Author’s note: I am sharing the following story because of what I have learned about families who do not take care of their children. Born into a family of nine children and drug-abusing parents who thought education was not important, Frank’s (not his real name) life has been largely unfair. As a child, he was often hungry, not supported, and banished to his bedroom for long hours. Frank has made me aware of how much time parents need to spend with their children in order to raise them well. Though I have five children, I never thought much about the things I did to see that they were well-educated. I brought them up the way I was raised and that’s the way I see my children now raising my grandchildren.
Imagine wearing six layers of clothing on a cold winter night, curling into a ball under a bush and sleeping until 5 a.m. when you can go to school and take a shower before anyone else arrives. Consider what it would be like if you only ate the free breakfast and lunch given to you on weekdays at school, wondering what will keep you from starving when school is not in session. How tired would you be sitting in a warm building with the teacher spouting words not relevant to your survival circumstances? Would you fall asleep? Would you daydream or doodle? Do you think you could manage to graduate high school?
Life has been intense for Frank, a young street kid my husband and I befriended and whom lived in our home for a period of time. Much to this boy’s credit he did get a high school diploma but quickly found that it was meaningless without work skills. There are few family wage jobs for the uneducated; factories have closed and our natural resources are depleted. No one wanted to hire him and he was confused about what to do next.
I admire Frank because when he was young he recognized that his situation, living with drug-and-alcohol-addicted parents who paid not attention to him or his siblings, was poisonous. He wanted to get out of it. Though Frank wanted a high school degree, he had poor reading skills, no place to study, and found it hard to sit still in the classroom.When he left home during his senior year of high school, life became even more difficult.
Though he did graduate, his reading abilities are currently that of an eighth grader. Even so, he is intelligent and has a strong work ethic. Not only is he street smart and a survivor, but it turns out he is good at math, enjoys solving puzzles, loves Sudoku, works hard when given the opportunity, is competitive, and learns like a sponge.
Street life is not easy but it is social with a great deal of freedom. People stand around talking, playing cards and hacky-sack, skateboarding, and considering where the next free meal will come from. Drugs abound. If these kids are lucky enough to find someone who will let them sleep on their sofa, the fee is usually to share food stamps. Street kids learn to find the agencies that supply clothing, shoes, and backpacks. Sleeping in a shelter gets them out of the cold and rain beginning at 9:30 p.m. with a breakfast at 7 a.m. before being sent out on the streets again at 8 a.m. Finding a place to keep warm and food to eat is the day’s challenge.
My husband and I knew Frank when he was a child so when he came to Portland after living on the street for 3 years, he made contact with us. In order to help him we hired Frank a few hours a week to do odd jobs. He was a good worker but needed to be supervised and taught how to do many tasks that should have been learned from his parents.
When the weather tuned cold Frank became very ill and we thought he would wind up dying on the streets. My husband and I took him into our house for what we thought would be two weeks. Five months later he remained. Do you think you could ask a person to leave to go back on the streets in the winter? Not an easy choice.
Frank believes in himself to a degree, but he has very low expectations of the world. To keep himself from being disappointed, his language is filled with responses such as, “I can’t do that. Why should I?” If asked, “Would you like to take a walk in the woods?” his response will be, “I’ve done that lots of times. It’s boring.” When we took him to a world class modern dance concert he hated it (though he loves street dancing) because the dancers wore tights. He couldn’t imagine learning a vocation because he said that he would get bored after just a few weeks. His ADHD kicks in whenever he has to sit in a class or hear a lecture; he simply turns off his mind and shuts down, often going to sleep.
This attitude really disturbed my husband and me. Our angers flared and at times made us want to kick him out of the house. Instead, we gave him a gift of a poem about saying yes to life, and “If “ by Rudyard Kipling about being a man . Though he did not understand their meanings at first, the points made in these poems became central to many discussions. I believe that part of Frank’s negative attitude is a protective stance that keeps him from feeling hurt when he is rejected.
Once Frank was in our home our first challenge was to help him realize that people can be trusted. He talked like an anarchist and said the government was bad. He did not trust the law and believed he should be able to live freely, yet did not understand that by begging for handouts, accepting food stamps, a night’s lodging, and free medical attention he is impinging on someone else’s goodwill. When asked who pays for food stamps, free clinics, and disability payments there was no acknowledgement that it is paid for by you and me: the workers, taxpayers, and donors. He did not realize that government and individuals can be good and caring.
When this young man started living with us the first boundaries that we set included a wake-up time of 7 a.m., the expectation he must make his bed, and morning exercise for at least 45 minutes. His room had to be kept tidy and he had to wash his clothes and his body regularly. He was not allowed to sleep the days away, watching TV all night.
When he could not get a job we introduced Frank to the concept of volunteering. He did not like the idea and could not think of anything to volunteer for so we encouraged him to help the Audubon society. The notion of doing something for someone else (and not receiving payment in return) was not part of his repertoire but as a result of his contribution Frank met some nice people his age and feels good about helping out when needed. He worked outdoors on the trails, keeping busy, away from the streets, away from drugs. My husband took Frank on bird-watching trips where he is started his life list. You might imagine how weird bird-watching was to Frank, but we decided if he could not come up with his own activities then he had to participate in ours.
Each evening we ate together as a family and asked Frank to tell us about his day. We tried to help him develop better communication skills as well as share his thoughts and life. We discussed politics, the news, events of the day, and even a bit of philosophy in an attempt to increase his world view and speaking vocabulary.
Frank needed to be taught how to set the table. In his childhood home, people did not eat together. In our home, he prepared dinner once a week. In the past his meals came from 7/11 or a fast-food restaurant when not living in a shelter. The idea of cooking was a big hurdle to overcome and it did require my time. It was fun to see Frank take pride in what he cooked and to even become interested in how it looked when served.
In order to enter Frank’s life, we visited skateboard parks, watched movies, heard tales of street life, and learned a lot about his subculture. We discussed who skateboards, what clothes are worn, how the fad got started, what muscles are being developed, who is earning a living from the sport and whether it is part of drug culture. He was given a young adult reader about skateboarding and Frank became absorbed in it—a first sign of interest in the written word.
Frank is a slow reader and asked “Why is reading important anyway?” It took a while for us to realize that the books he was reading were too advanced. Frank needed to overcome his pride and read young adult books for enjoyment. His vocabulary was limited and grammar atrocious. So we slowly started correcting one part of speech at a time while encouraging him to look words up in a dictionary or online. It was easy to overwhelm Frank and though hard to do, it was important to move slowly. As an impatient person, I wanted to make up 21 years of neglect in a few months.
Frank’s knowledge of our political system is non-existent and he certainly did not understand the concept of “We the people” and that you and I are the government. He wondered why he should vote. When talking about the U.S. revolution of 1776 Frank’s comment was, “What revolution? I didn’t know we had one.” When I asked him why we celebrate the fourth of July, he shyly answered, “Fireworks and a day off from work?.”
To address this,, we gave Frank a graphic novel by ex-Harvard Professor Larry Gonick who wrote “The History of the United States” in comic book format. Larry has a wonderful series of history comic books that he has developed for reluctant learners. Frank read the book from cover to cover.
Most of all my husband and I talked to Frank, or rather let him talk to us. He poured out tales of his past life, hour after hour repeating his stories and sharing the tragedies that occurred in his young life. The first month he lived with us was the worst because his talk was so depressing. We became impatient because he always spoke of the past as though it was great. We realized that he had been stuck with the same people, in the same story for years with little experiences outside of the streets, and no way of planning for a successful life.
After a great deal of exploration my husband discovered “Job Corps.” Frank applied and was eventually accepted. It took some time to settle on the line of work he thought he could do, but eventually he elected to become a painter. Recently he even told me that he could see himself as a painter 10 years from now. I was thrilled. He could see a future for himself.
Frank is the type of person who will benefit from vocational training. Over the next two years he will learn everything there is about commercial and industrial coatings. He is excited and we are all thrilled to have him looking towards the future. I keep my fingers crossed in hope that Job Corps was a good choice. As Frank once told me, he had two options: either wind up in jail or become trained in a career. He chose the latter. We applaud him and wish him luck. Frank is missed at our home because he has taught us as much as we have taught him. His desire to succeed and willingness to overcome odds has given us a renewed and wonderful belief in mankind.