Own two feet


14
August 8, 2013, 2:46 pm
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My intention for this blog entry was to rewrite something I had composed sitting in my garden way past midnight some time ago. I had just dropped Daniel (not his real name) back to his foster carers. It was the first time he had been to my house. He met my wife. We talked in the garden, ate lasagne and then spent the rest of the night cracking up to Richard Pryor.

When I got back home I went out into the garden and sat on the bench bathed in the light of the security lamp. I was exhausted. That’s when the feeling comes. It comes from a long long way and drags so much with it. It is part of the deal. I accept that. Right now all that text I wrote without much thought sits under the line I am now watching drag itself across this computer screen. Those words down there feel too far away now, like someone I once knew, but have lost touch with.

As always, the beginning of my writing is a struggle. I often start with a voiceless feeling that aches to be more. It aches into a ripple, a ripple into a tide, a tide of words. Words the last gasp of that original feeling and a poor substitute because what I feel put into words is always running away from what I’m really trying to say. Every word dilutes these feelings. I wish I could paint.

How can I introduce Daniel and our relationship? On the forms I fill out after our meetings they say I am his mentor, which makes him my mentee. Both terms jar in my throat and whenever they leave my lips in conversation an apology immediately chases them down.

I know what I am supposed to say about our supposed roles and I could reel off all sorts of things about what my ‘function’ is supposed to be. But we’re just two people in a strange situation and I am trying my hardest to let him know I am here, and I understand.

But increasingly I see I can’t understand like I thought I could. Everybody’s care experience is different. I can read reports and case studies and study statistics, but Daniel has his own story. Whilst it’s true that we share the experience of being in care, that is not always a bridge. He does not want his vulnerability to be put on show.

When I first met him with his social worker, Daniel sat slouched in his chair and looked disinterested. It took me back. I couldn’t help but remember all the times I sat just like that with my ‘I don’t care face’, all the while listening, watching and processing it all. I felt helpless and so out of control. I looked into his eyes as he sat across from me and I wasn’t fooled by his apparent disinterest.

We have got on from the beginning. Laughed and joked. We have set boundaries, but both creep over them from time to time. He tests me, pushes me and when he asks if I have ever taken drugs or if I smoke or asks about women I stumble through my thoughts of what to say.

He stands at almost 6ft and I have to remind myself he is 14, but I also have to remind myself that everything we build is on trust. At the beginning I avoided some of his questions and fell back on the ‘that’s private, I’m not saying yes or no’, but that has faded as we have got closer. He opens up to me and tells me things that make me laugh, but then also scare me.

But this relationship is much harder than I ever thought it would be. In the training before I started they warned me that it would be tough at times. There would be let downs and the relationship could possibly break up. This is not for the faint-hearted or the fleetingly altruistic.

There are times when you want to give up because you feel you are not making a difference and it can really hurt. You can give a lot and get nothing back, but as Angela (who runs Stepping Up UK who I mentor through) said ‘he keeps turning up doesn’t he? So you must be doing something right’.

Those words carried me a long way. I have to admit at the beginning I thought it would be different for me as somebody who had grown up in care. I thought I could clamber my way through all the barbed wire that I knew would be between us at the beginning. But, of course,there are no free passes. Trust takes time and lots of hard work. Trust is probably the most important thing to somebody in care; trust and time.

I am getting used to long silences and one word answers to questions. I also constantly remind myself he is 14 and this comes with the territory. I am getting good at stealing smiles off him through my own stupidity. He is teaching me to be a better father to my son and also how to listen better.

We both take turns to teach and learn, though I wish I could have more influence on him. He has so much potential. Words that are plastered on all my school reports. I was too busy trying to get through my childhood to realise that potential. I regret that now, but also understand why he rejects school at this stage in his life.

I hope the future will look after him, and give him time and education like it did me. There are people around Daniel that care about him and want him to do well, so he has a chance. He is intelligent, but like so many of us is afraid. I keep trying to tell him we all carry this fear, but what separates people is what they choose to do with it. Again, I have to remind myself he is just 14.

Mentoring is a challenge. Working with young people in care can be incredibly hard whatever role you play, but Daniel’s life has been hard, harder then most. Some of us are lucky enough to fall into our families when we fall. It’s something many of us take for granted. Why wouldn’t we?

But to wake up in another person’s house and to be raised by people that do not share your history or your dark brown eyes can be isolating. Instinctively the reaction is to withdraw. When you’re young, feelings can often be hard to articulate, so we say little or nothing at all. Our care experience can sometimes seem to pollute our identity and corrupt our memory of our childhood.

Of course there are people where the total reverse is true and being taken into care can act as the turning point they need in their lives. It is the breath of air, the ray of light, but even in these situations to be uprooted from what is, ultimately, home (no matter what the outside sees) is incredibly difficult for a child to process.

I have to tell myself these things a lot now. I have to take myself back and remember. So when I sit across from Daniel in a restaurant and I can’t get him to speak I have to think that is ok because in the end no matter what the most important thing is that I am there and he keeps coming. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the words, as long as we have each other’s presence. There will be time to talk when and if he wants. My role is to be there.

I am, as always when writing this blog, a little bit lost. So I am going to finish it with some text from the original blog entry I wrote, as I feel closer to it now:

‘I care about him. I have told him, but it’s difficult to convey that to a child. I’m tempted to delete that and say ‘young person’ because that would probably be more politically correct, but even though he does go out to all hours and does drink and does smoke, he is still a child and that should be protected.

‘He would hate that, because he wants to escape childhood as quickly as possible, but I feel there is a responsibility to try to let children be children. In care you have to grow up too fast. You see too much. Feel too much. It is hard to see the child in him, but we need to help them hold onto that for as long as they can.

‘I want to do more. Help him more. Sometimes I feel weak and helpless. Sometimes I just want to hug him because I can feel that hurt, but I don’t. It is a kind of hurt that doesn’t want to be hugged. It wants to be buried. It’s taking time, but I’m starting to learn that I can’t fix him. I thought after my experience I could. I was blind. But it’s not about fixing. It’s about presence and being there. Especially when they act like they don’t want you there.’

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