I have never been this humbled before
[If you happen to be a reader who is of the feminine gender, you may be able to help this young soul]
Everything this morning was going like most other days. Early morning. Marriott hotel (in Durham today). Business meeting over breakfast. Settled down at a table in the far corner. Lady came and asked us what we wanted. I said oatmeal. The gentleman I was meeting perused the menu. To give him some time, I looked up to the lady, saw her badge – it had her name and mentioned “Washington DC” under it. Being somewhat familiar with that place I asked her “Which part of DC are you from?”.
Everything was going according to the script so far. Then she dropped the bombshell. She softly replied “I really do not know. I grew up in foster care system”! I was incredulous. How can one not know where one is from?
I persisted: “What do you mean you do not know where you are from?”
She: “I grew up in over 100 homes in DC and Durham area. I am not sure how to answer where I am from”
Me (turning to my business guest): “Do you mind if I take a couple of minutes?”. He readily agreed.
I asked her: “How old are you?”
Me: “How long do you work in a day?”
She: “All my waking hours”
Me: “How many jobs?”
Me: “Where are your parents? Wait don’t tell me. Would you mind if I spent ten minutes of your time after my breakfast with you to learn your life history? Should I talk to your manager? I know this is your work time”.
She assured me it would not be a problem.
And that was that. For the time being.
The business meeting grew more promising by the minute. What was to be a 45 minute meeting bled well over an hour and a half. Finally we shook hands and I walked him out of the restaurant area. As I turned back, I realized that the whole place was cleaned out. Nobody was around. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Hurriedly, I walked towards the door of the hotel and asked the usherer “Would you know if Imani is still working here?” (BTW, I had memorized that Imani was her name before I noticed she was “from” Washington DC). He was such a nice guy that he said “I do not know. But let me find out.” Saying so, he went inside the kitchen and came out with Imani!
I was really, really relieved. We sat down in one of the numerous empty tables and I told her “Tell me your life story”.
There was this girl who was born to a dad who spent most his life in jail. She could not remember if she ever had seen her. Her mom became a drug addict. The state agencies came along and to protect her and her two siblings, pulled them away from their mom at a very young age and put them in the foster care system. The foster care system is where parents take care of kids and get paid by the state to do so. The system made sure that the siblings never got separated. The DC system was fine.
Then they were moved to Durham. She did not cast a very positive picture on the foster care system there. Some of the stories of what she and her siblings had to undergo is too sordid for me to write here. Being a softie, there are words I cannot get myself to utter. Being a dad of two daughters, I could not help myself shudder. Let me put it this way – think of the worst abuse a lady – especially young, can go thru – and she had to go thru all of them. As she kept moving from houses to houses.
“Why did you not report to the authorities? or the cops?”, I asked.
“Sir, we did. The authorities (not cops, foster agencies) came. They would ask us to go to a room and then talk to the foster parents. I can only imagine what happened there”.
“Why did you not let your foster mom know this?”.
“We did, sir”.
“Why not the cops?”.
“Today, I would do it. Then, none of us knew how to access cops we could trust”.
After that, every couple of minutes, I would interrupt her “Sorry, can you repeat what you just said?”. I had my daughters’ faces floating in front of me all the time and I was totally distracted and angry.
“Then what?”, I asked.
Her first break came when she managed to get a kinship program.
“What is a kinship program?”, I asked.
“That is when in school, one of your friend’s parents decide to take you in. The advantage is that they don’t abuse you – obviously, they are loving parents of their daughter who is around”.
Fortunately for her, the mom of her best friend in high school decided to take her in.
From there, her grades flourished. Straight A student.
After high school, she put herself thru a technology school (one of those training institutes) by working the rest of the time. But at the end, she realized that there were not too many technology jobs for people at her level.
“So, from here, where do you go?”
“I want to go to business school. So, I am working three jobs to pay off my debt – from the technology school – and then save for a business degree”.
I let her know that if what everything she told me was how life happened to her – and I have no reason to disbelieve her – first, I was sorry that she got a tough deck of cards but also that I had never come across anybody who knew how to take life by its horns and come up triumphant. I had no doubt, she would succeed.
As I prepared to leave, I suddenly realized that she had opened up to a total stranger in spite of a lot of abuse by men. So, I sat her down again and showed her my website. I told her I write about people I meet on the road. I showed her the picture of the Delta lady and mentioned – sometimes, my friends are able to help the people I write about. I asked her if it would be okay for me to take a picture of her and write the story on my blog.
She thought for a second and said – “On two conditions”
“I am listening”
“Talk only about the positive things. In spite of everything, sir, I am still smiling. That is important to me.”
I felt a lump in my throat. “Ok”, is all I could manage.
“And the other one, sir, I do not want anybody else’s money or help in getting better jobs. If some of your friends could mentor me, that is the best help I can get. That is the thing I cannot solve for myself.”
I really wanted to give her a hug. “Listen, I am blessed with some of the best human beings as my friends. I guarantee you many will jump at the opportunity to mentor you”.
We got somebody to take a picture of us. I was so overwhelmed that I did not even check the picture to see that it deserved a retake – till I was sitting in the plane.
And thus we parted….
As I listlessly walked away dragging the suitcase to my rental car, only one thought went through my mind…. I have been so privileged in my life. I have two daughters. I got a great deck of cards from life. Wonderful parents, wonderful wife, best folks in the world I call “friends”, great teachers… they have all pushed and pulled me to a position where I have been able to provide my daughters (so far) a privileged life. What should I do for them (and myself) to realize how privileged we are?
So, that was my morning story. Any of you – especially those of the feminine gender – if you are willing to mentor (by phone and email) a 21 year young lady who has not seen the brightest days in her life but is determined to change that, please send me a personal message. I will pass on her email id and phone number to her. You can talk to her and see if you can give her some guidance. Just tell her “I am a friend of that weird Indian guy you sat down to talk on Thursday morning”.