Not everyone who leads intends to. Some leaders are appointed. Others are hired. Many fall into the position through default. But David, a slightly built, African-American 12 year-old who rarely spoke except to say "no" or "please," managed to do what no other child had ever done in the months he lived in the John Tarleton House. He led. Not only that, he led a tribe of unruly white teen-agers, some of whom refused to eat at the same table, shower in the same bathroom or share a room with a black housemate.
Boys and girls from poor backgrounds of any color, per the founder's request, come to this orphanage after losing parents to death, drugs or detention in one of the state's jails or prisons. Boys and girls stay in separate houses, 6-to-12 in each cottage, on either side of a 130-acre campus. The cottages, as they are called, have full kitchens and separate bedrooms. A "house parent," lives in the house with the children throughout the week, acting as surrogate parent while the children's future is worked out. The atmosphere and setup is supposed to give the children a sense of “home” and belonging, but judging by the sobs I often heard at night, it didn’t always do that.
Days and night are a mix of tears, and anger and acting out and fights as the boys struggle not only with losing a parent or parents and their homes, but with puberty. They struggle to fit in to their new surroundings and their new tribe, to find their place in the pecking order and to deal with authority. They must manage their new feelings of shame at being unwanted and without a family, the court system and new rules that would confuse an adult. New residents cycle through almost weekly and the cycle of fitting in repeats itself each time as the pecking order is shifted. Being young and black, David came into the house at the bottom of the food chain in many ways. I wondered how he would fare.
Once they checked in and settled, boys with drug addicted parents who used to sleep on the couch in their own home, or a mattress on the floor, or who roamed the streets all night are now expected to make their beds, do their own laundry, study and control their rowdiness. Few of them come from homes where discipline ever sat at the table. Many ended up in juvenile detention. Some ran away. Some turned 18 and turned to prostitution and drugs themselves. The transition, boundaries, rules and structure are incredibly difficult and few manage to survive without even more emotional trauma than they already have. It is place often lacking, but desperately needing peer leadership.
With a good houseparent and consistent leadership in the cottages, life might have been easier all the way around. But, the stress, the violence and mental health of some residents and the constant tension of a house full of teen-aged boys dealing with both puberty and their new lives drove many houseparents away. That was the situation I walked into and wondered how to change.
Then David arrived. His father was in prison and his mother was recently deceased. David was scheduled to be sent to Atlanta where his brother was in training to become a police officer. In the interim, before his brother was able to get him, David would be staying in my cottage. For a while he was the only black resident in a house of white teens. A weekend houseparent, I lived in the house from Friday night through Monday morning, cooking, keeping order and helping the boys make sense of what was expected. After months of runaways, calls to the police, breaking up fist fights, and remembering to lock the dog in my room so the boys wouldn’t rape him…I understood why the staff turnover was high.
But then one night David asked me for an iron and an ironing board. Stunned, but trying not to show it, I gave them to him. For the rest of the time he was there, David would get the ironing board, set it up and carefully iron his clothes for the next day. The rest of the house would hoot and holler and tease him but he ignored them and just ironed. Impressed, I bought him a can of starch to make the task easier and I watched as he left the house each Monday. Even his jeans had a crease so sharp they’d cut cold butter. One Sunday one of the other boys knocked at my office door and asked for the iron and the ironing board after David returned it. Then another and another wanted to use it. And one by one, each one learned to iron. They might wear t-shirts to school, but they were ironed t-shirts. They started actually making their beds instead of just throwing a blanket over them. The transformation was amazing. The house parent who stayed during the week asked me what I was doing on the weekends to cause such a change.
“It’s not me,” I assured her. “It’s David.”
Afraid to say anything that would disrupt the miracle, we just watched. David taught the boys how to cook pancakes, fold clothes, polish their shoes. The boys began asking for haircuts instead of fighting our insistence that they needed them. They showered twice a day, once in the morning and again before bed. They said “Yes M’mam” and “No M’mam,” and they picked up their wet towels. And one day I couldn’t stand it any longer. I called one of the older boys into my office and asked him, “What did David say to you all that has caused all the changes around here?” He fidgeted and shrugged. “Seriously, what happened?” I asked.
Tears came to the boy’s eyes as he said, “David said it’s how he keeps his mother alive. If he does everything she taught him, it doesn’t hurt so much she’s dead. And his brother said he will send him back here if he doesn’t do all this stuff.”
My eyes teared up.
“So why do you guys do it?” I asked.
“To get girls,” he grinned. “All the girls at school love that David smells good and looks sharp.”
I nodded as he left. I knew the real reason was closer to their sobering realization that as wild, angry, unkempt teens they were not likely to be adopted or find foster families if they did not calm down and learn what we were trying to show them. And now they too realized that. And for many, a girlfriend who thought they smelled good and looked cool was as close as they might ever get to a sense of family. To have told them that would only have hurt and alienated them more. For all their bravado, they were dangerously fragile. They had to find out from one of their own.
A few weeks later David’s brother graduated from the police academy and picked him up for good. He left during the week and I never got to say good-bye. I know David did not intend to lead. He got through his situation the best he could with the tools he had. He led by example, setting the tone without even realizing what he was doing. And while each member of that teenaged tribe was different, ultimately they all wanted and needed the same thing – a tribe, a family to call their own.
At the root of every problem are people's fears. Solve people’s fears and you solve “the” problem. People who have their needs met, their fears quelled, their worth assured want to keep those things met and will do whatever it takes to maintain that sense of Tribe. People of all ages - from the cradle to the grave, want to belong, want to be accepted, want to feel loved, to be noticed, to be appreciated. I learned that watching these boys while I was a houseparent. Their fears were deep and powerful - as are all our fears I think, only as adults we've buried them better. Looking back, I realize now that most of them are now in their late 30’s, probably with young families of their own – and I hope they learned to love. After watching David - I know at least some of them learned to lead.
Leadership isn't so much about taking people where you want them to go - it's about creating a space where it's safe to explore the possibilities that exist around them - and then encouraging that exploration.