We gave a lot of wrong answers in foster-parent class this week. We didn’t mean to do it, but once we got started we were like a train heading downhill and helpless to stop ourselves.
The teacher was belaboring a point about how every loss is accompanied by a gain. I suppose the larger point had something to do with how these kids experience profound loss early in life, and our job is help them identify the opportunities that are unfolding for them. But we don’t spend a lot of time connecting the dots.
He had a simple chart going on the wall. “What do you lose when you learn to walk?” he asked. “Being held,” someone said. “What do you gain?” he went on, drawing it out the way you do for a kindergarten class. “Muscles,” I muttered. “Freedom,” a marketing consultant in his mid-fifties offered. Freedom made it up on the wall.
“Okay, what about when you reach puberty?” the social worker asked. “What do you lose?” Childhood and innocence went up on the board. We moved on to the next column. “What do you gain?” We were starting to get the hang of it.
“Sexuality,” my partner piped up with great confidence. The social worker looked at him as if he had started to unzip his fly. He quickly looked away. “What else?” he asked the room, his voice going up at the end of the sentence in semi-desperation. Autonomy ended up on the board. I remembered ruining two of my parents’ cars before I turned 17 and wondered about that.
For some unfathomable reason, we followed this line of questioning right through to the bitter end. “Old age?” he asked. “What do you lose?” I tried again: “You lose your future?” I thought about my grandmother telling me at 93 that she knew what was coming for her. The teacher put one hand on his hip, cocked his head to one side. "O-kaaay?” he said, rhetoricaly. I knew what was coming next. “What else?” he asked in a perky voice as he spun round to the other side of the room, the side where the good people hopefully sat. “You lose your vitality and your ability to recover quickly from injury and your strength!” said a lawyer in his early 60s who had just been divorced and had mostly been silent up to this point in the class. “Good! Strength!” said the teacher.
There are a lot of wrong answers in foster parent class. You don’t get any points for originality. It’s a lot about compliance with requirements. I appreciate that. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in shepherding a kid through the system and most of it is designed to protect the kid, or at least to document whose fault it is when the system fails to protect them. After class, the would-be foster parents gathered furtively in the parking lot. “Let’s each get kids, then all get together for foster family poker!” one suggested. “We have a swimming pool – I think a kid would like that?” another mused. There was hope and anxiety and an edge of hysteria in our voices that probably had to do with having been sprung from six hours of tedium on a sunny spring day.
I hope we do it. I hope we watch our post-institutional kids swim in that pool in Santa Monica, or keep them up past their documented bedtime playing foster family poker. I hope that despite the nagging feeling that nothing we do is enough to make up for the past for these kids, we remember that something is mostly better than nothing. And I hope I never ask a kid a question and when they offer up an answer, pause and say “What else?”