A week ago in the early morning rush hour I bumped into a young lady on a Brooklyn street in Brownsville. “Mr. Waters!” she said, giving me a hug. Fourteen years ago this young lady was 14 years old, a teenager in foster care. I haven’t worked in “child welfare” in over 12 years. I had bumped into this same young lady about five years ago on a train in Brooklyn. These young people from this part of my professional life seem to almost always remember me. Their question to me is always the same: “Do you remember me?” I don’t need much prompting to remember, and not simply because I seemed to handle the more memorable cases.
Let’s call her A. I remember her as a teenager who carried this great burden that her parents had abandoned her and her slightly older sister. The sister was also in foster care, and would often run away and find her way back to her mother, who was using drugs and allowing men to use her body in order to buy drugs. There was no record of this, but the off-the-record conversation at the foster care agency when A.’s case was given to me was that the mother also allowed men to use her older daughter’s body, and maybe the younger one’s, too; there was also the possibility of some sexual abuse of the girls by a family member. Nonetheless, A. was almost always hopeful that either her paternal grandmother or her father would save her from foster care.
A. has a young boy at her side, about four years old. She introduces us, tells the boy to say hello to Mr. Waters. I kneel so I am nearly at his height and shake his little hand and he smiles. I have one of those one-way conversations I seem to have with young children. I stand and his mother, with a deep smile etched into her face, tells me that she has two other boys. She just dropped them off at school. I get this vibe from her that she would never abandon her children.
The little boy is still holding my hand, lightly swinging it. Kids like me, from toddlers to teens. I don’t know why. I don’t necessarily like kids – I mean working with and for them. This stems from my belief that I have no magic formula to save them. (Probably at the heart of this is that I don’t want to be one more adult to fail them.) I grew up with a number of people, many who ended up in group homes, juvenile jails and adult prisons because they turned left when they should have turned right. It took some of them a number of years to get back on the right track. Having righted their lives, they want to help troubled teens – like they had been – transform their lives, as if in their transformation they had transmuted themselves through a form of alchemy only they knew and therefore only they knew how to transform the lives of troubled teens.
I went through a phase when I was a deeply troubled teen. I figured things out pretty quickly and knew that I had to save myself. Thus my belief that I can’t save others, especially teenagers. Maybe inspire them. Maybe serve as a role model.
Looking back at those teenage years, and this is not my over-educated mind at work, because I figured this out a long time ago, before I graduated from college at 21. I had read James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” and got it. The main character, the narrator, had made it in the “white world.” His brother, a jazz musician, hadn’t. Like many in the entertainment world, Sonny, the other brother, dabbled in drugs. Through his music he told a story, not about drugs, not about escaping the world through drugs, but simply a story about just wanting to be. Why couldn’t a man just be? Reading this story, it struck me, Sonny’s alienation, this sense of not being and not belonging, and how it played out in our lives. I experienced this same sense of alienation, and abandonment, as a teen. This is what the teenagers I worked with and for experienced. I didn’t know this then, but the teens related to me because I never forget being a teenager. I didn’t judge them for anything they did, was there when they called on me. Not only have I not forgotten being a teenager, but at every milestone in my life, at 21, 30, 40 and even 50, I remember the teenager I was, and at each of these milestones I remember that sense of alienation and abandonment and experience it all over again to a lesser degree.
I untangle my hand from A.’s son and say goodbye to both of them. It’s a small world. I know I’ll bump into her again.