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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Becoming the Man My Dad Couldn’t Be

One day in February I decided to go onto my MySpace account, which I hadn’t checked in a while. When I signed in, I noticed I had a new friend request and a new message. I looked at the message first. The “From” line said “Jones” and it didn’t hit me right away who it was. The message said something like: “I knew I would find you on MySpace. I understand if you don’t want to talk to me but I hope we can talk.”

At first I thought it was a girl and I was confused because I didn’t know a girl with the last name Jones. I went to my new friend request next. I saw the same mysterious person and I accepted their friendship request. Then I clicked on the profile. That’s when it hit me in the face, real hard. It was Walter Jones, my “father.”

My father left when I was a baby and my mom rarely talked about him. All I knew was that he used to live in New York City with his mother and now he lived in Delaware. Growing up, I only remember seeing him four times. Each time he visited, he made it seem that he was here to stay by talking about the things that we were going to do together, like playing basketball and creating rap songs. Then he’d disappear for years. I can’t even remember the last time I saw him, maybe when I was 7 years old, maybe when I was 10.

I’d wonder from time to time what my life would’ve been like if my father had stayed with the family. I felt we would’ve been better off financially. My mother wouldn’t have had all the pressure to provide for my brother and me, and we might have had more time together as a family.

Sometimes I’d daydream about being with my father, going together to catch a basketball game or playing at the park. But eventually I would come back to Earth, and I was still the child with no father.

I had a great mother, but felt that only a man could teach me how to be a man. When I was about 13, I found myself constantly looking for male role models. For some reason, I knew I needed male influences around me.

Every chance I got I’d tag along with my cousin Rob, who’s eight years older than me, and mimic everything he did that seemed man-like. He would puff out his chest and I would do the same. He would talk to a girl and I’d try that too. It worked while I was with him, but he lived in Bushwick and I lived in Crown Heights, a different neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I didn’t see him that often. I wanted to find a father figure who was close and who I could really learn from.

That search led me to my neighbor John. He was about 10 years older than me, so by the time I was 13 he was already a man of 23. He was tall, a great athlete, and he stayed out of trouble. I thought he was the perfect guy to be around.

One day when I was 13 and my little brother Kevin was 11, I took some money from my mother’s drawer to buy Chinese food. Kevin said he wanted no part of it, which was unusual since he was usually the troublemaker. I bought my food, ate it, and left the evidence in my brother’s room.

When my mother came home and noticed her money was missing, I immediately blamed Kevin. She believed me because he had a reputation for lying and I didn’t. Kevin felt so betrayed by me that he ran away from home that night.

When we realized he was gone, around midnight, we panicked. I called John right away because I knew he’d help me. John and I looked all over for my brother and all night he kept reassuring me we were going to find him. Whenever he saw me start to worry, he’d crack a joke. I could see in his eyes and by the way that he was walking that he was extremely tired, but he did what a father would do and stayed by my side. It made me feel like John was there to stay.

image by Terrence Taylor

It was so dark and all I could think were the worst thoughts. When we came across a cemetery, it felt like we hadn’t come upon it by coincidence and I couldn’t help but cry. But within a couple of seconds, I stopped. Not because I got over it that quickly, but because I suddenly noticed that this big, strong, tough man was crying right beside me. I felt like John felt my pain, and I no longer felt as bad. After that day, I knew I had a father figure in John and he wasn’t going to up and leave anytime soon.

Eventually we found Kevin walking around the block and he looked happy to see us. I apologized to him and he forgave me, because he saw how much I cared about bringing him back home.

That night, I learned that I wasn’t the only one in need of a father figure. A couple of weeks after running away, my brother started acting out more and more frequently. He was disrespectful to his teachers and he was getting into fights almost every day.

While my father hadn’t been around at all, my brother’s father came in and out of his life every two years or so. My mother and I eventually came to the conclusion that he was acting out because he was so hurt about his father promising to be there and then leaving again. That’s when I realized that my brother needed a father figure and, like me, he needed one who was nearby. So I put myself in that role.

I told Kevin that if there was ever anything he wanted to talk about, I’d have his back. I began helping him with homework and I did fun things with him, too. He especially enjoyed our trips to the park and the video game store. I did my best to help him like a real father would.

I could see changes in my little brother’s behavior almost immediately. He stopped doing sneaky things like stealing money from my drawer and he no longer started fights in school. My mother was grateful for all my efforts and she always thanked me. I could tell Kevin appreciated it, too, because he would always refer to me as his father figure and we became closer than ever.

Over the next couple of years, I got comfortable playing the role of Dad in my family. Then, this past winter, my own father showed up with that MySpace message. After I read it, I looked at his profile to see what I’d been missing.

His whole page was dedicated to a TV show he hosts in Maryland, where he interviews rap stars like M.O.P., Sheek Louch, Ja Rule, and Chris Brown. I had no idea he was doing all of this. I saw a lot of pictures of him with various rappers. Even though I was angry, I have to admit, I was also impressed. I’m a big fan of hip-hop, and for him to know these rappers personally made me eager to learn more.

I typed a message to him filled with questions like, “Where have you been all this time?” and, “Why are you contacting me now?” and, “How has your life been?” Even though I was angry with him, I still wanted to know what his life was like.

Before I clicked “Send,” I thought about it for an eternity. Should I send it and open myself up to being shot down again, or should I give him the same cold shoulder he’d given me all my life? Eventually I gave in because I really wanted to speak with him. I was overcome with curiosity.

He was online so he messaged me right back, and we began messaging back and forth. With every message I received, my heart beat a little faster. My father sending me messages was a small gesture, but to me it showed he was becoming consistent for the first time in my life—every time I messaged him, he answered right back.

image by Terrence Taylor

In the end we got a lot of our feelings out in the open. He told me that he felt bad for not being there for my childhood, and that he’d take it back if he could. I told him that my life was hard and that I needed him here with me. He wrote, “I’m really sorry.” By the time I signed off that night, I was feeling pretty good about our relationship.

But it wasn’t long before my father was up to his old tricks. A couple of days after we began messaging, he asked me to meet up with him in Manhattan. He comes to New York once a month to do interviews for his TV show. He asked me if I wanted to come to an interview in Manhattan and watch him work. I agreed because I hadn’t seen him in so long and the thought of meeting rappers made me want to believe him.

Up until the day before the interview, he messaged me regularly to remind me to be there. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. It felt like Christmas Eve. When morning came, I was anxious. I got dressed and was ready to go by noon like he had told me. I waited for his phone call until about 3 p.m., when I fell asleep on my bed.

When I woke up it was about 7 p.m. and all I could think was that I had missed his call. I went to the phone and saw that there were no missed calls from him. I just went back to sleep and I didn’t talk to anybody for the rest of the night. I felt so gullible for believing him. I knew it was his fault for lying to me again, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was also my fault for trusting him.

MySpace tells you if the person you’re messaging is currently online. A couple of days after my father stood me up, I noticed that he was online. Rather than send him a message, I waited for him to do it because I felt it was up to him to tell me what had happened.

When he didn’t, I thought that he just didn’t care enough to tell me why he couldn’t call me. Eventually I gave up and signed off. After that, I decided I was through. He’d done this too many times before. We haven’t spoken or written to each other since. Only time will tell if we end up contacting each other again, but for now, I doubt it.

Soon after that, my father told my half brother (his other son) to tell me that we can’t meet up until the summer because he’s too into his music. There was no apology and he didn’t even acknowledge that he’d stood me up. It was pathetic. He couldn’t even talk to me like a man. It was the kind of cowardliness I’ve learned to expect from my “father.”

I’ll always be curious about what could’ve been and whether my life would be any different if my father had stayed around. But I’m realizing now that I don’t think he would have measured up to what I was searching for in a father figure.

As I see it, my father is far from a man. A man takes care of his responsibilities. A man owns up to his mistakes and tries his best to correct them. A man doesn’t give up on raising a child before he even starts. I’ve been raised by real men like my neighbor John. And with John’s help, I’m learning to be one myself.

I’m proud of myself because I went out and found who I needed in my life all by myself, and I’m doing everything I can to become the man my father never was. I’ve helped raise my younger brother and I plan on continuing to give him the educational and emotional support that he wants and needs, whenever he needs it.

That’s what a man does.

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