16 hours. That’s how long her “last ditch effort” tantrum lasted. 16 hours. I sat on a plane next to a very, very unhappy 14 year old and listened to her cry, yell, complain, curse, and all together freak out about why going to India was the absolute last thing in the world she wanted to do. I stared at her and thought the same thing you are thinking right now- why in the world was I taking a miserable 14 year old to India?!
Four months earlier I had hugged this same 14 year old in the lobby of a residential facility under the watchful eye of her parents and “therapeutic” counselors. I whispered in her ear that she should keep her cool and keep her mouth closed as we were escorted into her counselor’s office. We spent an hour hashing out this 14 year olds faults, short-comings, and challenges. We discussed her drug use, her underage drinking, her habit for lying, and her tendency to steal. I sat silently and stared at this kid as she had words of discouragement hurtled at her and prayed silently that she would just keep it together for a little longer. Miraculously, she kept her cool and kept her mouth (mostly) shut. Somehow, so did I.
Weathering the storm
Summer showed up on my doorstep a few days later. She brought one bag of clothes, most of which were not hers. She also brought her blankie- an overly-loved pink piece of fabric that screamed “I am not as tough as I pretend to be”- her most prized possession. For the next four months I worked diligently towards uncovering a more honest version of Summer all while reintroducing her to the world of boundaries. In hindsight I can honestly say that I barely knew what I was getting into. When it comes to working with kids I am good, awesome even, but this kid… she was different.
I have known Summer since she was in kindergarten, and she has always had a will of steel. Add to that the sense of entitlement and selfishness that she had developed of late, her recent drug use, and the overly permissive environment she had just left behind, and the result was an angry, volatile individual. She would dig her heels in and really commit to her anger. She would scream with abandon and hurl words at me that I refused to use myself. Take her phone away and the real tantrums would begin. She pulled at her own hair, threw books across our living room, and swore she hated me. Any time she did cave, I learned to watch out because she was probably just plotting her next tactic. At times it seemed that her commitment to win a battle was unmatched by even the greatest of historic warriors.
“I made an impressive list of the many reasons why travel and volunteering would be good for her, but there was only one real reason that I was pushing this particular item so hard- travel is the most transformative tool I know of.’
When I agreed to take Summer in, I made one major request- that she be allowed to travel to India with me for several months, and that she agree to volunteer at an organization of my choosing. I made an impressive list of the many reasons why this would be good for her, but there was only one real reason that I was pushing this particular item so hard- travel is the most transformative tool I know of.
Summer needed to get out of her own head, out of her own comfort zone. She needed to see that while she is an important and worthy individual, she is only one piece of the universal puzzle- and not even the center piece. Traveling and volunteering in India, during monsoon season, was the biggest trick in my bag. This journey was what I could offer her that others who came before me could not. If this didn’t work, I knew I didn’t really have anything else.
There was just one problem…..Summer did NOT want to go. So, for the entirety of our 16 hour flight to Delhi she committed to her anger, dug those heels in and began to resemble a human hurricane held down by a flimsy airline seatbelt. It was impressive, and it was exhausting. I stuck earphones in and sat grinding my teeth, hoping she would exhaust herself and fall asleep.
Monsoon season in India
The beginning of our journey was difficult, as the beginnings of journeys are apt to be. I took her to see the Taj Mahal; she fell asleep on a table at a nearby restaurant. I took her shopping for tailored, Indian clothing; she complained that they were all itchy and “ugly.” I took her out to dinner at my favorite place in Pahar Ganj; she spat out half of her food and cried because she “just wanted normal food.” In short, the monsoon rain was too wet, the hot Indian climate was too hot, the Indian food was too Indian, and this shockingly unhappy child that I had been handed to impart life lessons to was… still very unhappy.
“In short, the monsoon rain was too wet, the hot Indian climate was too hot, the Indian food was too Indian, and this shockingly unhappy child that I had been handed to impart life lessons to was… still very unhappy..”
Did I run for the hills? Stick her on a one-way flight back to the US? No. But I thought about it. Instead, I strapped on my armor and went to war, determined to unearth the better version of Summer that I knew must exist somewhere under all that anger. I knew in the depths of my being that there was something worth fighting for in Summer- and I was going to fight. There would be no coddling from me. No way, no how. If she was going to be that difficult, then I was simply not going to do a single thing for her. I would not wash her clothes, cook her food, buy her metro tickets, or translate one single word for her. She was going to learn who she could be and what she was capable of the hard way. And that, my friends, is how I single handedly brought a hurricane to India in the middle of monsoon season.
“She was going to learn who she could be and what she was capable of the hard way.”
There were lots of tears and lots of yelling. Things were thrown and doors were slammed. There was even a slap involved during the very worst of it – the first and the last. Neither of us had our proudest moments in those first few weeks.
Eventually she did learn how to hand wash her own clothes, cook on a counter top range, buy tickets and groceries using sign language and pictionary like drawings, and scrape sludge off of a bathroom floor. While all of these things were lessons well learned, these were not the biggest lessons India had in store for her. Those bigger lessons came from the people she would meet. When you get right down to it, it is our connections and interactions with people that turn a trip into a journey.
“When you get right down to it, it is our connections and interactions with people that turn a trip into a journey.”
Three weeks in, Summer’s mood had a shift. Her crying had all but ended, and she was beginning to navigate the area around our apartment in Kolkata fairly well on her own. She was making friends and had requested some art supplies to begin painting again- a mode of creative expression she had always enjoyed. I softened as well. I began to see that her previous behavior was really just a mask for how very difficult transitions are for Summer. To this day she still has some level of anxiety about most transitions in her life, and I have become much better at identifying when she needs space and calm instead of a proverbial kick in the pants.
After the rain comes the sun
As Summer and I began to reach a happy state of coexistence, we began working more regularly with a shelter home that had agreed to allow Summer to intern alongside me. This particular shelter home provided a safe haven for exploited women and children. As Summer taught art to a very eager student body, the women and children began to open up about their stories. As the monsoon raged outside, stories of manipulation, kidnapping, rape, torture, abandonment, and trafficking flooded our ears. Summer fell in love one by one with the youngest inhabitants of the shelter and then listened, horrified, as she found out why each of them were there. We had many late night talks about the unfairness of the world, about the inequity that abounds, about pity vs. empathy. Through it all we both admitted that at the end of the day, we were both struggling with the reality that awful things happen to innocent people.
“We had many late night talks about the unfairness of the world, about the inequity that abounds, about pity vs. empathy.”
But after the rain comes the sun, and subtle changes began to take place. Summer began creating beautiful pieces of art inspired by the connections she was making at the shelter home. Our tearful late night talks soon gave way to discussions about thoughts that were weighing more heavily on Summer’s mind. We had fascinating conversations about karma while sipping chai, examined our thoughts on the collective subconscious while cooking dinner, and discussed the role of the individual in the greater universe while trudging home through knee deep water. Simultaneously, Summer began to recognize the positive transformations all around her.
Perhaps both of us were most moved by a young woman who, though possessing one of the most shocking stories we heard, had worked so hard to change her path that against all odds she had been accepted into a boarding school to pursue her education. We accompanied her and an American woman who had “adopted” this girl as her own to pick up all the things she needed to go away to school for the first time. While shopping I turned to Summer, took a nervous breathe and said, “Do you think she needs a suitcase? We could give her our big one and just use the smaller one.”
“And just like that the 14 year old wouldn’t have given anyone the time of day six weeks ago agreed to get rid of half of the wardrobe she had brought in order to make sure that her new friend had what she needed to get to school.”
She didn’t even hesitate before saying, “Good idea.”
And just like that the 14 year old wouldn’t have given anyone the time of day six weeks ago agreed to get rid of half of the wardrobe she had brought in order to make sure that her new friend had what she needed to get to school.
I wish I could say that the rest of our trip was picture perfect; that the challenging 14 year old I got on that plane with blossomed into a mature, calm, selfless young woman. I wish that I could say I finally understood Summer in new and profound ways and from that day forward, I never lost my cool with her again. I can’t say any of that, at least not with a straight face. We continue to have our challenges, but as with any experience, this journey we took together left its permanent mark on our souls. Summer carries with her the discovery that humans beings are connected. That her own actions and decisions have ripple effects that she cannot begin to imagine. She also carries with her a newfound understanding of the difference between pity, which divides by relying on the idea of the “haves” and the “have nots,” and empathy, which serves to connect by requiring one person to identify with another’s experiences.
For my part, I left India ready to allow Summer to be this new person, uninhibited by my judgements of her past actions.. When we boarded the plane, I probably would have told you that Summer was difficult at best. After our trip, I would tell you that she is a determined, passionate, fiercely intelligent, creative, sensitive person who is still trying to figure out how to hone those qualities in the most positive way. Yes, she made (and still makes) mistakes. Don’t we all?
We spent our last two weeks in India backpacking around and seeing new things. I put her through a wringer of challenges, including questionable accommodations, limited food choices, and extremely long overland travel. Summer was wonderful company those two weeks no matter what I threw at her. She interacted with the children who approached her without fear, tried new foods without complaint, offered flexibility in the face of adversity, and laughed far more than she cried.
“Know that the world has lessons for that kid that no one single person can impart.”
For anyone else ripping their hair out trying to figure out what to do with a child or teen who might best be described as absolutely-without-a-doubt-beyond-challenging, I offer you this idea:
Take them out into the world; the world that exists beyond their comfort zone. Let them work. Let them sweat. Resist the urge to make them feel better right away. Give them boundaries and then give them space.
Know that the world has lessons for that kid that no one single person can impart. Trust that the whole entire universe is conspiring to help this kid become the greatest version of themselves because anything less than that is not in the universe’s best interest. And finally, allow them to change. Don’t force them into a box of expectations created by their past actions. Journey with them and allow your own views on who they are to change as they inevitably change themselves.
“Don’t force them into a box of expectations created by their past actions. Journey with them and allow your own views on who they are to change as they inevitably change themselves.”
One year later, at the age of 15, Summer got an acceptance letter to a nearby college. As I moved Summer into a dorm room, I marveled at the vast amount of intellect and potential that had been hidden under all that anger. Summer did not become a perfect person in India. Neither did I. What she did become was a more honest version of herself, a version that holds untold potential for her own definition of greatness. Remember, today’s stubborn, non-conformist could be tomorrow’s determined, creative genius.
Like I said, travel is the most transformative tool I know of.