This time it wasn’t my fault.
On the last day of June, I was leaving the Johnson house hold and
headed to my thirteenth placement. This day I had dreaded for so
long. Standing by the front door, baggage by my side, I faced my
foster parents, playing my best tough-girl role.
“Y’all don’t have to wait outside with me,” I said.
“Are you sure?” asked Lynn, her light- skinned face red from
crying. “Yeah, I’m good,” I lied.
Lynn reached out and hugged me so tight I almost lost my breath.
Ted hugged me, too, then hastily let go. I could tell he wanted to cry
just as bad as me. His hair was so much grayer than I remembered.
Usually jolly as can be, he now looked plain old miserable.
I quickly looked away from Ted. No need to prolong this sad scene.
I had rehearsed an unemotional departure in my mind for an entire
week. Just needed to say my good-byes and be done with it. “Well,
guess I better go,” I finally said.
Wearing a fake smile, I flashed them the peace sign, swung open the front door, and stepped outside into the late- afternoon air. As soon as I closed the door, my smile instantly faded, and my heart sank inside my chest like a torpedoed battleship. I felt so defeated, so alone.
As I struggled down the porch steps with my enormous red suitcase
on wheels and two black duffel bags hanging from each shoulder,
a rusty blue van pulled up to the curb. “Hello there, young lady,”
the baldheaded driver called out his window. He received a polite nod instead of hello. I was in no mood for chitchat and he looked like the chitchatty type. He opened his door,
about to hop out and help me with my bags. I stopped him cold flat
with an outstretched hand. “No thanks,” I said, “I got this.”
I heaved my bags onto the backseat, climbed inside the van, fastened
my seat belt, and stared dead ahead. Didn’t dare look back at
the Johnsons’ house, just in case they had snuck outside to watch me
go away. Listen, the sight of my foster parents standing on the stoop
waving good- bye would only make my situation sadder, harder. Harder
for me to build up my guts in order to face the drama sure to follow.
Never thought I’d have to see the inside of a group home ever again.
Well, never say never. The Old Kate was supposed to be dead; stomping
out chicks in my distant past. But now, there was a good chance
I’d have to bring her back to life.
“Nice day outside, isn’t it?” asked the driver.
I put my mouth on mute.
“Weatherman threatened rain,” he continued, “but look how sunny
it is outside . . . that’s why you can’t believe everything you hear.
Gotta go by what you see.”
Hoping this dude would get a clue and be quiet, I turned my head
away from him, and silently stared out of the window at the sundrenched
streets and people bustling about. “We’re headed to the
boondocks,” the driver said with a chuckle. “Hope we don’t get lost.
Do you know your way around Brooklyn?”
I shrugged and continued staring out of the window. I wasn’t trying
to be rude to the guy, but I just couldn’t muster up the strength
to make fake conversation. Luckily, he finally took the hint and
zipped his lips.
The driver smelled like a cheeseburger; I rolled the window all
the way down. Warm summer air blew on my face, but I felt so cold
and empty inside. The farther we got from Bed-Stuy, the emptier I
As the van rumbled down Ocean Parkway, I took in my surroundings,
bland as white bread with no butter. All I saw were tall trees and short houses and barely a soul hanging around town. When we turned off the parkway and headed down a side street, I realized we were getting closer to my dreadful destination. My eyes watered up
against my will. Tears began to flow down my face. I furiously swiped
at my eyes.
Keep it gangster, Kate.
We’re almost there.
Oh, best believe, crying was not an option. Boohooing in front of
my new house mates would only bring on their bullying faster. They’d
take me for a silly punk and test me till I flunked. I should know. I
wrote the script on this. And as I stood in a huge shabby living room being given the
stink- eye by five hard- looking chicks, I realized the script was now
flipped. What goes around comes right back, and like a backhanded
slap, I was it. Three girls were huddled on a sagging plum- colored
couch. Two sat on the floor, eyeballing me nonstop. I felt like a
juicy steak they couldn’t wait to tear up. When Mrs. Cooper, the
ancient group home supervisor, pushed me forward to introduce,
nobody cracked a smile. Mrs. Cooper patted my hand. “Kate, I promise you’re really going to like it here.” Me, like it here? Please, picture that. My spirits plunged with the
evening sun as I took in my surroundings: grim green paint covered
the living room walls, cigarette- burned brown carpet covered the
floor, and the smell of dirty feet and corn chips swirled up my nose. I’m
saying, the Johnsons didn’t live in a mansion, but at least they kept
their home clean and funk free. This home, way out in Gravesend,
Brooklyn, was not the place to be. I was already plotting an escape
in my head. . . . Straight up fantasy though, because I had no place
to go. No family to speak of. No power to make my own moves. As a
ward of the state, the system has me yoked up by the throat until I
turn eighteen. Mrs. Cooper smoothed down her gray crooked Afro with her
bony, wrinkled hands and said, “Now for the rules.”
I followed her out of the living room. She walked with her body
bent low, slow as a turtle. Behind my back, I heard one of the girls
say, “Dang, her cornbraids is mad fuzzy!” Wow, clowning me already,
I thought. Mrs. Cooper had either heard the diss and pretended not to, or
she was plain old hard of hearing. Whatever the case, her frail little
self probably couldn’t discipline a fly.
“Yo, peep her dusty wardrobe,” another girl piped in. Then they
busted out laughing louder than necessary.
See? The dumbness was really going down. But I swallowed a nasty
comeback and kept my dusty butt moving. Who cared that I was
rocking a faded black T-shirt, and busted blue jean shorts? Worrying
about my gear was so last year. No reason for me to pop off on these
broads to gain respect. Been there, done that. Got me nowhere.
I had bigger and better things to worry about. Had to get on my
grind before it’s too late. In two more years, I had to be collegebound.
Four years after that, I had to be on point— or be homeless.
Basically, at age eighteen, you have the choice to stay in foster care
or get out. But by age twenty- one, the only choice is to let the door
hit you where the sun don’t shine.
The system is dead serious like that. You could be living in foster
care one minute, and in a cardboard box the next. My old roommate,
Roberta, proved this simple fact. Last year I had bumped into
her while she was begging on the number 3 train. The saddest sight
I’d ever seen: Roberta was ashy and embarrassed, but trying hard to
play it off. I tried to play it off, too; meanwhile a lump stayed stuck in
my throat. I was staring at my own future if I didn’t get it together.
So, like I said, bump these silly broads. I had to stay focused on what
Mrs. Cooper stopped short in front of a giant white poster hanging
on the wall. Rules numbered one through ten were written in
gigantic red letters. The rules that stuck out the most involved fifteen minute
phone calls, a crazy early ten o’clock curfew, and no boys calling
the crib until you’re sixteen years old. Well, I had a month and
some change before I could think about a boy calling me.
Then again, I had no boyfriend to think of. Couldn’t seem to
meet any boys worth my time. All they did was holler at my big butt
instead of trying to make love to my mind. Real talk, it was downright
hopeless for me in the romance department. I’m saying, could a
girl get some love, please? My last kiss had happened last year with a
two- timing chump named Charles, who had taken my kindness for
weakness, and played me for a fool. So if it wasn’t love kicking my
behind, it was foster care kicking me to my next location. I couldn’t
help but wonder if my life would ever change for the better.
“Any questions?” asked Mrs. Cooper, jolting me back to the present.
She ran a long bony finger down each rule, to make sure I understood
each and every one.
But all I wanted to ask was: “Why am I here? Why can’t I ever
live a normal freaking teenage life? Why was I ripped away from the
first foster parents I could ever truly call Mom and Dad? It made no
sense to me. I finally had a family to call my own, and then all of a
sudden, I had to leave them? Just like that?
Everything had happened so fast. On a cloudy April afternoon
we got the sad news: Ted’s father was deathly sick in South Carolina.
One month later, the Johnsons’ roof literally fell apart. Next thing
I know, the Johnsons are moving down South at the end of June.
The only upside of this: I found out Ted and Lynn actually wanted
to adopt me; it was the first time in my life a family actually wanted
to keep me.
Unfortunately, the Johnsons were so broke they couldn’t afford
to pay attention. With all of their backed- up bills and family complications,
no amount of pleas or paperwork could convince the state
that relocating down South would be a stable move for me. It was
decided that I had been through enough disruption in my life already.
Bottom line: I had to stay in New York without my family.
I remember the discussion about my future like it was yesterday. I
was sitting on the living room couch flanked by Ted and Lynn, with
attitude written all over my face. Tisha, my former (and best ever)
social worker, was busy trying to convince me that this move was for
the best. But all I could do was stare at the floor, my arms folded
tightly across my chest.
“You have a ton of resources while in the system,” Tisha explained,
as worry lines creased her entire forehead. She could tell I was tight.
“Yeah, okay,” I muttered. “Tons of resources.”
“And staying in the system will help you get money for college—”
“Man, listen,” I interrupted, “staying in the system is helping me
go insane. . . . I’m tired of this moving- around mess.”
“Trust me, I understand,” said Tisha.
I knew she meant well, but her understanding didn’t help my situation.
I shook my head in disgust, feeling hopeless, helpless. “I swear
I can’t take this anymore,” I said.
“What do you mean, you can’t take this anymore?” Ted suddenly
piped in. “You’re a survivor, missy. This world can’t stop my Kate!”
Ted and his silly self. He was only trying to make me feel better,
even though it wasn’t working. Lynn, the more serious one, simply
said, “We’re always going to be your family, Kate. Always remember
Comforting words at the time.
But right about now?
I was feeling mad uncomfortable, left to deal with group home
staff instead of family. There would be no hugs here. No jokes. No love.
Somehow, getting kicked out of people’s homes was much easier
than growing attached to them. I had only known the Johnsons for
a year and a half, but it felt like I had known them my whole entire
life . . . and now, poof, they were gone. Just like that.
“Kate, you seem so far away,” said Mrs. Cooper, bringing me back
to the present.
By now my tears were welling up again. But I quickly dammed up
“Are you sure you have no questions for me, sweetheart?” she
asked, staring at me with what looked like pity in her eyes.
I shook my head no, but wanted to scream, “Please, leave me
alone already!” I had no freaking questions. Everything was crystal
clear. Ready or not, I had to serve my time at the Common Grounds
group home. Keep my head up. Control my temper. Make it out of
this hell hole alive.
Copyright © 2012 by Dream Jordan