The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Turning It Around
Shateek Palmer

I got mostly C’s and D’s in high school. I found any excuse to skip school and hang with my friends in the streets instead. I believed school wasn’t for me because I was used to seeing myself fail. I also didn’t have family members who showed me that school was beneficial. The only thing that kept my focus was basketball.

When I pictured my future, I thought I would be living with my aunt my whole life, instead of becoming an independent man. That’s what the men in my family, my uncles and older cousins, did. Most of them live with women who are supporting them, rather than working and supporting themselves. These were the men I looked up to. They were drug dealers who didn’t finish school or achieve higher goals. I thought at best I would have a minimum-wage job.

I was in kinship care with my grandmother from the time I was very small until she died, when I was 9. Then I moved in with my Aunt Stacey. During my high school years, I wished I had my parents to support me. Aunt Stacey went to all of my parent-teacher conferences, but she wasn’t my mother and that made me angry.

My mother should’ve been there. She lives nearby, but she has her own issues and can’t take care of me. Once in a while we talk on the phone. But since we didn’t have a relationship like a mother and son usually would, I never thought to reach out to her for support. I was still upset about her leaving me when I was younger. It was hurtful for me to realize that she wouldn’t be there for me throughout my high school years.

I did badly from freshman year up until senior year, so I never gained momentum to pass classes. Some school guidance counselors said, “Shateek, you have to do better or else you won’t pass.” My aunt said, “Shateek, you should focus more on school instead of being in the streets.” That was all they ever said, so I felt like my aunt only said it because she was my legal guardian and the counselors only said it because they were paid to do so. If they really cared, they wouldn’t have made me feel like I was such a failure by constantly giving me negative feedback. There were times when I would try to do well, but it still didn’t feel like it was good enough for them.

Changing My Ways

The only encouragement that felt real came from my counselor, Ms. Fall. I knew she had faith in me because she was part of a program called Fostering Connections that gets therapists to work with a foster child for free. She got me into programs such as Represent. Ms. Fall wasn’t getting paid to get me into these programs, which meant she really saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She would say, “No matter what you decide to do, I will always be there.” I knew that she meant those words, and that made me feel like somebody had faith in me.

But even that wasn’t enough. I still had the mindset of a failure. I did so badly in school because I couldn’t imagine myself graduating on time, so I didn’t try.

Several things led me to change my ways. In March of my senior year, I found out that I failed off the basketball team. To be eligible for the team, you had to pass your first semester classes, but I failed trigonometry. I didn’t do the work and I rarely came to that class because it was first period and I wanted to stay in the halls and goof around. With basketball on the line, I was motivated to get my act together.

Then, in April, with graduation two months away, I got some sobering news from my school counselor, Vilma Miranda. I’d known her three years and visited her office every day senior year to talk about school, college, my family, and friends. She’s been a good mentor to me, and she managed to make me do some things right, like coming to school on time and staying in class instead of running the halls. She would say, “Even though you did badly in high school, I can see you being very successful, so give me your autograph!” These comments boosted my ego and made me feel like I was going to amount to something after all.

But this day in April was different. I got kicked out of English class for talking and making students laugh instead of paying attention. The teacher sent me to Ms. Vilma’s office to do my classwork. I walked into the office, and Ms. Vilma told me to close the door and pull up a chair next to her. She looked more serious than usual.

When I pulled the blue guest chair up next to her desk, she said in a concerned tone, “Shateek, you really need to get your schoolwork in order. You have to make it your first priority soon before it’s too late.” She said if I did not do above-average work for the rest of the semester, I might not walk across the stage in June.

It really hit me hard. It was now or never. I was 18 years old, and I thought, “If I don’t graduate on time, I might as well drop out.” I wouldn’t have been able to stand the embarrassment of graduating with a different class. I told Ms.Vilma I would stop being a fool and really buckle down and work hard. I don’t know if she believed me or not, but this time I believed in me.

image by YC-Art Dept

Seeing a Future

My aunt had convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to get a decent job without a high school diploma. I decided I wanted to become a counselor after I graduated because my counselors have done so much for me. Meeting people like Ms. Fall and Ms. Vilma made me want to do what they do. I needed to complete at least two years of college. I may want to get a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in social work.

Before, I hadn’t seen school as necessary for success because I thought I’d be a drug dealer like the other males in my family. I thought quick money was success. Then I learned in economics class that most drug dealers make less than $3.50 an hour. This confirmed my decision to instead pursue a career doing something positive for people who need help.

After I talked to Ms. Vilma I also realized that I didn’t want to be a grown man living off of my aunt. I know my aunt had trouble raising me because I was a handful, but she never complained about me staying with her. I wanted to become my own person for her sake and mine.

After these realizations, I had two months to turn it around. I was doing OK in English and Spanish. The only class I was failing was math, and I needed that to graduate. I started going to school on time and staying after class to study and complete work. I went to a tutor for math and I also got help from other kids. I helped them with writing in return. I stopped writing for Represent, which I enjoyed, so I could focus on graduating.

I was actually taking two math classes. One was online, and it was hard. Students on the basketball team would sit with me in the library and explain any question I had trouble with until I got it done. I got my grades up enough to rejoin the team, but it was too late; the season had ended.

Even though I couldn’t play basketball, the end of senior year still felt like coming back in the fourth quarter after I’d been down the whole game. Graduating on time was like hitting the game-winning shot.

I might not have been able to stick with it if it hadn’t been for Ms. Vilma, Ms. Fall, and other counselors I’ve had. They told me they were there for me, and they were: I could see that I had a support system. Having that steady foundation allowed me to build myself into my own independent person. My support system allowed me to grow and get help when I struggled.

I started applying for college in May. The application process went smoothly. I already knew where I wanted to go—Onondaga Community College, because my cousin went there a year before. She told me that Onondaga would be good for me because it was small, and I would receive a lot of support from advisors and professors.

Proud of Me

I got my head in the game after April partly because if I didn’t graduate I would’ve felt like a failure. I didn’t want to be another man in my family who didn’t succeed. I didn’t want to disappoint my aunt, like I had before. I wanted her to say she was proud of me for doing something positive.

I finally got to hear her say it, on graduation day. It was a sunny day in June, and everybody was happy. My family and I were walking to the car on our way to lunch when Aunt Stacey said, “Shateek to be honest, I didn’t think you were going to make it this far. But you proved me wrong, and I am happy that you did. Today is your day, so live it up because you proved to everybody in the family that you can do it. I love you so much.”

Her saying that made me realize how important it was to me for people to be proud of me. I had Ms. Fall and Ms. Vilma there to support me, but hearing my aunt say that meant much more to me, because she is my family. My mother also showed up to my graduation, which made me feel good. Even though our relationship has always been on the rocks, she also told me how proud of me she was. She didn’t get to graduate high school because she had me when she was very young, so I know seeing me walk across that stage meant a lot to her.

Now I’m in college, and I’m determined not to allow my friends to distract me. It took a lot for me to get here, so I cannot waste this opportunity. My aunt’s words will forever stay with me, and I will try to make her proud every chance I get. I got tired of feeling like I was never going to amount to anything, so I decided it was time to make a change and I learned to discipline myself. Until I graduated, I never knew you could learn from yourself.

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