I dream the world for you
Oh, sweet child born into poverty and abuse,
I have a story to tell you.
It’s a story about me, but it’s also a story about you.
My mom was twenty years old when her then-future husband–my dad–tried giving her away before their wedding.
She stuck with it. She stuck with him. Back then, she believed she had the power to change him. She would win him over with her love, her cooking, and her tender, joyous care for the children she would bring him.
Shortly after I was born (not quite nine months after they married), she wrote in my baby book how much she and my dad needed me. I would, finally, unite them.
My first memories are of hearing her scream as he beat her, threw her, and threw things at her. They are of her trying to protect me and my younger siblings from a similar fate, and sometimes succeeding.
She was my shelter for as long as she could be.
We moved to Northern California my first grade year. My godmother had pleaded with her not to go, or to leave me and my siblings in Oregon if my mom felt personally responsible to join my dad in California. My mom took us all, because she was, she knew, destined to be the best wife and mom the world had ever seen. She still believed she had the power to make my dad see it.
Far away from the safety net my godparents provided, my mom broke. The abuse-sized boulder they’d helped her carry was too much for her to carry alone.
She began to abuse my siblings and me. Later, she would tell me, “I thought if I became mean like your dad, maybe it wouldn’t hurt me anymore, maybe I could live that way. But it didn’t work like that.”
We moved back to Oregon the summer before I started second grade.
My dad traveled with the military. While away, he would send postcards, shoes, and miscellaneous gifts.
He was really nice when he was gone.
I was in third or fourth grade when my mom locked him out of the house. He pounded, screamed, and threatened to be let back in; she screamed back that he could not hurt her anymore.
She was wrong, of course.
I was in fourth or fifth grade when my mom and dad met in court to finalize their divorce. I’d arrived prepared to testify that I didn’t want my dad to have any custody of me and my siblings.
I loved him, but he terrified me. I meant to tell the judge that, but then my dad started crying.
He was crying because of me.
I was hurting him.
I changed my tune. My mom’s lawyer, Bill, took me out to the hallway. He asked me if I really wanted my dad to share custody with my mom. “No, no, no!” I told him. “I don’t, but it’s hard and scary and sad to see how I’m hurting his feelings.”
“It’s an act,” Bill told me gently. “What he wants is power, and how he gets it is by pretending he doesn’t have it.”
I understood and was comforted, until I sat down in the courtroom again and Bill’s words got jumbled in my head. His squishy lots of words were confusing compared to my dad’s unambiguous tears.
The court split custody upon my apparent request, a fact I remembered every time my dad hurt my siblings and me during a visit afterward.
It was my fault.
Sometimes he’d come over to the house to talk to Mom. I only found out later that those “talks” were rape. She could choose between rape and receiving child support, or neither … until the day, at long last, that the state began garnishing my dad’s wages.
Predators saw my mom’s vulnerability and repeatedly sought out my family. It wasn’t an accident; like the Oklahoma police officer who raped women from marginalized communities less likely to be heard, these predators knew my mom’s weakness was their strength.
I testified in front of one such predator before I’d even reached junior high.
My mom tried to find work that would pay her more than the cost of child care for her four children. She went through a string of such care while working night shift at the local cannery, from which she’d routinely return covered in bruises, but found little “care” was involved at the rates she could afford.
She quit her job at the cannery when she learned the care always brought their boyfriends. Given the choice between working to barely afford the worst childcare and her kids’ safety, she chose her kids.
She took courses at the community college, hoping to attain better wages through education. She earned higher than a 3.8 GPA despite her constant distress at trying to keep her family fed, clothed, and sheltered with her extremely limited resources and virtually non-existent support. She ended up mostly providing for us by selling at her garage sales items she’d culled from others’ Dumpsters.
“Get an education,” she told me and my siblings constantly. “That’s how you escape this horror.”
As those around us alternately teased her for her scattermindedness and admonished her for her poor choices, I wondered: How can you have so much and give so little? Feel so little?
She died not a victim but a survivor. Given loads of lemons, she made the jumbo-est damned glass of lemonade she could.
But, wait. Didn’t I say this was my story?
As a child, your story is by law bound together with your parents’ stories.
The violence my mom endured, I endured.
The poverty my mom endured, I endured.
The lack of safety and access to resources my mom endured, I endured.
As a child looking at my mom’s life, I felt I was seeing my own future telescoped for me.
My mom couldn’t protect me. No one tried protecting her; instead, even the purportedly bleedingest of nearby hearts judged and mocked her for what they described as her failings.
My mom, the worthiest person in my life, was unworthy by others’ standards. I, bound to her, was unworthy.
Sometimes I feared my dad would kill me. Others, I prayed he would.
I dreamed of killing myself. When I was fourteen, I actually tried. I swallowed a bottle of my mom’s pills and waited several minutes for peace, only making myself throw up the pills after I imagined my mom finding me dead. That thought horrified me more than the thought of continued abuse and turmoil courtesy my “good” parent.
I completed high school in three years. I split my third year between a high school International Baccalaureate program and a community college.
Adults around me called me precocious. I thought they were deluded, to look at my life and see “precocious” instead of “trying to escape hell.”
My grades were okay. “Okay” was the best I could muster in my struggle to survive … and to decide whether I really even wanted to keep going.
I half-lived stuck in fight or flight mode, always flying-away, having no vision of anything kind enough to fly-toward.
I flew-away through college, and saying goodbye to my dad, and then law school, and then Japan.
I flew away, and away, and away, still never quite knowing why I bothered to fly at all.
And then, in 2009, I met my first son. I held his eight-pound body against mine and found my toward: in protecting him, loving him, and building him up so that he might never know the pain of always, always flying away.
That son, Li’l D, is now almost seven years old. His brother, Littler J, is two.
I dream the world for these two boys, but my dreams don’t stop there.
I know you are out there. I feel your fear and heartbreak even as I cherish my sons’ obliviousness to such things.
I did not deserve the hardships I endured. You do not deserve the hardships you endure. The fact people tell you or imply these things does not make them true.
These people–especially politicians–will tell you they have nothing to do with your suffering, which they’ll characterize as springing from failures of your family’s personal accountability. They will always, always be able to point out something your parents could or should have done better to have earned a kinder life, believing despite all evidence to the contrary that every child in the U.S. begins with equal opportunities and access to opportunities.
(While in law school, I visited two San Francisco elementary schools ten minutes apart by public transportation. One school, full of black and brown children, crumbled while I watched long-term substitute teachers give their very best with decades old books. The other school, full of white and Asian students, was thriving. Don’t even get me started on tutoring at a Skid Row homeless shelter. Those sweet kids knew a fraction of the stability I–I, who knew virtually none!–experienced at their age.)
Those politicians have no idea how hard you have worked just to stay alive.
They have starved your stomach, your safety, and your soul to feed corporate entities that have no need for these human trivialities. They call you an outlier when, in fact, the majority of U.S. schoolchildren now live in poverty and 6.6 million children annually suffer abuse, with four to seven children daily
being “lost” dying from it.
They have sacrificed your hope at having a chance for their ability to hoard limitless chances.
They point to studies showing that the United States is falling behind other first world countries in education, obfuscating the fact that wealthy students in the U.S. actually fare better than students in other nations. It is you, more focused on surviving trauma than on passing any one of the more than a hundred standardized tests you’ll take before you graduate high school, whose test scores bring the U.S. average down. But it’s not because of you. It’s because your parents, busy trying to ensure you have food in your belly and a roof over your head, cannot invest in you the time, energy, or money your wealthy peers’ parents do in their kids; because politicians set you up to fail and then derive economic benefit from your failing.
They are failing you.
I, who enable them by failing to advocate for you or your parents so they have the resources they need to make a better future for you, fail you.
I see you. I hear you. I feel you, and know you are capable of great things. I know from experience that surviving is the very hardest thing you can do.
You have done that. You can do anything.
I am committed to helping clear the hurdles before you.
I am committed to you.
I dream the world for you,
and I am willing to fight for it–
to fight for you.
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