Brian was placed into the foster care system by his mother. He had not been removed from his home, but, instead, she gave him up “temporarily” to help her get back on her feet. Brian ended up not living with his mother for many years.
I was his teacher that summer. I was married at the time and owned a house in Rhinebeck. I had told my bosses that if housing was needed, I’d be glad to take him home with me for a few months. My husband agreed, but neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves into….
We went to many special training sessions and got certified to be N.Y. State foster parents. We didn’t expect Brian’s stay with us to last as long as it did. Months turned into years, and the situation took a huge toll on our marriage.
Brian was labeled at the time as “emotionally disturbed.” His behavior was erratic. Sometimes, both at school and then at “home,” he was well-behaved, but then other times, he would misbehave. He craved attention and being in the spotlight. Sometimes this worked well for him and my husband and me, but other times it was difficult.
What truly made it hard at home was that I did my teaching job 24/7, non-stop. The homework that I assigned to my students during the day was the same homework I assisted Brian with in the evening. This, and many more such examples, negatively affected our marriage. Every couple needs to take a break from work in order to be happy. My husband and I separated while Brian was still our foster son.
But, there was good, too. We took Brian to Disney World. He exhausted my parents and us, as he literally RAN around the parks because he was so excited to be there! Although Brian is in his 30’s now, he still reflects on how much fun we had there, as well as at so many other places we took him to.
Nowadays, I don’t think teachers are allowed to become foster parents to their students. I agree with this change because foster parenting really alters your life. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for how hard it would all be. I do commend anyone who is able to be a foster parent.
These days, though we only live about 30 minutes apart, I only see Brian every few months. I collect all the water bottles I drink from, and he recycles them for extra money. Sometimes, we have a quick lunch before I go into my trunk for the multiple bottle bags that he walks to a store. He always makes me feel better about my life, because each quick visit, he reminds me of all that I am to him.
I was walking into summer school and my new teacher was there. She said, “Hi, there. My name is Janet. Are you Brian?” [Back then, Ulster County BOCES students were allowed to call their teachers by their first names.]
I said, “Yes.”
She had big, colorful eyes, and she was wearing bright colors, but most important, she made you very comfortable, considering she was dealing with special-needs children.
Janet didn’t know it, but in her teaching career she would set the bar at a high level for my future teachers. She would pull off the impossible. The first day in summer school, she was teaching us the hula dance. Yes, I can regretfully admit I did the hula at the ripe age of seven.
One time I went to the YMCA to go swimming, but the gym teacher, Roy, could not let me in the water cause I was filthy with dirt on my back. I cried cause I could not go in the water. There were a lot of things like that in my life that I could not understand, so school was like that, and then I went into foster care when the fall came around, and Janet was still in school in the fall. You see my normal teacher, Marla, took the summer off, and Janet got her class.
I thought Janet was going to leave when the summer ended. Turns out, there she was. Janet has a way of popping up when you least expect it. She is more stealthy than a Navy SEAL.
School was the one constant in my childhood as well. Looking back, I had it good, and I took a lot for granted, as we all did. We were safe, looked after. We got a top-notch education, and we went on all the cool field trips.
Then one day, Janet told me I was going to a new foster home. Weeks went by, but I had no idea where I was going, until the day I was leaving the home I was in. I was in school all that day, having no clue about what was going to happen to me. Then Janet Schliff asked me to step into her classroom, and she said, “Brian, I am aware that you’re going to a new foster home.”
She asked me, “Are you nervous about your new foster home?”
I said, “Yes, I have no idea where I am going.”
She said, “I can understand that. How would you feel if you were going to come live with me?”
I paused for a moment and smiled and said, “I would like that. You’re really cool.”
She then said, “I am glad to hear you say that, because I have some news to tell you: I am going be your new foster mother.”
I jumped with relief and great joy.
Here was this woman who had become a big part of my school life, and she was a really nice and cool lady, the one teacher you looked forward to seeing every day. What kid in foster care would not want their favorite teacher to take them home? I hugged her for the first time. I went home and packed my bags with joy, then got in the van and took the long drive to Rhinebeck, NY.
Rhinebeck, NY, was a revelation. I had no idea people lived like that until I went to that town. It was the first time in my life I had mother and father figures under the same roof. It was an adjustment to get used to. I had to get used to a wealthy community where most of the kids you meet there take a lot for granted, things I simply would never take for granted. Janet and her husband made my life stable, and I was for the first time in a position where I was happy.
Janet and her husband also broadened my horizons. They taught me just how big the world really is. They gave me something that I will forever be grateful for: they gave me the courage to stand my ground and be Brian. They would always say, “Don’t ever let anyone turn you into something that deep down you know you are not, because who you are on the inside is the only guarantee you have in this world, and as long as you have that, you will always find a way back to where things make sense to you.”
I found myself maturing faster than the rest of my companions. Janet and her husband managed to take a kid who was a complete mess and culture him, educate him, and teach him to be polite, charming, and a completely different person. They took me to the Albany Museum for the first time as a kid. I stood there in front of the mammoth skeleton and I was in awe. Both of them constantly showed me things like that.
Then one day, Janet’s parents showed up. Janet’s mom could cook like no other. Her dad was a goofball and love to horseplay. One thing he loved to do was given what he lovingly called an “elephant bite,” which was grabbing my thigh and shaking his hand while squeezing at the same time. It would both sting and tickle. It was not long before I was calling them “Grandma and Grandpa.” I never knew my real grandparents, so they filled the gap in a wonderful way. A few months later, Janet, her husband, and myself were sitting on an airplane heading to Florida. I had to go to the bathroom every five minutes.
Then we landed in West Palm Beach, Florida, and stayed with her parents in Boca Raton, Florida. Again, Florida was a revelation: this was me learning how another group of people lived. I was standing there on the beach, realizing I am in a place where I normally can only read about, which is also what ran through my mind when we went to Disney World. I was in awe at the huge globe in Epcot Center. It was an amazing feeling, but about 500 yards in front of the globe there were these huge disks launching water streams from one disk to the other, as though the water was playing hopscotch. It seemed seamless, as if it were one stream of water, so I stood there, reached my hand up, and my hand got soaked. I thought maybe I can swallow the water with my mouth, so I climbed up on the platform and watched the water go to one after another, and then I stood there, opened my mouth, and, not only did it not go in my mouth, it soaked me from head to foot. I jumped down covered in water and was absolutely drenched and laughing my head off.
At one point, the three of us went on the teacups ride. Now Janet’s husband, when he was not working for IBM or hanging out being a foster father or weightlifting, was pretty buff and spry. We notice that all the other teacups on the ride spun but our teacup seem to spin round and round and round faster than all the others. I never realized how fast our teacup was really spinning.
Now Janet’s husband kept bugging me to ask if we could ride in the front of the monorail, so eight-year-old little me did ask the operator, and we got to ride in the front with the driver, which was really cool, and I got to see how these really operated.
Living with Janet as a kid was really cool. She loved rock music. We went to see all the Disney movies, and I got to eat at more restaurants than I can count, so learning table manners was a must. I got used to living in polite society and I liked it. This was a stable, happy time in my childhood, considering I had to face very adult situations. I liked where I was, and Disney World was not the only place I got to see. One place Janet and her husband went to when they were dating was Niagara Falls; he wanted me to see it so badly, and I did not really understand why, but one day he and his mother took me there, and I stood at the very spot he and Janet once stood by themselves. I stood there at eight years old, and I was in awe of the size of the falls. I felt very insignificant in front of this huge, massive waterfall.
Disney World and Niagara Falls were not the end of my traveling. I got to go to Hershey Park as well. Janet and her husband planned the trip to Lake Placid, the cornerstone of the Winter Olympics. That trip was to be another unforgettable one that sticks out in my mind to this day.
Janet and her husband taught me that if you truly love a child, you will do what’s best for the child even if it does not include you. That’s real love, and that is how you steer a child right, by doing the hard things that help the child be a better person.
I remember the day the social worker came and loaded my stuff into the car and I had felt the pain of knowing I was leaving. It hurt so bad I cried really hard. Janet did, too, as she hugged me and held me tight. She took a picture that day of me, and I often look at that picture. My eyes from that moment on until today have one thing in common: I had pain and heartbreak behind my eyes. I felt like my entire world caved in and around me. I didn’t want to leave. I had a happy life, and I could not understand why my family could not see that. The selfishness and stubbornness behind everything they did hurt, but as they loaded me into the van to take me back to my mother, I said “No! Why do I have to go? Please let me stay!”
Janet said, while crying, “I want you to stay, but it’s not up to me. Brian, I love you.”
I could hear the case worker as she started the van and said, “I hate this job. I really do. This is so wrong in every way.”
I cried until I exhausted myself and cried some more, and that was the first time in my life that I had felt heartbreak.
excerpting, weekly, material from this fine book by Janet Johnson
Schliff, M.S.Ed.. She wrote it over a three-year period, with some
coaching and editing help from me, through my
business, WriteYourBookWithMe.com. The excerpts are from the
Her memoir is now available in paperback and ebook formats
from amazon.com and from its publisher, outskirtspress.com:
BOOK TALKS AND SIGNINGS
Janet Johnson Schliff spoke at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, at Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY. I [DWC] attended, along with almost 40 other people. The talk was especially well received, with several questions at the end, as well.
She spoke at the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock, NY, at 2 p.m. on March 17.
She spoke at the Morton Library in Rhinecliff, NY, at 6:30 p.m. on March 28.
She spoke at RCAL in Kingston, NY, at 4 p.m. on April 3. I was able to attend. They gave her an impromptu book-launch party.
On 6/9/18 Janet will be at the Tannersville Library at noon.
On 6/11/18 Janet will be at the Gardiner Library at 6 p.m.
On 6/20/18 Janet will be at the Marbletown Community Center at 6 p.m.