Jane and I stood on the stage with the Governor at the annual ceremony for graduating foster youth going to college. There were maybe sixty of us in an auditorium that seated hundreds. It was much colder in there than it was outside, and we shivered a bit in summer dresses and sandals. Outside there were caterers dressed in black setting up the kind of meal that Jane had begun to associate with these events: chicken bruschetta on dry bread, iced tea, asparagus with lemon. The forty or so graduates and smattering of adults only filled up the first section of the auditorium, and our voices echoed in the emptiness. Jane was asked if there were a whole lot of people who helped her get to this place. She heard it as a question about whether they believed she could do this and she shook her head, pointed at me and said, “No, it was just her, my foster mom. Everyone else said I couldn’t graduate, but I did graduate. It was just her. She was the only one.”
All eyes stared at me. I jumped in nervously and said, “Well, of course there was help. There were great teachers, there were great social workers; we all worked together.”
“Yes, of course,” said the Governor. “We are here to celebrate how we all work together. We can thank so many for success stories like yours and we are so glad to do it!”
Jane stood shifting back and forth, looking at me quizzically. She was used to awkward. She knew awkward. But she was starting to come into her own, embracing a tomboy sensibility and a grungy style common to our Northwest town. She’d just gotten her hair cut short and was happy about it. She was standing up straight. Everybody was on their best behavior and I was regretting voting for every elected official in this room. Jane and the Governor were both small-framed people, so when the Governor spoke to her the two of them were eye to eye. Jane had a penchant for saying things to push people’s buttons, and I stood behind the Governor and raised my eyebrows at Jane in an effort to say now is not the time. Be pleasant. A local congressman saw caught my look and turned away uncomfortably.
But if anyone was going to say something unpleasant, it was me. I wanted out of this ceremony that was awarding her $3,000. This was nothing, but we were supposed to be grateful. They should be giving her more money. They are acting like they are giving her everything.
Jane and I made a deal when she was thirteen. We sat on the couch in the living room of the first house she and I lived in together and watched Wall-E while eating quesadillas. It was a very small space, which she loved right away because I let her pick out her own furniture. She’d only been with me for a few days. So far we’d painted one wall of her room a very bright green and I’d been told that she would never succeed in school.
After the movie ended she told me she didn’t understand why so many people had so much more than what they needed.
“Why do people eat too much? Why don’t they give away what they don’t need?” she asked. The questions were more advanced than I’d been told she was capable of and led to a complex discussion of the downfalls of capitalism. Her teacher, her social worker, her school administrator: they’d all said that “kids like this just need to be kept safe”.
I was intrigued. I wondered what else was missing from this picture. I asked her what she wanted for her life and she said that she wanted out of special education, off medications, and to have a life that was better than her parents had. Her parents, who never graduated from high school, were both living paycheck to paycheck in working class jobs. Her mother was dependent on a boyfriend and would always be. Her mother was particularly vulnerable; her dependency kept her in an extended family that had a significant amount of destructive behavior. At 13, she seemed to already understand she could potentially have more freedom. I told her I would try to get her what she wanted, and I think she believed me.
I mentioned Jane’s desire to get out of the special education program at one of my first meetings at her school, and everyone at the table smirked. There were always a lot of people at the table, and most of them didn’t know Jane very well. Jane was at the table too, and her refusal to engage in conversation with them told me that she knew what the smirks meant. Silence was only her choice when she thought what she was going to say would get her in more trouble than she wanted. They thought she didn’t understand. She spoke loudly, and often didn’t understand subtlety. The bureaucrats were much less subtle than they thought they were.
“Can you tell me what is keeping her in special education?” I asked.
“Well, you see, it’s very complicated. Cases like these, you’ll find that children like Jane are much better off when they are in safe environments where they can have some guaranteed success,” said the principal. While she talked, I stared at the pastel colored posters on the wall discouraging bullying and declaring that everyone matters.
“But specifically, what is keeping Jane in the resource room? Every other kid in there is developmentally disabled and she is not. What benefit does she get from being there?” I said. The resource room was a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around. There weren’t any resources in there, it was a large room with tables and chairs but no text books. Jane didn’t learn anything. I walked by sporadically and she did nothing but re-read her copy of Twilight. She was occasionally allowed computer time, and when I looked at her email account I found a collection of videos about abortion that the school would never have found appropriate—had they been paying attention. I couldn’t raise a kid who no one was willing to teach. If she didn’t learn anything, she’d have to be taken care of forever. Who was going to do that?
“I know it’s hard to understand . . .”
“It is, in fact, hard to understand …” I said.
“Thank you for your concern; we are so glad to see Jane has someone in her corner. We’ll meet again in six weeks,” said the heavy-set principal with big eyes and permed hair.
When they closed their folders, they were done. They started chatting with me and with each other, asking questions like was I going back to work, what did everyone think of the hot weather (what is this, California? We’re not supposed to have weather like this in the Northwest!) and what was everyone doing this weekend. They were so casual about their chatting, and lighthearted that resentment started building inside me. I didn’t even know at the time how many more meetings like this I was going to have. I came with questions: how do we get Jane in regular classes? How do we evaluate what her capabilities are? What’s her actual reading level?
And I left with no answers.
I was raised to be a problem solver; to answer questions. I grew up with a lot of kids who had problems. I had a lot of problems. We were poor and from broken families and lots of us had issues that tried to get in the way of school. We were in a Catholic community, and while the nuns took our problems seriously, we could only talk about them after class or after school. And when you were solving problems with our nuns, it was important to bring a notebook. For each problem we created an action plan. We were taught to live with a never-ending quest for answers.
The following semester Jane got out of the resource room inadvertently by going to a new school that was closer to our house. This is standard in foster care; she’d been placed at my house in mid-semester, so she switched to our neighborhood school during the break. She was put in regular classes because the school didn’t have the same kind of resource room, but the transition felt overwhelming to her and she started acting out pretty quickly. The meetings started, first with Jane attending, and then with her opting out of them, telling me that she didn’t have any control anyway. She preferred to sit in the car and read. She read book after book after book, acting out scenes from Twilight from memory in her room at night. Sometimes I would stand outside her door and listen to her play the roles of all of the Cullen family vampires playing baseball in a thunderstorm, amazed by how much of the story and dialogue she could remember and how happy she sounded when she was playing out those stories. She liked to detach.
The school’s principal was a retired military officer who wholeheartedly believed in law enforcement. He would sit quietly while the counselors would explain kids like this to me, and then explain how escalating discipline was the only way to go. Kids like this would only respond to strict boundaries and firm rules, he’d say. Please sign this discipline contract, he’d say. Every third time the student uses a swear word they go to in-school detention. The rest of that semester went terribly. Jane fell in love with the Harry Potter series, and realized that by throwing pencils on the ground, talking out of turn, or using a swear word she could be sent to in school suspension, a quiet empty classroom where she was allowed to read. She was a tar baby who found her briar patch, and that semester she was suspended dozens of times.
I decided that we needed to do something radically different. After discussing the situation with as many people in education as I could find, Jane was offered the chance to repeat the eighth grade at the Waldorf School in our town. Waldorf kids start school later than other kids, so she wouldn’t be much older than the others. By a stroke of luck, the eighth grade teacher was brilliantly talented; a graduate of MIT and Stanford, he’d found his calling at Waldorf and loved teaching more than anyone I’d ever met. Students called him Mr. Mo, and he’d started as the school’s gardening teacher after settling in the Northwest to become an organic farmer. He didn’t find the prospect of teaching Jane intimidating. In fact, he was excited about learning how her mind worked. He liked her, and I’d never heard anyone say that before. He looked forward to having her in class.
Jane loved it from the first day. She spent the year learning to build matchbox cars, painting, jumping rope, and learning geometry through clay. Mr. Mo would often tell me about how much joy he saw in her when she learned a game, negotiated a new skill, or completed a task. She wrote a paper on Anne Frank, drew George Washington in chalk, and memorized 68 lines of Shakespeare for the spring play. She travelled with her class to three states, swimming in the ocean, river rafting, and hiking the Grand Canyon. She called me every night from that trip, breathlessly excited, saying things like, “Do you KNOW HOW FUN IT IS TO SWIM IN THE OCEAN?”
One day when I picked her up from swim class, I made a comment about how she should be careful with her jumps into the water, because she was coming close to splashing people.
“I know!” she said, “it’s DISPLACEMENT. Mr. Mo taught us about it.”
In the 9th grade, Jane went back to public school along with most of the rest of her Waldorf classmates. She was tested before enrolling, and her scores reflected a seven level increase in her reading skills. When I reported this to Mr. Mo, he shrugged his shoulders, saying that he didn’t really know what that meant. I loved him.
Everyone else felt that it meant quite a bit, so I used the scores to push further. I requested that Jane be put into college prep classes. I now knew much more about what she might be capable of. The school counselor put Jane in sewing class instead of a foreign language, which she would need to get into college. The counselor told me that Jane wasn’t going to go to college, and sewing was an appropriate class for her.
“She’s only in the 9th grade.” I said, “How do you know she can’t go to college?”
“I’m so glad you are asking that question. Kids like this they need to be in safe situations where they have a good chance to achieve success. Sewing is a good and appropriate choice for her,” said the counselor. Her patronizing tone rang in my ears. I kept staring at the fabric of her skirt, some kind of synthetic plaid pattern, thinking about sewing.
“She sewed me an apron last year. It has a big pocket on it with a giant hole that spoons could fall through, and the ties are all different lengths. I can assure you she does not have a good chance to achieve success in sewing class—she doesn’t have the manual dexterity for it. And why, in the 9th grade are we so worried about her failing? What’s the problem with finding out exactly what she is capable of?”
The counselor stood up, straightened her suit skirt, took some paperwork out of the printer and handed it to me. She directed me to the front desk to turn in required forms and said it was nice to meet me.
My Catholic education was in a diocese that took every child seriously. It was a liberal place. I was an altar girl, a role that mostly only boys were given during the 80s. One time a visiting priest admonished me for bad behavior during mass by reminding me that I was eating Jesus’ body when I took communion so I should take it more seriously. I said, “Really? I thought that was a metaphor.” I was twelve. My principal was standing nearby and she raised her eyebrows at the visiting priest and said, “That’s how we teach them to be.”
However, it was my high school English teacher who really taught me to think. Her name was Dana Barnett, and she was a devout Catholic who wore glasses that I remember as cat-eye inspired and she had a mild, quiet version of a bouffant hairdo. In the summers she visited places like Walden Pond and she could quote great authors at will. In her class we wrote five paragraph essays, on topics that ranged from Ophelia’s madness to the value of school lunches. She asked us to write compelling and moral arguments that were based on evidence. She taught students who were from all kinds of backgrounds and expected every single one of them to be able to argue about Shakespeare. Everyone was capable of learning complex ideas; I’d seen that process in action my whole life. I wanted to know how far Jane could come.
Jane’s counselor was maybe trying to tell me something, but I saw no evidence that I should listen. I spent the rest of that year looking for alternative plans and found one. A neighbor of ours worked in a private high school as an administrator. It was a long shot. Jane had to write an essay, take a standardized test, and visit the school. My neighbor and I took her to take the test on a rainy winter Saturday, at a testing center in a strip mall in a town we don’t spend much time in. Our neighbor and I sat in a generic Denny’s-style restaurant drinking coffee while we waited for her. When she came out of the test I asked her how she did and she said that she thought she did pretty well.
“You might be right, which means you’ll probably get in,” I said.
“Everybody likes a comeback!” Jane said.
“That’s absolutely true. Who is up for lunch?” I asked. I was startled, but I shouldn’t have been. She’d said things like that to me before.
“I am so hungry. But I don’t want to eat here, it seems bad.” Jane said.
She was right about that. We drove away from the fast food of the strip mall and towards home, where we got higher end hamburgers and tater tots and milkshakes in celebration. The results would take two weeks to come to us.
She was right. She did do well enough to get into the fancy private school, and they enrolled her in Spanish, Algebra, English, World History, Choir, and Physics.
It was at the fancy private school that I learned how Jane’s brain really worked. I met with her teachers regularly. At first, these meetings filled me with dread – for different reasons than the dread I felt at private school. At a private school for wealthy kids, it was going to be virtually impossible to explain foster care, social services, or the neglect that Jane experienced. No one in this community had experience with those kinds of struggles. But I started to look forward to them because like Mr. Mo, these teachers were focused entirely on Jane’s ability to learn and the progress she was making. She was given points for effort and there was a direct correlation between her effort and her grades. Her Spanish teacher worked hard with her. She memorized her vocabulary, got the pronunciation down, would practice quite a bit, and then two weeks later she couldn’t remember what she’d learned.
The same thing happened in Math. She would memorize her Math facts and know them cold. Any other kid would remember the facts beyond a few weeks from memorization, but she didn’t. Two weeks after memorization, they were lost for her. She understood the theory, so her Algebra teacher asked her to use a calculator for everything, all the time, even for simple addition and subtraction.
The math and Spanish teachers were both surprised that Jane spent all of her days in the resource room at one point. What a waste of time, they said. She is capable of learning just like everyone is, they said. They said they thought she was capable of succeeding at memorization, but that it wasn’t worth her time, and her time was worth a lot. She had a limited amount of high school left and a lot of things to do. She should learn all the theory she can, so that she could learn to think.
Jane applied the same strategy to her Physics class, bringing her calculator with her to help her with the tests and quizzes. Her Physics teacher was an affable guy with messy hair and crooked bow ties who spoke quickly, and Jane always had trouble following him. But he would stay after school any day and repeat a lesson until he was satisfied she understood it. Jane inspired teachers who loved teaching. She was eager to learn things and did not get upset if she got things wrong. If she passed she would fulfill her lab science requirements to get into college, and she wanted that. So, she stayed after school, and he stayed because she did. In the end, she got a D in Physics, which would give her the needed lab science credit on her transcript, and that was enough.
She got Physics credit. As I read the rules for admission to the state college in our area they took a global approach to admissions, and if the student had flaws on their transcript they should explain them in an entrance essay and in an interview. It was the school I’d gone to as well, and I was drawn to the fact that they didn’t have grades or requirements for graduation. She could focus on her strengths and build on them. So, we got to work on preparations.
Meanwhile, none of the social workers, administers, or other support staff assigned to Jane’s case willing to help at all. I sat at a team meeting, ironic, because we did not operate as a team, where everyone at the table told me that the school we were looking at was out of reach for Jane, that we should look at programs for the developmentally disabled, that we should not get Jane’s hopes up. It was a Friday, and most of them were wearing football jerseys, which was a local tradition. While I was a sports fan, I’ve always hated the violence of football. I’d also never read Harry Potter and we didn’t have cable, which I’d explained to Jane was what helped us fund trips to Seattle and weekends in California. Because Jane liked to be provocative, she’d often tell them about how I used to be a bartender and that I’d worked for Hillary Clinton. All of these things made me different from everyone on this team. I was the alien in this room. At the meeting, they went around the table trying to dissuade me from this plan.
“Do you really think Jane is ready for this?” said the director of foster care. He was an older man who once told me that the agency he worked for owned Jane, and therefor made the rules. We’d never understood each other.
“I don’t know if she’s ready, I’m just talking about her applying right now so she can have an option,” I said.
“I just can’t imagine how she’ll be accepted,” said the expert in developmental disabilities. I tried to look her in eyes, but she avoided my glance. I knew she loved Jane, but in the way that protective grandmothers love, with fear of the new and untested.
“Well, they accept 99% of their applicants, and I think they exist so they can offer as much education as possible. Kids like Jane included.”
There was silence, so I continued: “I’ve met with the school’s admissions office three times, and they’ve been very consistent about the fact that they have a global approach to admissions, so if she writes an essay about her obstacles and does well in her interview, she’s got a good chance.”
“This school in particular is like a graduate school, you have to be able to write term papers and be able to discuss complex topics. I’m just concerned that we’ll be setting her up for failure,” said Jane’s social worker.
A few more seconds of silence followed. It occurred to me in that moment that all of them had gone to this school too. None of them were looking at me. They had a way of looking into space at nothing, while still seeming like they were in the meeting. Looking at their faces, hearing their defensiveness, feeling the wall they put up between me and them, I began to understand that for them, Jane’s acceptance and potential success cheapened their educational experience.
I looked them all in the eye and told them that I’d gone there too, my stepfather taught there for years, and that most people I knew in town had gone there for undergrad or for an actual graduate degree. I said that it was a place for all kinds of minds. I said I knew they’d all gone there too, and that I knew Jane better than anyone at the table and the question I had for them was this:
She graduated from high school despite the fact that everyone said she couldn’t. She’d learned to drive, swim, communicate in American Sign Language, and she’d travelled to five countries and multiple states. What was the point in limiting her now?
I might have thought a little less of my education knowing they were so willing to have students were it not for the reaction at that table. They clearly didn’t want Jane to be a part of the fabric of their non-professional lives. If she was, that meant she would not be a kid like this, as they were so fond of saying. She would be a person like them.
They said nothing. Then they said that we should leave it up to Jane, as if it was obvious that she would side with them. I left it at that, knowing she wouldn’t.
When the letter came from the school, she couldn’t bring herself to open it. She handed it to me and I opened it and read the first sentence out loud, “We are pleased to invite you to the class of …” She started jumping up and down, then leapt onto the couch where I was sitting to hug me.
“I can’t believe it!” she said.
“I can.” I said, “I think you can, too.”
Emma Margraf‘s work has been published by Manifest Station and Lunch Ticket, and will soon be published in the Tiferet Journal. She is a graduate of Antioch University’s MFA program, and is a former foster parent and CASA (court appointed special advocate). She’s also written profiles and feature stories for local northwest publications on food and culture.
Abandonment and neglect. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. Suicide ideation. These are subjects which are prominent in child welfare and foster care; on average, foster children remain wards of the state for two years. I asked: Why are these stories uncommon despite its longstanding presence? Why is the adage “education out of the system” the emergent path to adulthood? Why have I not found a safe space for these stories from educators, administrators, foster parents, biological parents, kinship placements, adoptees, and the fostered and unfostered?
There has to be a way to make that happen. That is what I’m looking at for this foster care series. The writings I aim to publish will take a variety of forms, including creative nonfiction, hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, visual and text-based. More importantly, they will come from voices which are undeniably unafraid to speak. If language can do that, I think we can get closer to reinventing our experiences; we’re not so different or alone at the end of the day. Send your writings on foster care to firstname.lastname@example.org. And keep speaking.