The author of this post is the director of an Alternative Education Program for high school students. A member of one of my writing groups, she often writes moving stories of childhood trauma and abuse.
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He was a small child, no taller than my waist. With coal-black, straight hair cut around his ears, and big brown eyes, he seemed built to be agile, quick and strong. When I first met him at a basketball game after Christmas break, Jimmy didn’t understand a word of English. I tried to use my Italian with him, but all he’d give me was a funny look.
“Ciao, come stai?” as I asked him how he was doing. With a curious look, he’d respond, “No entiendo” or “I don’t understand,” and shake his head.
Often, with a flourish, he’d turn and run off, climbing on the bleachers, sliding along the top row or bottom flopping over and over as he went up or down. He’d often come back to our group for popcorn, purchased by “Uncle”, or my friend, who also had a daughter who was a basketball player. Early on, Jimmy was curious about my daughter, which one she was out there and what she was doing. At the start, when Uncle and Auntie wanted to talk with him, they’d use Google translate and let the translator do the talking. Jimmy would speak into the translator, and the translator would respond with English. Uncle or Auntie would speak into the translator and the translator would respond with Spanish. It was pretty ingenious.
GETTING TO KNOW JIMMY
After a few basketball games, Jimmy and I began greeting each other with “Hola.” I learned that Jimmy was alone, although he had a younger sister in another Michigan town. He had traveled from a Central American country to the U.S. with another man named “Uncle” who had disappeared. His story was that his mom, already living in the US, had paid this man to bring him. Little was known about mom except that she worked in California and Jimmy eagerly talked with her when given the chance to make a phone call. Jimmy had come to Uncle and Auntie, my friends, after they were contacted by the agency tasked with providing care for Jimmy. Jimmy had a short history of not settling in well to a family, and he urgently needed a place to stay. They drove to pick him up within hours of the call, and they spent 65 days being his family.
Over the course of those days, there were many basketball games. Almost every game afforded opportunity to interact with “Jimmy”, the Americanized name that had been settled on. Sometimes he was distracted with his cars or snacks; other times he was engaging and wanted to interact. Often, he’d sit with one of Uncle and Auntie’s children and simply seemed to be a part of the family. After a month or so, he began cheering on the team with words he was taught by the other family members. I found out that he was 8 years old and a quick learner.
Within a few games, he began greeting me with “Hello, How are you?” “Good,” I’d say, “How are you?” His response was generally, “Good”, or “Bad.”
Some games, he didn’t approach me. Those days, I heard later, were sad days. After a bit of time, the agency placed restrictions on Jimmy’s ability to have a weekly phone call to his mom. Similarly, he was no longer permitted to visit his 4-year-old sister living in a nearby town on the weekends. She was settling in well with her host family and the agency decided it best to rescind visits. Sometimes, he’d come home exhausted from his school, a special school for unaccompanied minor children. On those days, he’d often repeatedly ask Auntie or Uncle if they could go home. He would spend these games sitting off by himself on the empty bleachers, never leaving the gym, but sometimes getting as far away from us as he could.
One time, on Valentine’s Day, I arrived at the game to find Uncle and Auntie distracted and Jimmy sitting off by himself. It was late in the basketball season. He didn’t call out “Hi”, and he was definitely not good. His eyes were glazed and he was quietly watching the game. I heard that on this day, he had lashed out at school. Several Fridays had passed since he had talked to his mom. Today, the school counselor held a group therapy session where they talked about ‘”who they loved”. Jimmy had been taken out of a class party complete with Valentine’s Day cupcakes to have this discussion, and when he returned to class, he became violent. He knocked some things over, fought with a teacher trying to restrain him, and then left the school. After some time, he was found, but the school’s ultimate response was that Jimmy no longer could be there. He was a liability.
THE POUT-POUT FISH
And then, only a few ball games later, it was Jimmy’s last game. He was to be sent to a detention center in Texas the next day. The agency tasked with caring for him had nullified their contract and removed him from their care. Uncle and Auntie were heartbroken, and I felt their sadness. Jimmy greeted me that day with a tap on my shoulder.
“Hi, how are you?” he said. “Hi, Jimmy,” I responded. “I’m good. How are you?” “I’m HAPPY!” he retorted, with a big smile. My response of “I’m so glad!” was met with Jimmy scurrying back to his seat by Uncle.
I learned from Auntie that he knew he was going to Texas. They had showed him on a map where Texas was – and how close it was to California. All Jimmy could think about was how close he could be to Mom. This spin on a traumatic situation was working to give Jimmy hope, but it was devastatingly painful for the rest of us. We knew that being “so close” was potentially even farther than Michigan to California. If Jimmy wasn’t provided communication with Mom or sister here in a family situation, how could we have hope when we knew he would be once put into a system where no one was his advocate? Jimmy was being taken from the opportunity to start again and put back into a system that saw him as a number and another child, the refuse of a broken system.
Yet, this account is not a hopeless one. Uncle and Auntie believe deeply in the power of hope and the strength of love. They had a children’s book that Jimmy had chosen almost every night before bed since he had begun living with them. Titled The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, the book chronicles a grumpy “pouting” fish who initially views the world and life with a pout. Although encouraged by each of his ocean friends to smile, he reminds them that his life isn’t one that supports this attitude. He has too many worries – until a fish comes along out of nowhere to kiss Mr. Fish: “She plants a kiss upon his pout and then she swims away. “
The story ends with Mr. Fish changing directions and becoming a Kiss-Kiss Fish who spreads cheer and kisses to those around him. Auntie and Uncle sent Jimmy to Texas with the book and a family picture, complete with Jimmy, inside the front cover. They also taught Jimmy to memorize their family phone number and celebrated with a cupcake party on Jimmy’s last night with them. Auntie and Uncle embodied the story in their actions; they built a path to resilience in a road of despair. Jimmy wasn’t left alone to worry or pout; he had been surrounded with love and kisses, encouraged by strangers to believe in the reality of being loved.
Jimmy’s story before coming to Uncle and Auntie’s was fueled with trauma. Separation, isolation, single-parent or no parent home, arduous travel and struggle – each of these gave weight that Jimmy had to carry. Yet, for a season, these consistent loving adults in his life encouraged something else in him, a strength that pushed away the weight for a time. All it takes is one caring adult, and he had multiple. Even in parting, Jimmy knew he was loved dearly and no one can take that truth away.