August 3, 2008

Do Clothes Make the Man?? Maybe...

Mark Twain once said, "clothes make the man. " There is something to be said about that. I remember the first time I met Jack...he was a cute smiling kid. The next time I saw him, he was in a group home, sullen and pensive after moving from his foster home of many years. Jack was like a kid misplaced, his soul seemed stomped on. Everything was done properly but some times you can't fix a child's heart, not even with a lot of therapy. So Jack's life was full of school trouble, police altercations, and multiple placements.

He's tough now, he's a self proclaimed thug and quite proud of it. In the semi lock-up where he lives, he has advanced and now frequently rides the bus to the office. Usually he slinks in with shorts hanging under his backside, a tee-shirt covering it. Some days he complains endlessly about what's not being done for him. It's true he's had a bad life but if we do not redirect him he will acquire an attitude of entitlement which will paralyze his future.

Last week he wants me to buy his lunch, I tell him no but he can share mine. Thanks but no-thanks he says but quickly changes his mind. We talk as I microwave our meal; my patience is waning and I find myself telling him, at 30 no one cares that he had a bad life in foster care, they want to know that he comes to work on time and does a good job. I don't know what makes me say this but he's not listening anyway, he's asking how I make soup. I smile and tell him. The words about his future are not for him today, he's not quite ready...but he will hold them for another day.

In summer the office is like a second home where many kids would stay all day if they were permitted. Amazingly, over the years it has become quite easy to see through the facades of the children. And this child is easy....he's smart, deep and pensive...and there is a promising future for him .... if he can just make a few good choices and just ONE PERSON will hang in with him!

Thursday he appears at the door with a clothes bag slung over his shoulder. He is so excited he can barely talk. "ONE PERSON" has arranged for Jack to meet an attorney. Later Jack emerges from the men's room in dress pants (actually covering his backside) and a maroon designer dress shirt and tie. He is transformed in some strange way. Are the pants too tight he wonders? No, he looks great, I tell him. He rushes off to have someone teach him how to tie his tie. He finds Booker, the best dressed guy in the office.

It chokes me up a little, Jack treats us like we are his family. I wish this moment was shared with his real family, not people working at a foster care agency. But Deb, my supervisor reminds me...we care about him and he knows it. She's very practical. With that, Jack reappears, looking sharp in a windsor knot. Soon it's time to leave and his anticipation turns to anxiety.

What should he say??? What should he do?? He's sooooo nervous as he awaits the elevator. I tell him to relax, be himself. He's very disturbed by that response, he tells me he can't possibly do that, the guy won't like him. No time for self-esteem lessons, so I tell him to put out his hand and "Hi I'm Jack, thanks for meeting with me!" I hug him and he's off! I return to my desk, Deb and I are like mother hens praying this man will be great for Jack. Time passes, there's work to be done but we are still thinking about Jack....

Later he returns, full of details, a $26 plate of pasta..$26!!!, a Jaguar something, the man's office in detail....he happily chatters on confidently, ..."a job...our relationship starts today, not interested in my past mistakes"...the man has planted hope in Jack's heart! I wish the man was there, I'd kiss him!! I push away the worries...will the man eventually weary of Jack, will Jack return to his old ways? Those fears are not for today, there's hope and in foster care you have to seize every moment of hope!
Some boys are fooling around in the hallway, yelling, pulling, pushing...Jack calls to them "Cut it out!" Debbie reminds them that they should go to downstairs, so Jack herds them to the elevator...but I call after him telling him I think he looks great! With great confidence he calls back " I feel GREAT!" He's a different boy, he sounds different, acts different and is full of GOOD dreams! Is it the clothes?..maybe just a little! Maybe the clothes mirror the new hope inside!

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