ON THE ROAD WITH CAL FARLEY’S INTERNATIONAL CONSULTANT
In Memory of Bonita Smith
During my forty years in this work, I have been blessed by the presence of many wonderful teachers. The often-stated phrase “on the shoulders of giants” applies to the careers of many of us working with young people and families across a range of related disciplines. Before most of those teachers made their way in to my life, however, the learning curve was very steep.
My introduction to this work, in a residential program in Pittsburgh, was really by happenstance and with my every intention of proceeding on another career path. My two teammates and I worked on a rotating live-in schedule of four days on and two days off and much of our learning was through immersion. In the earliest days of my career I had yet to be trained in much of anything except the rudimentary understanding of behaviorism imparted to us by the more senior staff. The light at the end of the tunnel was Re-ED, based on the work of Nicholas Hobbs, Campbell Loughmiller and others. Re-ED was among the first strength-based, principle-based frameworks for working with vulnerable young people and their families.
The first group of young people that my colleagues and I worked with helped us evolve from behavioral barbarians to teacher-counselors. The primary reason I stayed in this work rather than pursue my intended path were the young people I worked with and among them was thirteen year old Bonita Smith. Bonita was a very pretty girl with a very sweet nature. She could also be very stubborn and opinionated. Bonita and I bonded in the quiet time early on Sunday mornings. I would be awake early to drink my coffee and read the Sunday paper. Predictably, I would hear the bedroom door open down the hall and then the shuffling of Bonita’s slippers heading toward the dining room. In that first hour on those mornings we connected, two young people in different stages of development trying to figure it out.
Our residential program, like many others in those days, received supplies in bulk from the most economical vendor. We dispensed personal hygiene supplies to our kids through whatever system was in place and thought little of it. One day, Bonita was sharing her opinion on the quality of the supplies using specific descriptors such as “cheap and nasty”. With her squinty-eyed look, she was intent on making sure I understood that she was really serious about this. Countering with my own opinion, I lectured her about how she should appreciate what was given to her. What happened next changed things, especially me.
Bonita, clearly not benefiting from my lecture, stood up in a way that indicated she was exasperated with me. With her hand on her hip and her squinty look a bit tighter she said, “Mr. Freado, you don’t know anything about being a black girl!”
The immediate silence that followed caught her attention and she just stood there as my mind searched for a response. I had no ready lecture for that. All I could say was, “What do I need to know?” At that, Bonita yelled down the hall for Missy and told her to bring Mr. Sedley, my teammate, Craig.
Bonita and Missy proceeded to teach us about their needs; skin and hair care, among others. They were quite clear and effective. Craig and I became their advocates for change. This resulted in changes in the way supplies were purchased and dispensed by the program.
Bonita’s admonition and explanation was a significant point in my own learning and growth as a teacher-counselor. Sometimes our best teachers are the young people and families in whose lives we are thrust. I have told this story often because of its significance to me and my hope that others can also benefit. Most recently, I told this story in a keynote at a conference at the University of Winnipeg. Two weeks later I learned from my colleague and friend, Steve Kozak, that Bonita passed away last year.
I was very sad to hear this news in many ways. Part of my sadness is that I never got to tell her about how important she has been in my career and life. I’m sure she knew at the time. Bonita and I had more time together after that important teachable moment and she had the chance to see and benefit from what she influenced.
Thank you, Bonita, with love from an increasingly more enlightened Mr. Freado.