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If You Want Me To Listen to You, Listen to Me
Robert Velasquez

My mother left me and my dad when I was 2, and I lived with my grandmother from age 2 to 7. At 7, my father grew tired of paying child support to my grandmother and applied for custody of me. Before he could take me, we had weekend visits for a year, and those were good. But then I moved in with him, and everything changed.

He was an upset man because my mother left him and he loved her. He took his hurt and frustration out on my sister and me. For minor things, he would punish us by making us face the wall with our arms held up for hours. He made us kneel on rice. I was scared to tell anyone about his abuse: He once choked me as he threatened me not to tell Child Protective Services (CPS) what was going on.

When I was 12, I swung back, and we had a fist fight. My father called the cops and then signed me into foster care. I was assigned to Pleasantville, a Diagnostic Residential Center (DRC). My first night, I was taken to the small office of a high-ranking staff member, Edward, or Mr. E.—the man who was going to be my mentor.

Fitting In

“How old are you?” Mr. E. asked.

“I’m 12,” I replied with a nasty attitude.

“My son is that age, too,” he said with a warm smile.

“But I bet your son is with his mother in his own home,” I thought to myself. I was escorted to my room. It was small and had one window facing the forest we were in. I called it the Green Leaf Hotel. I was then sent to shower and sleep. I cried that first night, thinking I didn’t like living with my father, but it was awful having no one.

The next morning, I saw the kids from my cottage playing basketball outside. They were good. I was better, I told myself; then again, every kid claimed to be the best in the cottage.

“Yo bro, 3 on 3?” asked Rasheem, a skinny, tall, black boy. We were the two tallest in the cottage. My team won, 21-20. “Good game, bro,” Rasheem said and gave me a high five. “Good looks,” I said with exhaustion.

I spent five months in the cottage with Rasheem and many other new friends. I began to actually blend in with my peers and feel normal. But during that time, they all returned to their families while I stayed in the DRC. Mr. E. kept saying that soon I’d be going home too.

As my 13th birthday approached, I was sent to a new cottage for older boys. I was a little nervous. My new roommate Malik was a tough kid who everyone respected. He had nice clothes, nice belts, and fresh sneakers. He dated one of the prettiest girls on the campus, and he fought staff, which made the other kids respect him. “Rule number one: Don’t touch my stuff and we cool,’’ he said.

“Copy,” I replied. Malik left a couple months after I came, but I learned a lot from him. He took me under his wing and taught me about girls and how to dress. He often gave me clothes because I didn’t have many. I felt I was being treated with respect and consideration.

Many of the kids at Pleasantville were rebellious and loud, including Malik. I became that way too. I was trying to fit in with my peers, but I also enjoyed using my voice. Since I was little, my father told me what to do and here was my chance to say what I wanted when I wanted.

Sick of Rules

I’d been in Pleasantville six months when I got a phone call from my mother—a woman I don’t even remember because she abandoned me when I was 2. She said in an annoyed voice, “Taino, stop messing around. Behave yourself.”

“Whatever,” I said in a disrespectful tone. She had no right to tell me what to do. Greg, a big bald-headed staff member with a beard, overheard the phone call and told me I was being disrespectful.

“I don’t care if she gave you up for adoption. That’s still your mother; you respect her,” said Greg.

Who was he to tell me how to speak to a woman who’s never been there for me? He didn’t know my situation with her. “Hell no! You bugging out, B,” I snapped back.

I was walking away, but he grabbed my arm and told me to stand still. I pushed him off and he grabbed me and tried to lift me in the air, but I wouldn’t budge. He called for more staff, and three more men came and pushed me onto the ground, then bent my arm back until I calmed down. When I got up, I cursed Greg out and was put on restriction.

What enraged me was Greg telling me what to do without listening to my side. It was the same thing my father did, shutting me down by punishing me. When I did finally stand up to my father, he kicked me out and sent me to Pleasantville. I felt like there was nothing I could do to be heard.

I developed an anger problem with authority or anyone who tried to control me. I didn’t want to listen to anybody. I hated my father’s rules, and I didn’t want to comply with anybody else’s. I wanted to be my own man. I felt nobody should try to tell me how to live my life, especially if they weren’t listening to what I wanted.

I lost all faith in God. I had gone to church as a kid with my grandma till my dad took me away from her. She used to talk to me about God. Her faith became mine, not because she forced me but because I wanted to be the kind of person she was. My grandmother is a loving and gentle-hearted person. She was on top of me for school and for my doctor’s appointments. She taught me how to respect an adult. She did my hair. I felt like her son and not just her grandson.

Losing Everyone

In Pleasantville, I missed my grandma. I fell into a depression. I didn’t eat for about a week and staff was concerned. I was sick all the time and stayed in bed. In school I slept through the day. Soon I was put on medication.

image by YC-Art Dept

The medication didn’t help. I still felt depressed and was even more depressed that I had to take medication. The only person I could talk to was Mr. E. He invested time in me. He gave me advice about how to stay out of trouble and stay true to myself.

One day he said, “You need to wake up and smell the roses, Robert. Life is hard for everyone. Some people don’t even have a bed to sleep in right now.” I wanted to listen to him because he did cool stuff: He took me for my haircuts, drilled me in basketball plays, and pushed me to take better care of myself.

That was the last conversation I had with him. He slipped on ice and hit his head and died. I was devastated.

And I kept thinking back to what he said: He was right. I had a bed to sleep in and food on my plate. I needed to be more grateful. I realized life is too short to keep being depressed. I decided to get active and began to play basketball.

Still, I went from being just sad to being nervous about my future and where I was going to live. I had already lived in Pleasantville longer than any other kid. My stay was supposed to be for three to six months, and I was coming up on a year.

Not long after Mr. E died, my father told me he would not let me return home. He said it over the phone—he couldn’t even deliver the news in person. I knew then it was me against the world.

The staff at Pleasantville started taking me to interviews with foster parents. I declined them all because I couldn’t accept being in foster care with strangers. Once they tried to trick me into going to a home in Queens by threatening me with not seeing my grandmother, but I called my lawyer and they backed down.

I had been separated from my grandmother by my father, her own son. Somehow, though, my mother actually used her parental rights to grant my grandmother custody of me. I still don’t understand how that happened, but it finally did, after I’d been in Pleasantville a whole year and lost hope in my family. Just as I was going to make a huge mistake of going to a foster home, my grandmother took me back into her loving home.

A Better Life for Myself

Returning home to my true mother, my grandmother, has changed me a lot. We have conflicts, but I’ve gone from being loud and disrespectful to more settled down. My grandmother is clear about consequences for my actions.

She asks me how school was when I come home, and she sits with me at the dinner table to check up on my eating habits. When I’m sick she’s there to feed me and take care of me. I feel loved and respected by her. I can’t pay her back for what she has done for me. But I can do what she wants me to do, which is make a better life for myself than my father was making for me.

I turned 16 five months ago. I knew my mother wouldn’t call, and my father didn’t either.

My grandmother and I had a lot of tension between us at the time. I came in half an hour late, and I was worried she’d be mad. I went to my room and three minutes later, she walked in with a cake and $100.

Another thing that’s helped me is my therapist, Amy; she helps me explore and understand my past. I’ve been seeing her for three years, and I only recently told her about the things my father did to me. She’s the first person I ever told. I used to think that I deserved his “punishment,” but in actuality it was cruel and unfair. I don’t like thinking of myself as a victim, but my father abused me. I understand that now.

I didn’t become a dropout or a drug dealer. I’m struggling in school, but I will get that diploma. My foster care agency and I have set a goal of independent living that will start at 18, though I can stay with my grandmother after that until I move out to college or my own apartment. I won the $1,000 grand prize in a writing contest for youth in care. I’m writing for Represent magazine, which lets me tell my story. Now that I’m home with my foster agency covering me, I have so many opportunities, such as going to college for free.

That year in Pleasantville was my year of growing up and facing the world. I started to speak up about how I wanted my life to be. Since Pleasantville, I don’t allow anyone to oppress me, and, with the support of my grandmother and Amy and others, my future is looking more successful than I used to think possible. I’m still not sure what I want to do; I’m only 16, but I might go to college and study psychology. I want to overcome my past and make something of myself.

Learning From the Writer

Foster parents and staff: Look at what Robert repeatedly asks for in these quotes from the story:

“All my life my father told me what to do and here was my chance to say what I wanted.”

“What enraged me was Greg telling me what to do without listening to my side.”

“The only person I could talk to was Mr. E. He invested time in me.”

“My grandmother asks me how school was when I come home.”

“My therapist, Amy, helps me explore and understand my past.”

“I’m writing for Represent magazine, which lets me tell my story.”

“That year in Pleasantville was my year of growing up and facing the world. I started to speak up about how I wanted my life to be.”

One of the best things you can do for youth in foster care is LISTEN. It doesn’t cost money, anybody can do it, it is incredibly healing, and you will find out how to better care for the foster youth in your life.

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