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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Finding Focus

Names have been changed.

I hated school from the 1st grade until my first year of high school because I was bullied. I also was being abused at home, mostly by my mom’s boyfriend, but also by my mom. There was no place I felt accepted or safe. I was jealous of kids on TV because their lives seemed so perfect. They weren’t abused, their parents weren’t on drugs, and they had friends.

One day in 1st grade, I snapped and attacked a kid who’d been picking on me. I was placed in special ed.: I guess my school had had enough of me. I felt even more like an outcast.

I did not learn much in elementary school because I did not pay attention in class. My mind was always wandering, and my imagination would snatch me and take me to another world. I might become a superhero, an entertainer, a model, a singer, or one of the popular kids in school.

My teachers taught every kid in the class at the same time, and I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I had trouble retaining information; I would learn something one day and then the next day it was gone. Like in math class I would feel so proud of myself for doing my work and getting 100%. Then when I went back to class the next day I was stuck on stupid, like everything went in one ear and out the other.

When I was in 5th grade, several of my teachers complained to my mother at a parent-teacher conference. I heard one say, “Michele is a very intelligent girl, but I lose her 15 minutes after class has begun.” Another teacher said, “She does part of her work, then zones out.”

Too Scared to Focus

I think I’m intelligent in some ways: I have a good memory. I’m funny. I have a good vocabulary. Nevertheless, I feel dumb when I can’t focus on things I need to learn in school, for example, math. When things are hard, I zone out. I didn’t know why I couldn’t focus in school; maybe it was because I wondered during school if I’d get beaten when I got home and for what.

My mom would try to disguise any bruises or marks from the beatings by rubbing me down with witch hazel and then cocoa butter. If there were still marks, she would keep me home from school. Around other people, she always made herself seem like a good person who was trying to deal with my bad behavior. I wanted to tell my teachers about the abuse, but I was scared that they wouldn’t believe me.

The day after the parent-teacher conference, my mother took me to a clinic. She told me, “You need to be evaluated so you can focus on school.” I waited for 15 anxious minutes, then a woman with long light brown hair named Jennifer called me into a room. Out of a black suitcase, she pulled books and a clear box full of black blocks with yellow and red designs. The first test was comparing different pictures and finding the similarities. Jennifer timed me on each. The first five pages were easy, but then they got harder, and I started getting distracted because I was afraid I was going to fail the test. So I stalled by telling her stories about the pictures.

After I finally completed the test, Jennifer called my mother in to the room and made me wait outside while they talked. I sat in the waiting room and watched SpongeBob, my favorite show.

I kept seeing Jennifer for the next two years. On my seventh visit to her, she told me I had ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I asked, “Is it contagious?” She said, “No, it just means you have trouble focusing and paying attention and you can get extremely hyper.” I didn’t feel hyper: I slept a lot.

She told me many people had it and asked why I thought it was contagious. I told her that we’d been learning about STDs in school. I thought I might have caught ADHD from one of the kids in my class because we all chewed on the same pencil eraser. She told me it wasn’t and prescribed me a medication called Adderall. The Adderall made me calmer but I still had trouble focusing on certain subjects, especially math.

My mother bragged about my little sister Isabella’s good grades. I wanted my mom to be as happy with my schoolwork as she was with Isabella’s. I felt bad that I couldn’t impress her. My mother and her boyfriend hit Isabella less than they hit me. I felt unwanted and unloved.

Safe and Cared For

I went into foster care when I was 12. The first year was terrible, but things got better when I was 14. I got my best foster parent, Mrs. Martinez, who I stayed with for three years. I was also moved to a different junior high school. For the first time, teachers listened to me and Mr. Dameer, the wood shop teacher, stood up for me when I was bullied. After that I became teacher’s pet intentionally, because I knew Mr. Dameer would defend me. Then I befriended other teachers and got to sit next to them at their desks. They helped me one on one, and nobody bullied me. I felt safe and cared for next to my teachers and my grades improved.

Everything I did in school impressed Mrs. Martinez as long I tried my best, so for the first time I got praise. She didn’t yell and hit; she would give me punishments like grounding me for a day if I cut school. She’d tell me why she was punishing me. She also told me I was beautiful and intelligent and that I didn’t need to be in the streets. I felt safe and loved.

image by YC-Art Dept

Between Mrs. Martinez and some new friends I made outside of school, I felt accepted. I still daydreamed, but the daydreams were about what I’d do after school with my new friends, not an imaginary life. I still had some trouble focusing in school, especially math. But I managed to get my work done, partly because I didn’t want to get grounded.

When I was 15, I started having home visits with my birth mom, and she seemed better. She wasn’t yelling, she had a different boyfriend, and she said she wanted me back. I started AWOLing from Mrs. Martinez’s and from school to see my mom, and I ended up getting sent to a residential treatment facility (RTF). It felt bad to lose Mrs. Martinez.

Then I was moved to different foster homes and group homes in different neighborhoods. None of those foster parents and staff cared if I took my Adderall, so I stopped. (Mrs. Martinez had always reminded me to take it.) Without medication, it seemed, I couldn’t focus or think as clearly and I acted on impulse. That’s when I decided I wanted to drop out of school at 16, get my GED, and go to college and get a job so I could stop worrying about who would take care of me. I wanted to be independent.

Geometry: Problem Solved

When I turned 18, I signed myself out of foster care to live with my mother. It was a big mistake. My mother had stopped using drugs, but she still screamed about small things and she lived with yet another abusive boyfriend. I stopped going to school, and my mother didn’t care.

Six months later, I started at a special ed high school that the Board of Ed recommended for me. I began having my meds—Adderall and Abilify—prescribed and given to me by the school psychiatrist after I told my counselor I wasn’t always taking them at home.

I still had issues with math. Then I had a breakthrough in geometry class one day. I couldn’t understand the work, and I gave up and put my head down. The teacher, Mr. Torres, asked me “Why aren’t you doing your work? You are going to fail my class if you don’t complete your work.”

I said in frustration and anger, “I don’t care and your work is stupid!”

“You can’t say my work is stupid if you don’t do any of it.” Mr. Torres’s face was serious, but his voice sounded like he was joking. I admitted that I didn’t know how to solve the geometry problems.

He offered to help me. He explained to me how to do tangents, cosines, and sines—and I got it. The difference was that he sat with me and told me personally how to do it. When he showed the whole class how to do the work, I’d think I understood, but then I’d get lost and give up. I realized all I needed was a little support and personal attention to help me.

This gave me a lot of confidence. If I could do geometry, I could do anything. This pulled me out of my imaginary daydream world and helped me focus on realistic goals like finishing school, getting a job, and maybe going to college.


There are times when I can’t focus in school and it’s stressful. Sometimes my classes get too noisy to concentrate, and I go to the principal’s office or guidance counselor’s office. Everyone in special ed gets an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed just for them. It’s an accommodation on my IEP that I can go to a quiet room.

On days when I couldn’t go to a quiet room, I tried to cope with the noisy classrooms. One of my strategies is sitting in the front of the classroom so I can hear the teachers; another one is asking the other kids not to talk to me while I’m doing my work. I appreciate when people work with me like my principal and guidance counselor and teachers did. My high school helps and supports me a lot.

School is also where I get my meds, and once they prescribed me a too-high dose of Adderall. I felt my heart racing, and then my jaw locked up, my face froze, and I kept twitching. I don’t remember it, but apparently I hallucinated and ended up in the psych hospital. They put me on Strattera, which treats ADHD but is not a stimulant. Strattera helped for a while, but then it seemed to make me a little more aggressive.

I decided I wanted to get off all the medication. I was sick of taking drugs for things I now know I didn’t have, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I couldn’t stop right then, however, because the school psychiatrist prescribed me my meds. But three months after my overdose, I graduated high school. I looked at it as my get out of jail free card—no more meds. I decided I could teach myself how to focus. (I know I shouldn’t have done this; you should never go off medication abruptly without a doctor’s help.)

I didn’t focus any better off Strattera, but I was no worse either. But I still needed help because I realized I was still affected by the trauma from my mother’s abuse. I started going to a therapist. Thankfully, she agreed I don’t need medication. There are other things that help me. Talking helps me focus. So does coffee.

It was hard to focus on my future when I felt no one cared about me, and that made me want to leave my life and live in a fantasy world. I also daydream when I get scared that I can’t do something. I’ve learned that my focus improves not so much from drugs—but rather when I have some stability, a steady place to live, and people in my life who encourage me, like Mrs. Martinez and my guidance counselor. It’s also easier to focus on smaller goals, ones I believe I can achieve.

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