I have a foster son. He is the finest person I know.
Eric arrived during my final year of college. I was having a planned baby and easing into parenthood. Everything was in order. One day, I came home and found a teenage boy in my living room. My first husband, Tom, was an Assistant States Attorney. When someone found a teenager in the woods, Tom brought him home. Eric had run away from his home in Los Angeles and had made his way across the country to Illinois. He looked like it had been weeks since he had eaten a decent meal. He had dyed his beautiful red hair black–a stark contrast to his pale white skin. Soon after, Tom brought home two young female dogs–Jasper and Granite. Both got pregnant, as quickly as I did, and we had one pregnant lady, a troubled teen, and nineteen dogs. There wasn’t much we could do about it but laugh.We called our home the fertile crescent.
Over the course of the next months, Eric became our son. He created names for all his mothers—there was adopto-mom, bio-mom, and fosto-mom. I was fosto-mom for foster mother. In the beginning, Eric took courses at the local high school like hog management and wood shop. He had no interest in school and developed friends we really did not want in our home. But as I grew larger and larger, he grew more and more helpful. He soon came home early every day so we could make a big bowl of popcorn and discuss his day. I was tougher than I like to remember. I called it “tough love” –a term I have heard people use. I don’t think I would be able to do it again.
On the day I went into labor, Eric and I were playing monopoly. There was an enormous storm that quickly filled the local creeks and threatened our passage to the hospital. Eric was so concerned about the baby and me that he made a pact with God and stopped smoking on the spot.
When Kristian came home, Eric developed healthier habits, he became a runner, and joined the track team. By the time he graduated from high school he had straight A average and soon headed off to University. He worked and paid for all of his own expenses, graduating with a B.S. degree in accounting. He worked hard and passed the C.P.A exam. Then, he decided to get an M.B.A. I couldn’t have been prouder. Somehow his success felt like my success. He took the test to be an Enrolled Agent, which is a very difficult test with a low pass rate, and he passed it.
It was at this juncture I realized how easy it is to push our children without really looking to see what they want in life. One day Eric said, “Do you think this will be enough? If I take this test?” Enough of what and for whom? I thought. I had been so insistent on seeing him succeed, and so happy to be part of the process, that I never noticed that my love had started to feel conditional.
The real story is that Eric had me at hello. He didn’t need to go anywhere or become anything for me to love him. I loved that skinny kid who walked in the door and needed a good meal. I loved that awkward teenager who taught his baby brother to walk. It still makes me giggle when I remember Eric teaching Kristian to say “Rand McNally Corporation” while we were still working on “mommy and daddy”. No matter how old I get , and how much I forget, I will have a clear mental picture of the two boys whizzing by on a bike—Eric pumping like hell and Kristian in a little seat behind him, smiling as if there were no tomorrow.
More than anyone I know, Eric taught me the true value of family. Not everyone comes into the world with adults waiting to love them. For those of us with difficult childhood memories, loving others and ourselves is not a slam dunk. Eric taught me what I value most in education is the human touch. Education is not a foot race where we run as fast as we can to get as far as we can. Education is an inside job. Education is plugging in to the pure joy of an open heart and mind; looking for and experiencing the world in new ways. This is why education makes us better and happier people. It is has nothing to do with the degree or the letters we place behind our names.