Growing up, school was a place to escape troubles at home—substance abuse, arguing, and no privacy. I shared a bedroom with my mother, grandmother, and little sister. I often woke up to bickering between my mother and grandfather, who were both intoxicated, in the middle of the night. I got up early every morning and quickly got ready for school, eager to escape the chaos.
I enjoyed learning, especially math. But I felt awkward around other kids and was shy. I didn’t know how to react when people tried to be my friend.
My 7th and 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Traynor, made a big impact on my life. He was strict, but he taught me the basics of algebra and respected my intelligence. If I finished my work quickly, he challenged me with harder work. Thanks to him I aced the state math tests during those years.
In junior high school, I met kids who fought, drank, smoked, and had sex. This was all new to me. When I was 12, I began smoking and drinking, mostly by myself. I wasn’t doing it to fit in; I’d watched my family getting drunk and high, and I wanted to know what it felt like.
I immediately liked the numb daze. Drinking and smoking covered up my anxiety and what I now think was PTSD from being raised in a dysfunctional home where conflicts weren’t dealt with and everyone abused drugs and alcohol. There was barely any communication, just bickering and then acting like the conflict had never arisen.
When I was high, I didn’t feel so out of place socially. By the end of 8th grade, my grades had dipped from A’s and B’s to C’s. I still cared about school, but now I hung out with an older crowd that cut class.
I didn’t lose all interest in academics, though, and when it was time to apply for high schools I chose one that specialized in environmental sustainability. I thought it would be cool to study the planet. Plus science included math, which I was good at.
But by the time 9th grade started, my mom had lost her job and was drinking heavily. She became verbally abusive. She told me she hated me and called me worthless. She compared me to my father, a man who had walked out of our lives before I was born.
I started running away from home and using more alcohol and drugs to feel less alone. My mother called in missing persons reports, so the cops were looking for me.
I stopped going to school to avoid the police. I began to accept that I’d be a dropout. Memories of that time are a fog: I can’t remember exactly why I lost hope in my future. I do remember one time, when I was 15, sitting in a room with three older friends and thinking, “We’re all doing absolutely nothing with our lives.” I felt like a failure, and that made me want to get high.
I stayed with friends or else outside, and sometimes I’d get homesick. Even though my mother was abusive and the apartment was chaotic, it was the only home I’d known. I felt guilty leaving my little sister behind to raise herself. I hoped she would not follow in my footsteps.
Where Do I Belong?
Because of all the school I missed, Child Protective Services (CPS) opened a case and had me transferred to a school closer to my home for the rest of 9th grade. But I never felt comfortable there. When I did go to school, I felt disorganized. I didn’t even have different notebooks for each class. I put in less and less effort.
Being around all new people made me anxious, so I smoked weed to feel more nonchalant. As I got further behind, it got harder to stay focused—and to catch up. I started to dread coming to school. Walking from class to class, I felt trapped and lonely.
My older friends outside of school felt like family, but in school I was the new girl who everyone tried to figure out. I got asked, “Why’d you transfer?” or “Why so late in the year?” I’d say, “My old school just wasn’t working out,” and change the subject.
That March, I was placed into foster care because I was running away and cutting school. I was failing all my classes. I was moved into the home of Sandra Virgile, which felt comforting and warm from the second I walked through the door. She was nice and seemed younger than her age (late 30s). Sandra was studying to become a registered nurse.
It was new for me to be around so much motivation. I began to hope that I could also make progress. Sandra asked, “Do you know what you want to do after high school?”
“Not really, not anymore.”
“Well, you’ve got time. Do you want to go to college? ‘Cause you know it’s paid for in foster care, so take advantage, young lady.”
She was right. I was put into this mostly-bad situation of foster care, and I might as well use my benefits.
Love and Fear
Sandra was my first real mother figure. The family went out to the movies on Saturdays and had dinner together on Sundays. She talked with me about my problems, helped with schoolwork, and even helped me face my depression.
But some days I felt like I didn’t deserve to live in her home. My foster parents studied me to see if I was all right, and I didn’t like that scrutiny. I was afraid that once they got to know the real me, they wouldn’t want me in their home. Everything was getting so family-oriented. As I grew to love Sandra, I got scared of becoming vulnerable and then having everything taken away.
So after seven months there, I ran away. I bounced around from home to home for a while until one night I felt terribly alone. It wasn’t the kind of alone some boy could fix; I felt I was fighting the world by myself and I wanted reassurance that everything would be OK. I could only get that from Sandra.
Around midnight, I called her. She said, “Hello?” in the soft, soothing voice I missed so much. “Mommy, I want to come home,” I said, tears rolling down my cheeks. She asked where I was, and 20 minutes later she pulled up. My foster dad and foster sister were also in the car.
I spent a couple weeks with them, trying to convince CPS to let me move back in, but they continued to move me to different homes. I fell into depression and my future blurred again. At 15, I was supposed to be a sophomore but I only had three credits. I wanted to drop out and get my GED. Due to all I’d been through, I felt older than my classmates.
Every now and then I’d go visit Sandra. Finally, more than a year after I left her house, my agency let me move back in with her, which felt like coming home. One month later, in March, I re-registered at Canarsie High School. I had been to rehab by this point and had broken off with an older drug dealer boyfriend who had abused me.
I still wanted to get my GED rather than spend all that time catching up to graduate. But I felt unproductive doing nothing, so I used school to get ready for the GED test. (In New York, the GED test is now called Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC).
I went to school more frequently. I began making friends there. I no longer sat by myself in the cafeteria. Now I sat with my friends and occasionally went to the library upstairs, finding new books or playing chess. I had a great relationship with my foster family. I went to therapy at least three times a month, and I finally felt like a normal teenager.
My guidance counselors were all nice and the teachers were helpful as well. If I fell behind, they didn’t embarrass me in front of the class. They gave me a chance and didn’t make me feel like a foster child with a bad school record. If I was afraid to ask for help, my English and math teachers picked up on it and came over to help me. Because of that, math continued to be one of my favorite subjects.
When I started the new school year that September, I put as much effort in as I could. I only missed about three days that month. My foster mom was proud of me—since she’d known me, this was the most I’d gone to school. It would take a while to get my diploma, but I knew I was making small steps towards it. I felt a balance: Things were great in school and at home.
Then, on October 10th, Sandra suddenly passed away. I knew she was sick, but no one expected her to die.
My life started falling apart again. I stayed with Sandra’s cousin for a few months, but was asked to move out in March. By that time, I had rekindled a toxic relationship with a controlling ex. He discouraged me from going to school so he could have me around all the time.
After we broke up in April, I fell back into depression and dropped out of school. Over the summer I was moved to a foster home in Queens, where I didn’t do much of anything.
In September of last year, I turned 18. The friends I grew up with were going to prom and preparing to graduate. I felt like I was behind in life, last place in a race.
Around that time, I learned some things about my birth mother that helped me forgive her. She also got sober, which helped our relationship. I set better goals for myself. One was to get a job, and I began working at Staples.
Support, Focus, Success
A family friend took me in as a foster child; her support motivated me. This past summer, I enrolled in a GED/TASC study program. The classes were Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Because of the short, convenient classes I was genuinely happy to go to school.
The classes were small, 10 people at most, and some days I was the only one there. The teacher broke down the four main subjects into sections every day. It was intense learning a whole subject in 30 minutes, but easier in a small class.
The other students were older and more serious than high school kids. It felt less like high school, with its cliques and goofing off, and more like a job. I came in, did my work, and left. I had support from my foster care workers, who reminded me that I’m smart and capable, and that helped too.
For the three months of GED/TASC classes, I didn’t go out on the weekends or drink or get high. Instead I studied. When I felt like getting high, I would write poetry, read a book, or listen to music. Doing those things relaxed my mind and helped me continue moving forward.
I took the test and passed all five subjects on the first try. I was ecstatic and proud of myself. My confidence increased and pushed me forward. I’m starting college this fall. I feel less scattered and more focused. My goals are stretching further than before.
I want to become a Certified Nursing Assistant, then carry on my education and become a nurse. Helping people will help me keep moving forward.
Getting Ready to Take the TASC High School Equivalency Test in New York (formerly GED)
An education specialist at a foster care agency told Represent, “I usually recommend high school equivalency programs only for students who are close to being ready to take the GED/TASC test. These programs don’t offer IEP accommodations (for students with learning or other disabilities) and can be a difficult road for someone who needs a lot of instruction.”
He adds, “Students should also know that any passing scores on Regents exams can be used in place of the corresponding TASC section.” (For example, passing your English Regents means you don’t have to take the English part of the TASC.)
The Department of Education offers its Pathways to Graduation high school equivalency program in 90 locations around the city. Some locations include vocational training. Go to p2g.nyc for more info.
The Door runs a high school equivalency program in the Bronx that lots of teens in care have attended. For more information, visit their website.
For older students, adult literacy programs through the New York Public Library can be a good fit.