Names have been changed.
I’ve tried my best to not let anything interfere with school, but my life keeps twisting me away from it.
I was born in Brooklyn, and then my mom moved us to Georgia. She had fallen in love with a guy who lived there and gotten pregnant. After my little sister was born, we all moved back to Harlem. We were homeless for a while, jumping from shelter to shelter in the hopes that we would get an apartment soon. Eventually my sister’s father moved back to Georgia.
I had to change schools often. It was hard to catch up with the other kids because each school moved at a different pace. It didn’t matter if I was doing well or if I liked the school. If we needed to move to a different shelter, I had to switch schools. I never knew why we moved so much or why we lived in shelters. Mommy said it was only temporary, but it seemed to last forever.
I looked forward to going to school. When I was learning, I didn’t worry about where we were going to live next. I saw school as a game. As long as I followed the rules, I knew I would move on to the next level. I was able to make one good friend in each school.
I almost got held back in 4th grade, but I excelled in summer school and was able to pass. I don’t think I would have needed summer school if we weren’t moving around so much.
I went into foster care in Queens when I was 11, in 5th grade. My middle school days were stable because I lived in the same foster home for a few years and didn’t have to move. It felt good to get recognition in school for my good grades.
But other aspects of foster care made school worse. My foster mother gave me worn-out clothing that her daughters were done with. I had never dressed myself before. Mommy had always laid my clothes out and ironed them the night before school. I wasn’t good at color coordinating, so the other kids looked at me funny.
I didn’t get a winter coat, so I had to go to school freezing in a thin jacket. My foster mother only fed us once a day on the weekdays; twice on the weekends. I did after-school programs both to avoid home and for the snacks.
The other foster girls and I had to clean the house and shovel snow in the winter. I never told any adults at school about how bad things were at home: I didn’t think anyone would care.
School was my second home and my escape. The attention I received for my good grades made up for the attention that I wasn’t getting at home, and my two close friends made up, somewhat, for the love and feelings of belonging I was missing.
Once I graduated from middle school I applied to high schools in Queens. After middle school I moved back to Harlem, with my aunt and grandmother. I was in 9th grade and doing well in school—until an incident at home.
Like It Was My Fault
After a few years in prison, my 25-year-old brother came home. He was always getting locked up. We used to write each other letters and I felt a sense of security knowing I had a big brother.
My brother was homeless and didn’t like staying in the men’s shelter, so my grandmother let him sleep on the couch some nights. Like everyone else at home, at first I was happy to have my brother back. But then he started doing things that made me uncomfortable.
When he hugged me, he would place his hands a little too low on my back and squeeze me close. I didn’t like the feeling of my breasts pressed against his chest. No one in my family seemed to notice though.
One night everyone in the house was asleep, and I was watching a movie in my room. He knocked on my bedroom door and asked if he could watch with me.
“Sure, I guess.”
He lay down beside me in my twin bed. I pulled the sheets close to me. When he asked me if he could get under the cover with me I just told him no because I was cold and the sheet I had was thin. “But I’m cold too.” He snuggled up closer to me and laid his head on my breast. I stared at the TV in silence but I wasn’t watching the movie anymore. I felt frozen. Is my brother coming on to me? I was in shock.
“I’m going to sleep so I’m turning the movie off. Can you go back in the living room?”
He got up and left.
I couldn’t sleep. I tried to convince myself that my brother didn’t have sexual feelings towards me. He didn’t mean it. Brothers protect little sisters, they don’t hurt them.
But soon after that, I was in the living room doing my homework when he took his penis out and started jerking off. When I realized what was going on, I immediately got up and knocked on my aunt’s door.
When she didn’t answer, I went into my grandmother’s room and woke her up from her nap.
“Grandma! Rick pulled his pants down and was playing with himself while I was right there!” I blurted out.
“Are you serious?” She didn’t seem alarmed.
She got out of bed and knocked on my aunt’s door. Then we were in the hallway and I told them what my brother had done. They told me not to say anything and to stop wearing short shorts around the house. Like it was my fault.
All they did was tell my brother not to do it again. He listened, but it didn’t stop him from looking at me. It didn’t stop him from getting my first initial tattooed on his face. It was creepy.
He was always in the apartment. My family pushed it aside so I tried to act like it didn’t bother me. But I tried to stay away from him.
Messing With My Mind
I wanted to cry because I didn’t understand why he would do something like that. I cried a lot when I was alone. He ruined the relationship and the love I had for him as my older brother. I hated him, and I hated myself too.
It was difficult paying attention in school after that. When the girls around me talked about sex, I had to think about my brother’s penis.
I don’t know why I was so disgusted with myself. I think it was because I could imagine the things that I knew he wanted to do to me. Those thoughts messed with my mental state. My grades slipped, but I still managed to graduate on time.
After high school I went to a CUNY school for part of a semester. I was unhappy and smoking a lot of weed. It was hard to focus in class so I didn’t even want to go anymore.
I began hallucinating and was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder with Psychotic Features. During my first semester of college I was hospitalized because I was hearing voices. I didn’t receive any credits.
When I was released I had lost interest in college. Sometimes the incident with my brother replayed in my head. I hated him so much.
My self-esteem was very low. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to go to school anymore. I had just been released from a mental ward so I felt like I was messed up anyway. All I wanted to do was smoke. I felt suicidal. A few months after I got out of the hospital, my aunt decided she didn’t want to foster me anymore and she sent me back to the agency.
Back in Foster Care
I didn’t connect with my new foster family. I felt like I was floating through life in a state of depression. I worked here and there at seasonal jobs. I refused to take any medication or see a therapist because I thought that would mean I was crazy.
I got tired of smoking and worried that my mental state was deteriorating. I wanted to get my life together. I started college, this time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), but again, I wasn’t able to focus. My grandmother died that semester, and I struggled with that loss.
When I sat in class taking notes, I would often space out of the lesson and into my thoughts. I got distracted easily and lost interest fast. I felt like I needed to do something more hands-on in order to keep my mind occupied. One day I woke up and decided I didn’t want to go to class. The next day I did the same thing, and the next. I just stopped going.
Then my sister told me about the CNA (certified nursing assistant) program she did, and I signed up. My CNA class is smaller than the college classes I was taking so I get more attention from my teacher. She notices when I space out during note-taking and calls me to attention by throwing out questions. I feel more engaged than I did at either college. I like that all my classmates are girls.
It’s hard for me to be around men sometimes because of what my brother did. College was hard for me because I didn’t like when guys checked me out. I get nervous in big crowds and feel like anything bad can happen to me.
Easing My Way Back Into School
I’m on medication now. That helps. I accept that there is actually something wrong with me and I want to get better. My doctor and I worked out a good dosage, and now I don’t hallucinate or hear any voices. I don’t feel so down all the time like I used to either.
Now that I am taking CNA classes, I plan to further my career in the medical field by becoming a registered nurse. To do that, I’ll have to go back to college. I feel like I’ve been building up my confidence for that in CNA school.
I want to go to a college upstate where I could live on campus. It’s not too far from the city, so if I ever feel homesick I’ll be only two hours away. I think living on campus would help me keep my focus.
Ever since I was a kid, there have been obstacles interfering with my education—constant moving, homelessness, foster care, sexual abuse, mental illness. After my hospitalization during college, I felt like school wasn’t worth it anymore—until I started to miss school and wanted to get back on track. I think easing back into college via the CNA classes will help me muster the focus and persistence I need to get my nursing degree.
Teachers and Staff: What Youth Might Not Tell You
This writer, like most young people, wants to do well in school. Her story details behaviors or symptoms that warrant gentle, caring questions and extra attention.
- Switching schools often. If a student shows up partway through the school year, take the time to welcome her and get her caught up with schoolwork.
- Inappropriately dressed. This writer came to school underfed and in a thin coat all winter and assumed “nobody would care.” Ask a child who seems underdressed and/or hungry what’s going on at home. If they’re in care, ask to connect with their worker.
- Inability to focus. This could be ADHD, but it could also be trauma. Connect a child who’s spacing out in class to the school counselor. If possible, notice the signs, like the CNA teacher did, and come up with strategies to help the young person regain focus.
- Nervousness in crowds. In this writer’s case, that stemmed directly from her brother’s sexual abuse. She did better in smaller classes and girls-only environments.
- Repeated failure to pass. Perhaps a student can regain her confidence and focus, as this writer did, in a more “hands-on” training program. It’s important to let struggling students know that (a) people can go to college at any age and (b) college is not the only path to a job you like.