Jim : the Importance of Peers

By John Stein

John Stein has been a gracious and generous contributor to our Journal and this time around he has provided us with an article which reminds us that peer influence in adolescence can enrich and support us throughout our lives. He has worked in human services for all of his career. John has an M.Ed in Social Restoration, and he is a Certified Cognitive Behavioural Therapist but he has not allowed that to limit the possibilities of organic dynamism in his work. John directed programmes for both adults and children in corrections, residential treatment, and inpatient and outpatient mental health settings in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. He is the author of “Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues, Principles, and Techniques”, 1995, Nelson-Hall, Chicago. John retired some time ago, but has continued to present workshops for parents and professionals, has written several articles on children’s issues. He travels extensively. We are honoured that John has agreed to join our editorial group.

Date Posted: December 15 2012


Jim : the Importance of Peers

Much is made of the importance that relationships have in children’s development. Relationships with child and youth care workers, with teachers, with mentors, with other adults, and of course, with parents. I’ve seen less about the importance of relationships with peers, and yet my relationship with Jim had a significant influence on my life, perhaps even a profound influence.

I first met Jim in the seventh grade.I was twelve years old, he thirteen.Since teachers seated us alphabetically, and since our last names began with the same two letters, he always sat behind me or next to me. He lived near me, so we soon found ourselves walking to and from school together. More, we had similar interests. We both liked sports – tennis, baseball, football (American), and basketball. We also enjoyed chess and a tabletop ice hockey game that he had. Consequently, we had lots of one-on-one contests after school and on weekends. While we were not social outcasts, neither were we members of the ‘in’ group. Meanwhile, we were also both academically competitive, but with different strengths. Jim worked harder than I and read more; I occasionally grasped a concept before Jim. Since we both loved out-performing members of the in-group on tests and assignments, it made sense for us to work together on many of our studies. More, we both played in the school orchestra, he trombone, me clarinet and sax. Consequently, we found ourselves spending a lot of time together throughout our school years.

One of the things that has stuck with me over the years happened during a civics test in ninth grade.Our teacher had a reputation for being visually challenged.During tests, which were always multiple choice, there was a lot of passing of notes among students,especially members of the ‘in group’. It seemed as if our teacher did not see or know what was happening.(I always wondered whether he didn’t know or didn’t care).Neither Jim nor I, however, could cheat on a test, or anything else for that matter.It was not who we were.Neither of us could take satisfaction from beating anyone at anything if we couldn’t beat them fair and square, playing by the rules.

On this particular test, there was one question that had me perplexed.I had eliminated all but two choices, but was not certain which was correct.So I moved on,to come back to the question later if I had time.A few minutes later, the teacher left the room.Instead of passing notes,our classmates began just asking and telling answers to each other.I heard someone give an answer to the question that had me challenged.I went back to it and immediately understood that it was the correct answer, so I put it down.I mean, after all, I was going to go back to the question.I had not tried to cheat.I now knew the correct answer and had done nothing unfair or ‘illegal’ to obtain it.It would be stupid to not put down the answer when I knew what it was.

After our papers were graded, I found out that Jim had gotten the question wrong.I asked him, since he sat behind me, if he had not heard the answer as did I.Jim said that he had, but he could not put it down because it was not ‘his’answer.Talk about integrity!

The next incident occurred in the eleventh grade.In the first week of school, we were to elect a representative from our home room to the student council.We had a lot of new students from another school in our home room that year.They nominated two people.Jim and I didn’t know either of the nominees.Jim abstained from voting.The teacher challenged him, saying that we live in a democracy and in a democracy, it is every citizen’s responsibility to vote.Jim countered that it was the responsibility of every citizen to cast an informed vote.Since he could not cast an informed vote,he felt it was his responsibility to abstain.The teacher put considerable pressure on Jim, attempting to shame him into voting, but Jim stuck to his position and did not vote.I was most impressed by Jim’s sticking to his principles, despite the pressure from an adult in authority.

After graduation, Jim and I went to different colleges and had less contact with each other.I got married and eventually dropped out of school.Nevertheless, Jim’s influence had a profound influence on my life and the lives of people around me.

A year after dropping out of school, I took a job as a police officer in the small city where I had gone to college, with the understanding that I would be able to have time to take some courses and complete my education.After two years, because I was one of only two officers with any college education, I was assigned to a new community relations program.I was to patrol the city’s public housing neighborhoods and get to know the residents.At the same time, some of the kids from these neighborhoods began having some difficulties with the police.A demonstration at the beginning of the summer rose to the level of a riot in which they damaged a police car, throwing rocks through the windows.They were of course arrested, but the police allegedly had been a bit brutal and charges were dropped.

Toward the end of the summer, following a Friday night high school football game, after the crowd had dispersed and the officers working the game were standing on a corner waiting to be dismissed, seven of these boys walked past the officers.The officers taunted the kids a bit.The boys responded with taunts of their own, one having to do with the masculinity of the sergeant in command, who then ordered the officers to arrest the boys.After all, he had a wife and two kids.There was nothing wrong with his masculinity.

The boys had been subdued, cuffed, and placed in the paddy wagon by the time I arrived.They were driven to headquarters, with a lot of slamming on of brakes and then rapid acceleration.I could hear the bodies bouncing around in the wagon and the screams of the boys.(There were no seat belts on the long benches in the wagon).At headquarters, about fifty officers had assembled, lining the hall as the boys were sent to the cell block.The Director of Public Safety was there.I saw many swing at the boys as they passed by, including the Director of Public Safety, although few punches were landed.

In the cell block, it was a different scene.Boys were punched repeatedly.One burly officer had a boy sitting on the floor against a steel door, grasping him by the hair and repeatedly slamming his head into the steel door saying,’Now you’re going to have some respect!’ The boy’s eyes were beginning to roll back into his head.I was concerned for his life.He had been a victim of a drive by shooting earlier that summer.They could not remove the bullet and it was still lodged in his brain.I took out my whistle and blew it as hard and loud as I could.Everyone stopped.They put the kids in cells,sprayed them with tear gas, and left them screaming to assemble in the squad room to write their reports.The sergeant said something about getting the reports right so the boys wouldn’t get off this time as they had on the previous arrest when the police had to drop the charges because of misconduct.I wrote what I saw in my report.

The next evening, I was assigned to drive the paddy wagon to the stadium for another football game.The tear gas in the cab of the paddy wagon was so strong that rolling down the windows was not sufficient.I had to put my head out of the window to keep my eyes clear enough to see to drive.

A few weeks later, I received a telephone call at home from the Director of the Human Relations Commission who said he had been asked to look into the events of that evening. The police had told him that there was nothing more than some pushing and shoving.I hesitated for just a moment, then told him what I had witnessed.Despite the intense pressure among police officers, my colleagues, to stand by each other, there was no question in my mind that I had to tell the truth as I knew it.

A few months later, on the evening before a holiday, there was a fight at a local tavern involving some of the same boys.All units were dispatched to the scene When I arrived, I found that five boys had already been arrested and placed in the paddy wagon and that a large crowd had gathered.People, mostly kids but a few adults, including some youth workers, were standing around, as were the police officers.The story was that they had gone into the bar and ordered drinks,but were ridiculed by some patrons because they were under age and Hispanic.A fight broke out and the boys busted the place up.

For nearly half an hour, nothing happened.The crowd was quiet.Then, after nearly half an hour, a girl began wailing incoherently.The sergeant said, “That’s it! Take them all in.” I asked him what the charges were.He told me to ask the Mayor, who was also on the scene by that time.He said the Mayor had given the order.I asked the Mayor why we were arresting them.He said, “What do you care? There’s your sergeant.Follow him.”

In Pennsylvania, police officers can only make an arrest if they witness a crime or have reasonable suspicion that the person committed a felony.I had not seen anything that led me to believe that any crime,let alone a felony,had been committed by the people who were gathered on the street.Consequently,it would be illegal for me to arrest anyone.I did not expect to get into any trouble if I participated in these illegal arrests.Nevertheless, they would be clearly illegal.On the other hand, I knew that I would be in considerable trouble if I refused to follow a direct order, most likely a two-week suspension without pay.With a wife and two small children at home and living pay check to pay check,I could not afford that.By resigning, however, I could cash in my contributions to the pension fund, which would be enough to tide us over for three months.Easily enough time for someone with three years of college to find a job.(After three months, we were down to our last $20 when I finally got a part time job sweeping floors in a bra factory.)

I handed the mayor my badge.He said,”Thank you!Give your gun to the sergeant.” (I was not real popular following the information I had given to the Human Relations Commission).I turned in my revolver to the sergeant and walked the three kilometers back to headquarters to get my car and drive home.

Thanks to Jim, I never had any confusion about what was the right thing to do in any situation. (There were others over the years, but not nearly so dramatic).The right thing was always clear to me.There was never any question in my mind.It wasn’t about “What would Jim do?” Rather, somewhere in the back of my mind, there was the thought about how I might explain to Jim what I had done or failed to do.Even though we had little contact in those days, I was compelled to do the right thing because of the examples Jim had set.The choice was easy for me, no matter the consequences for me,or for my family.

To be sure, peer pressure among police officers is quite powerful.It is not for nothing that we refer to police officers as a ‘brotherhood.’Spending an eight-hour shift with fellow officers in a patrol car leads to strong bonds.Jim’s influence, however, was the stronger for me.Influence depends on relationships, and my relationship with Jim was far the stronger.

The influence of peers is not always positive, as those of us who have worked with children, including parents and teachers as well as child and youth care workers, know full well.That was certainly the case in my police department at that time.That’s part of the reason that there were repeated incidents of brutality that summer.Most officers justified and supported the brutality.Any who didn’t, well, the pressure to keep silent was powerful.

Those of us who have worked with groups of children, in whatever settings, school, community, and especially residential, have battled the negative influences of peers.When we are successful in getting the peer group to support the values and behaviour that we are attempting to promote, our work becomes surprisingly successful.When we find the group opposing what we are attempting to do, our work is most challenging.At times, I think,it is almost impossible.

The relationships that adults have with children, and the influence that stems from those relationships, can be powerful.So too can the relationships that children have with their peers.I knew from both my mother and my father,that my father, who supervised major construction projects, including the construction of a nuclear power plant, had the opportunity to make big money and become quite wealthy from kick backs and such from contractors.He did not accept such money and worked for pay that was less than that provided to many workers who simply operated equipment on his jobs.Knowing that, was important to me.But watching Jim, in my own life space, standing up for his principles, no higher than my father’s principles, was…well, it was just more powerful.I knew my father’s principles.I witnessed Jim’s.

Jim’s principles affected my life and the lives of people around me.They are part of who I am.

You never know how many lives another life may touch, including your own, or how it will touch them.The key is, I think, to keep on touching.With a smile whenever you can….