I Was On My Seventh Foster Home. Then A Family I Barely Knew Took Me In

"He’d never seen my face. The first contact we’re having is right now, on the phone... and he says to me: 'Would you like to come live with us?'"
Courtesy of The Moth
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of The Moth

I was twelve years old, and I was in my third foster home. And my very first foster father had just called.

He called to say that he was very sorry to hear about my mother. But what he didn’t know was that nobody had told me she was dead.

I was in foster homes because my parents drank. They weren’t bad people; I always felt loved. But when they weren’t drinking, they were better parents. And they were drinking more and more frequently.

Eventually people started to notice. I never noticed, because I didn’t have another childhood to compare it to. So when I got taken out of my home, I was very confused and upset.

When I found out that she had died, I just got empty – hollowed out. And then when no one else called to say that she had died, I started to get really angry.

You know, like, burn-the-world angry.

And being a kid, a black kid, in foster homes in Maine, and burn-the-world angry, there’s not a lot of foster homes that wanna hang on to you for very long.

I started going through ’em pretty quick. I learned the magic number was five. If you get to five foster homes, you’re marked. You’re trouble.

So you can’t get placement, and you are homeless. And then you go into shelters. You can only stay in a shelter for thirty days, and then you’re on to the next, and on to the next.

This is affectionately called the “shelter shuffle.”

The education you get in the shelter is nothing to mention. When I was a little boy, I remember my father telling me that, because I am black, I will have to be twice as smart as the smartest white man in the room to get recognised half as much.

So education was always a very important thing to me. I knew I had to straighten out. When I was fourteen, and I got my seventh foster home, I knew I had to hang on to this for dear life, no matter the cost.

“When I was a little boy, I remember my father telling me that, because I am black, I will have to be twice as smart as the smartest white man in the room to get recognised half as much.”

I get to my seventh foster home. The caseworker drops me off. I bring all my stuff into the room, my room, which was in the basement (they’re almost always in the basement).

And I’m really nervous, because I don’t wanna mess this up. So I go up onto the porch, and I light a cigarette.

The foster father comes out, and then it hits me that maybe this man, that the state has put in charge of me, might have something to say about this. But he doesn’t. Instead he leans on the railing with me and lights his own cigarette.

I think, This is beautiful. This is just me and him, watching the sun set over the pines. Beautiful, beautiful.

He turns to me, and he says, “Yep. I never had no problem with coloureds.”

And I think, Well, with an attitude like that, how could you?

So this man, it turns out, wasn’t the prince you might think. There was another foster child there, and he was twelve years old, and he had foetal alcohol syndrome, and this man liked to torture him. The man also had a dog who was old and dying, and he liked to kick the dog.

It wasn’t going well, and it becomes this frustration where this is your life, and you can’t do anything about it. I can’t help the kid. I can’t help the dog. I can’t help myself.

It’s like you’re starving to death, and there’s one source of food, and it’s this apple down between these rocks. You can reach your hand in and grab it, but you can’t pull it out while holding it. And this is your life.

But on the bus to school, there was this cute little brunette named Jenny, sitting by herself, nose in a book. And that was usually what I would do. So one day I asked her if she wanted to be loners together.

She laughed. And I have to tell you that it is so great to have somebody in your life who laughs.

“I was abandoned, and completely alone, and nobody had my back. This was when the panic set in.”

So I’m talking to her on the bus every day, and pretty soon we’re talking every night on the phone. And that’s going really well, but back at the foster home, things are getting worse and worse and worse. There’s this family get-together, and during dinner the foster father blows up at me, and he calls me a black bastard in front of everybody in the room.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a racial slur out of his mouth. But it wasn’t that. It was the rage in his voice. And the fact that there was a roomful of people, and when I looked at every pair of eyes in the room, they all just went to the floor.

I was abandoned, and completely alone, and nobody had my back. This was when the panic set in. Where it was finally too hard to stay. I had to go.

So the next morning my caseworker drops me off at the shelter. And at this point I’m completely accepting of this, because I’m not gonna get an eighth foster home. It’s very clear I’m not gonna make it three more years at this place, so this is the best I’m gonna do.

But I take my allotted phone time at night, and I still call Jenny. I don’t tell her where I am, because I just lost my one chance to go to college. And because I move so much, I’ve lost every friend I’ve ever had, including her.

She just doesn’t know it yet.

And as long as I can keep her on the phone, she won’t.

But eventually, it slips out. And I can’t remember what she said. I just remember getting empty again and hanging up.

I wait the next week to call her, and almost immediately she hands the phone to her father. Now, at this point I’ve had a lot of conversations in my life about “Don’t call the house again,” “Don’t come by here,” “You’re a bad influence.” But that’s not the conversation I have.

What he says to me is, “Would you like to come live with us?”

Now, when I tell you that, you need to understand that my relationship with Jenny had been only on the phone or on the bus. She’d never been to my house. I’d never been to hers. And her father, who I’m talking to right now, had never even met me.

He’d never seen my face. The first contact we’re having is right now, on the phone.

So when he asked me if I wanna do this, my visceral gut reaction is, Hell no. Because I have actual blood relatives that did not take me in when I went into foster care. No family had ever done me any good.

But my father raised me from a very young age to know it’s okay to be scared but not to ever be stupid.

So I said, “Yes.”

My caseworker drops me off at Jenny’s, and it is a huge, beautiful place. Everybody there has huge, beautiful smiles. Her father, her mother. Her four siblings.

A bigger bunch of overachievers in your life you have never seen. None of them had seen an A-minus, ever. And this was the time when I realised that, for the first time in my life, I am in way over my head. Because prior to this, everything had been about survival. But this was gonna have to be about betterment, and achievement.

While this is all happening, my father is trying to prove to the state that he’s got his act together, and eventually we get to a place where we get a supervised visit.

Now, supervised visit means this: it’s him and me and a caseworker in a very stale, fluorescently-lit office. And I am petrified, because I’ve always lived by these little credos that my father has taught me.

But there’s a part of me that thinks, Uh, I might have made this up just to get through. Maybe he’s the drunk jerk that they think he is. But I need him to be the man that I think he is.

“A bigger bunch of overachievers in your life you have never seen. None of them had seen an A-minus, ever.”

I get in there. And he’s the man I think he is.

So eventually we get a visit where he gets to come to Jenny’s. And he comes, and they are naturally protective of me and a little trepidatious about this.

They have an old piano, and I mention, “My father plays the piano.”

What I don’t say is that my father is a world-class jazz pianist. So when he sits down to play the piano, the only thing more beautiful than the sound coming out, is the sound of all of the family’s jaws hitting the floor at once.

And in what was a really surreal moment for them, he becomes real to them as well. And they begin to champion me and him getting together, and after a while I go back to live with him.

Eventually I go to college. And the other day, I was talking to Jenny about this very thing, and I told her that the thing that sticks with me about it is that I was a really angry kid. I wasn’t a good kid. These people took me in. And by no means did I pay them back with kindness when I was there. I was still very, very angry.

And it hangs on me that I didn’t treat them as well as they treated me.

Jenny said, “I don’t remember you being a bad kid. I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”

And I can’t tell if she’s right, and I am being too hard on myself, or if she’s just as kind as somebody raised by her parents should be.

Samuel James is a world-touring musician and the creator of kittyCritic, a music/comedy web series. You can listen to Samuel’s story on The Moth website, and purchase their latest book, Occasional Magic, here.

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