By Jennifer Triana, LCSW
School-Based Clinical Supervisor, Long Island City High School
Kevin is a shy, kind, and very intelligent 17-year-old from Queens. On a gorgeous, sunny day this spring, he dons a shiny blue cap and gown with a white stole that reads LIC HS 2017. We make eye contact as he walks down the aisle in Queens College auditorium, knowing how far he has come to achieve this moment.
I began working with Kevin in April 2016, when The Child Center of NY’s school-based mental health clinic at Long Island City High School opened. He was 16 years old but had only enough credits for freshman standing. We met when he was referred by his school guidance counselor for chronic absenteeism and depressed mood.
I noticed Kevin’s body language first. It was striking to see someone so young slumped in his chair, silent and staring blankly.
During our initial sessions, I found out that Kevin had suffered emotional and physical abuse from his now estranged father. Kevin was very angry, and unresolved feelings of guilt and shame caused him to collapse into himself. His symptoms included selective mutism, self-isolation, emotional numbness, and a lack of motivation that caused him to miss school.
Many of those first sessions found us staring at each other, with me waiting for him to find his voice. But little by little, he talked more, smiled more, and opened up not only to me, but also his classmates. As Kevin grew emotionally, he became more encouraged academically and worked with his guidance counselor to obtain the credits he needed to graduate.
The day he informed our team that he applied for Queensborough College was one of pure happiness in the office, as we all marveled at his transformation. In fact, Kevin was transformed all around: He had a new hairstyle, made jokes, hung out with peers, and had a sense of confidence that even he was surprised he could possess. In one of his last sessions he said, “I can’t believe I have to leave high school right when it’s getting to be so cool.”
Although Kevin’s success story felt magical, I know it wasn’t magic. It was the result of a strong collaboration between a determined guidance counselor, an available mental health provider, and an organization that is committed to supporting kids whom others are quick to write off as beyond hope. We came together to bring out the potential we all knew this young person had in him. It was glorious to watch him walk across the stage at Queens College, victorious. It’s one of those moments during your professional lifetime that you cherish because it humbles you and reminds you of the privilege it is to impact lives.
Sadly, most kids in Kevin’s position don’t have a happy ending. Written off as “too late,” many young people who are poor, lack support, and are woefully behind in school end up dropping out, at which point their likelihood of adverse outcomes, like incarceration and dependence on government programs, skyrockets. It is a tragedy – the difference between what is and what could have been – when that happens to a sweet, promising kid like Kevin.
Thank you to our supporters for making my job possible, and for believing in kids like Kevin.