REVIEW:  Juvenile Mysteries

MANAS Reprint, Vol. 34, No 1, Jan. 7. 1981. Pages 6-8

BACK in the early 1920s, five Russian [Spiritual Christian Prygun] boys were brought before the juvenile court in Los Angeles. The oldest was eleven. They were truants who had broken into a warehouse and destroyed property to the value of a thousand dollars. The apparent leader of the group was called Fred, but his name was Dimitri. He was eight years old. In Youth in Conflict, published in 1925, Miriam Van Waters, then the Referee in Juvenile Court, describes him:

He has roving, intelligent gray eyes, set in a wrinkled, aged face. The physician has declared him normal, his body is found bruised with marks from a beating. He is about eight pounds underweight. Fred is an habitual truant from school. He is of more than average intelligence. Both his parents work in factories. So do his older brothers and sisters. In his house the only thing Fred has the slightest right to is one-third of the mattress he shares with two brothers. There is not poverty at home, but sugar, milk and fruit are absent. Every night after work father and mother and eldest son go to prayer meeting church. As long as the children are in arms they too go to prayer meeting church.

These boys were the children of immigrants from Russia Russians in the Los Angeles colony of Spiritual Christians Molokans, a pacifist sects which had migrated from Russia to be free of taxes, war and the universal military service adopted by the Czarist government in 1880. Thousands of them settled in southwestern America. "Apart from beating their wives and children," Dr. Van Waters says, "they were the gentlest of men." Labor and prayer fully occupied their lives. She continues her tale of what happened in court:

"Why don't you keep Fred at home?" the court asks.

"Oh, Fred!" cries the father, gnashing his teeth angrily. "He is wicked. I beat him to death,—then they say it is against the law. The teacher comes and says: 'Let Fred come to the playground.' I let him go—he never comes home."

"Fred, where do you sleep?"

"On the roof," replies Fred.

The details of the damage done to the warehouse are described to the court by one of the boys—a timid child who is a camp-follower of Fred. He gives personal details which offend the leader.

Fred becomes still. His eyes flash hostility. He is eight years old, alert, defiant, he has already built his defense against the encroachment of the adult world. Eager to possess all that adults know, his eyes and ears are strained for chance colors, perceptions, sounds. He is the most alive spirit in the court room. The detention home superintendent reports that he has read tales of Twain, Stevenson and Swift. He is thirsty for mental nourishment. Answers and questions, ponderous attitudes of adults occupy him only an instant; it is with difficulty that he restrains his impatience.

There is an interruption. The owner of the warehouse complains of the damage, describes its extent, says that this is the third burglary (the boys had taken only a length of copper wire which they sold to a junk man for thirty cents, to buy pop and cigarettes, but they vandalized the place), and then adds: "I don't want 'em shut up; they ain't none of them vicious, but I do want my things left alone." He is, Miriam Van Waters says, "obviously kindly, annoyed and perplexed."

The author muses:

This was no ordinary malicious mischief. There was in it a primitive outburst of energy, a volcanic jet of elemental forces long buried under crust of intolerable dullness, barrenness and meanness of their daily lives. They were not wanton young criminals, seeking to destroy. Rather, in this crude and unfortunate way there had been some fundamental dealing with primitive matter, with bricks and boards, flying colors and liquids and crashing sounds which, in spite of waste, had satisfied some savage spirit of creation.

Who indeed were these five children? Their forebears had lived in the immense spaces on Russian steppes, without physical restraint. They had intimate contact with the soil with frost, snow, sun, sweat. They handled reality direct. They wrestled stubbornly with land, for mere existence. They were used to listening to the voice of prophets, one of whom had called upon the very fathers and mothers of these boys to arise and follow him from war- threatened Russia to America where, in a holy vision, he had seen the exact spot where God wished them to settle.

They obeyed. They had squeezed their great bodies into crowded houses along the arid, treeless strip of land near the railway tracks [The Flat(s)] which evidently had fulfilled the requirements of the vision. [Actually, P.A. Demens led them to Los Angles.].

Well, the juvenile court let the boys go, in the custody of their parents and the presbyter Molokan priest or elder. The court told the school teachers of the boys to give them reading-matter which would challenge their intelligence, instead of placing them with "dull" children. The Court asked the boys to come in and talk things over at intervals during the next two years. It told the warehouse owner to equip his building with better locks and warned the junk dealer who paid 30 cents for the stolen wire not to try to profit from juvenile offenses.

All this comes at the beginning of Miriam Van Waters' book, which is filled with extraordinary understanding of children, especially the spunky, rebellious children who get into trouble. This spirit pervaded the Los Angeles Juvenile Court in the 1920s. One wonders what it is like today.

One also wonders at that special breed of humans that develops a special sense for helping "wayward" youngsters. There are a few very good books by and about these people. They have a calling to do this work. We are thinking of people like Homer Lane and A. S. Neill, of books like George Dennison's The Lives of Children, like Children and Their Caretakers (edited by Norman K. Denzin) and Weeping in the Playtime of Others by Kenneth Wooden. These teachers and friends of the rebellious young develop a special capacity to get inside the psyches of youngsters who have problems or get into trouble. Their happiness comes from understanding what is wrong and putting enough things right for a change to take place. A book by one such writer, John Embling, a young Australian teacher, is Tom, published by Penguin in 1978.

Tom, when John Embling met him hi a Melbourne trade school in 1975, was "a thirteen-year-old on the verge of a complete breakdown." The book is about what happened in the next two years—how, with these two working together, Tom pulled himself together. It tells as much about John, the teacher, as about Tom, the pupil. At the end of two years, the teacher was able to say:

Our relationship now has real significance. My caring has come alive to him in concrete ways. He can better understand the healing process in his own family. My love, care and anger are felt to be a natural, life-sustaining right. He now knows how to give honesty in return. A hurt child finding his own feet in the world. Life is taking on new meanings and possibilities. He now feels safe enough to grow in a more spontaneous way.

Tom's troubles seemed to begin a few years before, when his father, who drank and was often brutal to his two children (the other a girl), left home. John asks himself:

Would Tom Goodwood have been better off without his father, or were the traumas worth their limited relationship? Are his problems the result of deprivation or of his father's treatment of him? Are "bad" parents worse than no parents? Is one caring parent, in Tom's case, his mother, better than two warring, troubled ones? And what about the nature of the hurt inflicted on the child? These questions trouble me.

Early in his work with Tom the relationship was casual. Tom would cut school and John would find him, ask about the work scheduled for the next day and leave.

The regular contact must be kept going. He disturbs me in a rather elusive way. I am determined to keep cool. I receive another blast from the senior master on how hopeless he is.

"You're just wasting your bloody time. I tried for a while and he just turned bad any time he couldn't get his own way. I've had enough of him."

I try not to over-blame these people. They spend time and effort on cultivating "I'm your big mate" or "You're my little buddy" techniques. They have to give up. When Tom fights off their phony approaches, they hang on to his rejection to avoid looking into the causes of it. To show Tom you are really for him means patience and a stubborn refusal to be put off by anyone.

Teachers like John Enabling have almost as much (or more) trouble with the institutions they work for as they do with the youngsters they try to help.

Tom certainly has strength in his character, regardless of what the police and staff at school say. As usual they see only the superficial things. And their failure to perceive anything deeper applies to many professionals as well—teachers, psychologists, social workers. Their only "insight" comes from the results of I.Q. tests, behaviour assessments and consensus opinions. The clinical approach too often ignores that only a caring relationship can help children like Tom Goodwood. I want to understand the child's feelings and reactions and view of things.

That's what he wants to do, but it proves very difficult. He makes lots of mistakes, tries things that don't work at all. What seems to have happened, finally, is that the boy eventually realized John's intention, whatever he actually did, and he put his faith in that, which helped him, in time, to have faith in himself. The important lesson of this book is that every human being, as John Kiley shows in Equilibrium, is seeking for some fundamental balance in his life. People with bad environments often look in the wrong places for balance, and only a friendly, stable human who is willing to try, keep on trying, and is willing to wait, sometimes for years, to see a little of what is happening inside the other, and then show some alternative choices, but without doing any pushing, can help. Persistence, imagination, and faith are the basic requirements. Tom is a book for all w ho work with the young. 

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