Boys in the Hood

I helped care for the younger boys in a reform school until the day I became afraid

On my list of favorite jobs, being a relief cottage parent at a juvenile detention home is right above being a cashier at a car wash, which is at the bottom on the list. Oddly, the car wash job led me to apply at the nearby school for boys.

At the start of my ongoing struggle to "find myself," I took a job at a car wash in my hometown in suburban Philadelphia.

My brother and high school boyfriend worked there, drying off cars as they rolled forward after being washed in the automated system. Among the many young males who also worked there was a group of teens who had been arrested and sent to what was in the '70s considered a reform school. Working was part of their rehabilitation.

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After many boring shifts with no one to talk to, since the customers watched these boys like hawks to make sure nothing was stolen or scratched on their cars, I discovered that the school needed people to help care for the boys who lived in the Victorian "cottages" on its 750-acre campus. The school, relocated within Philadelphia city limits, had been situated in the suburbs since 1888. As a recent college graduate with no career plans in mind, I called.

Driving onto the campus for my interview, I couldn't have been more shocked. The buildings were magnificent multi-storied mansions and the grounds both spacious and manicured. Surely, this was more like an elite private school than a "jail" of any kind. There weren't even any fences.

After a brief interview, I was hired as a relief worker for the two older, married couples who managed Cottages I and II, wherein the youngest of the detainees were housed. When the full-timers had days off or vacations, I would be responsible to oversee the boys while they prepared and ate breakfast and lunch. While the boys were in school, I had the honor of typing up their arrest records, which varied from 2 to sometimes 6 pages long for these eleven- to thirteen-year-old boys.

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As a naïve young woman, I didn't immediately recognize the social dynamics among these young hoodlums. I knew most of them came from broken homes where some parents were also in trouble with the law; most grew up in abject poverty. Besides those circumstances, as males vying for the alpha position in the hierarchy, everything they said and did became a contest where they needed to prove themselves to the staff and to each other. All the boys strained to establish street cred in their new "hood."

Not only did the boys haze the new arrivals, they also hazed the new caretakers. Luckily for me, I was partnered with a no-nonsense male about my age who had developed a strong rapport with the boys. He schooled me in my duties and his expectations to maintain order in the kitchen and the dining room where we supervised meal preparation, eating and their quiet time before returning to school on the week days. Weekends were more difficult because they had more free time, but they had more chores to complete around the cottage, which were Butch's responsibility.

Many of the boys were both compliant and friendly after they got to know me; I struggled to assimilate the information I gleaned from their arrest reports with the reality that these boys were capable of committing those crimes. When they watched TV after lunch in the common room, these young pre-teens would often suck their thumbs while quietly masturbating.

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"Who would believe this is how I spend my days?" I often wondered.

Occasionally, social/athletic events were scheduled with the nearby girls' reform school. By then, I felt comfortable with my boys, but nothing could have prepared me for the fear I felt when confronted with the more "mature" females we encountered when we arrived at the girls' school. The girls operated with an in-your-face attitude that was both aggressive and intimidating.

I quickly adopted a solution: surround myself with the boys and move only when I was shielded in the center of their protective group. At first, those visits were the most terrifying situations I faced, in terms of personal safety issues.

Unfortunately, Butch and his wife began having marital problems, so they decided to return to their home state in the South. His replacement was a hippy-dippy guy who thought these boys should be allowed "to make choices" and "do what they wanted to do." I knew that this was the last thing those boys needed; they responded well to structure and expectations.

One day, in the youngest boys' cottage, a group of the kitchen workers decided to test me. With one boy as leader, they began moving toward me in a group, cornering me against some countertops. Some of the boys had objects in their hands, such as salt shakers, which they threatened to throw at me. I adopted the sternest look and most determined voice I could muster and began walking toward them and the kitchen door. I made it to the next room and told my new partner, "I'm done."

I aimed straight for the front door and continued to the parking lot where I began shaking like a leaf after I got into my VW beetle.

Although I will never forget those boys, my co-workers or the beautifully incongruent surroundings of the school's campus, I'm glad that my life has steered me in other directions while I have pursued my quest for fulfilling work. No matter how idealistic I remain, a job where I'm afraid is not right for me.

Tags: work