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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Boxing Through My Anger
Miguel Ortiz

It wasn’t easy growing up in a house with my stepfather Frankie. There were seven kids, and my oldest brother Jonathan and I have a different father. Frankie treated my five younger siblings, his kids, with much more love and respect than he showed Jonathan and me. He didn’t hit the younger ones even if they did something wrong, whereas he beat me if he had a bad day at work, or if he was drunk.

I hadn’t ever told my mom that Frankie abused me because I was afraid that could lead to Frankie hitting my mom. My mom wasn’t married to him, but they had been together since I was 5 or 6. I can’t really remember life before Frankie, but my mom told me that we used to sleep in hallways and abandoned places.

My mom and Frankie argued often. Once, when I was 9, Frankie was arguing with my mom, and I walked in.

Frankie said, “Go back in your room.”

“You’re not my father! Don’t tell me what to do.” It was unusual for me to stand up to him; I usually bottled up my frustration and anger.

My mom looked flustered, but she said in a calm tone of voice, “Miguel, don’t worry, sweetie, just go back to your room, I’ll be there in just a sec.”

I went in my room, but they didn’t stop. I heard my mom yelling “SHUT UP” and Frankie yelling, “NO ONE IN THIS HOUSE PROVIDES NOTHING BUT ME!” I heard thumping through the wall and Frankie throwing stuff on the floor.

After listening to 10 minutes of shouting, I peeked my head out the door. For the first time ever, I saw Frankie hit my mom. He punched her in the jaw, knocking her down. Overwhelmed with anger, I rushed in to try and defend her. He hit me in my face with something, knocking me down to the floor. I looked up and saw my mom stab Frankie in the chest with a sharp kitchen knife. Blood poured out of his chest.

Soon I heard the police knocking on the door—our neighbors had called them. The police arrested Frankie for abusive actions towards a minor. They didn’t arrest my mom because she was defending herself against Frankie. As the police car drove off with Frankie, I felt destroyed inside. I had never witnessed anything so traumatizing up close before. I still have flashbacks about it to this day.

There was no trial, but Frankie was in jail for a few weeks. When he came home, he seemed to hate me even more.

How Are We Going to Eat?

On top of the violence and abuse, my family was poor, which made me feel even more depressed and angry. I couldn’t focus in school, because I was wondering, “How are we going to eat?” When I was 10, I started stealing money from people and robbing stores to bring some food or money into our household. I wasn’t proud of what I was doing, but I also felt like I was helping my family.

I suffered in school as well. I didn’t fit in, and I felt like there was something wrong with me. The other kids at school teased me because I didn’t have new clothes, and no one seemed to care about me. Because I was young and didn’t have the ability to change much about my situation, I started getting angrier and angrier. One day, in 6th grade, my teacher said something that really got me mad, and I punched the window of the classroom. The glass shattered, my hand started bleeding, and my teacher called me “impossible.”

One night when I was 12, Jonathan and I were watching TV when cops burst through the door. Everyone was crying as the cops escorted all seven of us kids to a black van that took us to a brick building in Manhattan—the ACS (Children’s Protective Services) building.

I felt lost and upset; no one had bothered to explain to us kids what was happening. Most of us thought that our families were being torn apart because we were “bad kids.” I thought about how I broke the window in school and how maybe if I had been a better student and didn’t get into so much trouble, that our family would still be together.

After two horrible weeks in that building—it felt like jail—Jonathan and I were driven to the Bronx and placed with a Dominican family. My foster mother was emotionally abusive and she was constantly putting me down, telling me I would amount to nothing in life. We were in that foster home for eight years.

I received no support in my foster home or from my caseworker at the agency. When it was time to pick high schools, no one helped me with the process, so I ended up in a bad high school in Queens that was almost two hours away from my foster home. I asked my agency if I could transfer high schools, but they didn’t help.

My anger kept building. I was angry about the abuse I endured as a child, angry that my family was torn apart, angry at the emotional abuse from my foster mom, and angry that no one seemed to care about my thoughts and feelings. I mostly bottled my anger and learned to stay silent.

But sometimes, if provoked, I would explode and get into fights. I got suspended from school a lot for fighting, cutting class, and being disrespectful to school authorities. My foster mom didn’t give me an allowance, so I started selling drugs to have money in my pocket. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know any other way to provide for myself. And honestly, I didn’t feel like I had much to lose if I did get caught and go to jail.

A Helping Hand

image by YC-Art Dept

After almost failing 9th grade for the second time, I was ready to drop out. Then, on January 15, 2012, a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) named Katie showed up at my foster home. CASAs are volunteers who are assigned to specific foster kids. I didn’t know who this person was, but she seemed interested in Jonathan and me and what we had to share.

Jonathan had just lost a good friend in a shooting in Brooklyn, and he wasn’t in the mood to talk at all. So I started talking; I don’t know why I opened up to her. I told Katie everything about my life—almost dropping out of school, getting into fights on the streets, and stealing to provide for my family.

My story moved her, and from that day on, she never gave up on me. Katie helped me transfer into a smaller, more supportive transfer school, which gave me a second chance at graduating high school. This fresh start really motivated me, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity I was given. My first semester, I had perfect attendance, and got an 80 average. Katie continued to dedicate her time to helping me achieve my academic goals as well as being there for me emotionally.

She also wanted to help me with my anger. I told her that I loved boxing. That week, Katie got me a boxing trainer, and her husband John started training with me.

My trainer, Steven Frank, was a tall, dark, muscular man who had boxed in the 1984 Olympics for Guyana. Our first training session was terrible: I’d never worked out before, so I was in bad shape. I got tired after three minutes and almost threw up. However, at the end of the session, I told Steve that I wanted to keep boxing every Saturday because I wanted to get better. Nobody had ever cared what I’d done before, and having Katie and John in my corner made me want to challenge myself.

Discipline and Perseverance

I changed my diet from junk food to vegetables and other healthy food. I exercised more—running, playing football, and doing sets of exercises at home. With time, the boxing sessions got easier. When I did the drills, I channeled all the anger from my past into punching the bags. At the end of the workouts, my mind would be clear, and I felt a wave of calm.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but boxing was like therapy. I noticed I was carrying less anger with me every day, because I was getting it out in the ring.

After a couple of months of training, Steve told me that next time I’d spar against one of the guys from the gym. That Saturday morning I woke up feeling confident and ready for my training session. I ate a good breakfast and went to the gym.

The person I was sparring with was around the same height as me but much heavier, so I was nervous. His name was William. He had dark skin, a short beard, and a calm manner. As soon as I got into the ring I put on a blank and serious face and began to pace around the ring.

As I landed my first punch I started using my footwork, moving side to side while I jabbed. I was doing a good job keeping distance and countering his punches. As the match went on I started to get in my rhythm. I landed hard left jabs on his face, then I went to the body with a left and right punch followed by some uppercuts.

William backed into a corner. I saw there was only a minute left in the round. I started unloading my left, right, hook, and uppercut combinations. He wasn’t fighting back so I hit him with a left that rocked him. As I went back to my corner I was breathing heavily. I tried to relax my body for the next round. The round was only three minutes long, but it felt like 10.

As the second round started I started feeding off my adrenaline and emotion and landed three jab punches while I moved around the ring. We were circling at a slow place but were aware of each other’s punching power. He threw a couple punches and I ducked under them. I countered with a left and right combination. I ended the second round with a fast right to his jaw, knocking William down onto the mat. He couldn’t get up, so Steve stopped the match.

Steve gave me a proud look and said, “Wow, Miguel, your skills are evolving. I can tell you really love boxing because you have the willpower to push past your limits and not give up.” I felt satisfied and proud of myself for the first time since I’d joined the gym.

It was different from the fights I’d gotten into on the streets, because there was a sense of accomplishment from following the rules and earning points. On the streets, it was just about survival. There was no pride in knocking someone down—just relief that it wasn’t you, and that they didn’t pull out a gun.

Life Lessons From the Ring

My whole life I’d been mad at the world. Boxing, along with the support from Katie and John, helped me channel that anger into determination and confidence. The self-discipline and motivation I brought to boxing flowed into other areas of my life. I worked hard to pass all my Regents exams, graduate, and start college. I love to write, so I entered a citywide essay contest, and ended up winning a Grand Prize.

I began to advocate for others who had come from a similar background as I did. I became a writer for Represent and joined a group called FACE (Fostering Advocacy Change and Empowerment), where I advocate for policy change in the foster care system.

It’s not always easy. Even though my life is coming together and I am headed in a positive direction, it’s not possible to erase the first 17 years of my life. Sometimes I find myself in a dark place, recalling the traumas of my childhood and my adolescence.

But I’m not stuck in the anger anymore. I can talk to Katie or John, or my brother Jonathan. I can box. I can write. I can use my voice to advocate for myself and others. I can be a positive force, and I hope to inspire other youth to do the same.

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