By Art Martens
A deep love existed between Anita and Huey, although theirs was certainly an unconventional relationship. She was a 16 year old resident in the Penticton group home where I worked for two years. Huey spent most of his time in a cage in her room. He was a green canary, wise beyond his years. He and I became partners in a conspiracy we hoped would free Anita from her damaging, joyless memories.
One of 8 youths in the home, Anita had long ago retreated into a seemingly impregnable mental and emotional stronghold. If anyone approached her, she folded her arms across her chest as though to create a shield.
Staffing at the home consisted of 2 teams, a male and a female, plus a house mother. Each team worked a 4 day, around the clock shift. In our shift change meetings, Anita was discussed almost without fail. Sometimes the executive director of the organization, a psychologist, attended. Even he could give us little helpful guidance.
We knew Anita had at times been locked in a dark closet for several days by her mother’s live in boyfriend. There were indications of possible sexual involvement. Her mother had not defended her and home had not been a place of refuge. Over time I came to believe we needed to devise an unusual strategy to disrupt Anita’s gloomy thought patterns. If we could win her trust, she might not enter adulthood with this unhealthy mindset. Without mentioning it to other workers, I enrolled the canary as my ally.
Next Monday morning I created a brief, crudely drawn cartoon strip featuring Huey and Anita. As concerned about her as I was, in the first frame Huey began planting positive thoughts in her psyche.
“I love your green eyes,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”
Surprised, Anita objected. “Oh no Huey. They aren’t beautiful. My mom’s boyfriend always said I was ugly as a toad.”
“Just because your mom’s boyfriend said it doesn’t mean it’s true.” Huey responded.
Anita always closed the door to her room, whether she was in it or not. I had never entered a resident’s room without permission before. Now I needed to take a risk. She couldn’t mistrust staff more than she already did. I taped the cartoon to the inside of the door and closed it.
A week later, Huey struck again. “You really know how to select clothes Anita. That blue top you wore to school today looks great on you.”
“Stop flattering me, or I’ll throw a towel over your cage,” Anita threatened.
Huey said, “you’re too nice to do that.”
I continued creating cartoons each Monday while she was at school. One day she left her door slightly ajar, as though to encourage the mystery cartoonist. Her interactions with people had not improved, but she folded her arms across her chest less often.
In the evening, Anita always carried the cage downstairs and set it on a chair close to her. Several months after the initial cartoon, Huey had developed the confidence to press harder. He wanted Anita to feel she was making a constructive contribution to group-home life.
“Anita, you could talk to people in the evening sometimes. Your mouth isn’t just for eating.”
She sniffed. “I know you’re saying these things because you love me, Huey, but I wouldn’t know what to say. Anyway, no one ever listens to me. My mom’s boyfriend always told me to shut my mouth.”
“Compliment the house mother on the meal,” Huey coaxed.
“I’ll think about it.”
I didn’t give her any reason to suspect I was the secret cartoonist. I just observed her slow, consistent growth. After 6 months she was leaving her door wide open, even when she was in her room. Was it an unspoken invitation for people to pop in? Sometimes she commented positively on the meal. When there was a laudatory comment on her school report card, she hesitantly showed it to the house mother.
After a year, I still had not identified myself as the one responsible for Huey’s conversations with her. Now it was time for me to move on. There were teary farewells and I walked out of the home. Unexpectedly, Anita met me at my car and shyly slipped a sheet of paper into my hand. I unfolded it and saw that she had drawn a picture of a canary.
Source:: Living Significantly