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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Great Expectations
I pictured my new life as a double chocolate Oreo with a glass of milk
Hattie Rice

When I move to new placements I usually don’t have any expectations, but a year ago I moved to a new foster home and I had a fantasy image in my mind. I pictured my new life as a double chocolate Oreo cookie with a glass of milk. Instead, I ended up with a turkey burger (good and good for ya, but it just ain’t the beef).

At the time I was a junior in high school and was living in a group home. When I was told I had to move, I was determined to find a foster mom who could help me get into college, because I knew my books could take me to a better life.

When I met Diane, she seemed like what I was looking for. Diane has a good education—a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in nursing. She has several jobs: she works as a psychiatric nurse, an editor for a black television station (even though she’s white), and has a side hustle in real estate.

Diane is caring, considerate, and sacrificing. She’s also systematic, sometimes reminding me of Robocop. She plans everything out (kind of scary) and always thinks that she is right (we all do, but she’s extreme).

During the long process of getting to know Diane before I moved in, my hopes rose. She started our first chat by asking about the basics, like my hobbies, relationship with family, interest in going to college, and the career I might enjoy. (Doesn’t she sound like a social worker?)

I probed her to find out her reasons for wanting foster kids, and she told me that she could not have kids but wanted to adopt two girls and create a family. She also said she’d had a rocky relationship with her own mother.

Diane and I continued our conversation during a lunch date at an Italian restaurant (I love a good sausage). Soon after, we met with another foster teen, Nef, who was considering moving in, too.

At the restaurant, the three of us talked about what we could expect while living together. When it came to the budget, Diane said, “With the money I receive for y’all, we will figure out a budget. The money you need each month will go in a checking account, and the rest will go in a savings account.”

“Whaat! Come one more time again?” I yelled. I must admit that even a cynical character like me was impressed that she was disproving the myth that all foster parents just want the money.

Soon Nef and I stayed at Diane’s house for a weekend. I made my cooking debut: turkey burgers, sweet potato fries, and grilled vegetables, which may sound weird but was on point. Afterward Diane showed us how to play Backgammon and Scrabble. I won twice in Backgammon (that was not beginner’s luck!) and I lost by one in Scrabble (Diane cheated, I know she did).

In the morning, Diane made breakfast and we headed downtown, where she bought us blue Ralph Lauren sheets and matching Tommy Hilfiger accessories, and we picked out paint and a rug for our new MTV-style crib.

So you can see how, by the time I moved in last summer, I had built a fantasy image in my head of what it was going to be like. I imagined that in our life together I’d be the black Marsha, Nef would be Cindy, the little girl, since she was cute, and Diane would be the Brady Bunch father because he knew the answer to every problem, which was annoying during the show but handy in real life. Somehow I forgot that starting any new family from scratch is going to come with misunderstandings.

Once Nef and I moved in, things got complicated. Nef dropped out of summer school after getting jaw surgery and they constantly argued about it. Diane wanted her to do something with her summer, or at least get out the house instead of sitting around watching TV. But you know black people—you don’t see us till after 6 p.m.

Diane also decided we were moving five blocks because she wanted to buy an apartment. That infuriated me—I’d already moved three times that year. The move was very stressful, and I felt Diane took it out on us, like she also believed we should be Brady Bunch perfect.

image by Gamal Jones

When we were painting my new room, I said I wanted to paint some edging burgundy and the rest tan. “Regular people do not do that,” Diane replied. You cannot imagine how tight I was. I felt like she was ridiculing me because of my unfortunate beginnings.

I felt the same way when she seemed more interested in showing me her culture—setting the table right and going to ballets—than learning about mine.

Around Diane, I sometimes felt like I was supposed to act like a puppet following her commands. She expected me to do my chores on her schedule, and flipped on me if I was late for school just once. I wanted to tell her, “I had to be a sole survivor just to get by. I don’t need you telling me how to do every task.”

Even though I had my issues with Diane, I kept quiet while she and Nef argued. Usually I don’t get in arguments because I try to stay detached—not let anyone bother me, not face reality, and keep any anger I feel under control.

Laying back was something I learned as a child, because getting upset with my mentally ill parents only hurt their feelings and never resulted in any change. It was easier to detach from the situation than get my hopes up and then get let down.

But as Diane got agitated, it seemed like she was yelling at me for the simplest things. The tension was getting on my nerves, and I also began to take it personally. I think my feelings got hurt and I got angry because I actually cared about making our relationship work. I figured that I had to be willing to get emotionally involved, whether with love or anger.

One day I decided to jump in when she and Nef were already going at it. (I had the best timing, right?) Diane began to get on me about budgets and my complaints about therapy. I screamed, “I went, OK? Who goes to therapy on their birthday?” In my head I was just waiting for her comeback because I was in shutdown mode.

Then she changed the subject, saying that I never told her I was spending the weekend with my best friend. “Either you have a bad memory or I live in an imaginary world,” I said.

She picked me shooting a hoop with the Looney Tunes.

I snickered, “Denial is a disease.”

She claimed my imagination runs away with me.

I yelled, “Your memory is running away from you and you need to find it.” In Elmer Fudd’s voice I added, “Which way did it go? Which way did it go?”

By then Diane was furious, too, and basically said that we could get the hell out of her house.

I said, “We have to make a change.”

image by Gamal Jones

She had the nerve to answer that she’s not changing for anyone because this was the way she was when we came and the way she’ll be if we decide to leave.

That really hurt me. I often have the feeling that I try so hard to make things work, constantly conforming my beliefs and desires to others, while others don’t seem willing to do the same. As a child I didn’t go to school because I felt I had to meet the needs of my mentally ill mother. In my group home I never talked about my problems to the social worker, not because I didn’t have any but because I felt the other girls needed her more.

Although it was a different situation with Diane, I felt similarly: I’m going to ballets but you can’t watch a hip hop video? I’m crying and all you can say is, “I don’t care about your feelings right now.” I’m tired of having to change myself and take on responsibility that shouldn’t fall on me.

Suddenly, I felt toward Diane like I did with my mother: used, pushed to the limit, and unappreciated. I felt like I’d done all I could and she didn’t see how hard I tried. Seeing our relationship start to crumble despite my efforts caused me a mean mini life crisis.

After the argument, I laughed, not because I found it humorous but because my intuition told me the situation would go bad and I felt sad but didn’t want to show it. My laugh signified nervousness. I was nervous that living with Diane would not work out and I’d have to find a series of places to live, giving less of myself each move.

Our social worker recommended family therapy. To me, it was a waste of time. Nef and Diane argued and seemed to ignore the therapist’s advice as if she wasn’t conducting the sessions. Even if they spoke calmly, their faces showed the opposite. During the sessions, I was more spaced out than Buzz Lightyear.

But one night we had a heart to heart. I was open with Diane. I told her how I felt under-appreciated because she criticizes me. (Hello, I’ve had more than enough of that! And I already have low self-esteem.) I also said I was feeling alienated because some tiny remote part of my heart (when I say tiny, I mean smaller than Michael Jackson’s nose) cared for them and didn’t want us to be so angry at each other.

After the discussion I felt relieved, not because I believed things were going to get better, but because I was able to express my feelings rather than keep everything bottled up inside.

The next day when I got to therapy everybody I’d ever met at the agency was there. They told me they’d decided Nef should leave the home. I think all three of us were shocked. We went the rest of the week without arguing, just making the best of our last week together. She started packing while Diane and I prepared for our new life, just the two of us.

Nef moved out on a Sunday. When I walked her out, I felt happy to see her go someplace where she might feel more comfortable, and scared because this was the moment of truth for Diane and me. And you know what? Since then we’ve had no major arguments, just little discussions about the budget sheets and chores. My emotions, which were once like an Oklahoma twister, now feel calm and serene.

Looking back, I think some of my anger toward Diane was just my feelings about my mom spilling out because I’ve never confronted my family with how they made me feel down and depressed. Instead, I tried to ignore my feelings. But when I confronted Diane, I was probably taking all the anger of my childhood out on her.

I’ve also realized that it’s time for me to let go of my technique of staying detached. For years that technique allowed me to not let anyone’s feelings disturb my composure, but it’s become a problem for me that I’m constantly hiding behind my shield of security. To get close to Diane, I’ve had to make the transition to actually caring, and as weird as it may sound, that’s a really big step for me.

Even though this adjustment has made me so uncomfortable, slowly I see that I’m getting more comfortable. Ever since I entered foster care at 14, I’ve kept a big box full of bags in my room just in case I needed to move out. I never expected to have a home or to feel stable.

But one day Diane politely asked me, “Could you clean out that big box in your room?” Inside I was hollering, “No! No! No!” But surprisingly, I decided to rid myself of all that extra baggage. (It helped that I had Remy Ma’s “I’m Conceited” playing in the background to boost me up.) I felt safe and secure throwing those bags away, confident about where I was at in my life, and proud that I’m trying not to let my past experiences control my life.

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