On July 8, 2014, a memory came to me that I had not even recalled in 30 years. My last day at Foster Park Elementary School.
You see, I was a foster child. That was an oddity in my day – back when Mom and Dad stayed together – and my adopted parents (who were actually distant cousins of my Grandmother) passed away a month to the day and two years apart from each other. Needless to say, it was a rough time in my life. Distant relatives, who didn’t want me there and were devising a plan to ditch me and keep the house, took over things in my house shortly after my Father passed (preceded by my mother). Like scavengers, they ravaged through every nook and cranny of our house. The only home I ever knew had been deserted and desecrated in a matter of weeks. Like some sort of horrible tornado – it swept through and was gone as quickly as it came.
It had been decided that I would go into another foster home. My parents were successful in adopting my brother, but had not finalized my adoption before their deaths. I was not only going to be ousted, I had no legal right to anything, no inheritance, nothing. Because I was going away so quickly (and because no one really cared about my emotional state, anyway), I was to finish the semester, move to my new home and transfer to my new school during the summer so I could remain in the correct grade.
Like it was yesterday, on July 8th, I vividly got a flash of my last day at “my school”. A school where everyone knew my name (insert theme from “Cheers” here). A place where I could go to talk about the T.V. shows I saw the night before and have recess with my very best friends. When I was bored at home, I could always prepare my conversations for school the next day and know that I would at least have a social outlet.
I came to school on time, lined up in the usual places, wrote my heading on my paper just like any other student on any other day. Only it wasn’t any other day. It wasn’t until the teacher would say something like: “Class, next week, we’re going to….” or “Next year, I will be looking for some of you…” that I would cringe and it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be here next week or next year.
After lunch, the pressure got even heavier. I was asked to turn in my books – a week earlier than every other student. I could hear the scuttlebutt amongst my classmates. Whispered questions about where I was going. When I sat in my desk — now completely empty– I actually had the thought pass through my mind: “This is my last day at school”. The teacher, my family and I were the only ones that knew what was happening. I wanted to pour out to someone. However, I was advised against it by the DCFS caseworker. They felt that it would make the transition smoother if fewer people knew. Smoother for whom, really? Smoother for the conscience of the adults who were uprooting me from everything I’d ever known to a place where they wouldn’t have to be burdened with me? Out-of-sight, out-of-mind, out-of-my-hair…..Shameless.
My Father always taught me to be strong, so I held back the tears as best I could (which also explains why I can count the number of times I have ever cried). During the last hours of class, the teacher was asking questions and students were raising their hands to answer. I could not. I felt as if I were invisible. I could see them, but they could not see me. The class seemed to be in a frenzy all around me as students clamored to get the teacher’s attention for a shot at the correct answers. All of which I knew, but I could not even form my mouth to speak. It was as if I was in a bubble – no one could hear my cries on the inside – yet I was screaming, internally.
Being helpless to do anything because the situation thrust upon her as quickly as it was upon me, my teacher could see my despondency, stood by me and rubbed my shoulder as she continued with her instruction. In one fell swoop, she was trying to cater to my discomfort and remain professional. The mother in her and the teacher in her were warring with one another. The last hour crawled by until my name was called over the intercom. I was asked to report to the Principal’s office with my things. “What things?” I thought to myself. The teacher called me to her desk and gave me a hug whispering: “Marlowe, you’re gonna be okay…” in my ear. I then took the longest walk of my life. From her desk, the door seemed to be miles away. I passed friends I’d had since the second grade and kids I counted penny candies with as we walked home. Now, I walked alone.
I met my indifferent relatives downstairs and Mr. Nelson, our Principal, hugged me with tears in his eyes and told my family: “you are taking a great young man from us….take good care of him…” Mr. Nelson and my father were good friends. They often would stand outside talking long after I went to class on school days. Mr. Nelson often bragged to my father about my stellar behavior and academic record. My father would compliment him on the exceptional way he ran the school. Mr. Nelson knew my brother and I since we were tots and it was hard for him to walk me out of that office. I wanted to plead with him to save me from this, but the pressure of the day had taken all my strength until all I could do was drop my head and walk aimlessly out the door for the last time.
I looked at bulletin boards, the green restroom doors, the cafeteria and the gym. I passed a set of stairs that led to my old classroom. A set of stairs that I knew I would never climb again. On my way out, it hit me once more: “This was my last day at school”. More importantly, this was my last day in this hallowed building. A building I grew to respect, a building I met (what I thought would be) life-long friends in, a building that made me feel safe. No matter how things were going in the world, this school was my refuge from it all, my safe haven. I could trust this building. I was now leaving my Foster Park fortress for a cold, cruel world.
In the coming months, I would do well at my next school – even thrive in the top of my class. I had enrolled too late to be in any Honors classes. The top 5 graduates from my class were all Honor Students but of the top ten, I was number 7. I wasn’t the greatest, but I was right there with ‘em and they respected “the new kid”.
As I fore stated, I have not thought about that day in 30 years. However, I have had instances where I had to deal with the pain of separation and divorce, loss of friends and family, displacement from jobs and even having to look into the eyes of those who were slated to replace me. In every instance, I still took my father’s advice and remained strong. Holding back the tears to do what needed to be done to resume some sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos.
I wish I had some amazing spiritual teaching or philosophical idea or maybe even a life lesson to conclude this story, but I don’t. Perhaps some things are just left to be expressed after years of suppression to better examine one’s life thus far. I may never think about that dreaded day ever again. However, it does show how strong I had to be at a young age. It also may explain why I am not fond of abrupt changes and why I don’t make too many long-term plans. This experience may explain why I don’t put absolute trust into anything or anyone for fear of everything being snatched away. Perhaps this is also the reason why I can bounce back from loss so readily. I have no problem losing a friend or a car and waking up the next day and moving on. It could all very well stem from this experience I had that caused me to mature quickly and made me tougher than most of my peers would ever know.
Whatever the case, that fateful day in June at 8520 South Wood Street was the first time I dealt with such things. Because of events like this in my life, God has had to roll up his sleeves with my conversion. Take special time and care in deciding when, where and through whom to speak to me. When I see Him in Judgement, we will both shake our heads and laugh. This “Cribbs thing” was a battle from the very beginning.
I have miles to go before I sleep and possibly many more chances to say “This is my last day……” Perhaps God has a plan for this memory awakening or maybe it’s just one of those suppressed memories that awakens at middle age. We shall soon see. Stay tuned as I share more of my early molding events.