Own two feet


Jobs a good’un

I never really believed I could get the job. After I was shortlisted for the interview there was a moment when hope dared to flutter into my thoughts, but I quickly buried it under my concrete insecurities. The role was far too out of reach for me. I didn’t have the right experience. I would get found out in the interview. My wife and my friends at work cheer led from the sidelines as best they could, but I became increasingly afraid as I thought about the next stage in the process.  

It takes me two scans through my care file to find it. ‘On 3rd October, 1988 [mum] phones Social Services saying she had left both boys with a neighbour and that she had no intention of collecting them as she could not cope’.

I have tried to remember that day a number of times throughout my life. I have even attempted to write about it and have sat my brother and myself on the neighbour’s sofa with our feet dangling over the side. He is crying and I am scowling. The neighbour is in the kitchen washing up and waiting. What must she have felt back then I now wonder. It is a story I’ve told myself so much that it almost feels real.

This was not the first time I went into care, but was the last time. After this occasion I never went back home to live as a child. This experience and all the moves that followed chipped away at a self confidence that was once brutally strong. It was a confidence that had me challenging anyone to a running race in the playground, a confidence to scale up the sides of any buildings clothed in scaffolding and a confidence to run around with kids older than me and hold my own. This all before I reached ten.

In care this confidence was smashed. I became hollow. I tried to reach out, but I did not know how. One set of foster parents, that I spent a considerable amount of time with, wrote in my file that I knew what pleased people and that I could be a ‘bit of a creep’.

I remember them calling me that and at the time it was seen as funny. But things like this only contributed to the distancing I felt – between me and other people and, most importantly, the distance I felt open up between the me I knew, and the me I was becoming in care.

I was embarrassed by being me because I was in care. The fact that I kept being moved only enhanced this feeling and a sense of abandonment, first by my blood and then by the system.

As I get older, my childhood is something I have continuous dialogue with. I admire that boy and that he came through that experience. He is my champion, but there are times when I struggle to make the leap to the man I have become.

On the outside I have crafted a number of roles I play to the world. They even have me fooled from time to time, but still the memory of the rejection lingers.

When I received the phone call letting me know that my first interview and presentation had gone well and that I was shortlisted with one other for a second interview a relief flooded over me.

I had not made a fool of myself.

The worst of it was over and for a moment I did not care about the job, I was just so happy I had survived and come through it. Then I quickly set about preparing for the final interview with the help of two friends at work that throughout the process shrugged off their support as nothing, but who kept me afloat.

I remember the rugby player Brian Moore once talking about his career as a top rugby player and representing his country and how he never felt good enough, but it was this feeling that pushed him on to achieve so much. He talked about the positive use of negativity and how you can either use it or let it use you.

After the second interview I walked out knowing I had done as much as I could. Again I felt relief that I hadn’t embarrassed myself, but I also felt proud of what I had achieved to get to that point. I still held back the belief that I could get the job, but now it was over in my head there was nothing more I could do.

The next day as I was sitting at my desk the phone went. I knew it was about the job and took the call outside.  I braced myself because in that moment I was so close and I suddenly let it all go and I desperately let myself want the job. On the other end the voice talked about some areas for development and that I lacked certain experience. My heart sank as I agreed on the phone. ‘But taking that into account we would like to offer you the job’. I wanted to scream, but replied ‘that’s fantastic news’.

When I came back into the office my two colleagues who had been so supportive looked up at me expectedly.  I smile stretched across my face and said ‘we did it!’

I know that I will always carry a lack of confidence that I believe was profoundly brought about by being in care, but I also know that it is the war I wage with this negativity that has kept me pushing on into places I never thought I belonged. It is important to add that growing up in care does not give me a monopoly in the ongoing  struggle for confidence. I think that is very much part of being human. We all carry that fear that likes to wake up from a slumber just in time for job interviews, school or work presentations and any kinds of public speaking.

As somebody who has grown up in care, I know there is so much that wants to turn us away from a life we deserve, there is so much that wants to push us towards being a stereotype and being part of the statistics that tell us we are less likely to achieve good grades at school, that we are much more likely to become prisoners and prostitutes and drug users.

But none of us have to become slaves to our experiences.

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A race to care
April 13, 2011, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stand confused naked in the bath. My dad tightly grips the towel he has just taken off the rail and stares at me wildly.

‘John, YOU are black!’

I look down at my arm that is beginning to shake with the rest of my body and wonder if this is a trick. Is he testing me? I look back at him desperate for a smile, but his silent stare demands an answer.

All I have is confusion, which is racing towards full blown fear. I look down again to check my body and then watch as the last of the bath water drains away.

‘What are you John!?’ my dad shouts.

I look up at him and bite my lip. I don’t want to cry, but the lump in my throat is growing. ‘Come on’. I know not saying anything will be worse than the wrong answer so I just go for what I think is right.

‘I’m not black…I’m cream’, I say with a fractured defiance. I know I have got the answer wrong when his eyes widen. My dad then grabs my wet arm.

‘YOU-ARE-BLACK-John, go on say it, I-AM-BLACK’. I start to cry. ‘No I am not, I am cream’. He wraps me up in the towel, lifts me out of the bath and places me in the corner of the cramped room.

I hold the towel tightly around me with both hands and my dad crouches down in front of me. I remember being scared, but as I think back now perhaps he was more scared than I was. Scared a part of his heritage was slipping away, scared perhaps that I was diluting it and not even able to acknowledge it.

I don’t know, but I do know he was fierce about telling me I was black. But I was maybe seven and back then black was just a colour to me and hadn’t been loaded up with all the labels life would later hang on it.

I don’t think my dad was really asking what colour my skin was that day, but rather he was trying to tell me where I came from. He was demanding I acknowledge my heritage, at least part of it, the part he had passed on to me, that was passed on to him.

But when all the passing of heritage was counted up in the genes that made me, it got quite messy with a motley crew of Scots, Irish, French and Dutch that I know of (it is said a Dutch woman who belonged to a family of slave owners had a child by one of the slaves and together they are my great great… I am not sure how many greats, but great great great grand parents. It was also said she was rejected by the family and given some land for her and my great great great… grandfather. I like to think they grew old together, but I don’t know).

Being mixed race did affect my care experience greatly, as, in the eyes of the system, I was considered black. I heard the phrase ‘one drop of black blood rule’ more than once used by different people and it almost seemed like some kind of contamination had taken place in me.

As I had a black father, one that flitted in and out of my life, I was told I could not stay in foster care with an all white family. Even though I had been brought up solely by my white mother before going into care. This angered me as I knew it restricted my options of finding people to look after me.

My race became a noose around my neck and I went through a period when I turned on that part of myself. I began to hate it and how it was holding me back. This negativity was fed by my experiences growing up and the role black men played in my childhood.

My two younger brothers both had fathers who were black and both had beat my mum. It was men like this that added weight to the racist stereotypes I started carrying in my head and it began to spread through me like a virus. I disassociated myself from the blackness my dad was so keen for me to acknowledge – what had it ever done for me?  

In social services’ eyes they were clumsily attempting to protect what they saw as my cultural heritage. But when you’re in bed alone in a house that is not yours, on sheets that are not yours, sleeping in a room that is not yours, while in the next room a person is on shift and is probably not going to be around for too long and who you can not really build a relationship with because if they’re not gone soon you probably will be, then it is not the colour of your skin or where your parents were born that rattles about in your head.

What rattles is that deep dark sense of loneliness. The night is especially difficult; the isolation in it is the loudest. Why doesn’t anyone want me? You move beyond your family and you get to a point where you just want someone, anyone and to have had a whole lot of people cut off from helping you hurts.

But they say times are changing and new guidelines are in place to stop this happening. It is important to note the word ‘guidelines’. I worry that perhaps guidelines will not be enough and that old behaviours will persist and some social workers and those with sway will hold on to a status quo that has proved pretty strong over the years.

I remember when Labour came into power and similar words being spoken about allowing young Black and Asian children into white families, but limited progress seems to have been made. I think this issue further highlights the lack of Black and Asian foster carers. We need more. Of course we need more foster carers and people to adopt from all backgrounds.

Ultimately I believe we live in a fragmented world and are ourselves very fragmented beings whose lives are sliced and diced in many ways. We are children, we are parents, we are brothers, we are sisters, we are followers, we are leaders, we are joggers, we are teachers. We are poets, we are loners, we obsess about weight and are part time stoners. We are angry, we are hopeful, we are at the backs of crowds and we are boastful. We are gang members, youth workers, some time deserters and police just trying to do a job. We are victims, we abuse, we are good at everything and some of us always seem to lose. We are all shades, all heights, full of truth, with just as many lies. We are vegetarians and some of us love steak. We are dreamers, we are doubters, we are silent and we are shouters. We are iPoders, X-boxers, PS3ers and some of us just like walking. We are many things in the world and to be defined so tightly by the colour of our skin seems naive, in this day and age, more than ever.

In secondary school things changed and I began to celebrate what I considered my ‘Jamaicaness’. I also went to Jamaica with my foster parents, which turned out to beginning of the end of my relationship with them (will save that story for another blog) but I fell in love with the country.

I loved the mad crazy driving, the beaches, the diving off rocks, downtown and the ‘soup man’, I loved the ocean and the food and the sun and the security lady who used to let me sneak in the hotel club at night and the music, I had always loved the music.

At school when people found out I was ‘half caste’ (a term now almost banished and one that when used makes people nervous), I suddenly gained a level of kudos I had not had before.

I remember a time hanging around outside the science classrooms at lunch and a group of boys turned up who were ‘rushing’ people (basically handing out a quick beating). I prepared for my beating, but then heard one of them say, ‘leave it, his dad’s from Jamaica you know’ and instead they went off to beat up some other poor unsuspecting kid, but it was a proud moment in the most twisted sense.

Once I became more comfortable with the idea of being mixed race (the idea more than the term), I started to read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass and the Black Panthers and I began to celebrate my blackness, probably to the point where I went too far.

Suddenly my white heritage was side tracked and I held more tightly to my father’s roots (with a slight American detour, as the above paragraph shows!). But I was simply trying to find an identity, my own identity and not one I needed to be taught or that was thrust upon me. I was picking and choosing for myself. Now I have managed to find a much better balance with things, but I guess I am still sifting through the identity labels and trying different ones on for size.

As I get older, more and more things are being thrown into that mix and I am becoming more and more happily confused. But this confusion is life and anyone who tells you it is supposed to make sense is either lying or has lost their mind.

Ultimately young people in care are looking for somebody to love them and protect them and give them a chance at having a successful and fulfilling life. Cultural heritage, or racial heritage, or whatever you want to call it is of course important. We are the echo of our histories, but if we are to give young people growing up in care the best possible chance in life, we must keep as many doors to families open to them as possible, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation or whatever other labels are currently doing the rounds to divide us.

I can’t remember how the bathroom scene with my father ended. I am sure he was frustrated and I was still confused. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him next week.



Pattern cutting
January 18, 2011, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Moving on | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I reach for my girlfriend’s hand, squeeze it tight and stare into the darkness of the hospital monitor. A flicker, a flash and then a head, a big head.

I can feel the pressure of my girlfriend’s hand and I already know she’s crying. I stare into the darkness. I see a tiny leg kick and then a bright white hand waves across the screen. I feel a thousand clichés pour out of me and I want to stand up and hold the monitor close to my chest.

I turn to my girlfriend and tears are rolling down her face. She is smiling, the midwife is smiling, and I can feel the happiness silently screaming out of me. I swallow it back down and stare back to where my baby is growing. ‘Everything is as it should be’, the midwife says.

As soon as we both get home I change into my running stuff and head back out into the night. I run harder than normal in the hope that if I can tire out my body I will also exhaust my mind. But my mind runs faster than my legs and I run to the flashes of my own childhood and the imagined childhood of the baby growing inside my girlfriend’s stomach, oblivious of what is waiting outside.

I cannot help but remember. The past more present than ever.

I remember all the spaces where my mum and dad should have been but were not there. I think of that helpless child and cannot understand how my parents let me slip away from them. My baby is not even fully formed, but I love it like crazy. This love is so pure that it doesn’t need explanation and it is the same love my parents felt for me, but yet it wasn’t enough to make them keep me.

It is when I start to think a little bit deeper and remember a little bit more that I am able to understand that what happened to me had nothing to do with how much my parents loved me. They both came from upbringings that were hard. My dad’s I know little of, but whenever I go to see him sing with his band, I can hear an echo of something darker  that lies behind the smiles and showmanship.   

My mum I know more of. I know she was abandoned by her own parents and was later picked out from a sea of faces in an orphanage to be adopted by an elderly couple. Her life from there was one of abuse, secure units, drink, drugs, exploitation and confusion. Her own parents, a drunk and a not very good bank robber, set a pattern, a pattern that she continued.

Patterns are hard to break. They link families for generations for good and for bad. When you grow up in care that pattern is deep and strong and breaking it takes a mighty effort. Sometimes you just accept it because when you hurt so much and have been through so much it is all that you know. Sometimes you reach out and there is nothing there. You come home after a bad day at school and you’re surrounded by strangers on shifts at a children’s home, or foster carers who you know are only short term.

The pattern weaves itself into your skin and your behaviour. Your parents’ problems, insecurities and bad habits become your own, and it is hard to find a way out. But chains break and we are not slaves to the blood that courses through our veins. Nor are we slaves to our childhoods. We should never forget our heritage and where we are from, but those things are not our masters, we always have choices no matter where they may hide.

I understand that for some, the weight of the past can be too much to bear and if there is not the support of others to help carry it, then people can be crushed by their pasts and all the insecurities they breed. But, as I’ve said before, if people can get a hold of their past and be able to explore it with support and guidance, that can become their ultimate strength.

My mum’s past for many years left her broken. She fell into a trap all too familiar and did not want to take me down with her. So she gave me up. She wanted more for me then she could give. I can’t say I have ever escaped living in care or the pain that it brought me, but I have got a hold of these demons and now they work for me.

Now it is my turn to become a parent, though I still feel like a child, and to help bring a new generation into the world. Now I get a chance to smash a pattern that has run through my family for many years and perhaps many generations.

I know I will make mistakes, loads of mistakes, but I will keep trying. A part of me is scared, but a bigger part of me is excited because I believe now I will truly see that my time in care was a real success.

Sometimes it is important to reflect on the past and to look through all the rubbish and the tears and the rejection and the pointless meetings and the social workers and the Christmas’s and Birthdays when you missed home and think I am still standing here after all that… now I want more.




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