Thursday, April 11, 2024

New Book Review: If You See Them

NaNoWriMo poem? Why not?

If you see them, you might think they're
Dirty, lazy, sneaky kids,
And they certainly won't tell you
What the situation is--
Steal a cheap roll-on deodorant?
Sleep at friends' house for a week?
Wash their feet in library bathroom?
See the tips of icebergs peek...

I think this study of "them," the neediest kind of homeless teenagers, is one of a half-dozen books of which I received Advance Review Copies from publishers shortly before the storm damage forced me offline; all those books were then lost among the already published Booktober Blitz book, and all I can do about it is try to do better now. I am grateful to Spiegel & Grau for sharing this book with me, and wish I'd come to it sooner...

Title: If You See Them

Author: Vicki Sokolik

Date: 2024

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

ISBN: 978-1-954118-49-2

Quote: "These youth are like youth anywhere who aren't safe in their homes, or who have no homes, and have made difficult choices in order to survive."

That's what some readers will hate about this book. 

Because what I didn't like about this book is stated so clearly at the beginning, let me start praising it with the faint damns. I'm not doing this because I think the book deserves condemnation. I'm doing it because I think the book, and the local program it introduces to readers, are very valuable for some people and need just a bit of improvement to be more valuable for more people.

The characters in this book are generic, reduced to a lowest common denominator and a single storyline. Generic characters are boring. Writers might as well just make their general statements. While Sokolik tells us that these are the stories of real teenagers who worked with the program she runs, succeeded, came back to encourage others, have remained her friends, and gave permission for their real given names to be used, there's a flatness about the stories, as compared with stories about problem students in Jeff Hobbs' Children of the State

This is unfortunate. While unconsciously revealing the inadequacies of Sokolik and her program, this program promotion calls attention to a situation that really exists, and deserves attention. That I fell asleep three times while reading this book, even while knitting, calls my attention to a relatively simple shortcoming in a valuable document. It completely erases my kind of people.

Jeff Hobbs and the problem students who told him their stories in vivid, personal, though also blur-able detail, were introverts. Vicki Sokolik and the problem students she was able to help are extroverts. She does not merely show this in describing their conversations. She specifically celebrates their extroversion as if it were a virtue.

Maybe that's consistent with her discussion of a cringeworthy lecture about gender-confused youth, through which everyone apparently was required to sit. Sokolik brought in and apparently managed to listen to a lecturer who told her, her students, and other adult volunteers in her program, how calling people with normal, consistent sex characteristics "cisgender" supposedly "normalizes" gender-confusion and makes people who have it feel included...

Stop it, I think. This is so misguided. Does anybody not know how it feels to be "minoritized," even bullied, because of a medical condition we did nothing to choose or create? If the 9,999 of 10,000 people even in Ireland who happen not to be diagnosed celiacs started introducing themselves with "Hello, my name is Tracy Smith, and I'm gluten-tolerant," what would that do for celiacs? In the long run, probably nothing. In the short run, being told they needed to say that kind of thing might make people resent those who can't participate in food-sharing rituals more than they do. It may be something some of us thought we might want, it may be a kindly intentioned gesture, but it's not actually helping.

Despite the damage undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or glyphosate-aggravated celiac disease does, the celiac trait has good as well as bad qualities. A majority of all celiacs are hardy, healthy people who can be stronger and live longer than average, simply by giving up social eating. Given, for the sake of argument, that gender confusion is also genetic (only some of it really is; never mind) and also has good qualities...gender confusion is, like the celiac trait, primarily a dysfunctional condition. Inability to reproduce is a dysfunctional trait. It doesn't need to have attention called to it--women reacting to the same physical influences in the way that appears first, across species, certainly don't go around proclaiming to the world "I'm barren and I'm proud! Other women need to self-identify as 'breeders' to show due respect to me!"--but, if attention is called to it, no benefit is gained by pretending that the dysfunctional trait is the norm.

But Sokolik subjected her whole organization to an hour or so of terribly trendy blather about how we should all try to pretend that gender confusion is so "normal" that it's natural to invent a special word for the majority and hateful to ask whether people are male or female. I might not mind this being discussed at the length it is, in the book, if it had been matched by equal sensitivity and "inclusiveness" toward introversion, which is a normal, functional, altogether desirable trait. It's not. 

The only specific reference to introverts in this book is mildly disparaging; someone's mother's introversion (as distinct from other people's prejudice against it) is blamed for her general lack of success in life. That by itself wouldn't ruin the book but there's a total lack of awareness that, while the problem students Sokolik found easiest to help may have found it difficult to sleep alone, other students' primary survival needs include at least a room and preferably a garden of their own. There's no mention of a student who has any special talent being helped by the program. There's no mention of how the yappy horde were sensitized to other people's valid, normal, natural needs for quiet, privacy, and personal space. There's no consideration of how the therapy-group exercises Sokolik's program offers teenagers as "classes" can harm some teenagers, or why they've been banned from the regular public school program as constituting Child Abuse in the Classroom.

So, Sokolik has extroversion. That's not something she chose or could help; that's a valid reason why the problem students who bonded with her and were helped most by her all seem to suffer from extroversion too. Extroversion is at least a more common dysfunction than gender confusion, or celiac disease, or cleft palates. It's like cardiovascular disease, or clinical depression; not really part of the majority human experience, but widespread enough that everyone at least knows someone who has it. Most of us even know someone who doesn't have the actual condition but has been miseducated to think person has it. (People used to think that extroversion was the same thing as self-confidence in social situations. It's not.) People tend to bond with, and help, others who are like themselves. When lots of attention is directed to the differences, that may actually help people "reach across the gaps" between young and old, male and female, Black and White. When the differences are poorly understood, the gaps are less likely to be bridged.

Extroversion is a condition produced when the brain fails to develop a clear internal sense of right and wrong, usually also fails to develop a specific talent, may also fail to develop academic intelligence, and, even if academically intelligent, shows a hasty, shallow pattern of thinking and relating to others, which can also cause dysfunctional family life. Extroverts can be described as more or less affected; clearly they're not normal. Still, just as some of the most horrible genetic diseases are caused by inheriting two copies of a gene where one copy provides resistance to other fatal diseases, just as the celiac trait is associated with hardiness and gender-confused people don't overpopulate and people with Downs Syndrome are often described as loving and lovable, mild and well controlled extroversion can be considered an asset for some kinds of jobs. Extroverts don't know when they need to rest and clear their minds from external input, and while this can lead to breakdowns and is the most likely reason for their shorter life expectancy, it can also help them reach out to help one another. It works for the people whose stories are told in this book.

Sokolik presents herself in this book as Tampa's counterpart to Mildred Wolfe in Orlando: an oil-rich Texan who came to Florida, saw a local need, and set about using her money to meet the need. She adopted a homeless adult first and, after putting the young lady and her children in a nice house, had the reward of being told, "You've done so much for go and help someone else." While she was still thinking about that, her teenaged son brought home a school friend who turned out to be homeless. 

The general category of "homeless teenagers" includes runaways who just aren't getting along with their families. Often the best help for them is encouragement to be reconciled with their families; they still have homes. However,  a minority of homeless teenagers fit into a subcategory the government currently calls "unaccompanied homeless youth." In government policy jargon this means that for all practical purposes these teenagers have no parents or homes to go back to. Their parents may be dead, in prisons or hospitals, insane, homeless, or just utterly unwilling to rear them. Sometimes a living parent is married to someone who doesn't want stepchildren. Sometimes a living parent is a drug addict who has used the child as a drug runner or dealer until the child runs to a different city to survive, or an abuser who has raped, prostituted, or violently attacked the child. In one family Sokolik met, the younger children had been placed in foster homes, but the teenager was apparently considered old enough to live on her own, possibly by a newbie social worker who didn't realize that the law considered teenagers differently. In another family the teenager had tried to protect the mother from an abusive stepfather, and the mother had thrown him out in the belief, which nobody else doubted, that the stepfather might kill him.

Even while her parents were losing their wealth, Sokolik tells us, she found her vocation in learning to "see" these teenagers who want very much not to be "seen." She had to warn one youth, "I don't have a money tree in my yard," but she and her husband were blessed with enough money to put the teenagers in apartments until they could renovate and organize a group house.

In the past, truly homeless teenagers could get legitimate part-time jobs and places to stay. As recently mentioned here, my own grandfather was one of those children whose parents wanted to marry people who didn't want stepchildren. Great-Grandfather simply loaded his first wife's children--boy and girl, ages ten and twelve--into the wagon, took them into town, stopped at a street where desperate unskilled laborers looked for jobs, males on one corner and females on another, and set them out on the appropriate corners with orders to find domestic work where they could get room and board as part of their wages. It was common in those days. Little girls sent "out to service" could expect, a hundred years ago, to be hired and supervised by women who spoke to them coldly but not usually unkindly, treated as social inferiors by their employers but free to marry up the ladder if they could; Great-Aunt married well. Grandfather was taken "out west," worked on ranches, qualified as a lawyer, chose to practice horse training rather than law, and had his own farm and family before age thirty. 

Now, thanks to increasing bureaucracy, teenagers in that kind of situation can't get work, may be unable to document their own identity even to get into school, and may be able to stay with friends for a while, but will very likely turn to theft, prostitution, or the illegal drug trade just to feed themselves. In Florida they can sleep outdoors, but they're likely to be robbed of whatever they have, including shoes and socks, and probably also raped. Some of them may feel lucky if they're able to trade sex for room and least until the men who offer such arrangements get tired of them and throw them out. Some may feel successful in their criminal careers. Others feel shamed and defiled by what they've done, whether they've killed rival drug dealers or been caught the first time they stole a box of tampons. 

(Sokolik tells us that, until recently, government handout programs made no provision for personal hygiene supplies--not Kotex, not shaving kits, not even soap. She claims some of the credit for getting Florida public schools authorized to distribute free female hygiene supplies, though not, apparently, the gender-neutral kind. "Poor hygiene" remains at the top of the list she advises adults to look for when looking for "unaccompanied homeless youth." These teenagers go out for school sports teams, whether they're athletic or not, for the showers but a good laundry barter is harder to find than an invitation to sleep over with a school friend for a week.)

So they need homes--not only beds, but people they can trust to reassure them that what's happened to them is not who they are. Of course, it would be too much to expect that Sokolik would be either willing or able to teach these kids about the many reasons to say no to "a thread or a shoe latchet" in federal handouts. She encourages them to take all the handouts they can take. If they could get into foster care and have money sent to someone regularly for offering them a home, she seems to believe, they ought to do that. But of course many of them turn out to have been foster or even adopted children for whom "it didn't work out" with their official parent-substitutes. 

Close to twenty years later, by the end of the book, several of Sokolik's first few rescues are now active "mentors" for other homeless youth in what's become her organization. They're off the streets, off the drugs, off the welfare, employed, married, some with children of their own. 

It's awesome, really. It's a heartwarming true story. You can look up the TV and newspaper stories right here on your computer. There's no shortage of other people publicly saying nicer things about Sokolik than she says about herself. Her message is not "See how wonderful I am" but "What we've done is working. Carry it on!" 

I only wish that, along with if not in place of the story about the teenager who overcame her prejudice against an ethical, monogamous lesbian "mentor," this book had included a story about a teenager who had learned to embrace per own introversion in a satisfactory relationship with an introvert "mentor." 

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