Release vs. Reject

In 2012 I went from working primarily in a marginalized church to working primarily in a marginalized school. Church on the Island of misfit toys to School on the Island of Misfit Toys. My real mission didn’t change at all.  Before it was “Preach the good news to the poor, bind wounds and set captives free.”   Now it is “Teach truth to the poor, make amends to the educationally abused and jumpstart the underclass.”  It is good work.

I am fortunate, I work in a secular setting that does not make me pretend that I am not called to ministry.  I use the words redemption and grace all the time and no one questions it. I am allowed and even encouraged to care. 

The largest piece of my job is to be the vice principal for discipline to 350 really challenged 16-20 year olds.  That’s right; I am in charge of making them behave and giving them consequences when they don’t.  (Those that know me may now take a giggle break)  Back? Ok.  We work for the local community college. So our programs are voluntary in both directions, they don’t have to stay and we don’t have to keep them.  We are under no legal obligation to serve any particular student.  Yet our mission is to lose as few as possible, and we have a success rate triple the college as a whole.
By a process of consensus between admin and faculty we have a set of expectations, they are not set in stone, but they guide us. It is my job to apply them.  And that means that sometimes we send students away.  Never without process and never without them knowing why.  In Africa they call this chasing the students away, I didn’t like it there and I don’t like it here, but it is my job.  If we send them away, they are not prevented in any way from returning to their home districts or any other school, so we do not use the word expulsion.  We call it “Releasing them.”   Sometimes we say “It just wasn’t a good fit” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”

Our student body is incredibly diverse. You can be as weird as you need to be. Your race, religion, orientation, mental health status, and lots of other intersecting differences do not matter to your standing.  What you gotta do is show up and be safe.  When we release someone for not showing up, they usually understand. The disagreements comes over the safety expectations.  My students’ lives have often been lived in seriously Hellish places. Their idea of safe may be divergent from ours.  You can be gang affiliated, you just can’t bring your business to school – they will claim that the business followed them. They have to trust us to keep them safe and leave their weapons in their vehicles. Trust is not their best thing. They have learned to use strong words to keep safe zones around them. We require them to use words in very different ways.  We require them to act as if they have fully developed pre-frontal cortexes when they simply do not.  

When they act outside the expectations of the group they get attention. They get second chances, opportunities to change their behavior within a certain time. We will move them from one program to another.  I sheepdog their steps. I call them by their names and call them to their better selves. I try and describe to them the truth of who they really are and what they can do and be.  I keep the bad ones close and the worse ones closer.  But sometimes, they just turn around and look at me and step over that line and wait and see what I am going to do about it. Then I am left with the expectations. And part of the truth is doing what you said you were going to do.
The faculty needs safe and sane classrooms. My job is also to support them, and they count on me to implement our group consensus.  Sometimes I come back to them with a plea to change the consensus. But sometimes I just have to face the student and say “You are done here. We tried and it didn’t work. We still think you can make it, but it is not going to be here. This is what your options out there look like.” I tell them the truth, and I don’t sugarcoat it or molly-coddle them.
Sometimes they curse at me. Sometimes they cry. They almost always argue their side. Sometimes they quote our grandest, highest aspirational statements back at me. Sometimes they own their part – sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just walk away.  But they never thank me.  They don’t feel released to better fitting opportunities.  They feel rejected. Because we have rejected their membership in our community based on their behavior.  I don’t expect them to like me, whatever our relationship was before. Because I have divorced them from the community. They do not go out into the world and say nice things about me or the program.  Most of them have more experience with rejection than I do, but they hurt.

Both sides sustain a moral injury when this happens.  I have failed in my mission. I try not to deny it or justify it. It just is. Between us, we did not find a way to complete our goals.  The ninety and nine safe in their classroom and in their graduation gowns do not salve the wounds of the ones I lost. They take a chunk out of me. I keep a list and I say their names, especially on graduation day. I remember the fallen, and my part in their fall.

But there is one way in which school on the island of misfit toys is better to work in than the church on the island of misfit toys. The school, in all its aspiration talk, never says that it is trying to imitate Jesus.

When we say that we are the hands and voice of Jesus and then we put people out, the moral injury is going to be a lot bigger – both ways.  They will fell rejected because they have been rejected.  So if we do this, we had better say up front “This is not Jesus and we know it. – We just can’t figure out how to do Jesus here.” We will feel like failures because we have failed.  Others who trusted us will feel betrayed, because the principles of “Whosoever will, may come” have been betrayed.
And it may be unavoidable.  We are all misfits.  But everyone will heal faster if there is honesty, without the attempt to nice it up.

But maybe, just maybe, in the 11th hour, we can find a way to do Jesus, who has been patient with us these 2000 years, and has not put us out even when our behaviors are outside the expectations of the Gospel.