Letting Down the Mask


After working with angry, injured, neglected youth for over 40 years, I am accustomed to having a mask presented to me when I first meet a teenager who psychologically is “in the world alone.” Indeed, he usually prefers to brandish a mask at the initial introduction.

See, I’m crazy.  Really, I am bad. 

If brave enough, the young person searches my eyes, seeking to know what I have already heard about him, if I have read the usually thick case record which documents his noncompliant behaviors, his diagnoses, or worse yet, his family’s betrayal. A few moments of silence. Then, in return, I always respond: You are safe here. I know that you are not bad and you are not crazy. You are just a kid. I smile. The look I get back is a puzzled one, but that was my purpose. Catch the youth off guard.  Make him curious, attentive. So where do you want to go when you leave? I ask. Our relationship begins with his answer. Home…Independent Living… I don’t know.

So I was not surprised when the 18-year-old rushed into my office unannounced, with staff following closely. Interrupting my meeting, he protested that he had waited too long for his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) update and his special education placement in an alternative school. The mask was down. He went on to say, “It is easier to go to jail than to do what is right, and get into school.”  I sat up and took a long look. Now he had my attention. I recalled his history. He had been abandoned before he began kindergarten and bounced around in countless facilities and jails. Now in his last year of high school, he wanted to be like the other residents. Despite his special needs, he really wanted to go to school in the community.  I picked up the phone. It was time to expedite the process.

It is easier to go to jail than to do what is right, and get into school.

Those words continue to echo. When the youth actually does let the mask down, he is highly vulnerable to adult betrayal. Once again, or maybe for the first time, he is just a kid. As responsible adults, we will ensure that he is assigned a school placement that meets his needs and delivers academic success. Perhaps, then, he will never again need a mask.


Dr. Sheryl Brissett Chapman

Dr. Sheryl Brissett Chapman, Ed.D., ACSW, Executive Director, provides agency administrative oversight, consultative support for all programs, and ensures overall contract and program compliance. Dr. Chapman has more than 40 years of experience supervising national, state and local human services programs, and is an expert on child and family welfare and child protection.


  1. LaMar | October 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm


  2. Joel Aaron | October 12, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Dr C. from my own experiences I have discovered the acronym ART which stands for acceptance, respect and trust. It was not the easiest lesson for me to learn but I realized that in order for ART to come back to me I had to be ARTful first. Sometimes I still struggle with the trust side but recognize that if I omit it then my efforts would fall short.
    Having a grown son in his twenties and two teenage boys I am extremely grateful for who and where they are and the fact that I have been able to practice my ART on them, because even up to now they too wear their own masks. This experience helps to make it easier to unmask the boys we are charged with protecting and providing for.

    • Sheryl Brissett Chapman | February 20, 2013 at 2:02 am

      Joel: Trust is the first developmental task in childhood and occurs in the first year of life. Key to attachment, we must risk to trust so we can literally grow up. I agree with you, though. Without trust, there is no progress, hope, purpose, love, or meaning. Wow! That’s why we must get over betrayals and allow ourselves to trust someone (else?) again.

  3. Sheryl Brissett Chapman | February 20, 2013 at 2:03 am

    Lamar, thanks for following me! 🙂


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