02 03 Notes from the School Psychologist: Be the Island 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Be the Island

Over break, I took the word “break” very seriously and spent much of my time reading, watching movies, and relaxing. One day, I happened upon my HBO On-Demand section of my DVR and scrolled through the choices. There was "Orphan," a horror movie about adopting a child who turns out to be evil or something. Pass. Don’t like that message. Don’t like horror movies. I also happened upon "The Blind Side," and thought that I should see that. Not because I like football, but I like positive stories of adoption. I was prepared, however, to hate it because “White lady saves Black kid” isn’t always my favorite theme. See “Nice White Lady” post here for a fabulous Mad TV sketch about this theme.

Needless to say, I cried like a friggin’ baby at the part where (Spoiler Alert: Spoiler Alert: Spoiler Alert) where Michael, the teenage boy, tells his adoptive mom that he’s never had a bed before. I have a special place in my heart for foster kids, and I work with them as a school psychologist all the time. I have had the pleasure of being a therapist for foster youth for the past three years in my private practice. I have had kids tell me horror stories and I have processed their pain with them. I have heard stories of resilience that you wouldn’t believe. And I have, unfortunately, seen kids go through terrible things that they have a hard time recovering from, and their emotional state deteriorates. Just building a relationship with these kids is a challenge, because they have learned not to trust others.

I am reminded of this foster kid I worked with a while back who took about a year to agree to see me. His mom had died and his father had left the family years before that. He was being raised by a single foster mom. In his cumulative folder was a letter from the mom, right before her death, stating her last wishes for her son. I bawled in the archive room reading it, then got it together to get the foster mom to agree to have him see me for counseling.

He refused. I would come to his classroom every week at the same time, and every week he would say he wasn’t coming. I tried giving him a pass so he wouldn’t be embarrassed to have me come to the door. He never came. I did this for a year, never giving up on him. Then, in the spring, his best friend was killed, while they were all playing Russian Roulette with an older brother’s gun. They had seen it on You Tube. He finally came to me. I sat with this boy for hours, and he poured out everything, from the first night he went into foster care to that day. I had never heard him even speak before. He came regularly for a while.

He was acting out in class, as you could imagine. One day, his teacher escorted him and told me all the things he had done in class that were inappropriate so I could talk to him about it. The kid’s head hung in shame. Once the teacher left, I chose a different route than talking about the misbehavior. I said something like, “You know, I care for you when you do well in school and I care for you the same when you act out.” Not looking up, he made a little fist pump to himself and whispered, “Yes!” And then he started talking about his anger and sadness.

I also had the pleasure of working with a young adult client who is currently in medical school. He used to be a foster kid. He had over 15 home placements and 10 or so school placements, a stint in juvenile hall, and a history of running away from foster homes. His parents, his relatives, his siblings were all on drugs or in jail. He turned his life around in his young adulthood and was at a prestigious medical school. I asked him what made a difference for him. He said something so poignant: “When I was in foster care in middle school with this really nice family, I got a taste of normal. I knew I could have a normal life.”

I think that is part of my job as a school psychologist: giving a kid a chance at "normal." Giving them an experience of an unconditional positive and consistent relationship can give them a taste of normal. As one foster care advocate said (best compliment ever, I cherish it and want it cross-stitched on a pillow or something): “You are an island of sanity in a sea of clowns in this kid’s life.” I think we can all be the island for foster kids. We don’t even have to adopt a budding young pro-football player to do it either.

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