Strangers in the Night

Michael Ju-Hyun Cho

Writer’s comment: When I started college, I wanted to put theory into practice—to apply what I learned in the classroom to real-world, hands-on situations. Pushing beyond the monotony of textbook education or passive learning, I felt I could make a difference working at a group foster home for boys with severe conduct and emotional disorders. Tangible experiences are genuine and exercising principle into action is what education is all about. Pursuing studies in psychology, I believed the internship would open my eyes to the field. And it did. I wrote Strangers in the Night for my English 101 Advanced Composition class under the guidance of Dr. Stephanie Wells, who has a knack for bringing out the best in her students’ writings. The essay reveals the tragedy of sexual abuse and provides insight on how counselors work to rehabilitate and cycle the boys back into mainstream society.
—Michael Ju-Hyun Cho

Instructor’s comment: Michael wrote this vivid essay in response to my English 101 (Advanced Composition) assignment that he write a reportorial paper, selecting a specific context in which to observe the actions and behaviors of a certain group of his choice and then documenting those observations cohesively. True to his writing style, Michael’s essay integrates the factual details of his experience with a narrative fluency that animates his topic and characters as engagingly as fiction, driven by his descriptive prose and his ear for the rhythms of language. I also enjoy his method—which I’ve noticed in more than one of his essays—of allowing certain phrases, usually spoken expressions, to become leitmotifs that signify a certain recurring state of mind or character. The combination of truth and pathos that the essay presents manages both to describe and to object to the plight of its subjects, so that even without overtly politicizing its topic, the essay still becomes an implicit demand for attention and action—simply by its reportorial presentation of the only other and all-too-real alternative.
—Stephanie Wells, English Department

Twenty-one years and 109 days is a lo-oo-ng time. But that’s what it took.
         On day number 7,775, I was bitten by an animal with teeth.
         Not the enamel of any ordinary beast, but one classified under genus Homo and species sapiens.
         And 7,775 must have been my lucky day since by the beginning of day number 7,776, I was the proprietor of three fresh bite marks—angry red imprints blemishing the pinky edge of my right hand, my left ankle, and my right butt cheek.
         These painful bites came courtesy of three young boys: Andy, David, and Sammy.
         In brute testimony to their Hannibal Lechter inclinations, I carry these battle scars to this day.
         I was branded by these human staplers—Welcome to our world—on the first day of work.
         Being chomped on like a Kit-Kat bar comes with the territory of working in a group home for boys who suffer from severe behavioral, emotional, and conduct disorders.
         At times, it can be a pain in the ass—in both a literal and figurative sense.

         3:15 am, Monday (November 6)
         A set of fingers taps me gently on the shoulder.
         “It’s your turn. Hey, do you hear me? This interval is all yours.”
         I raise my tired head from the dog-eared pages of a microeconomics textbook and stare into the bleary eyes of Vivian, my colleague.
         “What time is it, Viv?”
         Her brows arch with indifference. With a sigh, she glances at her wristwatch. “It’s 3:15 and you’ve got to make your rounds.”
         Following a world-class yawn, I shake my head side-to-side, in a futile attempt to evict the weariness out of my brain. Morning is still a good three hours from breaking.
         I stretch slowly, pulling my arms heavenward and curling my hands into two tight fists. A satisfying series of “cracks” and “pops” emanate from my once dormant shoulders and fingers. I unclench my fists and flex my fingers.
         Remorsefully, I rise from the comfort of the sofa cushions.
         “The flashlight’s on the counter,” offers Vivian, as she plops down exactly where I had been sitting moments before. She picks up an old issue of Rolling Stone and yanks out a pair of flattened Hershey bars from her hip pocket.
         “The Christina Aguilera tramp is a toothpick,” Vivian grumbles, as she decapitates the outmatched Hershey.
         “She is, she is,” I concur, heading toward the hallway. “See you in fifteen minutes.”
         With nary a glance, she nods and calls out behind me, “Take your freakin’ time.” She takes another mammoth chunk out of the chocolate. The other bar sits humbly on the table, awaiting execution.
         I tiptoe into the darkness, sure of my destination. After a couple seconds, the rods in my retina begin to adjust to the colorless night. The small flashlight extends a faint beam of illumination as I slink—my sneakers squeaking quietly with each step against the cold and hygienic concrete floors—toward the first of three consecutive doorless rooms.
         From the vacant doorway, I peer cautiously into the first small room. The space is limited, with beds stacked side-by-side, two per room. With experienced eyes, I scan for detectable signs of movement or feigned sleep—mischief from the room’s two occupants. I am greeted by the slight rustles, faint and abbreviated snores, deep inhalations, and soft exhalations.
         All quiet on the western front.
         “Angelic only during sleep,” I say to myself, “And a pack of wolves at sunrise.”
         Without a sound, I tiptoe to the room next door. Two more slumbering figures inhabit the two separate beds—a mirror image of the first. Sleep well, boys. Breathing a sigh of relief, I head toward the final room.
         So far, so good . . . all quiet on the central front.
         The third room—the eastern front—holds the final two boys. I stand at the entrance and glance at the diminutive and well-covered lumps on each bed. Nothing at all. I could hear only the jaunty drip-drip-drip of the leaky faucet from across the hall. All quiet on the
         Suddenly, I hear a muffled whine, delicate and barely audible. Like a baby’s soft whimper. Unable to hear the words clearly, I tiptoe toward the source, reassured by the flashlight’s soft glow.
         Beneath the enormous Sesame Street comforter is young David—an eleven-year-old who has yet to crack the century mark in weight.
         He had been the first boy to greet me with his jaws, two months before.
         “Hey David buddy, you doing OK?” Under the covers, David flinches at my voice—his tiny body tenses up and his soft trembling abruptly ends. He lies there, frozen.
         Dead silence.
         I hear the drip-drip-drip once again.
         Then I hear a tiny peep response. “Who is it? Who’s there?”
         “It’s Mike, your friend. Just making sure you’re getting sleep. Making my rounds like always. Hey, you can poke your head out, y’know . . . I know you’re awake.”
         “Where’s Viv?”
         I kneel at the foot of the bed. With the most reassuring and consoling voice I could muster, I say, “C’mon David, come on out. Vivian’s in the front, reading away. C’mon David, you can tell me what’s wrong.”
         After a couple of seconds, a small blond head peeked out. We speak in gentle whispers.
         “Hey Mike, what time is it?”
         “It’s almost 3:30 in the morning.”
         I hear him shuffling in his bed, moving the blankets back.
         “It’s really dark right now. Hey, am I going to be in deep trouble for being up this late?”
         “How about Viv?”
         “What about her, David?”
         “She stinks like a cow . . . and chews like one too!”
         We giggle softly.
         “Mike, can you turn on the lights? I can barely see anything.”
         He reaches for a pair of thick eyeglasses—glasses that make his pale blue eyes look three times their actual size.
         “Afraid not . . . you’re roomie is sleeping in here too, remember?”
         “Uh-huh. And I’ve got to make the right decision, right?”
         “That’s right David. Besides, you should be in la-la land, dreaming of Pokemons or something.”
         “I know. But I’m scared, Mike. Really scared.”
         David stops, taking a deep, slightly wheezy breath.
         “Hey, it’s okay. I’m here. Besides, every one has bad dreams—”
         Suddenly, the boy begins to weep—streams of hot tears flowing freely from his pale blue eyes.
         This takes me completely by surprise.
         He is inconsolable with a cry so grief-stricken, so terribly aching, that a lump quickly rises in my own throat. David’s face pinches with a pain and anguish I can never imagine.
         His body quakes with shudders. He angrily yanks the glasses off his head and flings them against the wall.
         “Why, why, why?” He repeats this over and over again, choking with sadness. He buries his small, drenched face into my chest. “Why, why, why?”
         “Can’t you make them go away?”
         I realize this was the question David was asking himself when I first heard the sounds of whimpering coming from the eastern front, the third and final room at FIF foster home.
         His questions do not need any translation.

         Why am I here? What am I doing here in this cold room, a prisoner? Why did my damn father beat me? Why didn’t my mother stop him? Why did she just stand there and watch him beat me senseless? Why do I have such terrible dreams? Why? Why? Why? What did I ever do to deserve this life?

         I could only hug David as he cried for a lost childhood.
         Nightmares or flashbacks are painful to witness. You look into their cold, hard eyes and confused, terrified little boys peer back. I will never forget those sad, yearning eyes. These kids are in their own private hell.
         They remember the pain, the agony, the humiliation we can never understand. We can only promise that everything will be all right when we know it won’t ever be. They weep. Why did he hit me so damn hard, huh? What the hell did I do?
         Pounded for most of his childhood, David now has trouble seeing straight. He wears glasses. In optometrist parlance, terms like “detached retina” or “occipital lobe damage” spill out.
         David also has functional and cognitive problems stemming from getting his brain smacked against the back of his skull repeatedly.
         I read his FF file earlier that fall—minor traumatic brain injury, antidepressants, perceptual disorder, severe child abuse.
         David carries the look of a deer caught in the headlights.
         Always flinching. A scared little boy. Ducking down, raising his skinny arms in self-defense to protect his head. Whom can he trust?
         For now, he trusts me.
         His sobbing is the guttural sound of real, profound physical and emotional anguish. It is like a terrified, involuntary wailing that one would make immediately after hearing about the death of a loved one.
         So, David cries for a dead childhood.
         The sound of the crying is the most terrifying sound I have ever heard.
         Why, why, why? What the hell did I do?
         I wonder the same exact thing.
         FF rules and regulations state that counselors should not stay in the boys’ rooms for long periods of time—basically, my job at night is to “check” on the boys and leave them be.
         In nights like these, those damn rules can go to hell.
         I cradle David in my arms, knowing that kind touch—genuine, gentle, sincere, and affectionate contact—is what he is missing.
         Throughout his life, all he’s experienced are hard fists to the side of his head.
         I spend the rest of the morning with David, watching him sleep and offering a reassuring squeeze whenever he stirs or whimpers.
         Vivian understands.
         Soon enough, I could hear only the jaunty drip-drip-drip of the leaky faucet from across the hall. All quiet on the eastern front.

         10:30 p.m., Sunday (November 26)
         Today is one of the nastiest days of the winter season. The torrential rain pelts the earth—huge globules of water saturating humanity. Powerful gusts of howling wind aren’t helping matters either. My shift begins in fifteen minutes.
         For the boys living at FF, a stigma exists. Your parents beat you. They hate you. You are in custody of the state. You are a screwed-up, hopeless, pile of crap with no future. In the game of life, you are one big loser.
         These youngsters are aged seven to 12, and all are appointed to this home from court rulings as a result of extreme parental neglect or sexual abuse. Name a major emotional or psychological disorder and I can guarantee at least one of these kids has it.
         There are 24 boys at this level-14 facility, spread across four “campuses” in the city.
         The primary reason that these boys are here is their acting out of deviant and sexual behaviors. Some of the older ones have already spent time in juvenile hall facilities—for them, this foster home is their last chance to integrate into society.
         What is considered “normal” is dictated by social order. What is “wrong” is an action that deviates from the standards and rules of society. In a nation built on individuality, liberty, and justice, a fair degree of conformity is required to live as productive citizens.
         Boys placed at FF are short in these respects. They suffer from fits of aggression that make them highly at-risk. Without proper help and direction, these boys will end up cycling through the judicial and penitentiary system for the rest of their lives.
         As a counselor, I guide these children to become more attuned with the norms and proper conducts of society. Though an intern, I am committed to helping these emotionally disturbed boys with their difficult problems and to teaching verbal prompts, decision-making skills, and conflict negotiation.
         Above all, my most important duty is ensure the child’s environment is safe.
         Tonight, I am working with the infamous “brat pack”—six boys with the some of the worst behavioral records and hostility in the program. These six are extremely unpredictable, ready to explode without reason.
         The brat pack is edging toward oblivion—hopelessness. They do not respond well to treatment, medication, or authority.
         These boys are violent, angry, and frustrated. Mushroom cloud mad.
         At 11 p.m., none of the boys wants to sleep—an hour behind schedule. They scream and curse with a vengeance. F-this and F-that! F-you and your mother! A flurry of rock-hard fists, young Andy is restrained and sent to the residential QR (quiet room)—more a padded room than anything else. Upon apology and understanding of his wrongdoing, he swaggers back to his regular room and proceeds to wrestle his sleeping roommate.
         He is returned to QR. Now his roommate, Chris, is furious.
         By 2 a.m., a collective sigh of relief emanates from the staff as the six boys sleep. The counselors check on them every 15 minutes. This period of reprieve is short-lived.
         At 3:30 a.m., I notice a distinct stench wafting from the western room—a blend of urine and excrement. For Tom, the humiliation and shame involved is obvious. He denies all “allegations” and refuses to move. Again, F-this and F-that! F-you and your mother!
         For his attentive roommate Greg, this is an episode deserving much ridicule. At 4:00 a.m.—after applying the power of persuasion to its maximum potential—I march an angry, soiled boy to the showers and laundry room.
         Tonight, bleach is my best friend.
         The counselors hate doing the laundry—sheets stained with blood, tears, vomit, shit, piss, and other unsavory bodily secretions. I drown the sheets and clothes with the mighty bleach, washing away the shame and guilt, the anger, and the pain.
         At precisely 7:00 a.m., little Johnny makes his traditional, albeit unsuccessful, dash for the door. At 7:05 a.m., the chubby boy sulks back to his bed with stern warning to make the “right” decision. As the new day breaks, the counselors busy themselves in laundry and cooking. These boys must be fed, cleaned, and ready for school (non-traditional, of course) in 45 minutes.
         I try to have a normal conversation with the boys but it is difficult; they only seem to want to bend the rules, test your authority, eager to scream no’s! and how come’s. Using verbal prompts and positive feedback, I reinforce their need to make the right decisions.
         They look bored.
         At 8:15 a.m., the brat pack is on its merry way to school, where they will learn how to multiply and divide or differentiate between an adjective and an adverb.
         What’s the freakin ‘point?
         Angry and confrontative, these boys have no indiscretions—they will sexually act out, masturbating frequently and publicly. The boys are manipulative, hostile, and impulsive.
         They cannot or do not want to differentiate between right and wrong, good or bad. One moment, they will be watching TV; the next instant, they are molesting the boy next to them. What is scary is no one is truly sure what these boys are capable of doing.
         Some nights are easy—though restless, the children are obedient and compliant. Some nights are hard—all hell breaks lose as angry boys vent.
         It’s been a hard day’s night.

         10:30 p.m., Sunday (December 17)
         Winter is the cruelest season of all. What’s there to look forward to—non-existent families and friends? To these boys, holiday spirit means absolutely nothing. With the rain and biting cold waiting outside, the boys stay inside the facilities, smack down in front of the TV.
         These kids may hate the world but they sure love the idiot box. Since channels are restricted, the boys ogle the Cartoon Network with near-religious zeal. Johnny Bravo, re-runs of Scooby Doc, and old Warner Bros. Classics like Huckleberry Hound and the Jetsons. Hours and hours of brainless animation orgy.
         On day one I learned the obvious. Change the channel and those kids will eat you alive.
         The boys stare at the TV set, usually not laughing at the jokes or physical comedy. They just continue to stare with vacant expressions, snot dribbling down their noses. In their own little worlds.
         The internship positions are ending, pending finals week and holiday vacation. The old, disillusioned, and wizened veterans of FF will be gone come January—not surprisingly, lingering nostalgia rarely exists.
         But in our place will be yet another anonymous load of wide-eyed, overly enthusiastic, and innocent university interns. We nod at their exuberance as the rookies sign up for the graveyard shifts. Can’t be that bad . . . these kids will be sleeping, right? And I get four units of upper division credit, right?
         We place bets on the incoming “class”—Who’s going to last? Who’s going to break down? Who’ll be here for more than just a couple days? My poor naive students, prepare to be shocked!
         The meek may inherit the earth, but they sure won’t survive a night at FF.
         The Christmas season is the loneliest time of the year—none of the bright wrapping paper, the glowing tree decked with glassy ornaments, or the smell of holiday feast can soothe the kids. There is no sweet surprise. Santa Claus is a lie. There are no hugs and kisses from those who care or should care.
         Some of the kids sit by the phone all day, eagerly anticipating a call that will never come. David and Chris always dress up and pack their bags, expecting to be picked up by grandparents or relatives.
         Sometimes, even they don’t show up.
         With every passing day, the boys become more hostile, more angry, and more bitter.
         Tonight, Andy is puking again. He used to spend his early days, vomiting and wailing in the night—for a mommy who will never show up. From what the other counselors tell me, the symptoms return during Christmas.
         He has a long, ugly scar that runs from the tip of his right elbow to the back of his hand. It is dark brown against his fair skin—a reminder that what has occurred would always be a part of him, no matter how much tried to cover it up with long sleeves. His arm functions as well as it ever has, but the scar . . . it will never go away.
         The whole FF atmosphere is too sad sometimes. The boys will wake up in the dead of night screaming and shaking from nightmares. They are traumatized. However, the extent of abuse and molestation are qualitative and invisible.
         Unlike the flu or common cold, we cannot simply give them medication, pat them on the head, and tell them they should feel 100-percent by tomorrow morning. Unlike broken bones or cuts, we cannot merely disinfect and bandage the wounds, reassuring them that everything will be all right. We cannot stitch the torn psyche or put their broken spirits into a cast. They have lost their innocence, their childhood, their future, and for the most part, an opportunity to live a healthy and happy life.
         Children at the core are only amorphous beings, needing a little push or tug to right themselves. Boys at FF were shoved and yanked.
         They never had parents who kissed them goodnight.
         I wonder if I am merely a glorified jailer locking up delinquents or a true reformer trying to lead the straying back onto the proper path. Sometimes, the kids respond and appear to improve. Nevertheless, just when I think I’ve made a difference, they’ll blow up and revert. Back to square numero uno.
         The counselors are not heroes—nor pretend to be. We are only doing what ought to be done.

         7:45 am, Monday (January 8)
         Day number 7,884 is my last day at FF.
         A new kid, Alex, comes in before breakfast.
         As I excavate into the cupboard, searching for a full box of Frosted Flakes, I glance over my shoulder to examine the new tenant.
         Patches of hair are torn from the roots and I notice small circular cigarette burns perforating from his dark skin. He also has crooked teeth from the frequent thrashings courtesy of an alcoholic daddy. Someone decided that Alex made a good ashtray or punching bag.
         For the child who is physically, emotionally, or sexually abused or brutalized, the pathway from victim to victimizer is crystal clear.
         I hear that eyes are the windows to the soul.
         When eyes are cold and hard, it tells me everything I need to know.
         Alex stares at me with those angry eyes and sneers with utter disdain.
         I catch a glimpse of his teeth.
         Yup, we got ourselves another biter.