Chosen Sisters

sister picWe’ve been meeting for our regular sister dates since we first met right after college. At the time, we would go to Olive Garden as our “fancy” restaurant when we found ourselves with a little extra cash and we could suddenly spring for something other than cheap Chinese.  We still find ourselves at Olive Garden every once in a while, but now it serves more as our comfort food; the place we go to remember to hold onto our idealism and cherish our friendship in the midst of the chaos around us.  

We met for one of our monthly sister dates.  Her affect was somber when she sat down, I’m sure my face reflected the same.   The shooting had just happened and the city was just starting with rumblings of divisive action.  I wanted to say something; to see how she was doing.  I started with a stuttering, uncertain “should we talk about it,” rejoicing in the fact that in difficult times we can speak with incomplete phrases and thoughts. Her eyes were glassed over and she responded with a barely audible whisper of “I can’t.”

Our friendship has been marked with racial tensions and we always walk through them together. I knew we would this one, as well, but as we sat across the table with each other on this night, we just couldn’t.  She was struggling with school, balancing relationships, and the high demands of being in social services.  I was struggling as I had just come back from learning a kid I had worked with in the past had just been stabbed to death.  Although we wanted change, we wanted justice and equality, in that moment all we could muster was setting across from each other in silence, knowing that the other understood the silence and there was no pressure when we were together.  For the time being, we sat across from each other as equals, as sisters, just trying to get through the day.

So, we did what we had done for years prior; we ordered more breadsticks and talked about everything else.

Our friendship started years ago, when we were still young and idealistic, but also when we had no clue how much we would grow together.  Our individual prejudices were seated just under the surface.  As our cultures clashed, these prejudices would bubble over, forcing us to choose between colliding and running away from one another, or colliding and clinging to each other.   I can tell you that our first argument was over whether or not spaghetti was a side dish, exactly where we were standing when we discussed interracial dating for the first time, and the slang words we learned from each other.  I could provide several humorous (and sometimes devastating) stories of how we learned our hair was on completely different ends of the spectrum and how she rolls her eyes at me when I cut my hair and I roll my eyes at her when she covers hers with a knit hat. 

I can describe our first encounters with each other’s families.  My first encounter with her family involved a visit to Penn Station and her younger sister stealing a sandwich right out from under her mama’s nose.  Hers involved staying at Aunt Shirley’s and a recliner that threw her backwards. 

Our cultures dictated a lot, but it wouldn’t dictate our friendship. 

Through the years we became chosen sisters.   We experienced prejudice, anger, ignorance, and misunderstanding.  We also experienced celebration, compromise, and reconciliation. It wasn’t always easy, but we did it together.

Months passed and we watched our city cry out.  We watched and listened as it affected our ladies. Some were worried because the racial tension was happening in their neighborhoods.  Others had parents who were law enforcement and they worried about their safety.  Still others, voiced how this is something they live with daily.  We went to work trying to create a safe place for them, allowing them to voice whatever concern they had.  We tried to use our friendship as an example, but the tensions still surfaced in unexpected places.

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She sat with her back towards all of us with her head resting on her hands on the back of the chair.  Sherrita propped herself against the wall where she could be seen, but not intrusive and calmly, but directly stated that it seemed like she was refusing to follow directives from the white staff.  Tension showed in her shoulders.  She quickly turned toward us. Her eyes squinted in a glare and she spoke with venom in her voice, lashing out, “Of course I do.  I hate every one of them.  Why wouldn’t I?  Everyone who ever hurt me was white.  The people who prostituted me were white; the men who bought me were white.  Everyone was.” and with great force whipped back around so her back was to us.

That instant remains in mind.  The hatred, the depth of the rage, came rushing at me surrounding me like a plastic bag covering my face, causing me not to breathe; a hatred so intense I wasn’t sure anything could combat it.  I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but the cliché “time stood still” was written for this moment.  In that instant I suddenly realized the depth of the hurt racism had caused; I realized the grace Sherrita has demonstrated to me through the years, choosing to let go of this same kind of bitterness. 

In that moment, I knew I had to respond with the same type of grace.  As gently as possible, I asked her if she could look at me.  I explained that I knew it was difficult, but I wanted her to see that what I was about to say, I truly meant.  She slowly turned to face me.  The anger was still evident but there was a hint of curiosity there.  I’m sure my breathing was labored and my words stumbled over themselves, but I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for what you experienced and I’m sorry those people will probably never ask you for forgiveness.”  She looked at me more with shock and when she didn’t say anything I went on.  “You don’t have to do anything.  Our job is to show up every day and treat you with love, trust and respect.  Whether you choose to give it back will be up to you.  But, I want you to know I’m going to do it every day with no expectations from you.”  Her look softened a bit and then she responded with a sharp “can I go now.”

I nodded and she quickly left the room.  Sherrita waited until the door shut and promptly slumped against the wall.  Annie sat with glossy eyes.  Every ounce of energy I had went to that moment and I now sat deflated in my chair.  The hurt she felt was so real.  We all understood her hatred and bitterness, and were left holding it uncertain what our next steps should be.

As sisters, instead of professionals, we sat in the room and cried and prayed together. 

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She Came Home

It had been almost 9 months since I last saw her.  In the fleeting moment of her impulses she ran out of our lives.  But, now she was found.  The court quickly stamped too high a risk, and without any other options available, she was whisked off to her temporary home.  She affectionately calls it “kiddie prison.”

After months of fighting for visits, I’m finally allowed.

I’m not sure how she’ll respond.  Working in this field, for this long, I’ve learned a few things.  One is that emotions are always extreme even if their not identified.  Another is that regardless of her response in the moment, my role is to simply keep showing up.

As I walk in, I almost miss her sitting there with her team.  She’s slumped over, her extravagant braids have disappeared, and she’s back to wearing lackluster scrubs.  As I walk past, she grabs the attention of her case manager and exclaims, “that’s her.”  As I turn and smile, she immediately puts her head down and attempts to hide the tear with her hand.

We started unsure and awkward, both trying to decipher what the other person was thinking through words and actions, while the other people at the table served as an intrusion.  Once the other workers were distracted with logistics.  We both turned our shoulders slightly to create some semblance of a barrier, a mock privacy in a room full of people.

I began asking, “Do you want to talk…” but before the words were completed, tears quietly rolled down her face.  After a brief pause, a barely audible “I didn’t want to run, but the other girls mentioned it, and I just hadn’t been free in so long.”

She wiped the tears and then continued.  “I knew as soon as I did it that it wasn’t freedom. I wanted to come back right then. But…I was too embarrassed.  I thought you’d be disappointed in me…and then more bad things happened…”

The response came out of my mouth without any thought, “I’m not disappointed.  I’m just sad that we didn’t have enough trust, so you would know you could come back at anytime instead of waiting to be found.”

She instantly picked her head back up and calmly said, “I trust you now.”

Our brief moment was quickly interrupted with further logistics, goal setting, and scheduling.  And just as quickly, it was time for her to move on to the next activity.  As we said our goodbyes, she quickly grabbed and hugged me.  She then said, “I know you’ll be back and tell Ms. Sherrita hi.”  She then smiled and joined her group.

After walking back to my car, my mind had to process a bit.  I replayed the moments finding out she had taken off.  I replayed all the emotions of realizing we had done all we could do and now we just had to wait and trust.  But I also replayed the phone call from her Djo letting us know that she was found.  I replayed the first time I met her, the first time she disclosed to me, and the time I was able to walk into detention and tell her we had a place for her.  Each of those moments hold equal weight in her journey.

The journey may be long, but it hers.

As I started to pull away, I realized why the story of the Waiting Father had been so significant to me this past year.  I realized why I came back to it time and time again. It’s the summary of our responsibility.  At times, we simply wait and trust, but we also hope and embrace the times when we get to run, embrace, and celebrate when our daughters come home.

 

 

 

Are you still going to be there?

you're not“You’re not helping me,”  she screamed as she hung up the phone.  It’s not the first time we’ve heard it, it definitely won’t be the last, and it’s often correct.  We’re playing a game where we have to make the best decision, based on very little information and completely contingent on a adolescent girl’s mood.  I make a note to apologize to my mother as soon as the opportunity presents itself and sit a little deflated at my desk.

It’s been three days since the story hit.  Shared a 1000 times, Trending a day ago only to be replaced with “National Dog Day” (insert sardonic grin here), and news coverage everywhere.  The article is pulled up on my computer and reads like so many of our girls stories, even though it’s a state away.  And the calls!  It’s been a constant stream, as people are suddenly aware it could happen anywhere to anybody.

I find myself fighting between that hopeful optimism of “maybe this will be enough to wake people up” to the apathetic “sure, you’ll share it on your social media, but will you really do anything.”

I reread the story comparing and contrasting it to our ladies, wondering what will come of this girl.  It instantly makes me frustrated, a state I find myself in often lately.  There’s just not enough!  Not enough places, not enough staff, not enough resources, just not enough.

And then I think about the comment, “you are not helping me,”  and although I know it was said in an emotional moment, I understand.  I relate.  You see, there are numerous times when I want to scream “YOU ARE NOT HELPING ME.”  The need is growing and I’m tired.  The need is growing and the girls are scared.

So I reread the article and I wonder, “are you still going to be there?”  When the news hype dies down and this article is no longer trending, “are you still going to be there?”

Are you still going to be there when she’s screaming and hiding in her bed because her flashbacks are so real?

Are you still going to be there when she can barely keep her eyes open in school because she sat up all night watching the door, a pattern she learned while being the “watcher” that sat up to keep the men from coming in?

Are you still going to be there when she refuses to do school work because she’s at a 3rd grade reading level?

Are you still going to be there when she refuses to acknowledge you or follow any of your directions because you happen to be the same race as her traffickers?

Are you still going to be there when she steals a phone to call her trafficker to come get her, not thinking of the risk she’s putting the other girls in?

Are you still going to be there when she put more value on the “$40 I can make on the streets” than on her own safety?

Are you still going to be there when the torment in her head is so much, she has to bang it against the tile floor to get it to stop?

Are you still going to be there?

Because if you are, you’ll get to see her experience her princess tea party the first birthday she’s had in 10 years.  You’ll get to see her go to her first drive-in movie.  You’ll get to see her create a beautiful mosaic masterpiece.  You’ll get to hear her yell “my brain is having so much fun” as she conquers least common multiples.  You’ll get to see her reading her Mark Twain book and recite great pieces of literature (and sometimes she might stop calling you a *@#$ and start calling you a rapscallion).  You’ll get see her learn to be advocate for herself, confront appropriately, express herself in unique ways and learn to trust again.

But, you still have to be there!

A week after that phone call, I found myself at the house.  Her setting as close to me as possible and an agreement was made…I would call a few times through the week just to check in and so she would know I was still going to be there.

“I Didn’t Know My Own Worth”

The view is the same.  It’s what I’ve grown accustomed to, bland cinder blocks in all direction, full length plexi-glass windows to ensure safety, heavy metal doors that clink and scrape with the slightest of movements, and cold tile floors the same bland colors as the walls.  I’m here so often, I can recite the rules on the walls,  very few staff have to ask for my ID, and I can tell you which of my high heels will set off the metal detector.

In the midst of the normalcy, the anxiety remains.  How could it not?  Another run away, under 15, suspected exploitation… and as a stranger I have to convince her to share her story.  I use the 30 seconds of prep to remind myself that she just needs genuineness, authenticity, but there’s still that part of me that finds it impossible that she would want to tell me anything.

She walked in confidently, with just a healthy dose of hesitancy.  To say she was striking is an understatement.  She had braids down to her waist, perfectly shaped eyes, and dominant cheek bones.  She looked and carried herself much older than her 15 years of age.

She sat across from me, tucked her feet underneath her, and then strategically leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table.  It was clear she was going to take control of the meeting, and as I smirked at her and she smirked back she immediately knew I was going to let her.

She initially chose her words wisely, feeling me out for any shock or awe.  But, she quickly became comfortable and started talking about her times in strip clubs.  She was quick to point out “where she drew the lines.”  She wasn’t like all the other girls out there.  She knew where to draw the boundaries and what was “dirty.”

But, then she paused.  Her expression changed and she asked me what is exploitation.  This time I paused.  The opening was there and I didn’t want to miss it.

By the time I had finished, her hands were placed on both sides of her head and tears were glistening in her eyes.  I wasn’t sure how to proceed, so I simply waited.  When she finally looked up, a few tears had found their way down her cheek.  Having just met, I had no idea how to console her, so again I just waited.

When she finally found her words, she simply said, “I know they were exploiting me, but I think I was exploiting myself too.  I guess I didn’t know my own worth.”  The words hit me hard.  The words hit her hard.  We both had ran out of words to respond, so we simply stayed still in the moment.

I can’t tell you how we found ourselves out of that moment or how long the moment lasted.  I don’t remember who broke the silence or what we discussed from that point.  I just remember thinking how privileged I was to be able to share that moment with her.

We left our cinder block cube with an awkward, hesitant hug and a brief smile. She chose to let me be part of her process, her story, her journey.  As we parted that day, I knew our stories were now, and would be, intertwined.

Honesty!

I’ve always been honest to a fault.  At times, it gets me in trouble.  For honesty is often misinterpreted as insensitive, or rude, or annoying in our society.  Granted I could probably work on my delivery, or simply keep my honest opinion to myself, but ________ (fill in the blank with whatever excuse you see fit, because I’ve used them all).

My honesty is a prime example of my greatest strength often becoming my greatest weakness.  It’s one of the traits I value most in myself and in others.

I think it’s one of the reasons I value working with teenagers.  They ARE honest!  They tell you if your shoes are ugly, if you’re not as cool as you think you are, or if your talk, style, and everything else about you is outdated.  The filter of adulthood passive-aggressiveness is yet to develop so they let it fly undeterred by how it might be received.  And, they are shocked by the looks of disgust, or the sensitivity of others.

But often hidden below this external bluntness, is the hidden truth.  The things they think we, as adults, can’t handle.  Their honesty actually masks the truth that they secretly don’t want to hold onto, but are too afraid to release into our safety; afraid of what we may do with it.

This dichotomy is often where I find myself with my girls, caught between complete honesty and complete hidden truth.  I secretly love and hate it, because I never know where it’s going to take us in a relationship.

Last week, I was discussing with a young lady about what our individual journey may look like and we began to draw it out.  On her masterpiece, I noticed she had included me.  She caught me looking, smiled, and brought out a pink color pencil and quickly colored in very rosy cheeks (how’s that for honesty).  As we continued thinking out our journey, she began to explain how the people on her picture makes her feel loved.

Of course, my heart melted just a little, but I kept it together.  We continued to talk about it.  Why did those people make it on her list?  Did she feel loved by other people or just the ones on the sheet?  What did I do to earn that honor?  And she said something unexpected.  She said she felt loved by other people but the people all the list showed her true love because they were always truthful with her!

My heart swelled a bit.  A trait that many people find offensive, or too much to deal with, was the very trait she needed and valued.

Honesty demonstrated love.

Truthfulness encouraged her to be open.

True relationships helped her to be herself.

Honesty, it can be weakness at times, but this week it was my greatest strength.

The Shackle Shuffle

 

handcuffs

Working in residential, you’re supposed to get use to the “shackle shuffle.”  As kids are brought from the detention center, dressed in scrubs or a similar jumpsuit, their legs and hands are shackled causing them to shuffle their feet in order to move.  Like I said, you’re supposed to get use to it, seeing it often, but I never have.  My mind can reason that it is a consequence of their crime and choices; it’s to keep them and others safe.  But, there is still a minor hiccup in my spirit every time I see it.

Maybe I cringe because this person in front of me is no longer a case on a page, but a living, breathing, and usually extremely likeable kid with their own story to tell.  Although I may not agree with their choices, I now understand them, or can at least follow the irrational thought process that led to them.

This week, I found myself in the court room waiting area, not just waiting for our name to come up on the docket, but also waiting to see her shuffling toward us.  This one was going to be especially hard, because…well…I especially liked her.  I distracted myself by noticing the drooping pipes hanging from the ceiling, the drab carpet worn from the many years of youth shuffling their feet across it, and the chairs wedged in uncomfortable positions to make the necessary space for the case workers and families that would also be waiting for their name to be called.

And the hiccup came, and it was stronger than I anticipated.  Her face was sad, but she mustered a small smile just big enough to show her child-like dimple for a second.  I’m not sure why these moments continue to affect me, after all I’ve seen it enough.  Maybe, this one was hard because she’s a mini version of my best friend complete with crazy hair, a feisty attitude that thinks she’s about a foot taller than what she actually is, and a chattiness that can jump from one conversation to the next without a breath in between them.  Or, maybe it’s as simple as I genuinely just like her.

Regardless of why, the sadness was still there.

We waited patiently listening to the clinking of the heavy metal doors open and close and made small talk.  We laughed as she would give a description of each passerby, at one point saying, “Mm-m-m, the things you see in the juvenile justice court system.”

The light-heartedness changed as soon as the court was ready for us.

Walking into the court room is always a free for all, with each party having to attempt to find the proper seating.  The DJO points one direction, the bailiff another and all you’re secretly praying for is that the judge won’t ask you a question.  Anxiety completely engulfs the room.

She is quickly directed to remember to stand up when the judge enters the room, even if it’s awkward with the shackles.  Once the judge enters the room, the formalities begin.  A list of all her wrongs are systematically read and the judge begins to question her for her plea and her understanding.  She pleasantly and politely responds with, “yes, your honor,” after each question.  Her anticipation and anxiety shows when her “yes, your honors” start coming at a quicker pace and at unnecessary times.  We hold our breath for the judge’s response, and that’s when it happens.  A small smile creeps onto his face and that’s when I know, he sees it too:  that undeniable likability of this young girl sitting in front of us.

She must have seen it too, because she relaxed, and then we all relaxed. Encouragement replaced anxiety and plans began to take place.

We left the court and I no longer noticed the drab carpet or bland walls.  I no longer cared that the chairs were placed just a little too close together.  Instead, I saw this girl in front of me with a glimmer of hope.

As we sat in the waiting room, talking about her safety plan and what she will do when she feels like running, she looked at me with a serious look on her face and said, “You don’t have to worry about that (holding up her handcuffed hands).  I’m going to learn to just read a book.”

Bonding on a Plastic Chair

red plastic chair
I slowly placed my bags through the x-ray machine, hoping I had removed anything that could be perceived as a weapon. I then hold my breath and walk through the metal detector, a habit from the many times I unintentionally set it off in the past. The DJO is paged over the intercom and I’m then escorted through the waiting room. I wait for the click to signal I can walk through. I adjust my strategically placed scarf (I was a little cocky thinking I could eat in the car) and shift from foot to foot, while I patiently wait for the click.

I’m not sure what waits for me on the other side, but I anxiously wait.

Once I’m ushered through the door, I see her sitting, waiting for me in a box-like, cinder block room on a flimsy, plastic, red chair. She’s hunched over the table. We’re both apprehensive and we recognize it in one another.

The introductions are made and door closes behind me. We’re two strangers, yet the expectation is that she’ll share intimate details with me of her life as a run away.

She looks up at me and I instantly like her. She’s tough but with a baby face. And, her hair sticks up in all directions held out of her face with a small headband. We attempt small talk, but quickly realize we both prefer to just be straight with one another.

Within minutes, we were laughing.

And then she would disclose something.

Then we’d laugh again. The cycle went on and on, she’d disclose, then joke, and then back again.

I was struck by the dichotomy in front of me. I was suddenly aware that the young woman setting across the table from me was caught between being a completely, innocent kid one moment and that innocence being completely stolen the next. I listened to stories that were hard to hear, but recognized the importance of her getting to tell it. I watched as bit by bit she was getting her voice back, and although it was hard to hear it was beautiful to watch.

Our time was up, but as I as I was waiting to hear the click of the door, I left knowing I would get to see her again; and knowing that I was going to grow as much she does.