I cried the first time I got a B+ on a test in college. I was 18, and I was plagued by a perfectionism I didn’t yet understand. It didn’t matter that it was an advanced biology class or that it was my first test and not my final grade, my frantic need to prove myself meant a B+ felt like failing. So, I called my mom sobbing.

Fast-forward 20 years and I found myself sitting at my dining room table weeping about another grade, but this time it was P’s.

Her geometry teacher emailed me to say she had a 57.9 in his class, which, he explained, was an E. I was reading that email at the end of a challenging week, thinking about the mountain of obstacles in front of us, and I was helpless to stop the tears. But, this time, I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was crying because my pride felt all-consuming.

I was crying because a 57.9 was an E, which was an improvement over the E- from the week before.

I was crying because a 57.9 was 20 points higher than her grade at the beginning of the semester.

I was crying because a 57.9 is “…almost not failing!” according to her teacher, who was also thrilled with her hard work and progress.

And I was crying because I was in awe of this kid who walked into the 11th grade having had no formal math instruction in at least four years but who refused to be defined by her circumstances.

It was the kind of moment that makes this path more than worth it.

We celebrated that night because P chose to step outside of her comfort zone. She chose to push herself to improve. She decided to do her best to overcome something that felt impossible. And here’s the thing: I will celebrate that stuff every time. Every. Single. Time.

But what’s also true is that the rest of the world still just sees an E. And whether it’s about capacity or intelligence or motivation—we tend to make assumptions about things like Es; we assume we know what an E means.

Unfortunately for kids like P, those assumptions often lead to even more barriers. I can throw the full weight of my privilege into advocating for her, but I still have to accept that, in a lot of ways, life will be harder because of what people assume about who she is and what she can do.

I see it happen all the time. I’ve seen caseworkers make poor recommendations to the court because they assume P can’t finish high school. I’ve watched her feel defeated by comments from teachers who assume that, because she’s a teen mom, she’ll have another child at a young age. And I’m aware of it every time people—from total strangers to close coworkers—assume they know how my kid’s story will end because of where she comes from.

It breaks my heart, but after almost seven years as a foster parent, I’ve started to get used to both the assumptions people make and the impact they have on my kids.

What I haven’t gotten used to are the moments I make assumptions, too.

It happened most recently when P called me from school. I was between meetings, and, when I answered the phone, she outlined the issue. The details of the situation are complex (though not overly serious) so I got right to the point: did she need me to come get her? She insisted she didn’t, so I rephrased the question. She said she was fine. When I offered to help a third time and she still refused, I asked to talk to the staff member who was with her. They confirmed they were comfortable with whatever P decided. She got back on the line, and I asked her to update me within the hour. She said she would check in soon.

I hung up and called my friend, annoyed.

“She won’t just say what she needs,” I complained. “I guarantee she wants me to pick her up. We’ve been through this so many times; she knows how much easier it is when she communicates directly. I usually know how to help, but I can’t read her mind. I wish she would be up front.”

As I ranted, my friend listened. But, eventually, he interrupted. “Maybe,” he suggested, “she communicated perfectly. Because maybe,” he continued, “she did the one thing she knows how to do when she feels like she’s in a crisis: she called you and told you about it. She did what she could. You have to meet her where she’s at.”

She did what she could. She absolutely did what she could.

She has never had a secure relationship with a parent. A year of building trust didn’t undo a lifetime of adults who never showed up. I know that. Obviously, I know that. But, for whatever reason, in that moment I assumed she was able to access a different part of her brain and was just choosing not to. I assumed she was choosing to be passive or indirect.  

I hung up the phone, canceled my next meeting, and drove to P’s school to get her. Because, despite my assumptions, she wasn’t being difficult. She was asking for help in the only way she knew how while still trying to protect herself. And both those things take courage.

When I got to her school, I thanked P for trusting me enough to call. She thanked me for picking her up. And as I continue to work on being okay with imperfection—as a parent and otherwise—this kid is making me better. She’s brave and she’s resilient and she is choosing to slowly let go of her assumption that she has to do it all on her own. It inspires me to keep choosing to hold lightly to the things I assume, too.

3 thoughts on “You Know What They Say About Assumptions

  1. Well written. All of your blogs are. They also have messages all of us readers can learn from so keep publishing. Someday, all your blogs should be published in a book!!! Proceeds to help kids in foster care. Thanks for sharing.


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