When Nini stormed angrily into the front office at First Creek Middle School, YMCA Program Director Fahren Johnson knew something was different. This was not Nini's first time here. In fact, by this time last year, the fiery sixth grader with a reputation for aggression had already earned herself six emergency expulsions for incidents related to fighting.
But Fahren, whose job allowed her to spend the previous year on campus investing in youth like Nini, could immediately sense that something was different. "I had never seen her so upset," said Fahren. "I could feel her starting to hyperventilate. I knew this was a different energy coming from her."
Sensing the urgency, Fahren took control of the situation and brought Nini to her office, where she turned to Nini and said, "Take all the time you need to let out whatever it is you are trying to hold in." Nini immediately began to sob deeply, pacing back and forth and wailing so hard it left her unable to breathe. Fahren walked her through a breathing exercise, and slowly, the sobs turned into gentle weeping and quiet sadness.
"What happened?" Fahren asked finally.
Nini explained the situation: When a student challenged her to fight in the lunchroom, for the first time in her life, she declined the invitation. But as she turned to walk away, another student pushed her forcibly to the ground. Instead of retaliating like usual, Nini sat there contemplating the conversations she'd had with Fahren throughout the past year. She could clearly hear Fahren's voice saying, "Don't fight; just come to the office and get me." But Fahren's wasn't the only voice Nini heard. All around her, students, some of them her "friends," were mocking her, calling her weak for not retaliating.
"Mrs. Fahren, I want to get her so bad. I am so angry. I'm not going to make it at this school," she said. "I just can't?
Fahren felt herself overcome by an entirely different kind of emotion- pride. "Do you realize that you just made a decision that is going to change your life forever?!" she asked excitedly. "Do you know how so very proud I am of you right now? What takes more strength- fighting or doing what you just did?"
Fahren saw a spark ignite in Nini's eyes at the realization of the shift that had just taken place within her. For the first time ever, she had kicked her emotions out of the driver's seat and reclaimed control of her own path. The change has stuck.
This year, Nini has not received a single suspension or behavior write-up at school. One of Fahren's brightest youth leaders and an active participant on the Youth Summit Committee, she has plans for a very bright future. "She has made a complete 180 degree shift in her confidence and behavior," reports Fahren. "We are just so proud of her."