FCYU129 cover image See all stories from issue #129, Summer 2017

Peaceful Warrior

From an early age, I fought a lot. Fighting seemed like the only way for me to get justice.

If I did something my mother didn’t agree with at school, I’d get a beating from her. I never really understood what I did wrong.

When I was 12, and then again when I was 13, my mom got pregnant by her boyfriend. I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me. He told my mom that I was lazy and disrespectful and added, “If you had beaten her more often, she’d do as she was told.” The way he spoke about me made me feel like something was wrong with me, that I was bad and beyond fixing.

After my mother had their second child, I had to babysit more often. I was jealous of other kids my age who went straight home after school to watch TV until their mom got dinner ready. I had to pick up my brother and sister from daycare and then have dinner ready before my mom and her boyfriend got home.

None of this seemed fair. And so in middle school, I started hitting my mother back, mostly punching and hair pulling. I realized how much anger I felt at being abused and treated unfairly. A comment would lead to one of us raising our voice, and she’d usually hit first. I didn’t like fighting her. I thought there was a certain level of respect people were supposed to have for their mothers that I just didn’t feel.

I was angry that I had no control over my life. I didn’t like the way my mom’s boyfriend treated my mother and siblings (his children)—or me. My mother said that my contribution to the house was helping out, and his contribution was the light bill, but we sat in the dark for much of that winter. I started spending more and more nights away from home, and my mother seemed to accept that arrangement.

I spent more time by myself. Even around others I tended not to talk much. I didn’t see the point in getting to know people when it so often ended in an argument.

Anger and Violence

At school, I would often get into verbal arguments and sometimes fights, even when I didn’t want to. Once, I didn’t hold the subway door for a group of girls I didn’t know, and they challenged me to fight all of them. I didn’t want to lose face, so I agreed. It was six against one and I got beaten up badly.

When I was 15, my mom and I got into a fight that woke up the neighbors at 2 a.m. The police were called and I was removed from the home and taken to the Child Protective Services (CPS) building in Manhattan. I didn’t even know what was happening until I was dropped off at a foster home three days later, after midnight. I learned later I was called a runaway, even though my mother didn’t mind my sleeping elsewhere.

The foster home had two bunk beds in one room for either four or five girls. The fifth girl slept on the wider bottom bunk with another girl. There were storage bins for each of us and a computer that didn’t work. Whoever had the most clothes would get extra drawers in a bureau.

The foster mother seemed mean and angry. She tried to control us, but didn’t have the time or energy to make sure that we were OK. After the first couple days there, a girl who had been AWOL since before my arrival returned, pregnant. The foster mother dragged her into the bathroom and beat her. When I asked my foster sister why the beating, she explained that our foster mother had adopted the girl, so it was OK.

At first, my rebellion against the unfairness of foster care was to AWOL, not to fight. Sometimes I’d AWOL just to cook at my mother’s house, something I couldn’t do in the foster home. Late in the summer, I AWOLed to get clothes from my old room because my foster mother and my social workers wouldn’t buy me clothes for school.

My caseworkers told me if I kept AWOLing I’d be sent to a group home. I was angry because I was taking care of myself when I was AWOLing—and nobody else was taking care of me. All the energy they used warning me about ending up in a group home could have been used to actually help me, for example, by helping me get my clothes or buying me new ones.

During the first couple of months in the foster home, I also dealt with the unfairness by writing, using the yellow legal pad I was given at the CPS building. I tried to keep the writing more about my feelings rather than about people in the house, in case anyone found it. I avoided everyone at school so that I wouldn’t have to answer questions about my living situation. I felt like my options were either fighting or keeping to myself.

The iPod

The last fight I ever had was in the foster home.

Because there were metal detectors at my school, I kept my iPod in my pillowcase. There was a new girl in the house, and I’d heard she had sticky fingers. She was strange, around my age, and seven or eight months pregnant.

image by YC-Art Dept

When I got home from school one afternoon, my iPod was gone. So someone had not only gone through my stuff, but had been in my bed, which infuriated me. In that room full of girls, my top bunk was one of the few things that seemed to be really mine. I felt like my privacy had been violated.

The pregnant girl got home late, and acted even stranger than usual. I knew she was the only one who’d been in the room after I left for school. I told her that my iPod was missing and asked her if she took it. She replied, “So what would happen if I did?”

I told my foster mother, and that night, she came to our room and told all the girls that the iPod had better reappear. The next day, I visited my agency, as I regularly did, and told my caseworker, “The new girl stole my stuff.” I felt someone had to leave, and it shouldn’t be me.

My caseworker said that moving someone was out of the question and asked how I even knew who took it. Clearly, nobody was going to do anything. I was alone.

The next day the pregnant girl approached me and explained that she was looking into ways to get an iPod for me—but still wouldn’t admit her guilt. Tensions in the house grew, and so did my anger toward the new girl. It became this sort of game, where she’d tease me that my stuff was gone. She even taunted me that there was absolutely nothing that I could do about it because I couldn’t hit her: She was pregnant.

The third night after the iPod disappeared, she began her teasing again, reminding me that my iPod was gone. I became enraged and convinced myself that hitting her would comfort me and serve justice. I climbed up to her bunk and threw myself on top of her. I sat in her lap, under her bulge, and punched her, mostly in the face. I punched and choked and screamed and rattled the bars of the bunk bed.

She just lay there and took it. She didn’t even cover her face at first. The other girls called my foster mother in, who stood there for a while, I guess in shock, until she yelled at me to get off of her.

My foster mother began yelling that I was ignorant and crazy and bound to get arrested. I didn’t argue with her. I stood there and cried silently. She kept shaking her head and saying that I was stupid and that I’d go to jail.

The girl was taken to a doctor the next day by her caseworker. The baby was OK. She was removed from the home soon after, to give birth.

From Guilt to Calm

After my initial reaction of annoyance, I began to feel more guilt. I moped around waiting for the day that I’d be arrested for attacking a pregnant woman. The day never came, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the fight and the events leading up to it. I was still angry, but my feelings shifted from anger about the theft, to concern that not much was done, even after the fight. I actually wanted justice to be done to ME at this point—I’d hit a pregnant girl! And it’s not like I got my iPod back.

I spent hours agonizing about this fight. I realized I needed to change because fighting didn’t solve any of my problems. I didn’t want to fight anymore because I’d be the one to suffer by ending up arrested and knowing that I’ve hurt someone else.

Soon after the iPod fight, I went back to living with my mother, which meant living with the same anger and frustration with unfairness as before. Our relationship was in the same condition as when I first entered care. Even though we both tried to keep things calm, we’d still end up in verbal arguments. The foster care agency recommended that she go to therapy and parenting classes, but because nobody enforced those recommendations, she ignored them. Soon my mother was back to having me do her child care and housework, and I felt the same hopelessness and anger.

Still, I was determined to stick to my resolution to change. While in care, I’d discovered yoga, when an instructor came to the CPS building. I felt much calmer after the class. I had heard of yoga, but actually practicing it was totally different from what I’d expected. I feel like a better person with yoga; it helps me calm myself and let go of grudges. The anxiety and anger that led to arguments didn’t happen as often.

Going to yoga and doing other physical activities like running to calm myself down has helped me to control my feelings in general. If something’s happening that seems unfair, I try to analyze the situation and see if there’s a way for me to solve things without escalating.

When I’m at work and customers start to get aggressive, I speak to them in a calm voice and let them know that I understand, but that being angry isn’t going to solve things. It feels easier and safer to voice my opinion and defend myself by speaking about my feelings. I try not to let things build up. I got a good therapist and that helped a lot with all of this.

Most helpful of all, I now live alone. I started college, and I have my own dorm room now, so I’m not at the mercy of my mother, foster mother, or anyone else. I spend a lot of time alone instead of around people I can’t control—or who try to control me. I’ve learned how to deal with injustice in a more calm way, but I also have less of a reason to fight. A college dorm room has given me the peace that wasn’t there in my mom’s house or in foster care.

Since writing this story, the author graduated from college and is getting a master’s degree in urban policy and leadership. She works as an operations associate at a school.