The Zoey Blog: It's Amazing What a Minute Can Do. FINAL - COVER UNIVERSE EXPLORERS ORDER

Friday, December 20, 2013

It's Amazing What a Minute Can Do.

This is an edited version of a previous post that was never published in consideration of the privacy of the people involved. The names have been changed to protect the subjects. The details have been left vague to protect the author.  The subject of this post, Janessa, had recently reached out to re-connect, inspiring me to finally post my original thoughts for the holidays.  What once was cathartic is now redemptive. It's always been inspiring.

As I sit and listen to my daughter sing Justin Bieber as she uses the washroom upstairs, my heart flips, very much like my stomach had earlier in the day.  I think about Janessa, the thirteen year old girl I met that afternoon who was wearing a hand me down Bieber t-shirt, and who sang along to the very same song Zoey is crooning now.

"I was like baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, noooo...I thought you'd always be mine..."

Zoey lives without worry. Janessa falls asleep with worry, and she wakes up with worry, and is pretty much surrounded with worry every day of her life.  At thirteen she has lived in the housing blight that many families refer to as "leftovers," and like many of the mostly brown skinned residents of leftovers, worry is the only thing that you can count on each day...worry and hardship.  Janessa is sick from literally sick.  She gets headaches, and gets knots in her neck and shoulders, and down her spine.  "Me too," I tell her.  "It's how I know the stress is winning." She laughs because she knows it's true.  She laughs like a little girl, but at jokes so burdened with abstract notions that only adults could possibly find them funny, yet still she laughs because she has grown up too fast.

I watch as Janessa tucks her coat and backpack into her middle school locker, changes from her boots to shoes, and searches for her binder and texts, a meticulous ritual for someone without a closet, or a space to call her own.  She has six brothers and sisters, and shares a room with four of them.  The five girls share a 10 x 10 bedroom.  She sleeps on the floor so that her little sisters can share the bed.  There is no heat in the apartment, at least none since Monday when it mysteriously grew colder and colder despite Mom insisting that she paid that bill. I know that she didn't.  I know that she spent that money on meth and alcohol and marijuana, but I can't bring myself to have that discussion with Janessa.  I can't be the one to tell her that her Mom is the problem.  Besides, she knows...she only lies to herself to feel unburdened by the responsibility that comes with a parent who is an addict.

Children's Aid is already a fixture in Janessa's life but strangely they've done least, not enough.  They're working to keep the family together but it was ripped apart years ago by the drugs, and their efforts are much too little and late.  The drugs took over when Janessa was seven years old. That's when Todd, her father, left.  I don't know anything about Todd.  Janessa doesn't talk about him much.  I don't know the details surrounding that loss. I only know that it's a raw nerve for Janessa and so I don't ask.  Like most pre-adolescents, Janessa absorbs far more than she is given credit for.  She knows the ugly truth behind her domestic situation. She hides behind Goodwill Bieber t-shirts and a smile so wide and of such wattage that it could blind you. She had freckles that draw you to her dark face and leave many of the boys in her class awkwardly mesmerized. Her face looks like the night sky and she sometimes uses it to her advantage. You'd have a hard time telling her that she's beautiful but she's absolutely certain that she's not ugly. She may be humble but she's not blind.

 I met Janessa nearly seven months ago. At the time she was an honours student who just suddenly stopped coming to school. A little digging found her at home alone, watching over her sisters. Her Mom had simply just not returned home one night and despite phone calls did not return for a full five days. So Janessa missed school. She cooked meals for all of the children, even her older brothers, and bathed and prepared bottles for her younger sisters. She became a single Mom for one week in June, at the same time a truant child, a target for Children's Aid, and the school's attendance officer, which meant court, which she would eventually skip, which landed her in my foster home for four months. All she wanted to do that year was make Honours, and go on the year ending field trip to Toronto. Instead she took care of her sisters and ended up with a B average and abusive foster parents. She was ripped from her placement and returned to her Mother after a series of assessments and parenting programs were deemed enough to return the County's confidence in Mom. She missed her field trip, but got to spend an afternoon in a judge's chambers, wide eyed and freshly inspired, reeling in a new friend, and unbeknownst to her, finding a mentor for life. Someday that afternoon might change her life, but for now it was just another "maybe" moment. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't. She's collected a lot of those in the past decade.

Janessa glides through her days with the grace of a dancer. She's smart, and more impressively, savvy, and between the two she accomplishes a lot more than most children in her situation. Her situation is dire, despite what passing glances might reveal. Her clothes are donated, and as is typically the case, are discarded name brands that the previous owners grew tired of. Her winter coat is North Face, the fleece beneath it matches, and her boots are barely used Uggs, a small salt stain marking the stitch line around the sole. Her hair is well kept. She is clean. She looks like any other middle school child, but when you sit close to her in a quiet room you can hear her stomach growl. Unlike the other girls in her phys.ed. class, she showers at school, not because she had sweat so much playing volleyball in gym class, but because there is no hot water at home. School showers are a luxury that she loses on the weekend, and that she is perpetually amazed other children don't take advantage of. What she doesn't know is that not every gym class gets the opportunity, her teacher is especially tuned in to Janessa's situation and has made the practice a part of her class time under the guise of preparing the students for high school. If it weren't for school showers Janessa would wash her hair in the sink at home, with cold water.

Janessa's Mom is on methadone. She has been since Janessa was a toddler. An addiction to oxycodone robbed her of a life that would already have been a difficult one. Her family has been perpetually poor. At least four generations have known County supports, and at least two of them addiction. Breaking that cycle would have been a big challenge for Janessa's Mom. It became nearly impossible when her own addiction took hold. Janessa's matrilineal line has followed a depressing trajectory of addiction, teenage pregnancy, and abuse, until now. "Not me," Janessa insists confidently. "Not this girl," she asserts. I believe her, but I'm one of few. Most people are quick to remind me that such a meteoric change is an anomaly. I'm all for anomalies, besides, Janessa doesn't know what an anomaly is despite her best efforts to become one.

As a rule, kids like Janessa are harder to help than you might imagine.  They take what you give, and they give you back what you want, but they don't give you everything, and everything is what you need to consider to even begin to understand.  With Janessa I've considered everything that she's given me...and fortunately, she's allowed me a lot.  I know that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and I know that she has been abused by no less than two strangers and four family members.  I know that her neighbor is a registered sex offender, not allowed near children or schools, but since he lives here at "Leftovers" no one really cares.  I know that her life is a testimony to the failure of our society to protect our most vulnerable.  She once asked me why I cared so much and I stuttered through what felt like a completely inadequate answer..."because I am some version of you, and you of me."  It was an abstract enough notion to quiet her quickly, but also leave her silently contemplative. It was honest enough to inspire a smile and build a bridge.  We understood one another, even if such a notion made no sense.  She trusted me, and I trusted her. So when she disappeared in September I felt her loss as acutely as any I had ever known.

There was no word where she had gone.  Teachers didn't know.  Social workers didn't know. Janessa and her family had simply disappeared. I was distraught.  She was on the very brink of becoming something impressive, if the right people chose to make her their own...myself...the judge...a teacher...any combination of the right people could alter Janessa's life forever, but we would never get the chance.  That's the plight of the poor. Very often uprooting trusted connections and severing life changing ties that the rest of us stay entangled in our entire lives.  Janessa had sixteen schools listed on her transcripts...sixteen.  In eight years of public education she had managed to average two schools a year.  That's the sort of thing that makes taking care of your brother and sisters alone for a week, or washing your hair with cold water in a dirty sink no big deal.   Janessa is one of the forgotten children that our continent pretends to serve.  She will move enough, and disappear enough, to eventually fall off of everyone's radar, only to surface again at 18 to collect assistance or in the criminal justice system.  It's a damning cliche, but an even more damning destiny.  That's what happens to bright and beautiful young children like Janessa if no one gets the chance to anchor her to something transformative.  For me she was one more story without an ending.

Five days ago my phone rang in the middle of the afternoon, a shy but hopeful voice cracked from the other end.

"Hello.  Is this Brian?" I replied yes. "It's Janessa.  Do you remember me?"

My heart leapt, and in that same dizzying instant I felt the warmth of affirmation.  In a millisecond I felt relief and joy mixed with worry and disbelief.  She caught me up to speed awkward re-connect...just excitement and easy falling onto your couch at the end of a long, crazy day...only her day had been a lifetime.  She was doing good, in Toronto, finally with a foster family, but a good one.  Her Mom was in rehab, again...but trying. In an astonishing twist her siblings were with her, with the same family.  She was feeling very blessed. She was calling to say Merry Christmas, and to tell me how important it was that we had met.  I fumbled for a gracious response but she saved me from my own honest humility.

"Don't even say what I think you're going to say," she interrupted, "you were the first one to make me believe and help me trust.  Please, don't brush it off.  I don't want you to.  I want to know that you know what you did.  I'm calling to say thanks."

I was quiet.  I didn't know what to say.  Again, she saved me from myself and carried on with catching me up with everything that had happened since she disappeared.  I heard about half of it, so lost I was in the earlier the power of her gratitude.  We talked for a few minutes more, and when we said goodbye it struck me that I might never hear from her again.  I didn't do much, I thought to myself.  I really didn't.  There were times where we spoke for only a minute...a quick hello, or a question...time for a smile and an offer of understanding.  Sometimes we spoke more, but many times we spoke less.  A passing high five...a glance from across the hall or encouraging nod or admonishing furrowed brow.  I was always able to get her attention, and she mine.  It didn't take much.  Just one minute.

It's amazing what a minute can do...amazing.



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