I set off the alarm at the Portland Teen Challenge Center this morning. For two weeks I have been doing internship work here and steadily picking up the accoutrements of the job (keys, various duties, briefings, etc.). But this morning my official inauguration commenced with fanfare at six in the morning as the blaring of the building alarm made it known that the security system had rejected my code. It wasn’t such a big deal. The alarm wasn’t that loud, and of course there are follow-up procedures. On the other hand, I had 42 guys lined up at the entrance, taking all this in. Have you ever noticed in very tense situations, when you have just screwed up in front of a whole group of people, how they watch you expressionlessly without even considering the fact that they are totally amplifying the stress you’re feeling? You want to shout at them, “Stop staring at me! Haven’t you ever seen someone screw up before?” It’s their lack of expression that makes it intolerable. You look at them looking at you blankly, and they could be thinking anything: “That other guy never sets off the alarm,” “This is unusual,” or “Jim never vomits at home.”
Welcome to Teen Challenge, where the entire building is a black hole of unfinished business, the desk is never clear, the phone never stops ringing, and students, the very reason for your work, become obstacles to it by interrupting you a hundred times per minute with various trifles. In responding to the last, you must either accommodate them, tell them calmly that it will have to wait or, quite often, remind them of the procedures, which they often attempt to circumvent because they don’t deliver the immediate results that are desired. One of the favorite methods is something we call “staff shopping,” which is when one staff member says no, at which point the student simply keeps asking other staff members until he gets the desired response. One must be firm but compassionate, remembering that they are, after all, Teen Challenge students. As a group they are contending with the mental and physical effects of chemical detoxification, fragmented attention spans, physical illnesses, emotional upheaval, family rifts and impending legal disasters. On top of all that is the tight structure of the program here, which imposes difficulties and delays upon nearly every step they are trying to take in order to deal with all of it—doctor’s appointments, phone calls, etc. Nevertheless, the interruptions can be maddening. You either become selfless or eventually they find you in your cubicle drooling on yourself, looking like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of What About Bob? Just the same, I’ve thought about putting up a notice at the entrance to my area:
Please do not come in here with frivolous or poorly thought out requests. I keep a taser in my desk and will use it if I am approached with anything that isn’t substantive. You make the call. Thank you for your cooperation.
But of course, any one of our students would read such a sign, laugh, and come in anyway with a dire need for rubber bands or some such. The only thing is to learn how to find a home in the blur and confusion of Way Too Much Going On. This is Teen Challenge, and I love it.