This essay by Tim Wills appeared on Chalkbeat Colorado on August 29, 2022.
The state of Maryland deemed Marcus a runaway when he showed up at my door.
I was 27, single, and working at the local Boys & Girls Club, where I first met and mentored Marcus (a name I use to protect his privacy). He was 17 years old and oscillated between foster care placements and group homes.
The Marcus I knew was brilliant, resilient and compassionate. He was also dealing with years of instability and trauma. You could see it in his disdain for school, his advanced life skills – he had been home alone for long periods of time – and his desire to hang on to others. He was on a journey to find himself while balancing the loss of his family.
I took Marcus in and spent the next two weeks working with the state foster system to get him back to a home. Those plans changed one day when Marcus looked at me and said, “Mr. Tim, I want to come live with you. I don’t want to go back to foster families.
I would like to say that I had no hesitation in taking Marcus on for good. In reality, I struggled with the decision. Who was I, at only 27, to take care of a teenager? Eventually I put my doubts aside and Marcus’ two week stay turned into three and a half years.
This decision marked the beginning of a long and rewarding journey as a foster parent. I have now fostered over 20 boys over the past 12 years. Most of my adopted sons were boys of color, and many suffered from trauma or mental health issues.
I made a lot of mistakes as an adoptive parent, but I also learned a lot of lessons about supporting children in crisis – lessons that are especially relevant now that schools are struggling to respond. growing student mental health needs.
I learned how important it is for boys and young men to have a male mentor or role model they can relate to. One of the reasons Marcus and I quickly developed a bond was because I was one of the few black men in his life. He saw in me what his future might look like. Knowing this, I believe we need more men, especially men of color, working in schools and community organizations so they can be role models for students who may be struggling.
We also need educators who understand that the behavior of young people reflects what they have experienced. Marcus had been called a “bad” kid by many adults in his life. He often had problems at school and had trouble concentrating because of the pressure of his situation. It wasn’t his fault he ended up in the foster care system. It has, however, become his burden to sail alone.
Over the years I have worked with many young people who have been suspended, expelled and arrested. None of them is a “bad” child. As adults, we need to give them the space, time and support they need to work through their traumas.
For schools, this does not mean turning a blind eye to dangerous or harmful behavior, but it does mean not defining children by their behavior alone. This means giving them the space and support to overcome trauma rather than punishing or criticizing out of reflex.
Sticking to this mindset is not easy. As adults, we are used to projecting our own expectations onto young people, and we are disappointed and even angry if they do not meet them. I have become more aware of the expectations I project. Are they fair? Do they take into account what someone has been through? Are they young at heart?
I also pointed out to Marcus and all of my foster children that they need to provide the space to share their stories with me and listen – really listen. It means providing your complete and unbroken self and affirming their thoughts. For example, Marcus once asked me if it was okay to love a family member but not to love them. I answered in the affirmative because conflicting feelings are not bad; they can be healthy. As adults, we often underestimate the power of listening to children and letting their stories be heard.
Schools can apply these lessons to support foster children to all students who have experienced trauma. These children need adults in school who will listen and confirm their feelings and experiences, show patience and empathy as they work through their anxiety, and avoid defining them solely by their worst behavior. Concretely, this means training educators in trauma-informed teaching, researching alternatives to punitive discipline, and hiring a diverse workforce of educators that reflects the students they serve.
Marcus is now older than me the day he showed up on my doorstep. He is a successful father and a thriving visual artist and performer. Every day I can see the hope I had for him in action. He is proof of the power that strong, supportive and empathetic relationships can have for young people, especially those in crisis.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational changes in public schools.