"What can one do to turn around troubled kids?" I am often asked.
Experience tells me that there's no formula. Take recovering alcoholics. Experts say that their recovery usually starts after they "hit bottom," and something or someone causes the alcoholic to take a hard look at his or her life. And what constitutes "bottom" varies from person to person.
Delinquents, drug addicts and other miscreants can attend group therapy sessions, sit for motivational speeches and engage in one-on-one counseling -- often with little or no positive result. Still, some hear or see something that provokes or inspires them, and they begin to reassess their lives and change their behavior.
I don't know the answer. But when I'm asked this question, I think of Mr. Gordon.
Growing up in my inner-city neighborhood, my friends and I used to play football and baseball in the street. Our ball would often land on Mr. Gordon's front lawn. We'd chase the ball, sometimes stomping on Mr. Gordon's flowers. Mr. Gordon attended to his lawn far more meticulously than anyone else in the neighborhood. He carefully trimmed his shrubbery, lovingly fertilized his grass and watered religiously, producing a stand-out patch of lawn, shrubbery and flowers.
"Get off of my lawn!" Mr. Gordon would shout through his window when we ran on his lawn or the ball rolled through his flowerbed. The yelling simply made us run and stomp on his lawn all the more. Then Mr. Gordon came out of the house to yell louder and lecture us. "Respect my yard," he said, "and respect the yard of everybody else in this neighborhood. You can go down the street several blocks to the schoolyard and play there. Why do you have to run on my lawn?" On other occasions he would bark, "What have I done to you? Why do you keep doing this?" This resulted in us bopping through his yard all the more, while we fiendishly enjoyed provoking him.
Once, while cutting my own lawn with our old gasoline-powered lawn mower, I inadvertently spilled some gas on the grass. Soon the gas turned that patch of lawn completely brown. Eureka, what a discovery! So after yet another yelling session with Mr. Gordon, I told some kids about what gasoline does to lawns. After nightfall, we sneaked into Mr. Gordon's yard and splashed a can of gasoline on his lawn. After a day or so, Mr. Gordon's golf-club-like lawn featured a big, brown, dead patch right in the middle. He knew we did it. This, of course, prompted yet another lecturing and yelling session about decency and respect.