The voice and the wisdom
School social worker Robert Payne reflects upon growing up in an
alcoholic familyan experience he now draws on to promote the health and well-being
of Blaine County youth.
By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer
Payne, Wood River High Schools social worker, says he has faith in the inherent
wisdom of young people. (Express photo by Ron Soble)
Two months ago at the Blaine County Courthouse,
County Commissioner Len Harlig stood before an ad-hoc council of judges, law enforcement
officers, politicians and educators and dropped a bombshell. At least several million
dollars, probably more, of the countys $12 million budget would go toward costs
related to substance abuse this year.
"Its just staggering," Harlig said.
Whats more, he said, addressing the Blaine County Criminal
Justice Council, that sum "does not include the emotional costs of domestic violence
inflicted on women and children by substance abusers, nor the terrible example that adults
are setting for their own children by abusing drugs and alcohol."
If Harligs number seems like an outrageous claim to some, it
doesnt to Robert Payne, a school social worker employed by Wood River High School.
Payne, who simplifies his job description by saying that he ensures
every student "walks across the graduation stage before leaving high school,"
said he spends much of his time "helping kids with parents having problems with
alcohol and drugs."
Payne, 52, with his graying beard, has a fatherly and disarming
presence. During a recent interview at his WRHS office tucked far back in the
schools new science building, he talked easily about the patchwork quilt of his
life, proclaiming that school social workers "dont choose this
Most school social workers, Payne contends, have lived through the very
problems they help students, families and communities solve, and Payne is no different.
"I remember walking through my high school and pretending things
were okay," he said of his own youth, "and that helps me in reaching kids
Payne was born and raised in Plainview, a small town in the Texas
panhandle that "God built after He ran out of ideas," Payne said, a town that is
"everything the name implies."
Throughout his childhood, his alcoholic and mentally ill mother spent
six to eight weeks of every year in a sanitarium.
"Nobody ever talked about that," Payne said, not even his
father, whom Payne describes as an "enabler." His father enabled his mother to
be an alcoholic, Payne said, by making excuses for her and denying the family had a
Not surprisingly, Payne left Plainview when he turned 18. He attended
Southern Methodist University in Dallas, an experience he described as "part of the
conveyor belt most kids were on."
"I had an abysmal academic record," he admitted. "I
wasnt in class," he said, because he was having too much fun and because he was
"I was very suspicious of the mental health profession,"
Payne said of his college years. Therapists had done little for his mothers ongoing
health problems, and Paynes own brush with the profession involved visiting his
mothers psychiatrist for counseling during his first year at SMU. The doctor told
him to "study more and try harder," Payne said, advice that didnt really
address the problem at all.
"I gave up on the mental health profession," he said.
Unfortunately, his first marriage was coming to an end before he
decided to give psychotherapy another chance.
"We were one of those marriages that look great on the
outside," he said, "but neither of us could talk. Its a misconception that
marriages dont have any fights."
By then, Payne was working in Boise restoring historical houses. This
was around 1980. He read an article in Time magazine about surrogate parents, and
their children who said they missed having a childhood. Something about the article hit
home, Payne said.
"That just sparked huge changes in my life."
For the first time, Payne began to break the No. 1 rule of alcoholic
families, which is "dont talk." He joined a local therapy group, which he
described as a painful experience, but comforting, too.
He attended the group for four years, talking about his childhood
problems and was utterly intrigued with the psychotherapy process. Eventually people told
him, "You should do this for a living," he said.
In his mid-30s, Payne began attending Boise State University to
complete his undergraduate degree, then earned a masters degree from the University of
Wisconsin in 1988. During that time, he increased his grade point average from a 1.0 to a
Today, Payne is happily married with two children. As for his position
as a school social worker, "I just absolutely love it," he said.
Payne declares that his story is not unusual.
"There are many more people struggling for help than admit
it," he said. "I was at the Len Harlig meeting, and it certainly didnt
A 1996 article in Principal, a trade magazine for elementary
school principals, described school social workers as generalists who act as organizers,
leaders, catalysts for change and advocates for children and families. The work they do
extends from counseling individuals to galvanizing entire communities into action.
For Payne, his broad-range job description manifests itself most often
in three areas at WRHS: Helping students whose parents have substance abuse problems,
intervening in conflicts between students and resolving conflicts between adolescents and
"Part of my job is just getting parents to understand that 80 to
90 percent of the concerns I hear are age-appropriate behavior," Payne said.
He calls that behavior "storming and norming" referring to
the swings between upheaval and calm that many teenagers exhibit.
But that broad-range job description can present some real challenges,
too. The shooting at Columbine High School comes to mind. Payne recalls that the
"terrible circumstances" of that day turned into a "wonderful
The day after the shooting, he found his officesmaller than a
single-car garagefilled with as many as 50 deeply emotional students who suddenly
saw their school and teachers in a different light.
Payne said the resulting discussions from Columbine have led to greater
closeness among students and teachers and an awareness among students that their behavior
can have catastrophic consequences.
Students are taking more responsibility for the school since Columbine,
Payne said, referring in part to weekly "student forums," which students have
organized to discuss a wide range of important topics.
Also, Payne says, the community is seeing a ground-swell among parents
wanting to do something about issues surrounding teenagers.
One result of that ground-swell has been a new "assets
approach" to student health and well-being. The philosophy emphasizes providing the
building blocks deemed crucial for all youth to succeed, regardless of community size,
region of the country, gender, family economics or race.
Payne said he likes the approach because its not about creating
institutions around existing problems, but about preventing problems before they get
started by providing the experiences and qualities that have a positive influence on young
In a much-talked-about survey given last year by the non-profit
Research Institute, which developed the assets approach, Blaine County students revealed
that they believe the adult population is indifferent to their needs and that the
community as a whole does not value its youth. Its those kinds of perceptions that
Payne and others believe lead to risk taking behaviors, including substance abuse.
If the community can change those perceptions, Payne suggested, the
risk-taking behaviors will mostly vanish.
"I have a voice, and they certainly listen to me," Payne said
of his role in helping students succeed; but, he added, "Theres a lot of wisdom
among our students."
For the most part, he places his faith in the youth.