I didn’t know I was going to be a Big Sister. Now I don’t know how I could not be. Lawyers are trained to advocate for others. In almost four decades of practice, I’ve represented death row inmates and indigent parents as well as mega-corporations. I’ve done my share of organizing fund raisers and serving on charitable boards. I thought I had a sense of my clients’ problems.
Then came Deshaun. A friend was receiving a community service award. When I interviewed her for our bar association’s newsletter, she described a troubled family for whom she’d become a sort of guardian angel. A mother of ten had abandoned the kids. Grandma, though unhealthy, tried to pick up the pieces. The kids struggled. Seven-year-old Deshaun had flunked first grade.
“I think I could teach him to read,” I told my friend. Before long three other volunteers also agreed to tutor.
There weren’t any books, let alone bookshelves, though the house was full of TVs. Laundry and junk food wrappings were everywhere. Waves of half-siblings, cousins, and pregnant girlfriends bounced in and out. Broken toys and candy packages littered the yard. Home-cooked meals meant microwaved frozen burritos; the younger kids used a chair to reach the controls. There were few dishes and less furniture. The noise level was horrendous. I couldn’t concentrate, so how could my pupil? Yet it was only the tutors who noticed any of this. For the kids, this was daily life.
The guardian angel friend suggested Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS).
BBBS offered structure and social workers. My role was not to teach Deshaun (who actually could read, though he couldn’t add two plus two), but just to be a stable presence for him. That meant rooting for him at youth football games, taking him to the beach, regularly feeding him orange chicken and white rice (but heaven forbid, no green vegetables), taking the family to the pumpkin patch at Halloween, walking through the mall, enjoying an air show. And even though being a big sister means a one-on-one relationship, it often meant including two or more siblings who had no Big but wanted to come along.
As devoted a presence as I tried to be for Deshaun, his life was far from secure, let alone normal. His mom came back, but squabbles with her drove Grandma away. One of the kids’ fathers (there were four dads for the ten kids) reentered the picture after his release from prison.
There were ups. The mom got a job at McDonald’s; we celebrated when the first kid from the family in generations graduated from high school; there was a raucous, joyful wedding for the mom and the former prisoner.
There were horrendous downs. One night, the mother called me in hysterics. The donated family van blew a tire and, without a spare, the mother gave a neighborhood man all her cash ($37, I think) to fix it. He took the money but did nothing. I picked the mother up and spent my weekend trying to find a cheap retread.
Deshaun’s ninth-grade brother was nearly expelled from school for fighting; I went to the school meeting with the mom. The grandmother was hospitalized. The mother broke her glasses, and—since she couldn’t work without them—I paid for repairs. She lost the job a few weeks later anyway.
The new husband vanished with the kids’ Christmas present video game. He came back a few weeks later, and he and the mother had a violent argument. She ended up in jail while he took off with the van. The kids were left at home with Deshaun’s 19-year-old brother and his girlfriend, who had recently given birth. I found myself buying diapers as well as groceries for the four days before the mother was released from jail, not to mention checking up on the kids, who were being supervised by the 19-year-old (who suffered emotional problems from having been shot as a small child while his father was murdered in front of him).
There was a new crisis weekly, and it went like that for 18 months. Then the grandmother called to tell me that the mom was back on drugs and Granny was taking the kids out of state—the next day.
I hear the kids are doing better in school.
For my part, I was exhausted by the time and money I spent on the family. I swore I’d take a break. Within two month I was back at BBBS ready to be matched again.
Last night I went swimming with my 11-year-old Little Sister. Though she lives with an ex-gangbanger relative, her life is calmer than Deshaun’s. Yet she just told me her 15-year-old sister (who, unlike my Little, lives with their mother) had been sent to “jail” for 11 years. I asked why.
“For stabbing someone,” she said. “She had to defend her homies.”
As Bigs, we do not judge, but we hear a lot. Far worse stories are common among my fellow Bigs.
As lawyers, we’re middle class. We handle one case and go on to the next. We rarely have ongoing relationships with clients. At least, not with this kind of client. But as a Big, you can’t help becoming part of the family. It’s impossible to keep up the invisible shield of objectivity that allows a lawyer to be effective no matter what the client faces.
What happens to our Littles and their families shocks, more so when we realize there are thousands or hundreds of thousands of Deshauns out there. We middle-class folk would crumble in the face of any one of their lives.
How can I not get sucked in? Do I just say, “It’s not my problem?” Of course it is.