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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Losing Ms. Theresa
Sharlene Tolbert

My mother was told by her doctor that she would never have kids, but then she had me, her only child. I thought my mother would give me love and attention, since she was blessed to have me. But from the time I was 6 years old I had the sense that she didn’t care about me.

School was important to me as a child, but my mother never praised my good grades or attended the family conferences. Every time she missed a family conference, I would take a long shower and cry until I got sleepy. Sometimes when she got her SSI check, I would come home from school and the house would be empty. She would be out spending her money with her sister, who lived nearby, and her nieces and nephews. When she got home she would have no money for me.

In elementary school, I had five outfits to wear to school and a cheap pair of sneakers. Meanwhile my cousins had lots of name-brand clothes that my mother bought them. I don’t think my mom realized how badly it hurt me that she didn’t provide for me. I thought she loved them more than me.

When I was 9 years old, I grew depressed. I cried more. I didn’t care how I presented myself to the world and started to walk around with my head down. I stayed in the house a lot.

When I was 10, my mother drove me up to meet my father, for the first time since I was 3. I didn’t remember him or know much about him. I just knew that he was Jamaican and that he lived out in the country.

When I got out of the car, I was scared that he wouldn’t love me. I worried that he would think that I was ugly and wouldn’t accept me as his own. But he hugged me like I’d come back from the dead. My heart started to hurt. I felt love in my father’s arms, and I wanted to stay with him.

He was about 5’4” with a kind of big belly. His skin was soft caramel toned. He only had hair on the sides, not the top. I knew where I got my eyes from because his eyes never looked like they were open, especially when he was laughing. After that my mother and I went up there almost every week, and every week I got closer to him. But I still was acting shy.

Five days after my 11th birthday, my father died of a heart attack. That day my life changed. I started to physically fight my mother, and fight in school nearly every day.

Then my mother melted down and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I would hear her talk to herself and wave her hand like somebody was actually in the room. Nobody wanted to be bothered with her when she was like that. My aunts kept saying that she was my mother and it was my turn to take care of her. It was too much for an 11-year-old.

I thought to myself, Why do I have to take care of a grown woman who never took me to my doctor appointments, got my hair done, or made sure I bathed? She would give me a hard time when I tried to give her her medications, and then I would put my hands on her. Then my aunts would yell at me for that. Nobody asked me how I felt about the whole situation. I felt trapped in a hospital. I felt like I was the nurse, and my payment was hospital food and free television.

Angry at the World

When I was 13, I talked to a counselor in my school and she told me about foster care. I thought that would be the best choice, to live with a different family. I wanted to finish school, and I knew if I stayed with my mother, I wouldn’t graduate from high school and move on to college.

A Children’s Protective Services (CPS) worker picked me up from school and took me to my mother’s house so she could sign some papers and I could pack. My mother didn’t want to sign, but I begged her. She did it, but she was hurt. That was exactly how I wanted her to feel. She’d been hitting me since I was 9 and putting my needs last my whole life. I felt like she took away my childhood, and I wanted her to feel everything that she put me through.

Within 24 hours, I was placed in a group home in Long Island. My body and emotions felt abused. I was angry at the world and felt like I had to fight to get what I wanted.

Later that week I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital because I told the psychologist that I would hurt myself when I got sad and or mad, and I had tried to kill myself multiple times. I fought and cut myself in the hospital, so I ended up staying there three months.

After I was discharged, I was placed in a group home in Staten Island. A few months later I was arrested for throwing a desk at a teacher. I was in and out of juvenile detention facilities for two months.

My boyfriend and I AWOLed together. We slept in an abandoned building in the Bronx on a hard, cold concrete floor with one sheet. Instead of enjoying becoming a teenager, I spent the first few months of being 13 sneaking onto trains, stealing food, asking people for money, and trying not to freeze to death on that cold floor. After I turned 14, CPS caught up with me and placed me with Ms. Theresa.

When I first met Ms. Theresa I was scared. I had wanted to live with a foster parent after the group home, but I had heard stories about children getting abused by their foster parents. She had one son and four daughters, one of whom was my age. I was excited because I always wanted brothers and sisters.

A Motherly Smile

image by YC-Art Dept

That first day in the house, I was nervous. Her youngest daughters were watching television, and I said hi. They said hi back, and I was relieved they weren’t nasty to me. Later on that night, I was in my room watching television and the two oldest daughters walked in. I felt nervous again. I thought getting the older girls to like me would be harder than the younger daughters. But they asked me how I liked their house so far, and I felt welcomed.

The next day, Ms. Theresa took me shopping. I was shocked because I didn’t know that foster parents were supposed to do that. That’s when I realized she cared about me. I liked how Ms. Theresa looked: Even on her lazy days she would put a nice outfit on. Her hair styles and eyebrows were always on point, and her smile was like thousands of motherly hugs. She made me feel accepted.

I was only at Ms. Theresa’s house for a couple of weeks before I had to go to court for a previous assault charge. The judge said no more than two words and I was sent back to a juvenile jail for a week, because I’d AWOLed so much before.

I was afraid that Ms. Theresa wouldn’t want somebody who got arrested in her home, so I was happy when she took me back. She simply said, “I hope you learned your lesson and wouldn’t want to go back in there.” I looked at her and smiled and said, “Yes I did.”

School was starting and I was happy that my grades were high enough that I could move on to the 9th grade. The first semester, I made friends and also got good grades. Getting good grades made me feel good, because I proved to myself that I am smart. But it wasn’t a feeling I was used to, and I didn’t know how to enjoy it. I was used to attention for being bad.

I told my birth mom about my good grades and the awards I got in math and English. She seemed proud and told my aunts and cousins and they congratulated me too. I knew that the court had told her if she took her medication and went to therapy and groups, she could get me back. She would praise me, but it didn’t seem like she was trying to get me back. I wondered why she was finally acknowledging my good grades.

Not Used to Rules

I wasn’t used to rules or curfews, and Ms. Theresa’s rules felt like lockdown at the group homes. Ms. Theresa encouraged me to make friends, but I acted different with my friends. I was quiet around Ms. Theresa, but I was wild and loud with my friends.

I started to feel alone again. I wanted to hang out with my friends and check out boys. I started to cut classes with my friends. At first it was once a week, then twice a week, and then the teacher didn’t even remember my name.

When my report card came, Ms. Theresa saw that I was cutting and she punished me by making me come straight home from school, then by taking things away. I was disappointed in my bad grades, too, and I gave up even trying. I was used to not having much, so Ms. Theresa taking things away didn’t bother me.

But even on punishment, Ms. Theresa still bought me school clothes, sneakers, and other stuff. She didn’t give me a lot just because I was on punishment but she didn’t want to leave me out of certain things. I started to feel bad because I knew that she didn’t have to put up with my actions. She could easily have taken me back to the agency, but she didn’t.

“Sharlene, why do you continue to cut class? Is there something that you want to tell me?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t.

Even though she made me feel accepted I still didn’t know how to open up. I could see Ms. Theresa getting fed up: I wanted to change but I couldn’t. It was like I had my mother’s bad priorities. My mother picked having a good time over paying the bills, and she picked my cousins over me. I was picking my friends over Ms. Theresa, who cared about me and was sticking by me.

I Changed Too Late

When I was 16, I got caught by the cops in a car with a much older man. Ms. Theresa couldn’t even look at me. She took me up to the agency and told them that she couldn’t take me back home. Before we said our good-byes, she bought me Chinese food. That broke my heart and I felt like I broke her heart as well.

Though I didn’t act on it until it was too late, Ms. Theresa helped me mature and understand myself in the two years I lived with her. I learned that I had a problem with receiving help. My mistake was living in the past where everybody let me down. I couldn’t believe Ms. Theresa really could love me like a mother, but she did.

I still keep in contact with her. She invites me to family events, and she told me that I am always welcome for the holidays. When I achieve something, she tells me that she is proud of me. That motivates me to do more positive things in my life. I stopped cutting class. I have been on honor roll for four semesters.

I visited her a couple of months after I moved to a new foster home. She had a new foster child. Ms. Theresa told me that she was doing even worse things than I had been doing there. Ms. Theresa asked me to talk to her, and this is what I said to the girl:

“You don’t know what you have right now. Ms. Theresa can be your friend and your mother. She will help you and give you things, but you have to respect her and her house. There are not a lot of foster parents out there like her. Trust me, I know. I messed up big time, and I regret it every day.”

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