Faculty Development

(Wrote this little poem in honor of faculty development week. Yeah right. Enjoy ;-)!!!!)

And when one faculty is developed,

What happens to the rest?

Do they whither and crack like dry hay

Turn into tumbleweeds

Quietly roll in the wind, cross paths with

Ghosts of cowboys killed in shoot outs

Or accidentally hit in merrymaking

When random folk shoot their guns

In the air, as if bullets don’t fall,

fast and fatally upon reveling heads?

Do they turn sour like pansit,

Left too long out on the buffet table

Then taken to work the next day

Noodles mushy and stinky with

Yesterday’s unfulfilled wish?

Or do they take off?

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The village, not the state

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the cliche goes. And I believe this saying with all my heart, using it unsparingly to remind teachers, principals, and camp counselors that kicking a child out for misbehaving is not in the child’s best interest. It has worked for the most part. But when that village also includes lawyers, social workers, and omniscient therapists, the village can get a tad annoying.

I do subscribe to Kahlil Gibran’s words when he states that: “Our children do not belong to us. They are life’s longing for itself.” But if I have to fill out another consent form so we can take our kids to a vacation out of state, I am going to scream!!!

We have been parents to our children for the last 3-5 years of their lives. They are now 11 and 7, respectively. When we first signed up for the six-month foster parent training over five years ago, we had been clear about our intentions: we want to adopt.

I found a DCFS-approved agency online that was not too far from where we lived, and we made the first step by calling and having the director come in to measure our house. “You can take in two kids!” Two? Wow. We were only thinking of one, preferably an infant to a five-year-old.

The First

We fell in love with him instantly, this child who was turning six the week he was brought to us. There were challenges then, as there continue to be now. Initially, he was “reunited” with his biological family within a year of being with us. My husband and I were devastated.  One moment, we had a son and the next, he was gone! Just as we were starting to understand each other’s cues and quirks, when to laugh at the other’s jokes, when to show affection, or when to step back and give the other space.  He was a stubborn little boy who would not take no for an answer, but in time he softened and relented, realizing that yes, we can be trusted to know what is best for him. There were tears in his eyes when his caseworker took him and the four boxes of clothes and toys he had accumulated in a year. We hugged him ever so tightly and told him that we will always be here for him and that we will always love him.

Within five months, he was back in the system, but by then, we had already taken in a beautiful and precocious three-year-old girl. Unfortunately, while we wanted him back, we only had two bedrooms, and DCFS rules that two kids of different genders cannot stay in one room together.

Almost a year later, the agency told us that he needed a permanent home. Well, hasn’t he always? Doesn’t every child? We did not waste time. We bought a bunk bed, put it in the sun-room, curtained the area off, and voila! an extra room. We have since moved to a place with three bedrooms and he has been with us for the last 2 1/2 years non-stop.

From the beginning, the agency reassured us of the possibility of adopting right away, raising our hopes up with every administrative case review, every change of goal discussion, and every permanency hearing. But it has been five years of being told that, “it will just be six months” or “the most would be a year from now.” Meanwhile, our children cannot have an MRI, go to a water park across state lines, or get their ears pierced without getting a consent form signed by DCFS. The kids have become well-acquainted with the terminology: “Mommy, I scraped my knee; shouldn’t we fill out an incident report?” or “Oh, my other mom did that, you know, my biological mom,” “When is the next court hearing?” or “Why did my case worker come to my classroom!!! It was embarrassing!”

I have also gotten tired of being addressed to as Mrs “(my son’s last name)” or Mrs “(my daughter’s last name)” by teachers and administrators at their school or by their friends.  And while I never did try to correct them, it is a heart-breaking reminder that, legally, I am only my children’s caregiver.

We understand that the system is not perfect. Our own caseworker handles over 30 children, placing them in homes, visiting and checking on them at least once a month. Agencies are encouraged to push for reunification with original family, arranging visits with biological parents who may still be struggling with heavy drug or alcohol use and are still unable to care for themselves, let alone their children. At times, these visits could prove traumatic to a child, whose emotions are caught between loyalty and the desire to live a less stressful life, or between love for their biological parents and their own longing to be loved and cared for in a more consistent way.

Many have warned us of getting entangled in this imperfect system. “Why not just adopt a poor child from the Philippines?” my relatives had suggested, when we said we are thinking of fostering. But having worked with Chicago’s inner city youth and children, my husband and I understand that the third world exists within the first world, and that all children, no matter what race or economic background, deserve to live in a happy home.  Lilla Watson, an indigenous woman artist from Australia, referring to social workers and other do-gooders at a conference, stated:  “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Well, we have chosen to take this route because we know that our liberation is bound up with our children’s.

In the end, all we want is to be seen and treated as a real family, living in a village of our own that includes close friends and family and our own trusted health workers and caregivers. A family that we know in our hearts we are.

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I had a feeling he had them when I saw his hair — so dry and mangy, like he hadn’t washed it in days.  We had told him to shampoo his hair, then so beautiful and wavy, like Luis’s was when he was his age. He said he did.

“I did,” he would automatically retort to every hygiene-related query or command–without blinking, without thinking– like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do and how dare we question! One day, after I begrudgingly took the forgotten lunch and camp shirt to the park (lest he be disallowed to go on a field trip), I saw him scratch.

Sitting forlornly on the steps to the field house, it wasn’t just the intense movement of his fingers through his hair; it was also his face — unsmiling, almost contorted, closing eyes every now and then to contain the inconsolable itch. I remember that look from grade school– my cousin’s, my best friends’, my own reflection in the mirror, the girl sitting in front of me in class. Long-haired, bespectacled, with the calm countenance of a reincarnated guru when not scratching her hair,  Marivic was also the smartest girl in the class. I often wondered what made her smarter than me — writing the best essays, getting the highest scores in Math and Science. But more than that, I was mesmerized. Or more like distracted, I guess. During Math, I would catch myself watching her kuto jump from one straight hair strand to another,  fat and jet-black against her stringy, dark brown hair.  I consoled myself with the thought that, although she was the class valedictorian, the only living creatures that stuck close to her were her lice. What a mean thought, now that I recall!

Now, my own son had made a cozy home for them in his gorgeous golden brown mane, and the house was in a panic mode — his aunt, his uncle, my husband at work, on his phone texting urgently: “vacuum his room!” “put his head in a plastic bag!” “it’s his own damn fault!” “I keep telling him to…”

And my son, watching youtube videos of people playing Minecraft on the computer, sat immobile like the sun, while we hovered and revolved. “Look at him, sitting so unfazed,” my sister-in-law observed. She had come to pick up her girls, who were hanging out with my seven-year-old daughter in the backyard. Now, she too was concerned, asking me to please check her girls’ hair as she had never seen these blood-sucking little bastards in her life before. I have suddenly become the expert, having come from a third world tropical country, where mothers warned their daughters about being flown to the highest coconut tree if we didn’t let them comb our infested hair with the fine, sharp-toothed torture device called the “suyod”.

I checked the girls’, including my daughter’s, hair. Clear. No sign of those tiny silver spheres known as “nits” clinging to healthy hair strands. Only my son’s hair was infested, and possibly mine since I had shared his comb once. Really? The joys and travails of motherhood, indeed.

“Didn’t I tell you to keep your hair clean?” He had not cut it since fifth grade started, and now, in the last few weeks of summer break, it had grown halfway down his nape and he was proud of it. He shrugged. On days when he actually shampooed and conditioned, his locks shone in the light, and all those who saw were drawn. Waitresses gave extra fries, little girls whispered and giggled in passing.

“Girls used to stop me in the street wanting to touch my long hair,” my husband reminisced once, looking at our son’s hair with just a tad longing in his eyes. While this child did not come from us, he is undoubtedly of us. As in, one of us. One who goes against the grain, not caring much about what people might say or think, a rebel, and a survivor. (I have shaved my head more than once, and both me and my husband are intensely inked.) He is “rough around the edges,” as people would say, insists on calling us by our first names, instead of Mom and Dad, which I don’t mind much. My son once got in trouble for having a yelling match with a fundamentalist Christian boy in his class, arguing against the existence of an omnipotent god. “Well, he did make pretty good arguments,” his fourth-grade teacher conceded at the principal’s office, where my husband and I had become constant visitors.

But this boy has also been to hell and back, moved around and shuffled within the foster system like an unwanted piece of lettuce on a child’s plate; good hygiene is the least of his concerns. Our goal as his forever family is to actually make him care more, make him feel more, make him realize that it is okay to grieve and mourn when one loses something, because this means that one has loved.

“Fine. Just cut it!” he uttered with seeming nonchalance. I fussed, cut and plastic-bagged his locks, and when my husband came home, he buzzed the rest with a new electric razor. After all was done and the little growth left was treated with RidX, I looked into my boy’s eyes, and I saw it. His pain. He had lost something. Again.  The way he had lost toys stolen at the shelter, the way he had lost friends made because he was moving to another school and the school-year wasn’t even over yet… the way he had lost his biological mother. “I want to kill myself!” he cried, as he fell in my arms.

That night, I went to his room and, as I had done in the past, told him a story about my childhood. This is how we bond. I learn about his story through sheafs of paper from social workers and doctors; he learns about mine through stories I tell before he goes to bed.

I told him about the time I was seven and how my mother, tired of the infestation in my hair, took me to a salon one day, and how the hairdressers fussed and touched my long black locks like they were something precious: “So thick and beautiful,” they remarked, “What do you want us to do?”

I told him how my mom, annoyed and frustrated, yelled: “She has kuto! Cut it all off!!!!” He smiled through his tears. I told him how I didn’t go out of the house for days, fearing the kids would make fun of me, and how I stayed quiet when my friends called out my name to play. It was summer then, just like it is summer now, and I missed days of enjoying the sun because I was being vain. “At least, you’re a boy; can you imagine a bald little girl?” He laughed. Then, I asked if he wanted some cookies and milk and, of course, he did.

“I love you,” he said, reaching for my hand when I tucked him under the sheets. “I love you, too,” I said, planting one in his chubby cheek. “It’s all going to grow back, you’ll see. And more beautiful than you can ever imagine.” I believe it, too.

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