When I was 13, I was placed in foster care again after a failed adoption that occurred a decade earlier. I'd later pass through several more, including a girls' group home, moving around until I came of age. I became very adept at stuffing my belongings into two red milk crates and a battered suitcase with a missing zipper.
Children in foster programs are often escaping perilous situations, left at the mercy of whomever receives them next. Some of those people have good intentions, others don't. Many don't understand that these kids more than just the basics. There are many sentiments I didn't know how to express in those days, because it wasn't in my scope to expect, hope or ask. Here are two on my list:
We don't want to be made to be grateful, though we are
In a new foster home, I was shown into a room carefully decorated with white wicker furniture, including a desk and bed set, and a big Chinese rice-paper parasol mounted to a ceiling corner. My new foster mother introduced my room to me as though she were seeing it for the first time herself, running her hand over the craggy surface of the desk chair, marveling at her choices of drapery and bedding. "Isn't this wonderful?" she breathed, as she pointed out each. "Look at the stitching in this, the detail...". After each declaration of wonder she looked at me seemingly for an expected response, but was notably disappointed when I couldn't match her animation. I offered only a weak smile and a faint "Yes, it's very nice. It's beautiful. Thank you." I was certainly overwhelmed, but nothing close to rude nor disinterested. I had just come from a girls' group home where I'd been for the past 1 ½ years, sent away again to live near the sea air because of health issues. Packing up my things and being sent somewhere unfamiliar was scary by practice. I knew how to count on me. I did not know how to count on others. My foster caregiver's face fell a bit, and she said sharply, "This is a pretty nice room, I'd say. I hope you're grateful."
I was grateful, and I told her so. But that's just it, right there. Every time I lived somewhere, someone wanted profound exclamations of gratitude, because "please" and "thank you" were not enough. I knew full well sacrifices were being made to have a strange teenager live in a home where she didn't belong. I always did my best to convey my gratitude.
However, hidden resentment began to build up in me like layered sediment. I didn't want to be made to express gratitude to have a safe place to be every time I was sent somewhere, for food on the table, for a warm bed to sleep. I didn't want someone to expect cartwheels out of me because of white wicker furniture that would never really be mine and didn't really matter to me. A place where I could stay for a period of time away from imminent danger and with a meal or two I could count on were all I hoped for. Meaningful extras were voices that spoke unprompted on my behalf, arms that encircled and weren't trying to work their way into my pants, any moment I was made to feel like a normal kid.
In the end, I was forced out of that home because of my foster mother's mental instability and her husband's wandering hands. Still, I was grateful to have a place to live, and that should have been enough.
I hate wicker furniture. And Chinese umbrellas belong in restaurants.
Sometimes being there is enough
Kids with families usually have parents or family to explain how things work. Foster kids have usually been left with a conglomeration of expectations and practices usually shared by people who don't have a lot of skin in the game. They may have been taught badly, or not at all.
When I enrolled in a new high school, I was sent along to handle the deed myself. I found my way in an unfamiliar part of town and stood stock-still in front of the building. My heart dropped into my shoes. I'd never seen a school so big except maybe in the media.
I was a tough cookie accustomed to the streets of the city, often left to fend for myself. I had slept at night hidden away in the shadows of the park, had scrounged around for something to eat and rifled the pockets of women who'd left their wallets behind in open lockers at the Y. I knew how to get along, but some of my hardest moments were the ones in which others seemed to know what to do and I didn't (like the day at the high school.) Then, I wished only for an arm to press against, a person beside me who would walk confidently up to that enormous building and get things squared away, without my inexperience and solitude showing. I did well enough, anyway, albeit awkwardly, and got myself into school.
In that same high school, near graduation, my geometry teacher figured out I didn't know what an S.A.T. test was nor how to apply to college. At first, she was speechless and stared at me with her mouth agape which embarrassed me greatly, but she composed herself quickly and helped me with both. I sat for the very last S.A.T. of the season in my senior year, and was enrolled in college (her Alma mater) for that following fall.
Every guardian should know that foster children need advocates and solid direction. They'd be hard-pressed to find a kid who wouldn't be grateful for a slight nod.
It would be near impossible to find one who wouldn't be grateful to have an advocate with a strong voice until that foster kid is old enough and brave enough to be her own.