The summer I was 19, I was responsible for a handful of teenage girls. Not just any girls. These were, according to the website I’d perused back in my Yale dorm room that spring, “Kentucky’s most vulnerable and troubled youth.” They were living at the treatment center where I’d taken a summer job.

    The girls “lived” under the guard of three layers of locks and the supervision of counselors who documented their mood and whereabouts every 15 minutes. They seemed as unhappy as anyone would be in such a situation, stomping dramatically through their dorm’s living room, glaring at everyone they passed, and then plopping onto one of the standard issue tweed couches, just close enough to other residents to make them sigh loudly, and sometimes even scream.

    When these girls started yelling, they couldn’t seem to stop. They screamed about how much they hated one another and us counselors and cops and teachers and the world. They screamed about how they were only there because their families were full of screwups who didn’t want them. They screamed and screamed until they’d made enough of a nuisance of themselves that a counselor would lock them in the time-out room, padded and empty, like how I imagined one would be in a psychiatric hospital. And just as one girl’s screaming calmed, another’s started.

    Why I thought I was qualified to help them, I’m not sure. I was just a year older than the oldest residents, and my freshman year wasn’t devoted to psychology or social work, but to naturally occurring fractals and political theory. Still, I empathized with the girls, and I must have hoped that this would be enough.

    What’s even less clear is why the center hired me. But that June, there I was, assigned to keep busy the three residents exempt from summer school. I was given an activities’ budget, gas money, and eight hours a day to aid in their “healing.”

    I made a schedule of volunteer and educational activities that I submitted to the center’s director, but when we left each morning, it might as well have flown out my car’s window. I did whatever my charges Nicole, Christina, and Kelly asked. I knew they hadn’t left their dorms for months, and I decided what they just might need was affirmation that they deserved better than to be locked up. So, I let them have fun.

    Nicole asked to go horseback riding, which shocked me. Not yet 18, her record already included burglary, grand theft auto, and aggravated battery. She’d been sober for at least the four months she had been at the center, but she still had a hazy thought process and a glazed look in her eyes. She could also summon an intense glare, and being half a foot taller than me, she liked to remind me how little I was.

    I saw Nicole as a caricature of a tough city girl, not someone who would desire an idyllic trot through the country. But she did, so we went.

    Sixteen-year-old Christina wanted to see R-rated movies. She was a pretty Latina — a little bossy and arrogant, but she tended to follow the rules, and most of the other girls looked up to her. I could tell she was smart, too, and I daydreamed about helping her get into a good college. What a great application essay her stint here would make!

    But Christina had another side. She would tell stories about burglary or her “pimp daddy,” and when someone interrupted her or questioned her authority, she became angry and violent, throwing everything from punches to 21-inch television sets.

    I never questioned her authority. We saw a number of R-rated movies.

    Kelly was different from Christina and Nicole. The 15-year-old directed her anger not at the world, but at herself. She lacked confidence and self-respect, trying to impress others with tight clothes and bright makeup. She preferred strolling through the mall, and once, when we drove by a bridal shop, she asked to stop to try on wedding dresses. We did.

    We rented bikes built for two to ride by the riverfront, and we even tracked a peacock we spotted wandering the streets. At a pay phone, I supervised the girls’ calls to the zoo and several nearby farms. I was so proud of them — and of myself: I thought I was helping them become Good Samaritans.

    There were plenty of other times when I honestly thought my lenience was doing the girls good. One morning, for instance, I went to pay for our gas and left them alone in my running car.

    All three — even Kelly — had grand theft auto on their rap sheets.

    “Miss Wolff,” Christina said afterwards, “that was just plain stupid.”

    But I didn’t think so. I thought they needed to feel trusted, and the fact that they didn’t take advantage of my trust seemed like progress.   

    Yet some part of me must have suspected that being the girls’ friend rather than their superior benefited me more than it did them. I can’t think of any other reason why I would have decided in July to begin making them volunteer. We spent a day sorting clothes at Goodwill, and another playing with preschoolers, but the girls wanted none of it. They threatened to make me sorry if we did any more community service, and who was I to argue?

    It wasn’t just that I was 19 and unqualified.

    Every day when I got off work, I visited drive-thru after drive-thru, shoving a hamburger, donut, or ice cream cone into my mouth. Then, at the corner gas station, I’d lock myself in a bathroom stall and tickle the back of my throat. Most days, the ice cream was still cold coming up.

    Incredibly, I didn’t see the irony of my working as a counselor. My job seemed separate from my personal life — that is, until one afternoon, while we were driving along the Interstate, when the girls pointed out smoke creeping from under my car’s hood.

    As they shrieked and squealed about their imminent deaths, I found the nearest exit. Smoke was still seeping out as I pulled into a gas station, where an attendant propped the hood. Suddenly, yellow and orange whirled in the air. Gray clouds shot up and enveloped the fire.

    “Dang Miss Wolff,” Nicole said, “you almost killed us!”

    I just stared at my burning engine.

   “But I’ve had it less than two months!” I protested to no one in particular. “What could have happened?”

   “Looks like someone sold you a lemon,” the attendant said.

   I breathed deeply. I didn’t mention that someone was my dad, a used car salesman.

   At that moment, I didn’t feel like the counselor whom the girls addressed as Miss Wolff. I felt like a girl from a screwed-up family, whose influence I couldn’t escape.

   Of course, compared to these girls — whose families abused and neglected them — I didn’t have it so bad. But I still couldn’t help but wonder whether my own father, with whom I’d had a strained relationship since he left when I was three, sold me a junker on purpose. I also hated that my mom couldn’t afford to buy me a newer, more reliable car in the first place — like all of my college friends’ parents could.

   That might have been when I realized I had nothing of substance to offer Nicole, Christina, and Kelly. I couldn’t give them what I didn’t have; I had no idea why some people’s lives were harder than others, or how we were supposed to accept our circumstances, mourn our disappointment about them, and then build the lives we would prefer.

   Although I had been convincing myself that treating the girls as equals was for their benefit, I began to see that I was treating them as such because they were my equals. I gave up on trying to help them. I now hoped only that my influence wouldn’t inadvertently do any harm.

   Near the end of the summer, I took Nicole, Christina, and Kelly to the Louisville Science Center. The admission fee stretched our daily allowance, so I packed lunches from the dorm kitchen rather than buying fast food as usual.

   Nicole wasn’t happy to trade her daily cheeseburger for a museum trip, and she made no secret of her discontent in the science center’s cafeteria as she pulled the orange from her brown paper bag. She scowled at the fruit’s presence in her hand before dropping it on the table and watching it roll onto the floor. Then she unwrapped her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and stared at me.

   Finally, she took a bite and, still staring at me, chewed slowly, as if she was being forced to eat mud.

   “Miss Wolff,” Nicole said as she unpacked the rest of her lunch, “this sucks.”

    I told her I was sorry.

   “If you’re so sorry,” she said, “then buy me a Coke.”

    I said I would if I could, but we had no money left. Nicole, staring with disgust at her unopened half-pint carton of milk, said she was sure I could afford to buy everyone Cokes with my own money.

    Hesitantly, and concerned less by the center’s rules than my own budget, I told her I shouldn’t.

    In a huff, Nicole pushed herself out and up from the table.

    “Buy me a Coke,” she said again, giving me one last chance.

    I said no tentatively, and Nicole stormed off, yelling that I’d be sorry.

    Already, I was.

    I remembered learning at the beginning of the summer that girls who ran away were almost never seen at the center again. Was that Nicole’s plan? Would she try to hitchhike and be taken advantage of en route? Would she settle onto the Louisville streets? This could be the beginning of her downward spiral, and it would be entirely my fault.

    I wanted so badly to stop her, but I didn’t know how. Here, away from the center’s locks, from fellow counselors who could be called for backup, and from rules created to give counselors power over patients, I was helpless.

    So I just followed her, trailing far enough behind so that my presence was obvious but not intrusive. Once, in the astronomy room, she stopped, turned around, and glared at me before whipping her body forward and continuing on.

    Nicole paced for the next hour before finally heading toward the stairs that led to the street. My heart stopped.

    Then Nicole stopped.

    “Let’s go,” she said flatly.

     I was so relieved to return with her that day, but I was also surprised. Why hadn’t she run? At the time, I had no idea. But now, nearly a decade later, I suspect that while of course Nicole wanted to escape the center’s lock and key, she must have also realized that she didn’t have much to look forward to outside. After all, it was her former situation that drove her to the center. Perhaps this was why all three girls, who constantly complained they would rather be anywhere else, passed up chance after chance on our daily outings to actually leave.

     I often wonder whether Nicole, Christina, and Kelly think back to that summer, and if so, whether they remember it as I do — as one in which some walls came down.

Editorial note: The names of Nicole, Christina, and Kelly have been changed to protect their identities.

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