Monday, July 7, 2014

The Two Brothers

Two years ago, two brothers enrolled at the alternative school where I worked. Colin and Ken, at 16 and 15 years old respectively, had just come back from spending two years in the Dominican Republic. They were now living in a foster home in the Bronx away from their birth parents. During the years they spent in the Dominican Republic, Colin and Ken were in and out of school, but mostly out, working on their family's farm as free labor. Beyond the trauma of separation from their birth parents, Colin and Ken experienced a significant amount of trauma with their birth parents. They were two teenagers who had already lived a lifetime.

Silent with a dark sense of humor, Colin kept quiet during the school day during most of his first year. His entrance test scores placed him in classes at about (or slightly under) grade level. In those classes, Colin excelled. During his first year in this alternative school, Colin accumulated credits, earned rewards based on academic excellence, and was touted as "a natural leader." Teachers couldn't help but laugh at his sarcastic comments. He was a model student.

Ken was a different story. Younger, louder, and visibly angrier, Ken was a "larger than life" personality in school. Where Colin's anger (and untreated pain) was mostly passive, Ken's anger was aggressive. Ken vandalized school property, picked fights, and demanded attention from peers and adults. He was also significantly behind Colin in terms of academics - he read below a 4th grade reading level and as a result, was placed in remedial, non-credit bearing (can't give academic credit to courses designed to catch you up to grade level) English and math courses over his first year in the school to catch him up.

Over the course of their first year, both Colin and Ken flourished in different ways. Colin prospered academically: earning a significant number of credits relative to his peers and passing the mathematics state test (the Algebra Regents). Ken also grew academically but his biggest developments were personal: his outbursts lessened and he learned to take constructive criticism from adults for his behavior.

Between their first year and their second year, Colin decided to join a summer leadership program through the school with some of his peers. Ken, being in love with video games, decided to stay at home and take care of his foster brothers for a small allowance.

Something happened that summer that changed their trajectories. After his summer leadership program, Colin started getting negatively influenced by a small cohort of students already known for their bad influences. They introduced him to drugs and distraction and within a matter of weeks, Colin's behavior changed for the worse. Ken tried to talk to him about it, but being the younger brother, his concerns were not only pushed aside, but often answered with violence.

When their second year started, things were notably different with Colin. He was coming to school later than Ken, even though they left the house together. Sometimes he came to school under the influence of alcohol and sometimes under the influence of marijuana. Sometimes he took his anger out on Ken by punching him in school or stealing his money to buy weed. Social workers and teachers were involved in their case throughout the year, but Colin's fall was inevitable. He was arrested on his 18th birthday for smoking marijuana on the streets. While he only spent a night in jail, it was clear this phase wasn't a phase at all. By the end of the school year, the two brothers had traded places.

Ken outperformed his brother significantly in that second year. He passed the same state test his brother did the year prior. He obtained an internship with an edtech start-up through a connection with a teacher. He obtained a logo design project for a local entrepreneur in New York City through another connection. Ken was still loud and spastic, but he was sweet.

At the end of the school year, I took Ken out to eat as a reward for his excellence in academics and socio-emotional growth. I congratulated him on his progress and told him how proud I was of him. I told him he was actually on par with his brother in terms of credits and path-to-graduation. He looked down at his plate for a long moment and grew heavy-hearted. Finally, he said while fighting back tears, "I don't know what to do about him [Colin]. He's lost. I'm his freaking brother. He protected me, but now he won't let me do the same. I need to get out of here and I might have to do it without him. I fucking hate Colin for making me do this alone."