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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Home Is Where the Hurt Is

For the first 10 years of my life I lived with my grandparents in Calcutta, India. I didn’t know my parents at all. Then, one spring afternoon, I came home from school and found my grandmother packing. “Are we going somewhere?” I asked. “Yes, to your parents, in Madras,” she answered.

My parents had sent me to live with my grandparents when I was only a few days old. No one ever told me why. Nor did they tell me why we were going to see them now. Still, I had never been to Madras before and I was very excited about going to a new place.

I went to my grandfather and sat on his lap. “Is it true we are going to Madras?” I asked. Just for a moment, I thought I saw tears in his eyes. But he smiled and said, “Yes, I’m taking you there.” Immediately I was reassured.

“Oh boy! I’m going to Madras—to M-A-D-R-A-S,” I shouted and ran out to tell my friends. Not once did it occur to me that my life with my grandparents was about to end.

At first, I found Madras very beautiful. It was like a big vacation for me and my grandfather with the two strange people I had only known from pictures. But after a month, my grandfather left. I was heartbroken—of all the people in the world, I loved and trusted him the most. How could he leave me with these people I had known for only a month? But I tried to make the best of it.

I tried to do everything my parents asked me to. They never really talked to me—just ordered me to do things or not do things. Sometimes my mother would break into fits, shouting that I was such an obstacle in her life. My father too said I was a terrible burden. Soon their words turned into beatings.

My mother was very particular about how she kept her house. She would always remind me that if I weren’t there it wouldn’t be such a mess. Once she started hitting me because she had asked me to make the bed in a particular way. But I had done it another way. “What difference does it make?” I asked.

That made her even angrier. As soon as my father came home she told him that I was disobedient and had the nerve to talk back to her. He took off his belt and started hitting me with it. Then my mother grabbed me by the hair and started slapping me while my father continued with the belt.

Another time I had come into the drawing room not “properly dressed” for company. As soon as the guests left, my mother took a hot spatula from the stove and struck my cheek with it. My skin began to burn. I was so angry I said, “I hate it here, I want to go back.”

When my father came in he started striking me with his belt again. “Do you think we want you here?” he asked. “Nobody wants you here. Such an impossible child—but I am going to fix you no matter what. I am going to fix you—I swear.” And he kept on hitting me.

At school, my teacher saw the burn mark on my face and asked me what happened. After hesitating I told her. “Your poor mother,” she said. “Do you know how much it hurt her to have done this to you? But what else can we do? You children don’t learn unless we hit you.”

Another girl in the class raised her hand and said, “My mother beats me with a ruler but it’s only because she loves me.” In India, it was considered “proper discipline” to hit a child. Over there, it’s the parents who never hit their children who are looked upon as neglectful.

Even in school we were beaten. Once, those of us who hadn’t done our homework had to stand up and put out our palms so that the teacher could come around and strike us with her ruler. When she got to me she gave me this reproachful look and said, “You see you still haven’t learned, you bad girl,” and gave me my punishment.

At home, my parents said I was the worst kind of child ever and needed a lot of discipline. “A bad child,” they would tell their friends, “so disobedient.”

The fact that I was a “bad child” was the answer to everything. My grandparents had sent me back because I was a “bad child.” Everyone hated me because I was a bad girl. I started to believe I deserved to be treated this way.

When I was 12, my father was transferred to a job in the U.S. As a teenager in New York City, dealing with my parents became even harder. My friends would go to parties and movies and I would be stuck at home. Sometimes, when I did something they didn’t like, my parents wouldn’t even let me to go to school.

I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house alone until I started going to high school. And even then I had to get home by 4 p.m. One time I went to McDonald’s after school to celebrate the birthday of one of my closest friends. I only stayed for about ten minutes, though, because I didn’t want to get in trouble. I rushed home and got there by 4:20. My mother was waiting near the door and started slapping me as soon as I walked in.

When my father got home she told him to “ask her which guy was she f--king that she was an hour late.” She said I had started to curse at her when she asked for an explanation. I was used to her exaggerating things and didn’t even try to defend myself. I knew my father wouldn’t wait to hear my side. And he didn’t, he just started kicking me and swearing that he would fix me if it took his whole life. I just thought it was my fault. I shouldn’t have gone with my friends in the first place.

My friends would invite me to go ice skating and to their parties. My parents would never let me go. After a while I just stopped trying to get permission and the invitations stopped coming. I used to get depressed because I believed no one liked me. My grades started dropping.

Once I tried to join an after-school club. Since it was a writing club I thought that I could just take the work home with me. But when I found out there were meetings I had to attend, I dropped out. I explained to my teacher that I had to get home by four o’clock and that my parents called every day to make sure I was there. “And what would happen if you weren’t?” he asked, “I would be in trouble,” I answered, trying to say as little as possible.

The teacher wrote my parents a letter asking them to let me join the club but they refused and my father slapped me. He was angry in a way I had never seen him before. How dare I complain to strangers about him?

Although I couldn’t imagine telling an adult about what was happening to me, sometimes I would confide in my friends. “You should call the police,” some said. But the thought of police coming to our house scared me. “Why don’t you run away?” others suggested. Perhaps the worst thing I heard was: “Oh, you’re exaggerating, it isn’t so bad. Both of your parents are together. You are the only child. What are you complaining about? They’re just overprotective.”

Then one day, during another conversation with my teacher, I blurted out, “They hit me with a belt.” At first I didn’t think he was going to take me seriously. I thought he might say something like, “So what? I hit my kids with a belt too.” Instead he looked at me very seriously for a moment and then asked, “When was the last time they did that?”

I remembered what my friends had said about calling the police. And I was afraid he was going to do just that. “It’s really nothing. I am the one who’s bad, really,” I said. I was remembering the grade school teacher who had labeled me a “bad child.” I hated the way she had embarrassed me in front of the class, but I preferred that to having my parents reported to the police. I tried to explain to him that my parents believed hitting was the best way to discipline a child—that in India hitting a child was considered appropriate, even necessary.

“But with a belt?” my teacher asked. “I have two children; one is 18 and the other is 21. I have never hit them.”

I just couldn’t believe him. He must have forgotten. I didn’t think it was possible to raise kids without ever hitting them.

image by Justin Riley

“Well, you’re not going to do anything, are you?” I asked nervously. Inside, I was thinking, “Oh, God, can’t you just forget it?”

He explained to me that as a teacher he was required by law to “report” any child he suspected of being abused. The next day I was called to my guidance counselor’s office. They told me that they wanted to call my parents.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t imagine how my parents would react if the school called. The counselor had asked me to describe how I thought my parents would react. All I could manage to say was, “They would be upset.” But that was an understatement. I knew the result would be that they would take me back to India. I wished I could have taken back what I had said.

I tried to figure out how to convince my teacher and counselor that talking to my parents would do more harm than good. Finally they gave me a choice: they wouldn’t call my parents if I agreed to go to counseling. Naturally, that’s what I chose.

Once a week, I would go to my guidance counselor’s office and she’d ask me what happened over the weekend, whether there had been any fights. Of course, it didn’t change the situation, but talking about what was happening to me certainly helped me cope with it.

One time I told my counselor how my mother had asked me to iron clothes in a certain order and I had done them in a different order. Before, I had thought I was being disobedient when I didn’t do exactly what my parents said. But my counselor made me feel that it was bad enough that I had to iron everyone’s clothes. She said that my mother had no right to get upset over the order I did it in.

The counselor made me see that other kids did things that were much worse and yet their parents didn’t treat them half as badly as mine treated me. Soon I began to understand that I wasn’t responsible for everything and I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

Just talking to my counselor made me feel better. I wondered why I hadn’t been able to get to know her before. I guess I had thought that all adults would be like my parents. It was a big relief to find out that it wasn’t true.

When summer vacation came I went back to India for a visit. One day I was walking through a park. Some families had built little homes there. One of the women who lived there was slapping a child so hard that I could hear it from down on the corner.

When I got closer I saw a skinny child, about 4 years old, being beaten by his mother. He was naked from head to heels and his skin was red. Tears were rolling down his face but he wasn’t shouting. It seemed to me that he was used to this.

Suddenly, on an impulse, I shouted, “Stop it!” The woman looked at me, astounded. “Do you want to kill him?” I asked more calmly.

When the mother finally recovered from the shock of my intrusion, she got very angry. “What’s your problem, lady?” she managed to say. “He drank all the milk that we had for the week. Now his father is going to hit me.”

She kept shouting angrily at me: “It’s none of your business what I do with my children.” Just for spite, she struck the kid again. “What are you going to do about it?” she asked.

A good question. What was I going to do about it? Call the Child Welfare Agency? India didn’t even have one, as far as I knew. Report the mother to the police? They would probably laugh at me. Get her therapy? Take him home with me when I didn’t even have a home of my own?

I looked at the little boy’s face again. The tears on his cheeks were almost dry. I turned away and started to leave. “Ha! These rich people think they can control everything,” she called after me. “Hey woman, if you love my son so much why don’t you take him with you?”

Suddenly I hated myself. Why did I have to butt in if I couldn’t do anything in the end? Did parents have eternal control over their children? Why was anyone else powerless to stop them? Why didn’t they have a CWA here? And even if they did, would it solve the problem? In the U.S., we still have cases of kids being killed by abusive parents. I realized I had to learn more about child abuse and what to do about it.

When I returned to New York, I decided that no matter what, I was going to help myself and others in my situation. I decided I wanted to do a research project on child abuse for a national science competition. In order to do that I would have to stay at school till 6 p.m. once a week. My parents still expected me home by 4 p.m. every day, but I applied to do the project anyway. I was determined that they weren’t going to stop me.

My project proposal was accepted but it was an ordeal to convince my parents to let me do it. It was the new me that they were dealing with, however. I didn’t wait for them to give me permission, I just started going. What could they do? Hit me? It seemed like they hit me no matter what I did.

Sometimes my father wouldn’t let me in the house when I got home after 6 p.m. Once I had to stay out on the stairs all night. My mother said I was getting out of hand and my father agreed. “We are going to take her back to India as soon as she finishes this damn school,” he said. This “American nonsense” was getting to me, they concluded.

One day I came back from school and my father started hitting me with his belt. I was shocked—usually he would at least give a reason before he started beating me.

I thought he had gone crazy. I just looked at him, too stunned to say anything. Then he stopped and said, “This is so that you can do your child abuse report better.” Somehow, he had found out what my scinece project was about.

Later my mother grabbed me by the hair and started slapping me. “A report on child abuse,” she chuckled. “How daring!” She slapped me again. “How daring!” she repeated. Slap! “Child abuse, hah!” Slap!

Suddenly I couldn’t take it anymore. I pushed her away. Before, I would just stand there like a statue and take it when she hit me. But not this time. I left the room and locked myself in the bathroom.

In the bathroom, I cried a little and thought about why they were so upset about my project. I knew other kids who were doing projects on dysfunctional families but their parents didn’t get angry with them. It occurred to me for the first time that my parents knew that they were abusing me.

All along I had been thinking that they didn’t know any better, that it was just the Indian custom to treat children this way. But they were perfectly aware of what they were doing. No wonder when my teachers spoke to my parents they always came away with the impression that they were just “overprotective.” My parents had been treating me this way knowing it was wrong and making sure no one found out.

Suddenly I hated them. I had never felt as angry as I did that day. I used to think that it would be possible for us to have a reconciliation when I got older. But I no longer believe that there is any chance of that.

My parents still talk about taking me back to India to get all the “American crap” out of me. I have other plans, however. I’m going to stay here and study so I can help children like me as much as possible—not just in India, but all over the world. Because no one deserves to be treated the way I have been.

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