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Deciding My Own Worth
After years in foster care, my new family taught me to believe in myself
Juelz Long
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I was 14, on my way to yet another foster home with all my usual bad feelings roaming inside me. “What if I don’t meet the family’s standards?” I kept asking myself. “What are they going to say to me? What if I can’t answer any of their questions?” I hated answering questions about myself because my answers were always negative.

As we got closer to my new home, I tried to imagine what the new family would be like. I was expecting a tired old foster mom like the ones I’d had in the past—the ones who just sat in the living room watching soap operas.

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I’d lived with my cousin until I was 9 because my mother was too ill to take care of me. Then I went into foster care because my cousin wasn’t taking good care of me, and she and my mom didn’t get along. Since then I’d been in three foster homes. I felt like the reason people kept giving me up was because nobody liked me.

My first foster mom, Ms. Johnson, was always telling people how poorly I was doing in school, how lazy I was, and how I’d never amount to anything. She had terrible mood swings and yelled at me for everything and anything I did. It was hard for me to function around her because I knew if I made a mistake, she’d yell.

During my first summer with her, Ms. Johnson took me to my cousin’s barbecue. I was excited because I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my aunt and cousins since I’d gone into foster care. A friend of the family was downstairs waiting for us and I rushed out of the house.

I don’t remember what I did that ticked off Ms. Johnson, but when we got downstairs I ran in front of her to get to the car and she just went off. “Boy, I am so sick and tired of you. I want you out of my house!”

She yelled so loudly that people looked out their windows. With everyone staring at me, I felt like we were on a movie set and I’d forgotten my lines. I just stood there quietly, too embarrassed and nervous to say anything.

I remember how the social worker would visit to see how things were going. When she’d ask me, “How’s school?” my answer was always, “Not too good. I’m really disgusted with my performance in school and I know I could do better.”

But I didn’t know I could do better. I was just saying that because I was so used to Ms. Johnson saying it. She’d told me so often how disgusted she was with me that I’d become disgusted with myself. I felt my life was nothing to be proud of, nothing to talk about. My self-esteem was as low as it could be.


Now here I was again, on my way to another new home. I’d been told I’d have two new foster sisters and a foster brother, so I was expecting a bad little 6- or 7-year-old who would get on my nerves. And I wasn’t expecting a father at all, since I’d never had one in any of my last three foster homes. I figured the home would be quiet and boring like the ones I was used to. Boy, was I wrong.

My new foster mother greeted me at the door and I was surprised at how young she was—probably in her early 40s. And her biological son, Solomon, was two years older than me. He showed me my new room, which was cool, with posters, a computer, and a video game system.

He told me a little about the house rules and chores, and I began to feel more relaxed. It was the first time I actually felt comfortable coming into a new foster home. Then Solomon looked out the window and said, “Daddy’s home.”

I felt my heart stop for a minute. I took a huge breath and tried to remain calm. I was scared that I wouldn’t make a good impression. I didn’t want him to think I was a big screw-up.

But when Mr. Long came upstairs, he just looked in the room and said, “Hello.” He looked like a young, built guy. But he was more calm than scary. He didn’t bother me, ask me questions, or give me a huge lecture about the rules of the house. He just walked into his room and started watching TV.

My new foster family made me feel like I was part of the family from the day I arrived. They joked around with me, let me talk on the phone or make myself something to eat. They told me to call them Mom and Dad instead of Mrs. and Mr. Long. And whenever someone asked them who I was, they’d say “my son” or “my brother.”

Even so, for a while I pretty much stayed to myself. I still didn’t believe I could hold a mature conversation, or any conversation at all. I didn’t want to participate in any family activities, like singing in the church choir, because I was afraid I’d embarrass myself. Not because I thought I would make a mistake, but because I thought I was a mistake.

My new foster parents constantly told me I was smart, that I was just as good as anyone else and could be anything I wanted to be. They said that as long as I tried my best, I would get the best in return. I wanted to believe them, but after being told I was worthless for so long it was hard.

One day, a few weeks after I arrived, my father told me to go outside and mow the front lawn. I couldn’t believe this man actually trusted me to cut his beautiful grass. I was terrified.

Solomon showed me how to turn the lawn mower on and off, and the rest was up to me. I started mowing, but stopped every two minutes because I really thought I was going to mess up. It took me about an hour to finish and when I was done it looked a little uneven. I felt I could’ve done better.

Even though it was my first time mowing a lawn, I didn’t bother to reward myself with a pat on the back. I was just disappointed, because that was my natural response to everything I did.

I could feel the blood rushing through my body as I walked toward my dad’s bedroom to tell him I’d finished. He went outside to take a look and five minutes passed before he came back inside. I heard the door close and he told me to come downstairs.

“Oh, here we go,” I said to myself. I knew he was going to tell me I’d done a bad job. When I got to the last step, I was so nervous I felt like I was standing in front of millions of people.

“Pass me my bag,” he said. I noticed he didn’t look angry at all. But I was still waiting for him to say those five words I’d heard all my life: “You could have done better.”

I gave him his bag without taking my eyes off him. Finally I couldn’t wait anymore. “That was my first time cutting grass,” I said. “I know I could’ve done much better.”

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Then he said something that I’d never heard before. “Well, I think you did a wonderful job. It looks real nice.” Then he took $20 out of his bag and handed it to me.

My dad didn’t seem at all surprised by my success with the lawn. That’s when I realized he’d already known I could do it. He believed in me.

It took somebody else’s confidence in me to help me gain confidence in myself. All my life I’d accepted what people said and thought about me. Not for a second had I thought to myself, “You know what? I’m going to prove them all wrong.”


Now I felt like a different person because I had different people around me. I finally had a brother I could bond with about guy things like cars and girls. I had a younger sister I could look out for and an older sister at Yale University.

I had a father who was an elementary school principal and a leader in his church. He could show me the way to manhood, teaching me how to do things like mow the lawn and paint the house so one day I’d be able to take care of my own family.

And I had a mother I could talk to. She’s a junior high school guidance counselor, and when times got hard or stressful for me she was easy to confide in.

My new family fell in love with me and vice versa. After just three weeks in my new home, I decided I wanted to make things permanent. I wanted to be adopted. It took a few years to get through all the paperwork, but a week before my 17th birthday I was finally officially adopted. That was a birthday present I’ll never forget.

I’ve been with my family for three years now, and they’re like my special basketball team. In basketball, the player holding the ball has teammates to help him score the basket. My parents and siblings are my teammates and I know they’ll stand behind me all the way, helping me to achieve my goals, reminding me that I can do it, that I’m worth something.

Sometimes I still find myself caught up in my emotions and asking myself, “Do I really belong here? Am I comfortable? Did I really want to be adopted?”

It’s like I’m unsure whether I can make it last. I’m still working on getting that father and son connection I’ve never had before. There’s so much to learn about being part of a family, and sometimes I’m afraid I can’t learn it all.

But I guess that’s what being a family is all about—ups and downs. And when I remember all the things I went through before I met my family, the things they’ve done to show me the light at the end of the tunnel mean even more to me.


About a month ago it was Youth Day at my church, and my mother, who’s the youth president, had all the kids do an assignment. We had to take something you’d find in a building, like stairs, elevators, windows, etc., and explain it spiritually to the congregation.

I chose the incinerator, which was kind of scary because nothing in the Bible refers to an incinerator. But when it was time for me to give my speech, I was ready.

“Now we’ll have ‘Incinerator,’ by brother Joey,” my mother said. I got up and all eyes were on me. I was nervous, as usual, but for some reason I knew I had everything under control.

“That boy don’t even have it written on paper! Go ahead Joe!” my father yelled out from the congregation. By the time I got to the front I had a smile on my face.

“The incinerator,” I said. “This is like a dumpsite or trash can, correct?”

“Amen,” replied a lady in the congregation.

“And what do we do with garbage?” I asked.

“Put it in the incinerator!” the congregation shouted back.

“You see, church,” I continued, gaining more confidence as I preached on, “the garbage can be anything. It can be the stress in your life. It can be the words of people who badmouth you behind your back. What do we call those people?”

“Phonies!” the congregation replied.

With my father and now the whole church rooting me on, I figured out what it was I wanted to say. “Phonies put out negativity that we don’t want around us,” I said. “They only put obstacles in our way. It’s up to us to say, ‘I don’t need that negative stuff in my life. I’m going to get rid of it and start over.’ So, in reference to the incinerator, when you have garbage, get rid of it.”

After I finished, many congregants made comments like, “That was beautiful,” and “We have Reverend Joey in the house.” I held my hand on my chest, took a deep breath, and thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I did it.” I’d never before let people see the bright side of me. I always got too scared, so I never accomplished anything.

That day was the start of movement for me. It made me realize that I’m smart, creative, and just as good as anybody else.

I’ve thrown the negative away, just like garbage. Instead, I’m taking what’s useful and positive from outside myself, like the encouragement of my family, to create my own positive self-image.

(NYC-2006-05-16)