This is a short story. It’s also a true story. I call it a short story because it is a glimpse into the lives of the students here at St. Labre, specifically one student named James. While it is his unique experience, it also adds real insight to the larger issues many kids face on the reservation. James lived in the group home when he was younger.
Two of my housemates work in Shiloh, the group home, this year. They work, play and mentor the six elementary aged children currently living there. These are kids whose parents have lost custody or, in some cases, voluntarily bring their kids to stay at the home because of their own parenting challenges. Just two weeks ago, a mother brought her son to Shiloh with a mixed explanation of his unruly behavior and her own lack of parenting skills. She told him that when his behavior improved he could return home. Her son could not control his temper, often violently reacted to the other kids in the group home and as a result, he was not allowed to play with the other kids, and vice versa. His mom missed a scheduled appointment to drop off his things at Shiloh, only to return a week later to pick him on short notice and bring him home. Grandma and grandpa had convinced her that the little boy belonged at home. The administrators and counselors who run Shiloh had no control because she had retained custody throughout the entire affair.
While returning home was hard for the little boy (he cried, hid in the corner, not wanting to leave), it was also hard for the other kids living there. They had no home to return to and no mother or father to pick them up. This is part of the reality they face.
This year was James’ first back at St. Labre. Living according to the expectations at the dorm was difficult because he had experience many different home environments, including stints in jail. At first, he refused to respond to attendants requests for him to do his chores and make his bed, but slowly he came around. At first, he refused to do any homework in study hall, but then he slowly began to work, even if only in certain subjects. His behavior began to improve and it seemed the dorms were having a positive impact on him. Suddenly, he was gone from school for a week. After ten to fifteen unexcused absences from school students may be dismissed from St. Labre and James was asked to leave. It turns out the week he missed was spent in jail. I don’t know why he went to jail and I don’t know where he was headed after St. Labre. Most likely it will be one of the high schools on the reservation. While St. Labre isn’t perfect, it’s supposedly a much better institution than many of the other schools in the area. I will probably never see or hear from him again and I doubt his future will be easy. Before he left, he was given a heavy winter coat. He didn’t have anything thicker than a t-shirt to wear. This past week, it reached 3 degrees outside.
Last week, I chaperoned a wrestling match for the middle school. At the end of the night, we dropped many of the kids off at their homes. The final kid, Chris, we dropped off at a bar in Ashland. His grandmother worked inside and would take him home after her shift was over. He told me sometimes his family would not eat dinner until 11pm because his grandfather was drunk all the time, so his grandmother would have to work at the bar, and his uncle wouldn’t come home from work until 11 and then he would make dinner. Chris will probably come live in the dorm this next week. There are 70 other students who live at the dorm. Some may have stories and backgrounds similar to his. Some may not.