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Poem: "Homemade Families" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Homemade Families"
This poem is spillover from the December 5, 2017 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] alexseanchai and Merle. It also fills the "a strange friend" square in my 12-3-17 card for the [community profile] genprompt_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem features intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes new adults aged out of the foster system, attachment issues, loneliness, unhappiness, extensive sexual abuse, assorted other abuse, broken families, orphans, gender-based rejection, missing skills, medical malpractice, faking success, negative coping skills, crying, not knowing what safety feels like, vulgar language, sex/gender issues, impaired consent, minor self-injury, gizmotronic baby dolls with problems, involuntary separation, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before moving onward.


"Homemade Families"


Amancia Reid looked around her classroom.
Located in the attic of a church, it had walls
painted a cheerful robin's egg blue under
a slanted ceiling of glossy white.

Educational posters hung everywhere,
cheap and chatty and colorful. The chairs
were a darker blue. White triangular tables
could be separated for use as desks or
pushed together in different shapes.

A handful of teenagers slumped in
their chairs, not looking at each other.

"Welcome to Homemade Families. I'm
Mrs. Reid, and I'll be your teacher," she began.
"You're all here because the foster care system
failed to find you an adoptive family and you want
to make your own. Let me say, once, that I am
very sorry for that failure. I'm here to help you
pick up the pieces and build a better life."

Her students shuffled in place, making
the chairs creak, but nobody said anything.

"All right, let's go around the room and
introduce ourselves. Please tell us a little bit
about your background and one personal detail,"
said the teacher. "I'm Mrs. Reid, a social worker
born in Jamaica. I like to cook. Who's next?"

The black girl straightened her back and said,
"I'm Arlee Dunmire. I got a business degree
and a decent job, but I'm still unhappy and
unfulfilled. I want a family to add meaning to
my life. I like beachcombing but not crafts,
so I give away what I find to local crafters."

"Oh, I like sharing too," said the girl with
chestnut curls. "I'm tired of getting fucked
and never getting anything out of it. I want
a baby I can actually have. I play recorder,
not very well yet. My name is Cleome Lloyd."

"I'm Jeric Ribeiro," said the black boy.
"After my parents split up, I wound up
in foster care and nobody wanted me.
I want to be wanted, I want a real family,
but I know I'm not ready yet. I like street art."

"Yeah, I like art, but abstract art, it doesn't
have to be any one thing," said the white boy.
"Uh, I'm Oakley Gilsoul. My parents dumped me
because I'm not ... the kind of son they wanted."

"I'm Fenna Margell," said the blonde girl. "I had
good parents, but they both got deployed at
the same time, so Family Services took me,
and then they both died. I want to have
a nice family again. I like gardening."

"Pleased to meet you all," said Mrs. Reid.
"Now who's done a patchwork test in
the last year? Raise your hands."

"I did one last month, but I didn't do
very well. It's what tipped me that
I needed this class," Jeric said.

"I took mine just last week,"
Arlee said. "It seemed like
a good way to prepare for this."

"Almost a year for me, but can
I take it again?" Fenna said.

"Of course," said Mrs. Reid.
"Anyone who hasn't taken it
recently or wants to repeat
can do so in today's session."

"I've never taken one, so I guess
I'm stuck with it," Oakley said.

"I have, but not since I started
my junior year of high school,"
said Cleome. "It's boring, but
the questions aren't that hard."

Oakley slid down in his chair.
"I did so bad in high school that
I dropped out as soon as I could."

"If anyone needs help, just ask,"
Mrs. Reid said. "I can't give you
answers, or even hints, but if you
don't understand the instructions
or questions, that I can fix."

She stacked up three copies
of the test and passed them out
to Fenna, Oakley, and Cleome.

"Arlee, Jeric, can you give me
a general idea of how your tests
turned out?" Mrs. Reid asked.

"I got Exceptional in nine categories,
lower in several, but Incomplete in
Pregnancy," said Arlee. "I know nothing
about prenatal care or family planning offices --
I still have a year left on the long-term birth control
I got from my doctor when I started college."

"I did Exceptional in a few, mostly Advanced,
and I flunked Pregnancy too, because they asked
girl questions, not like do I know not to overheat
my nuts with tight jockeys," Jeric grumbled.

"Well, no test is perfect," Mrs. Reid said.
"I'd like to hear everyone else's stance
on birth control, if you're willing."

"I'm not sexually active," Oakley said.

"Me neither, but I know where to get
condoms, both kinds," said Fenna.

Jeric fished out a condom case
from his pocket. "Flair and a spare,"
he said. "One of my foster moms
gave me this. We're not close, but
at least she was cool about sex stuff."

"Nobody's willing to wear rubbers, and
the doctor won't give me pills because
he says I'm a slut," Cleome replied
without looking up from her test.

Mrs. Reid pursed her lips.
"That is malpractice," she said.
"If you want birth control pills, then
I'll take you to Planned Parenthood and
make sure you get some, as long
as it's medically safe for you."

Then she had to go help
Oakley with his test, because
he didn't know the abbreviations.

Afterwards, they talked about
the results -- Fenna had done about
as well as Arlee, albeit in different areas;
Cleome had done all right; and Oakley
was even worse off than Jeric.

"Can we pick out our projects for
community service now?" Fenna said.

"Yes," said Mrs. Reid. "I have a list
in case anyone needs some ideas."

"Yeah, I got nothing," Oakley said.

Fenna pounced on playing games with
hospitalized children. Arlee wanted
to collect donated baby clothes.

Oakley decided to paint park benches.
Jeric chose to help with a bike-a-thon.

Cleome got stuck too. "I don't see
anything I'd even be good at."

"Well, what do you like
to do?" Mrs. Reid asked.

"Play music, or listen to it,
but I'm not good enough
to perform," Cleome said.

Mrs. Reid did more research,
then suggested, "How about
using stencils to paint markers
for busking? That's fun, and it
doesn't require any special skill."

"Okay," Cleome said. "Maybe I can
meet other music fans doing that."

"Yes, making new friends is one
of the goals for community service,"
Mrs. Reid said. "Good luck with it."

"Thanks," Cleome said, ducking her head.

"Before we wrap up, I'd like to take
a group photo, if everyone's willing,"
Mrs. Reid said. "It helps track progress."

Her students shuffled into a line,
looking rather glum, but that was
typical for this stage of the class.
She snapped the picture and
then changed the subject.

"Who's hungry?" she asked.
"I brought after-class snacks."

Everyone was hungry, of course,
because they were teenagers,
or in Arlee's case, just past it.

Mrs. Reid brought out a carton
of mixed cherry tomatoes, a tray of
basil hummus with pita chips, and
some chewy granola bars.

Her students soon devoured
the offerings and then scattered.


After that, the class met once a week,
sometimes more for special projects,
and Mrs. Reid met with each student
to work on their individual goals.

Each month brought a new topic,
every one with its own challenges, and
they took pictures as they went along.

Trauma-informed growth spilled out
the sordid stories of Cleome's molestation
by numerous people, and set Mrs. Reid
storming through Family Services.

"I'm here if you need to talk,"
Fenna offered. "I haven't been
through anything like that myself,
but one of my foster sisters had,
so it's not a new topic for me."

"I'll think about it," Cleome said,
giving her a sidelong look.


Adolescence and adulthood
revealed that few of them had
really gotten an adolescence and
none of them knew how to be adults.

"I just fake it well," Arlee admitted
as she rubbed a hand over her face.
"I mean, I had to do something."

"That sounds stressful," Mrs. Reid said.
"It can build up and cause problems."

"It's exhausting," Arlee said. "I was
hoping this class would teach me more
about adult skills, or balance, or something
so I wouldn't be this tired all the time."

"We'll get to that," Mrs. Reid said,
and they did later that month.


Negative coping skills unearthed
Jeric's tendency to spray graffiti
when he felt unheard, but also
a bit of heartfelt advice.

"Don't go on a bender when
you feel like shit," he said.
"You're still hurt, you just
can't feel it, so then you
make matters even worse."

"That makes a scary amount
of sense," Cleome replied.

Then Oakley's self-bullying
came up, and Mrs. Reid
pointed out how similar
it was to emotional abuse,
just turned in on itself.

"But that's how everyone
talks about me," Oakley said
in a small voice. "It just is."

"Not us," Fenna said firmly,
and that was the truth.


Positive coping skills
inspired the students to
diligence, but not enthusiasm,
until they got to the last activity.

"I know!" Fenna crowed, looking
at the table full of supplies. "We
should each make something for
everyone else's Big Box of Cope."

"Maybe Jeric and I could decorate
the boxes," Oakley said slowly.
"Both of us do art, different kinds."

"There's craft foam," Arlee said,
picking up a roll of it. "I could
make organizers for each box,
once you know what you want."

Fenna looked at the tiny blank books
and said, "I can write down a collection
of positive affirmations for everyone.
Just give me some subject ideas."

"Oh, that's a good idea," said Arlee.
"I'd like success and affection, please."

Cleome found a length of no-sew fleece,
several stress balls, string, ribbons,
fabric scraps, and googly eyes.

She wrapped the fleece around
a ball, cut the edges into strips,
braided those into arms, and
produced a silly octopus.

She squeezed it against
her chest, rocking a little,
then handed it to Fenna.

"Here," she said, "he's like
a hug you can hold forever."

Fenna started crying, but
the octopus dried her tears.


Safety was hard on everyone,
just for different reasons.

"I have no idea what this
is supposed to be like,"
Cleome said, staring
down at her worksheet.

"Yeah, I barely remember,"
Jeric said. "I was so little
when my folks split up."

"I got along okay with
my last foster family,"
Arlee said. "I think that's
sort of the same thing."

"I used to think that
my family was fine,
but I guess it was just
a big fake," Oakley said.

"That's okay," Fenna said.
"I remember. I will help you
discover what 'safe' feels like."

The other students all crowded
around her, so Mrs. Reid prompted
them to move the desks into a circle
to make it easier for them to see Fenna.


What normal is like had much the same effect,
although there Arlee's experiences were
more directly relevant to the theme.

They still fumbled and huffed
and got frustrated, though,
until Cleome broke it up.

"I never had a clue what
normal was supposed to be,
so I just made stuff up," she said.
"The sillier it is, the better."

"Like what?" Oakley said
as he tilted his head.

"Normal is carrying
a polka-dot umbrella
because it might rain
and spots make you
happy," Cleome said.

Everyone laughed.

"Normal is dancing with
a woman painted on a wall,
because she's there and you
feel like dancing," Jeric said.

"Normal is just a setting on
the dryer," Mrs. Reid said.


Identities, orientations, and
connections was a riot.

"I like pussy," Jeric said,
and the girls scowled.

"Phrasing it that manner
will not improve your chances,"
Mrs. Reid warned. "I suggest
you try another version."

"I'm heterosexual?" he said,
reading it off the page.

"That's better," she replied.

"I'm straight too," Arlee said.
"I've dated a little, but nothing
has gotten serious so far."

"I'm a lesbian," Fenna said softly.
"I don't like it, but I can't fix it."

"Sweetie, a sexual orientation isn't
something to be fixed," Mrs. Reid said.
"It's just part of you, like your face."

"I think I might be bisexual?" Cleome said.
"I don't know, though, it's hard to tell when
people just do whatever they want to me."

"Try to set aside the past while you do
the practice dates with your classmates,"
Mrs. Reid said. "If you think you're bisexual,
consider inviting someone of each sex."

"What about me?" Oakley said.

"Ask whomever you like,"
Mrs. Reid said. "It doesn't
have to mean anything."

"Yeah, maybe," he said,
looking over at Cleome.

Oakley still didn't understand
who he was or who he wanted,
but at least he was starting
to believe that was okay.

"Fenna, Oakley, if you two
would like to consider counseling,
I could help you find someone who
specializes in sex and gender issues,"
Mrs. Reid said. "It's no trouble."

"That's probably a good idea,"
Fenna said, and Oakley nodded.

As they approached the end of
the month, and it came time for
the Foster Prom, the students
shuffled around and talked with
members of other classes.

In the end, though, it
was Cleome and Oakley,
Arlee and Jeric, and
Fenna hoping to meet
someone at the dance.

"I can't afford a new dress,
though, and I don't really have
anything to wear," Arlee said.

"Don't worry about it, there's
a budget for buying dresses or
renting a tuxedo," Mrs. Reid said.
"Remember, the state failed to find you
a forever family, so we're on the hook for
family things for all of you, forever."

"And what if I decide that I want
to wear a dress?" Oakley said
as he lifted his sharp chin.

"Then I'll help you pick one out,"
Mrs. Reid said. "I doubt you have
much experience with it. Why don't
you come shopping with me and Arlee?"

"Can I rent a tux too?" Cleome said.
"I don't like dresses very much,
they make me too easy."

"Of course," Mrs. Reid said.
"I will take you along when I take
Jeric to choose his tuxedo."

So they did, and it was delightful.

It didn't take long for Arlee to find
a mermaid dress in deep pink satin,
although Oakley floundered when
facing the unfamiliar styles.

"Try a sheath dress,"
Mrs. Reid suggested.
"They're simple and look
good on a straight body."

That helped a lot, and soon Oakley
settled on a sheath of bronze sequins.

Everyone enjoyed the dance, too.

Fenna never did find another lesbian, but
Arlee and Cleome both danced with her,
and so did a cute gay boy who also
lacked a date for the evening.


Agency and consent was
a sob fest half the time, because
all of the foster kids had been
jerked around by the system.

Cleome had it the worst,
but she still stepped in for
the challenge of hearing
a 'no' hidden in a 'yes.'

"I hardly ever wanted it,"
she said softly. "But some
of them would hit me if I didn't
ask for it. So I said it, but
I didn't really mean it."

"See, that's a problem with
some sexual abuse survivors,"
Mrs. Reid said, nodding.

"What is?" Fenna said.
She looked worried.

"Sexual abuse can leave
people with boundary issues
that lead to false permission,
but it's not genuine consent,"
Mrs. Reid said. "So be careful."

"How can we tell the difference?"
Jeric said. "I mean, yes is yes ..."

"For most people it is, but not
for everyone," said Mrs. Reid.
"I can give you some tips on
identifying when it's not."

"Or you could just ask me for
a fuck," Cleome said. "We're not
supposed to in class, but it's
still hard for me to say no."

Naturally Jeric asked,
but even he hesitated
at her easy affirmative,
sensing something wrong.

Mrs. Reid pointed out
ambivalent body language
and other clues of trouble.

She didn't even need
to prompt Jeric to apologize,
although Cleome looked baffled.


Starting a family was exciting,
but also scary for some students.

Arlee, usually the calm one, was
bouncing on the edge of her seat and
Jeric couldn't take his eyes off her.

Cleome kept nibbling on her lip
until a spot of red appeared.

"Go visit the bathroom and
take care of that," Mrs. Reid said,
handing Cleome a first aid kit.

When the girl returned, Mrs. Reid
gave her a chewable pencil topper
shaped like a red chess knight,
and that solved the problem.

They talked about some ways of
preventing or encouraging pregnancy,
the two aspects of family planning.

They explored child development,
health, and appropriate care.

They discussed parenting skills
and using positive discipline.

Mrs. Reid brought in a set of
gizmotronic baby dolls, and
explained how the monitors
would give students feedback
on whether they were holding
and caring for the doll properly.

"Now these are special dolls,"
she said, showing the last three.
"This one is drug-affected, and
this one is premature, and this one
has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Does
anyone recognize their symptoms?"

Everyone but Oakley and Fenna
had one or more foster siblings with
at least one of those challenges.

Jeric had known all three.

Oakley found them creepy
and was barely willing to try
handling a normal doll.

Jeric wanted the FAS doll,
though, cuddling it fondly.

"You seem to like that one,"
Mrs. Reid said. "Would you
like to talk about that?"

"Yeah, a couple years ago,
I had a foster sister like this,"
Jeric said. "She was real sweet.
I used to help take care of her,
and I still kind of miss her."

"Well, a baby can't fill out
a want-contact form, but maybe
I can help you get back in touch
with your sister," Mrs. Reid said.

"I'd like that," Jeric said,
still rocking the baby doll.

"I'll partner you on that one,
if you want," Arlee offered.
"You can tell me more
about your sister."

Mrs. Reid wrote out
the paperwork for them,
and considered it a good sign.


Special needs turned into
another fraught topic, because
everyone in the class had survived
at least one type of trauma.

"You all need to know the skills
for taking care of your own needs as
a survivor of adverse childhood events,"
Mrs. Reed explained. "You might also
need to care for a traumatized partner,
or you may have a baby with a disability."

"I think I could handle it?" Jeric said.
"I had a bunch of foster siblings with
different kinds of disabilities and issues.
Sometimes it was hard, but we managed."

"I don't know if I could do it," Oakley said.
"I can barely hold myself together. I think ...
maybe I need more time before I try parenting."

"That's a prudent decision," Mrs. Reid said.
"Ideally, you should have your own life
stable before creating a new one."

"Me, I'm getting kind of antsy,"
Jeric admitted. "It might be good
to take a whole parenting class, though.
You said we should check our style
against our partner's style."

"We got along okay with
the baby doll," Arlee said.
"I'm open to another class."

Jeric ducked his head to hide a grin.

"I would like to learn more about
trauma-informed care," Cleome said,
"maybe study emotional first aid."

"Oh, I've got my EFA card,"
Fenna said. "It's so useful."

"Trauma-informed care is
really a more advanced form of
EFA," said Mrs. Reid. "If you want
to study them in more depth, then
start with a basic EFA class."

"If it's harder, then why's it here?"
Jeric asked. "No offense to Fenna and
Arlee, but most of us aren't good students."

"It's here because you need it," Mrs. Reid said,
not minding if students wanted her to repeat things.
"Not only is foster care traumatizing which means
you need to look out for yourselves in this regard,
if you pair up with another fostered adult, then
you'll need to support their concerns too."

Jeric looked at Arlee again. "Okay, I get it."

"What about superpowers?" Oakley said.
"One of my foster brothers started flickering,
but Family Services took him away, and
I never saw him again after that."

"Did you file a want-contact form?"
Mrs. Reid asked. "Do you think
that your brother would have too?"

"We promised each other we would,"
Oakley said. "I tried to, but ... I don't
think my social worker really filed it.
She said it wouldn't be safe."

"The only time Family Services
can separate siblings who want
to keep in touch is in the event of
documented legal or medical threat,"
said Mrs. Reid. "Even then, we're
obligated to file and store the forms,
in case that situation changes."

"Yeah, right," Oakley said bitterly.

"If you give me permission to view
your records, I'll make sure that's filed,"
said Mrs. Reid. "If it's not, we'll fix that
and I'll help you file a complaint."

"Mrs. Reid helped me get birth control,"
Cleome said. "She's really good."

"Okay, let's try," said Oakley.

"After class, we'll set a time,"
Mrs. Reid said. "I assure you that
there are better ways to handle
flickering or other manifestations."

She laid out some of the latest materials
from SPOON, and the students crowded
around to point and argue and talk about
what powers they wished they had.

It was a promising turn of tide.


Healthy family dynamics
turned out to be the most fun,
partly because it was the last topic
and partly because the students
had made so much progress.

They talked about their experiences
in foster care and shared their books.

Oakley had a welcome book from
his first foster family, made out of
and old-fashioned photo album
with a green cloth cover.

"They didn't know anything
about sex and gender variation,
but they tried hard," Oakley said.
"The Kemps were good people."

Cleome's welcome book was
a real custom-printed book.

"The Walters foster a lot of kids,
so they print these introductions
in batches of ten, then they update
the file and run off some more,"
she explained as she turned
the colorfully-striped pages.

Fenna's memory book wasn't
a printed template like usual,
but rather sewn from fabric,
with clear pockets for photos
and other paper inserts.

Arlee's memory book was
a spiralbound notebook with
pictures and templates pasted in
or held on with rainbow tape.

"So now you've seen plenty of
examples on making scrapbooks,"
Mrs. Reid said. "When you get married,
when you have children, then you can
make a new book for those memories."

"I wish we had one for this class,"
Arlee said. "It's been great."

"That's my cue," Mrs. Reid said
with a grin. "Look at these."

She took out a box of photos
and laid out the packets, sorted
by weeks, so that her students
could see the progress from
glum to smiling faces.

"Wow," Oakley said,
touching the corner of
the nearest picture. "We
all changed so much!"

"People often do in this class,"
Mrs. Reid said. "That's why
group photos are encouraged
but not required. It helps you see
how far you've come, and gives you
some good memories to keep."

She brought out a big stack of
blank scrapbooks in various styles,
and a tub of scrapbooking supplies.

Everyone dove into them with enthusiasm.

"Doing the cope boxes together was so fun,
and really helped," said Cleome. "We should
each make a page about ourselves to put in
everyone else's scrapbook for class."

"Then we need a fresh photo for today,"
Fenna said, so they all piled together
for Mrs. Reid to take a snapshot.

It only took a few minutes to send
the file to the printer and pick up
the pictures for everyone to share.

"I don't want this to be just a memory,"
Arlee said. "I want us to keep in touch."

"Yeah, you're strange friends, but
I want to keep you," Oakley agreed.

"That's the idea," Mrs. Reid said. "It doesn't
always work out, but we hope that each class
will form some lasting friendships among students.
You lot seem to be pretty tight-knit by now."

"Yes," Arlee said. "Jeric and want to try.
We signed up for a parenting class together."

"Congratulations," Mrs. Reid said.

"Cleome and I have been talking too,"
said Fenna. "She wants to see the world
before she settles down, and well, I do too.
I thought I wanted to go to college, but now I
want to take a travel year with her. My parents
got to go places, but never took me with them."

"Plenty of young people take a travel year,"
Mrs. Reid assured her. "I'm sure that you two
will have all kinds of grand adventures!"

"You gotta come back and tell us,"
Oakley said. "I think that I need
more therapy before I try to do
anything major like college, a job,
or starting a family. But I want
to hear all about everyone else's!"

Mrs. Reid smiled as she brought out
her own Homemade Families scrapbook.

Around the photo of today's session
she pressed a gold frame for success.

* * *

Notes:

This poem is long, so the character, location, and content notes appear separately.

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