Last week, I was in my favorite place in the world with my 15-person family. Every few years, we head to a ranch in the mountains of Colorado. We’ve been going here since I was a little girl, and there is truly no place I would rather be. I told my clients I was out, I let my phone lose its charge in my suitcase, and I swaggered around in cowboy boots all week. There is no better place for me to get my head straight.
I spent a lot the week thinking about this kid I know, Johnny.*
Johnny is a ward of the state, a foster kid who lives in a group home, and I volunteered to help him with his special education plan at his high school. I met him several months ago at his annual meeting, and something about him got to me. Underneath the low ball cap, loose button-down and shaggy hair was a very sweet kid who was trying his hardest to look tough. I promised him I’d keep track of his whereabouts and that I would see him at the following year’s meeting.
As special ed sometimes goes, I saw him well before that. I saw him a few weeks later. And a few weeks after that. And then, at an early summer meeting with the Director of Special Education and school Principal when I get a little feisty and realized we didn’t yet have a complete school file on this kid. This kid has moved around so flipping much that we had to sit down with him over summer break, identify his past schools, and work on gathering years of his missing records. We didn’t even know how many credits this kid had.
It is so frustrating, this child welfare system of ours. It is frustrating and overwhelming and full of huge, gaping holes. I can do this school stuff in my sleep. I can gather records, I can get summer programming, I can make sure this kid doesn’t slip through the educational cracks again. But in the back of my mind, I knew it wouldn’t be enough for him. I knew it. I’m like stitches to this kid’s bleeding hand while his aorta is rupturing.
I did what I could. Johnny’s school worked a little magic and got him into a few summer camps run by a local non-profit. I visited him a few times and my son and I went to the end-of-camp performances. At the last performance, I saw Johnny looking around for us as he walked in. That got me. I wonder how many people he’s had show up just for him.
We’ve had a few school meetings over lunch, and he is officially tutoring my kid on Minecraft. Apparently, the fact that Johnny can get into the Enderworld is a HUGE deal. Johnny is patient with Jax, and he talks him through the game, instead of stealing the iPad with a “Here, let me do it.” He told me that he understands why Jax, also adopted, has a hard time. “All kids are born with an invisible backpack that gets filled up with our experiences as we grow up, you know? Us kids that had a hard start of it have heavier backpacks. They’re harder to carry around. Sometimes it’s too heavy for us.”
I like this kid a lot. He’s funny and thoughtful and wise in that way that kids who have seen too much are. My educational role has become a little broader, perhaps, than it is technically supposed to be, but hey, we all need a village. I like being this kid’s village.
Johnny needs more than a village now. Johnny needs a home.
Before I left for my Colorado vacation, I learned that his group home placement is discharging him and that Johnny is slated for independent living. Independent living at 16. For a special education kid. I do not have to know this child all that well to know that he does not have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding on this plan.
I spent a good chunk of my vacation walking dirt roads and riding horses, waiting for an answer to come to me. Do I open my home to a teenage boy?
There are a ton of reasons why I should not risk this. Actually, is there a word for more than a ton? Because that. While my son thinks Johnny is the coolest kid in the world right now, a few Minecraft dates is very different from sharing his breakfast table, his bathroom and, well, his mother. Reason two is that my plate is very full. Capital F full. This little question of mine would take some serious shifting and eliminating to make room, and I just reached a place where I feel semi-balanced and back in control. Then, there are reasons three through a hundred, and they keep on coming: more laundry, more dinners, more school meetings, more errands, more homework, more trips to the store, more cleaning the bathroom, more boy smell, more therapies, more appointments, more scheduling, more special needs, more stress, more logistics, more everything. Except free time. Less free time.
It was a lot to think about. Out walking one morning, I pulled a Robert Frost and veered off the main dirt road onto a much smaller, partially hidden trail. After a few minutes, I dead-ended into a creek. I was annoyed with myself for veering off the road because the creek was about fifteen feet wide and about a foot and a half deep, and now I would need to backtrack where I’d already been, get back on the road and follow it to the bridge. I stood for a moment, tossing rocks into the water with irritation, thinking about how foolish I was for veering off the trail.
In a flash of “Seriously, Becca, you are a Grade A idiot,” I realized that it was a creek, for the love of God, not a piranha-filled river of nuclear waste. I rolled my eyes at myself because, duh, I can just walk across this creek. Some answers are so simple, they’re hidden.
I took off my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans, and stepped in. Arms out, stepping from rock to rock like I did when I was a kid, I made my way to the middle. By the time I reached the deepest part, I was laughing. My jeans were soaked, I threw my boots to the other side, and I stood there in the middle of that creek with my smiling face tilted up to the Colorado sunshine. I almost missed this. I almost made this overly complicated and turned around. I am supposed to be in the creek.
“I am supposed to be in the creek.” I said it out loud and about ten times.
A child needs a home. I have a home.
Do not make it more difficult than it is, do not turn around and walk the way you have already come. Some answers are so simple, they’re hidden.
I am supposed to be in the creek.
Welcome to your new home, Johnny.
(* “Johnny” isn’t his real name, but it is the pseudonym he chose.)