When my parents decided to become foster parents, it was OK with me. I loved kids, especially babies. I pictured sweet little cherubs in cuddly, soft blankets being dropped off by their caseworkers. They would melt into our arms and smother us with kisses and gratitude, and we would all live happily ever after.
It didn’t work out exactly that way. Here are three things I learned after we’d done it for a year: Some babies squall for hours. Head lice are bad and highly contagious. Not all babies smell good.
But overall, I liked being a foster family. Things were going great. And then we got Jamal and Devin.
I heard Mom on the phone one night making the sounds she makes when she’s hearing about a new kid. I didn’t think anything about it. By now I was in the flow of this foster care thing. Sometimes kids were there when I got up in the morning and gone by the time I got home from school. This time was different, though.
When I got home from school, there he was: a 4-year-old tornado named Devin. His skin was a beautiful ebony, and his smile seemed bigger than he was.
Devin met me at the door as though it was his house, not mine. “Who’s she?” he demanded, and ran to my mom as though she was his mother and I was an intruder. Before she could answer, he ran off.
“What’s going on, Mom?” I asked.
“That’s Devin. He’s staying with us for the weekend to see if we’re a good fit. He has behavior problems and needs a new home. He has an older brother named Jamal. If we think we can handle Devin, both boys will come in two weeks.”
Jamal was the opposite of Devin. Quiet. Shy. Almost too polite. The caseworker figured if we could handle Devin, then Jamal wouldn’t be a problem. She was right.
Behavior problems didn’t begin to describe how Devin acted. He tore things up, talked back, cursed, threw tantrums over nothing, refused to take baths, and then climbed in our laps and cuddled up as if life were grand. I wasn’t too sure about keeping him. If I’d acted like that, I wasn’t too sure my parents would have kept me.
We tried it for two weekends. It was a nightmare. But my mom told the caseworker that we were a good fit. (Figure that out, would you?)
The next weekend Devin and his brother, Jamal, came to live with us. That’s when the racial trouble started.
I’d never really noticed that we lived in a mostly White neighborhood. We’re White, and I never really thought any about it beyond that. My parents had always taught me that prejudice was wrong. I thought everybody knew that.
The first thing that happened was the looks we got from some of the neighbors. They weren’t very nice.
“Give them time, honey,” Mom said. Dad said to keep being friendly and respectful no matter what.
OK, I thought. But it felt really weird to have the old man across the street sit on his front porch and glare at us.
The neighbor on the other side of us had two apple trees at the edge of her yard. My sister, Madison, and I had permission to pick the apples off the ground whenever we wanted. One day the boys picked up the apples by themselves. Next thing we knew, Devin ran into the house crying.
“The woman next door says for me to stay out of her yard, or she’ll call the police!” He cried so hard he could hardly talk. He was terrified that the police were going to take him away. Mom and Dad went next door to talk to our neighbor.
I don’t know exactly what was said. But when they came home they told us to stay out of the neighbor’s yard from then on. It was confusing, because the neighbor had always been so nice to me. Why wasn’t she nice to my foster brothers? Things like that hurt, but it still felt kind of far off. It was adult stuff mainly, and I trusted Mom and Dad to handle it.
It wasn’t until cheerleading tryouts that it got in-your-face personal to me. Cheerleading was my thing. I worked hard to be one of the best. The new coach, Mrs. Gilham, was nice but tough. Her daughter, Haley, and I were just beginning to hang out together. This was going to be a good year. I could just feel it.
“Can I have your phone number?” Haley asked me in the lunchroom just two days before tryouts. I wrote mine in her notebook and was looking for a scrap of paper to get hers.
“Uh, I can’t give you my phone number. I’ll just have to call you.” She looked really uncomfortable.
She wouldn’t look at me. “My mom doesn’t want me to hang out with you because you have Black kids living at your house. I’ll just have to sneak and call you when she’s not around.”
I felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach. Mrs. Gilham had always been so friendly to me to my face. I ran from the lunchroom before I cried in front of everybody. Somehow I made it through the rest of the day.
My mom asked me what was wrong when I got home. I just couldn’t tell her. I’d always been so proud of being a foster family and all the good things we did as a family. We had prayed and asked God to send kids to us who needed us. I knew in my heart that what we were doing was right. But why did it hurt so much?
The next day at school I took my name off the list for tryouts. Somehow, knowing how Mrs. Gilham really felt about me and my family changed how I felt about cheerleading with her as my coach. I told Haley I didn’t think it was such a good idea for her to sneak around and call me. We’d just hang out at school.
I never told my parents why I didn’t try out for cheerleading that year. But on the inside of me, I just knew that I had to take a stand–even if nobody knew it but me. It hurt for a long, long time.
I’d see the cheerleaders and know I wasn’t a part of them anymore.
But when I looked at Jamal and Devin, I knew I had done the right thing. And a couple of years later I was thrilled when the two of them became my adopted brothers!
Illustrated by Joel D. Springer