I could’ve done any better. It’s so much easier to stand in the back and think about how someone else is screwing up. I was letting Jack down. Just the way that girl’s counselor was letting her down. My intuition was failing me. Jack and I always connected. Sometimes I would say something to him with no idea why I was saying it, and it would work. But nothing I said or did now solved this new problem.

A security guard jumped in, grabbed the girl, and tackled her to the ground.

I wandered away from the scene back to my office, never forgetting that counselor’s rage at being called a “white bitch.” Still to this day I wonder why that mattered so much to her.

Over the next few sessions, Jack, kicking and screaming, continued to be carted back by security to his classroom. I was stumped. Axline had no answer for me. I couldn’t find the so-called psychia-trist-supervisor; he never seemed to be in the building. But I doubted that if I ever did locate him, he would know what to do. The few times that he and I spoke, he didn’t seem to know much about the reality of the kids we were trying to help.

During this difficult time, Jack’s play became quieter, more mature. He began to prefer that I observe rather than participate. Toward the end of one session I felt dread rising in my stomach. I knew what was coming. Soon Jack would be screaming, hiding under the table, I’d be calling for security, and then I’d be watching him get carted down the hall to his classroom. There had to be another way.

“Jack,” I began, “it’s getting close to the end of the session. You’ve got five minutes more, so don’t get upset. It’s just that it makes me so unhappy when you have to be dragged out of here by security.”

“It does?” he said, looking up at me.

“Yes, it does. We have a really good time, and then it seems to get spoiled because you leave here kicking and screaming.” An insight popped into my head less than a second before I was about to say it. I just had this thought. “I sense that you think when you’re not here I forget about you, that I never think of you. That’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“No. I think about you a lot when you’re not here.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I do. I wonder if I gave you a warning when the time is almost up, if you could walk back to your classroom with me.”

He didn’t say anything.

When there was only one minute left I said, “Jack, our time is almost up. We have to put the things away now.” I held my breath.

He put the toys he’d been playing with back on the shelf.

“Would you like to choose a toy to carry as we walk to your classroom and give it back to me when we get there?”

He nodded and took a small stuffed animal.

Jack and I walked out the door. I was afraid to start breathing again. Was this really working? Or was he going to suddenly stomp his feet and run back into my office? We walked down one hall. Then another. We turned a corner. Went a few more feet. We stopped in front his classroom door. He handed me the stuffed animal and said, “Wait here.” He pushed through the closed door. I had no idea what I was waiting for, but I waited. I knew Jack had a reason. In a moment or two Jack opened his classroom door, smiled at seeing I was still there, and said, “You can go now.”

After that day Jack never again made a fuss about leaving the office at the end of the session. He’d learned that he could trust me, and that I was really there for him. I think that day he also internalized another person, so he could carry that person with him no matter where he went.

Once Jack accepted the ending of our sessions, everything seemed easy. He began exploring new materials like paper and pencil. Sometimes he would spend an entire session quietly drawing. One session he carefully wrote both of our names on a piece of red construction paper. He was proud of this work and at the end of the session he walked with it held out in front of him. As we crossed through the empty lunchroom, an eleven-year-old boy suddenly appeared and he grabbed the paper out of Jack’s hands. Jack’s fists shot up. He was ready to take on this boy who was twice his height. I said, “Lance is having a bad day, and he’s taking it out on you and that’s not fair.”

Jack lowered his fists and said, “Oh. Okay.” I took the paper from Lance and handed it to Jack and we went on our way. I wanted to jump up and down cheering. I had just witnessed a genuine miracle. Jack had backed down from a fight. He had never done this before.

After witnessing this, I was sure that others must be seeing changes in Jack too. I was eager to talk to his teacher and his mother. Surely, they must be as amazed as I was. We didn’t have regularly scheduled appointments with teachers or parents. This, of course, was a major flaw in the work we were doing. The teachers always felt too busy to meet with the counselors, and since the organization did not schedule mandated meetings, I needed to catch a student’s teacher in between activities. I met with Jack’s teacher in the classroom while she was at the same time stapling student work to a corkboard. It wasn’t the kind of meeting I wanted, but it was the only kind I could get. Later as a more experienced clinician, I would have been much more insistent that she meet with me in a private room. Back then I was still intimidated by the educational system’s distrust of psychology and counselors. So as children pulled at her and yelled for her attention and she tried to tack up their work, she also tried to respond to me.

“No I haven’t seen any changes in that kid. He never does what he’s told, and he hit me in the face last week.”

“I wish you had told me that. I could have spoken to him about it.”

“What good would that do?”

“Well, Jack can really take in what a person is saying and . . .”

“Yeah, well he never listens to me. Oh. One change I saw. He could say his ABCs last week.”

“His ABCs? Jack can read and write.”

“Nope. . . . Sorry I’ve got to get this done.”

Parents (mostly mothers) could be seen once a month. Medicaid would pay for that much. But we were rarely able to get the mothers to come in to meet with us. I met Jack’s mother once—in the hallway as she was rushing to leave. I should’ve tried harder. Jack’s mother was an overwhelmed young woman in her mid-twenties. I think she truly loved Jack, but she found him almost impossible to manage. Like Jack’s teacher, his mother saw no changes in him. Jack often hit her and wouldn’t follow instructions. She didn’t know what to do. Despite this, she also would not come and talk with me. I was still pretty inexperienced when it came to working with parents. I wasn’t aware then how threaten-ing a child’s counselor can be to a mother. The mother fears she’ll be blamed and judged by the counselor. The mother may feel jealous that the child is confiding in another person, or the mother may feel jealous because the child is getting more attention than she is. All of these conflicted feelings have to be considered when talking to a parent. I’m afraid I may not have made this young woman feel safe; I may not have acknowledged her feelings and needs. I just didn’t try hard enough to get Jack’s mother involved in the process. Maybe unconsciously I didn’t want her involved; maybe in some ways I was trying to usurp her position in Jack’s eyes. Still, I do remember being sad that she had never met the Jack I knew. This was her own precious little boy, and she had no idea of his intelligence, of his tremendous potential. I would’ve liked to introduce her to her own child.

Meetings with the teacher and the mother would have helped to reinforce the work Jack and I were doing, but Axline said that if the parents won’t cooperate, you can still get somewhere with the child. You make the child strong enough to cope with the parents’ problems.

But what happens when the counselor is not strong enough to go where the client needs to go? Then what? Jack sat on the long Formica table with his body pressed up against the wall. I sat on a chair. He held a doll in his lap. I was surprised by his choice of a doll. He touched the doll’s hair and not looking at me said, “Pretend I’m a girl and call me ‘dear.’ ”

Everything inside me went hot, then cold. I don’t think I’d ever been that thrown in a session before. I squeaked out, “What?”

He repeated: “Pretend I’m a girl and call me ‘dear.’ ”

Previously I’d always been able to follow his lead in any pretend game he suggested. I’d been a cowboy, climbing on my desk and shooting bad guys; I’d been Robin, assistant to the masked crusader. Why was I so scared about this quiet little game? Why shouldn’t he pretend to be a girl? God knows it must be hard to always be Super Macho Man at six years old; that must be hard at any age. Was it some deep-down unconscious social gender mandate that I had unwittingly swallowed? Was it my own unresolved gender issues that were being stirred up too soon for me to deal with? If he’d been a girl wanting to pretend to be a boy would I have felt the same? What about the level of intimacy required in calling him “dear?” I’ve never been one of those people who unthinkingly throws around those little endearments. I hardly ever used terms like “dear” or “honey,” and if I did they were reserved for very special people. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pretend he was a girl. I couldn’t call him “dear.” I couldn’t give him his vacation from being Macho Man. I don’t remember how I got out of it. Poorly I’m sure. I know I let him down. I communicated that it was not okay to play at being the opposite gender when it actually was perfectly okay. The level of trust he displayed in me that day was so unexpected; he felt safe enough in that office with me to put aside his machismo to be perhaps more real than he ever had, and I let him down. I don’t know the consequences of not having been up to Jack’s challenge. I don’t know how much the counseling was affected and how much further we would have gotten if only I had been able to go along with the game. Counselors never know what impact their mistakes, their really bad mistakes, have on their clients.

Jack and I worked together for only seven months before it all came to an abrupt end. Stopping counseling suddenly was not uncommon in these public agencies and special schools. Funding gets cut, counselors are transferred, kids are whisked away by their parents. It was the worst possible thing that could happen to the wounded people I worked with. It simply affirmed the message they already secretly believed: that life was truly arbitrary and they didn’t count for much. But this situation didn’t only hurt the clients; it damaged the counselors too. If it happened often enough, you’d be afraid to give yourself fully to your clients. We were told that Strawberry Hill Day Treatment Center would be closing soon. The rumor was that one (or more) of the administrators had been messing around with some of the funds, and the place was going broke. They started by gradually laying off people. I was one of the first to go. Last hired, first fired.

I had to explain to each of my small clients why I wouldn’t be there anymore. These were kids who had already been deserted and disappointed by adults many times. Many were moved from biological parents to foster homes, back to birth parents who made promises they couldn’t keep, so back the kids went to foster care. They would see so many counselors go in and out of their lives that finally trust would become almost impossible. Ending the sessions with Jack at that time was simply wrong. He’d come so far but not far enough. No one yet knew the Jack that I knew. That work still lay ahead of us, but now it wasn’t going to happen.

“Jack, I don’t want to go, but I have to,” I told Jack the week before I’d be gone. “Strawberry Hill can’t pay me anymore.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“They don’t have the money.”

“Oh. Okay,” he said, and went back to playing. Had he understood what I said? Was he pretending that what I said wasn’t real? I’ll admit that after all we’d been through together I was expecting a bigger reaction.

Another of my clients, six-year-old Julius, had a huge reaction. His twenty-year-old mother and seventy-year-old father had sexually molested him since birth, until he was finally removed from their home. He lived in a group home with his younger brother because his sexualized behavior made him difficult to place in a foster home.

Julius couldn’t understand relationships that were not sexualized. He had to be taught that it was inappropriate to greet an adult woman (or any female) by hitting her on the rear and saying “Hey, babe!” He had to be watched carefully around the girls in his classroom. Julius had not been easy to work with, but when I told him I was leaving, he became so upset he ran out of the office crying. I ran after him. He dashed up the stairs, yelling, “I’m going to kill myself! I’m going to kill myself!” Security restrained him at the top of the stairs while he howled, this wounded child I could-n’t help. I couldn’t even hold him because he was unable to distinguish an affectionate hug from an erotic one.

When the last session with Jack arrived, the woman who would be his new counselor participated. Jack proudly showed her all the toys he liked to play with and told her about the things he and I had done together. Just before the end of the session she left, so Jack and I could say our good-byes in private. I kneeled down so I could be Jack’s height. Jack said, “You don’t want to go, but you have to because the center can’t pay you, right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Then that’s okay. Are you sad?”

“Yes, I am, Jack. I’m going to miss you.”

He stuck out his chest, proud: “Yeah?”


Then he put his arms around me and said, “Don’t be sad.”

He was comforting me.

I left the center that day. It closed some months after. A friend told me I was lucky not to have been there at the end. It had been pretty messy.

I never saw Jack again. I often think of him, though, and wonder what has become of him. He’d be a grown man now. I wonder what he looks like. I imagine he probably cut off all those curls; men don’t usually want a head full of brown ringlets.

Whenever I see one of those TV shows on which some young handsome Hispanic man is shooting it out with the cops, I wonder: Is that the road Jack chose? Only it wouldn’t be a TV role, it’d be real. He certainly had one foot in that world.

I’d rather think, though, that Jack somehow got himself through college and used that magnificent brain of his to get a career he felt good about. I like to think he’s married and that he’s a father. A good one. I like to think that sometimes when he holds his child in his arms, he gets a vague image of a crazy lady who once jumped on desks and shot at bad guys with him. And I like to think that maybe sometimes that image makes him smile.

*The names of all clients and the name of the school have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.