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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How I Lived a Double Life
Omar Sharif

For most of life I felt different from the “normal” kids. They had parents and families but I didn’t, because I lived in a group home.

We’d have assignments in elementary school and if we didn’t finish them in class, the teacher would say, “When you go home tonight, ask you parents to help you.”

No one knew how hurt I was by that simple remark. It was not my parents, but a counselor, who would help me with my homework that night.

I was embarrassed by my situation and I began to hide my identity. I was almost two people in one. During the day, in school, I pretended I was like everyone else, but at night I could be myself, just a “regular” kid in the group home.

It was uncomfortable to go to Parents-Teachers Night because the counselors who went with me weren’t my parents. Now, when I look back on this, it seems funny, but at the time it was as serious as life and death.

I’d run into my fellow students on those nights and they would ask, “Hey, is that your mom?” or “Is that your dad?” And I would say something off the topic to avoid the question, like, “Do you think you’re gonna get in trouble tonight?” That would always change the subject.

‘Is That Your Van?’

I used to practice gymnastics after school at the YMCA. One afternoon when my session was over, a counselor came to pick me up in the group home van and, as it pulled up, a friend asked me, “Is that your van you’re gettin’ in?”

I was caught on the spot and didn’t know how to respond. So I told him, “Nah, that’s a friend of mine who works with a cab service.” I hoped he believed me and wouldn’t ask me any more questions as I stared him in the face. I guess he thought it was the truth, because he never mentioned it again.

I almost blew my cover one morning when I was picked up at the group home by the school bus. There were 12 of us living there. I was 10 years old at the time and also the youngest in the house. The oldest kid was 17. I and two other young kids, Wesley and Robert, used to get picked up by the bus at 7:15 every morning to go to elementary school. The rest of the older guys left the house around 7:30 to walk to high school, which was only a couple of blocks away. But this morning my bus didn’t show up on time. I went back inside to tell the counselors what had happened, then waited on the steps. At 7:30 the bus came down the block to pick up Wesley, Robert, and me. At the same time, the older boys came out of the home to walk to school.

I never worried about the kids on the bus seeing me each morning with Wesley and Robert. I always assumed that the kids on the bus thought the group home was my own private house. Wesley could pass for my brother any day because he has the same complexion (we’re Black), the same hair cut, and sometimes we used to dress alike. And Robert, who was Puerto Rican, seemed like a friend hanging out with us.

But now the older school kids were coming out of the home and they were White, Black, Spanish, and Chinese. It was obvious they weren’t my family.

As soon as I got on the bus I knew someone was going to question me about the older kids. I could see the puzzlement on their faces as everyone’s head was turned to look. So I blurted out an explanation. I told them that the older kids were my brothers.

Since the older kids were Black, I hoped the kids on the bus would assume they were my brothers and the rest of the guys were my brothers’ friends. But I was so humiliated by the lie that I buried my face in a book in the back seat.

A Friend Understands

When I was in junior high, I usually took the bus, but when I woke up late or overslept I had to be driven to school in the group home van. I remember how ashamed I would be when I was dropped off that way. The kids in my junior high had parents with lots of money. They were all middle class or above. They had good-looking cars and there I was getting dropped off in a big blue van.

To cover myself, I’d always ask the counselor to drop me off a block away from school. Then I’d wait until the traffic was moving before I got out so none of the students across the street would see me.

I kept where I lived a secret because I was afraid the students would make fun of me. Only one kid knew. How Joseph found out I’ll never know. But he was cool—he never told anyone my business and, as a matter fact, we became close friends because I started to hang out with him. His family was so understanding, they even wanted to adopt me. Joseph’s mother used to pick me up in her car on weekends to bring me to their house and then drop me back at the group home at night.

Joseph once told me I could stay with his family if I ever needed a place. He was a true friend because he offered me his home when I was down and out. He was someone I could confide in, someone who knew me and didn’t feel ashamed to be around me because I lived in a group home.

Joseph never singled me out—I was a regular kid whenever I was with him. And my main point is that I just wanted to be accepted in the same way by my peers.

As I grew older and became more mature, I began to see that I didn’t need to be ashamed about my situation. I began to realize that people looked at me for who I was, not for where I lived or who I lived with. If people liked me before they knew I lived in a group home, they probably wouldn’t change their attitude once they found out.

I also realized that “normal” and “regular” kids who live at home are often ashamed of their parents. (I don’t know why, because all they have in this world are their parents.) You don’t have to live in a group home to feel ashamed or awkward, or to feel that you don’t really have a family.

My friend Joseph helped me open my eyes and realize that it doesn’t matter where you live, just as long as you’re true to yourself and to others.

If your friends don’t accept you because you live in the system, then they’re not your friends and that’s their loss. If you are proud of who you are, there will be many more true friends for you down the road in life.

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