The first spring I had T, I panicked. I wanted to foster a school-aged child because, as a single woman who works full time, I needed a kid who was occupied during the day. But with summer looming and school-free days quickly approaching—I wasn’t sure what to do.
I searched for daycare providers and started making phone calls on my lunch breaks. I left some messages, but none of them called me back. The small handful I did get a hold of told me not to bother applying once they heard a brief synopsis of T’s behaviors. I was discouraged as I crossed name after name off my list.
Eventually, a friend offered to help make some calls during the day, and she had success with one provider. I followed up, went in for a visit, and that place has been T’s home for the past two summers.
Looking back, it’s been an amazing experience for both of us, but at the beginning, I didn’t know what to expect. They said they believed each child was unique and that they provided individualized care, but what did that really mean? What would happen the first time he lashed out or broke down? He’d been suspended from school, kicked out of an after-school program, and asked to leave a weekend respite group designed specifically for kids with needs like his. How would he last all day, every day in a place that had no obligation to let him come back?
I dreaded picking T up. I knew I would hear a report of his day, and I was fearful that today would be the day they told me he’d crossed some kind of final line. That he wouldn’t be able to return. But it never happened.
Dropping F-bombs in front of the other kids and screaming endlessly? “Our friend, T, had a rough day,” they would say. “But we know he’s capable of turning it around!”
Hitting kids with sticks or biting teachers? “T, had a few bumps today.”
Peeing all over the bathroom and saturating rolls of toilet paper with urine? “Our friend had to do a little cleanup today. He wasn’t happy about it, but he eventually got it done and moved on to end the day so well!”
Jumping the fence in a fit of rage or running into the road to try to escape? “We needed to take a time out today because of some bad choices, but we’re so proud of T for calming down.”
Kicking the pastor of the sponsoring church and calling him a motherfucker? “Tomorrow’s a new day, friend!”
I was consistently shocked and impressed and humbled by the staff who showed up and loved T well. They knew T was smart and capable, and they chose to see that in him day after day after day. Swearing and hitting and destroying things didn’t define him. He was their friend, and he was welcomed.
When he went back this summer, my anxiety had dissipated. I no longer worried that he might get kicked out—that they might decide his words or his actions were too much. I trusted them. Plus, T was a year older. His behaviors were all still present, but he had also grown and matured.
Then, on T’s first day back, he kicked a woman who is part of the intergenerational center—the kids interact with the elderly people who are also receiving care during the day. And while I wasn’t worried he wouldn’t be able to return, this was a new line to cross, even for him.
“Dude!” Who kicks an old lady? She’s an old lady! What is your deal?” I wondered aloud on our ride home.
“Well! Amy! She broke my puzzle!”
“Did she do it on purpose?”
“No. It was an accident. She said she was sorry. But, Amy! I didn’t think she was really sorry, even though she said that. She didn’t actually act sorry. So I was mad. And I screamed and I kicked her!”
I didn’t even know what to say to that. So we pulled some weeds as a consequence and put the incident behind us and moved on with our summer. Then, over time, I started hearing stories about Judy. “Judy loves hugs!” T would say. “And sometimes I hold her hand.”
One day he randomly declared: “Amy, Judy really like my jokes. I’m really good at making her laugh.”
I eventually pieced T’s comments together. Judy was the woman he had kicked back on the first day. T got over the puzzle incident, and Judy clearly didn’t hold a grudge.
“Hey, Amy: did you know Judy’s favorite color is pink? She really loves her family. She loves talking about them. We made flower arrangements today. Judy is my favorite old person. Well, I have two favorite old people, but she is one of them.”
The chaos of life with T often leaves me woefully negligent in marking moments. We rush from one appointment to the next and work through one break down after another. I don’t always make space to celebrate growth and change and glimpses of grace. But as summer winds down, I always make sure to ask about Judy—to try to appreciate that T made a genuine friend, and he cares about her. And to try to remember that just as quickly as a broken puzzle can become a distant memory, T is growing up. Even when I’m tired and overwhelmed, the scared 7-year-old who walked through my door nearly two years ago is becoming more confident and strong.