Our first clues that fostering a teenager would be absurdly terrifying occurred while Canada and I were fingerprinted.
Absurd? The fingerprinting form had two sections, the top for adopting an animal and the bottom for adopting a human.
Our finger-printer was an exhausted, distracted woman who paled when her cellphone rang. She apologized as she answered.
FINGER-PRINTER: I have to answer. My son’s been missing for two years.
Wordless, we urgently nodded for her to answer. It was a wrong number.
Clue #3 happened when our house was inspected by DCFS in order for Beatrice to live with us. Since the foster system is a cumbersome stone wheel of underfunded bureaucracy, the inspection was six weeks after Bea had already moved in.
DCFS Inspector was a quiet-faced man with a woe-filled professional smile who approved our home quickly. Walking him to his car, I dug around for reassurance.
ME: Any parting advice for fostering a teenager?
As he climbed in his Social Worker car, he smiled woefully.
INSPECTOR: Hide the knives.
Paralyzed but pretending otherwise, I waved bye-bye with a forced smile frozen on my face.
It’s been almost ten months since Bea moved in and the only person we need to hide the knives from is ME.
The first six weeks were adorable. Let’s dress like superheroes and brush our teeth together! Let’s play Hide ‘n Seek! Bea is a gifted hider. She silently scaled a 15 foot tall cabinet and lay face down in a dust bunny graveyard until her uncontrollable giggles ratted her out
Her most daring hiding spot was standing behind a sheer curtain, staring at us while we simply didn’t see her. Beatrice is used to being unseen… a perfectly visible invisible child.
The next six weeks were disastrous.
BEA: Oh, sneaking in 3 kids in the middle of the night isn’t cool? Oh, skipping a whole day of school because it’s photo day isn’t cool?
She snuck two tiny turtles into our house. Because she’s a pig, we didn’t notice for two weeks. Canada found them floating in a Tupperware of green water, amid piles of make up. With the shock of just having found naked mole rats super-breeding in our oven, Canada grabbed me as I washed dishes.
CANADA: She. Has. Turtles.
So rattled by the audacity of Bea, in my foster-teenager-induced trauma, I assumed turtles were some crazy street drug.
We knew she had no idea what a family was or how functioning parents operated, so we gave her time to simmer down.
We also knew she had barely attended 9th or 10th grade, but since public school kids aren’t left back anymore, she entered junior year riddled with anxiety. Classes were ditched, detentions dispensed and homework was occasionally done but mostly, not so much. Baffled, we thought providing our version of stability would erase a lifetime of neglect, chaos and trauma. We were wrong.
Calls started coming in from school. Bea spewed obscenities at a power-hungry (and short) school cop who yelled at her. A week later, another call. Bea didn’t wear a bra to school. We had a graduation plan meeting scheduled anyway, so I just needed to bring her a bra.
Bea’s fashion evolution since moving into our home quickly morphed from padded push up bras to no longer tolerating the underwear strictures of patriarchal bullshit. Chuckling to myself, I packed some bras in a Trader Joe’s recyclable bag.
The graduation plan meeting was going to be happy, since despite cleverly attempting to trick us into thinking she wasn’t smart, to lower our expectations of her, Bea was acing chemistry and algebra.
Sitting at a desk cluster in a science classroom, I join Bea’s CASA, (education advocate) Ms. Judy, Guidance Counselor Ms. Cutrone, Vice Principal Ms. Faustino, and Ms. Garcia, who’s job is to massage class schedules and necessary credits to enable foster kids to graduate.
When Bea arrives, everyone laughs as I hand Bea the bag of bras.
BEA: No. I won’t put one on. Tons of girls don’t wear bras to school and no one pulls them out of class to put on a bra.
Faustino, a cheerfully tough Vice Principal, casually studies her walkie talkie.
FAUSTINO: Beatrice, come on. We’re here to discuss your graduation plan. But we do have a dress policy–
Guidance Counselor Cutrone passes out photocopies of the dress policy with the undergarments policy highlighted in toxic pink, upping the high stakes poker game currently on the table.
BEA: I don’t care. Make every other girl who isn’t wearing a bra put on a bra. Then I will too.
FAUSTINO: I’m sure this feels unfair, but a teacher did see you shimmy and it made him uncomfortable and he–
BEA: Well, I don’t have big breasts so he was looking at my breasts inappropriately. He’s either a pervert or a pedophile and shouldn’t be around kids.
CUTRONE: While you bring up interesting points, if you can’t comply with school dress code–
BEA: I’ll go to another school.
FAUSTINO: Good luck finding a school that doesn’t require you to wear a bra.
BEA: Then I’ll drop out.
Judy, Bea’s chipper, chatty CASA takes a whack at Bea’s piñata of resistance.
JUDY: Really? You’re willing to throw away all your hard work, when you are so close to graduation? Over a bra?
BEA: I’m tired of being the only one who gets in trouble for rules that are bullshit. Are boys forced to wear underwear? Do female teachers report seeing boys’ dicks through their pants? Do boys get pulled out of class and their parents have to leave work and bring them underwear? This is bullshit.
FAUSTINO: Look, we hear you. It sucks to be a woman. I hate wearing bras. I can’t even wait to get home to whip off my bra- I yank it out of my sleeve as soon as I get in the car.
We all eye Faustino’s healthy twins. We chuckle, we nod, we’ve all whipped bras off while fully dressed, like lazy magic tricks.
BEA: I won’t wear a bra. The only reason I’m even in school is because she’s making me.
All eyes swim towards me. Me? I’m praying for one of the paper mache asteroids dangling overhead to anthropomorphize and exterminate me.
Silently pulling off my mom’s sweatshirt, which is my favorite sweatshirt and Bea’s as well, because she’s always swiping it from me, I offer it to Bea, who shakes her head no.
While professionals beg Bea to put on the sweatshirt, I study the dusty planets, drooping like ominously un-tethered boobs over all our heads.
Counselor Cutrone excuses herself for a previously scheduled appointment. For the first time in forever I wish I was a public high school guidance counselor in order to spot-solve student drama until the final bell releases me from teenager jail. Finally words find me.
ME: Bea. You realize we have only one condition for you to remain in our family– you have to stay in school-
Eyes welling, I cough weakly. Mostly it’s real, but a lot of it is courtesy of NYU Drama School.
BEA: Oh, I know, I know… If I don’t do my homework I’m just going to end up an uneducated piece of white trash like my redneck mom, right? And you’re exhausted from having to put up with what a bad UNGRATEFUL kid I am. And because I won’t wear a bra, you don’t get to rescue me and have all these people telling you how much they admire you for taking in an evil foster teenager.
Since oxygen died, the room is silent. Brutally ashamed I fumble for a power play.
ME: Oh. Okay. You really don’t want this to work. I’ll call your social worker.
BEA: Good luck getting that bitch on the phone. By the time she arrives, I’ll be so fucking gone.
The few remaining particles of carbon dioxide excuse themselves.
ME: Ladies, can you give us a minute?
The women instigate a high-heeled stampede to get out of the room first. Bea sits alone at the desk cluster. Her face is impassive. She’s either going to be a high stakes poker player. Or one hell of a lawyer.
ME: I’m really sorry.
As i pull open the door to leave, Bea quietly says:
BEA: There’s so much I want to tell you.
ME: Like what?
BEA: I dunno. So much stuff. Then I see you and forget.
Letting go of the door, I walk towards her.
BEA: Call her. Go ahead. You know you want me to go away.
Sitting opposite her, I open my hands to show how little game we both already know I have.
ME: OK. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t even know what I’m saying. Why did you pick me? Did you pick me because you wanted to sabotage this and prove yourself totally fucking doomed?
BEA: I’m ruining your marriage.
Mind reels. Mouth opens. Words pour out.
ME: Bea. Before you, all we did was fight. I was furious at Canada, had no respect for him or how he parented. I was judgmental, exhausted and resentful. We never talked but boy did we fight. We were in counseling when Grace was two months old! Now we talk all the time. We have to. You’ve made us up our game and your insanity has forced us to be a team. You didn’t ruin our marriage- you’ve rocked it- you’ve rocked all our lives and it’s not fucking easy- AT ALL- sometimes you are the stupidest smart teenager I’ve ever met, but you didn’t ruin my marriage. You SAVED my marriage.
Bea suddenly looks twelve. Innocent. A light switches on in her dark hazel eyes. She almost smiles.
ME: So, now that you know that we got nothing, and you hold ALL the cards because it’s your life, and it’s your education, and it’s your future— will you please put on this fucking sweatshirt and go back to class so I can get the fuck out of here?
Bea takes the sweatshirt. She puts it on. We hug. We leave.
That night as the four of us ate dinner, we played ‘Rose, Bud, Thorn’. Everyone shares their rose (or highlight) of the day, ‘thorn’ (or low point) of the day and ‘bud’ (promising start). When it was Bea’s turn, she was concise.
BEA: My rose, thorn and bud were all about support issues.
What exactly ARE we doing? Are we helping Bea by immersing her in our relatively trauma-free lives, or will the comparison of who we are versus who she’s been with until now make her life harder? What if we can’t go the distance? Could we give up on her? Even if she gives up on herself, how can we give up? What would that teach her?
One thing is certain. We did not think this through. And I don’t mean Canada and me when we decided to foster Bea. I mean human beings– we just aren’t capable of thinking things through to their deepest, hardest conclusions.
We just act, react and live as best or worst as we can.