Let the Music In

By Dawn Downey

I tore open the unexpected package from my brother and a curled photo dropped into my hand. A slow breath slipped through my lips, when I recognized the teenaged girl whose fragile image I held. The wrinkled collar of a tan shirt framed her sallow face. She looked away from the camera into the void. On the back of the picture, my mother’s handwriting noted, Dawn – 1966 Age 15. I longed to forget this girl. But the mysteries behind her gaze crept into focus like an uninvited song remembering itself.

“High yellow bitch,” high school classmates screamed as they followed me home.
“You ain’t shit,” they yelled. But I already knew it.
“Do somethin’ with that pitiful head!”

We’d moved that year from Des Moines to Pasadena, California. The other girls taunted me for reasons I didn’t understand, and called me names I’d never heard before. As I slunk home with my eyes focused on the sidewalk, the voices stalked me like a pack of feral dogs.

Threats and P.E. were the joyless bookends of my 10th grade existence. And the dismal luck of the draw gave me first period swimming. The water turned my hair to sheep’s wool. I hid it under a brown headscarf until the end of the day. Once home, I headed straight for the bathroom to fight my hair.

“Dawn, what are you doing in there?”
My mother would not leave me alone.
“Don’t you have homework?”
10th grade was the year I got straight D’s.

So they shipped me off to Upward Bound, an academic summer camp for urban teenagers. We were destined to be the first in our families to make it to a university - that is, if we made it through high school. I lived at Occidental College in Los Angeles, with 49 other red, yellow and brown-skinned misfits. The federal government labeled us “high potential low achievers.” It was a kinder description than what I heard from my parents.

At Upward Bound, we spent our days in class, learning how to learn. We spent our evenings on field trips, learning how to live. One such journey introduced me to the ballet. When we stepped off our school bus at the Hollywood Bowl, the scent of night-blooming jasmine hung on the cool California air. The summer sky had not yet fully blackened. We marched, in too-tight shoes, to seats so far back that I couldn’t tell there were swans in Swan Lake. Miniature figures clad in bright colors leapt and flew and spun across the stage. Tchaikovsky seduced me. My tentative spirit unfolded to accept his embrace. At first I squinted to see the dance—then closed my eyes to imagine.

Worlds outside and inside me unfolded that summer. I released the breath I’d been holding all year.

Teachers introduced me to culture, but girlfriends introduced me to “cool.” They taught me the power of black eyeliner. They helped me cough my way through my first cigarette. I learned - if a boy smiled at me - to look at him sideways, scowl, and walk away—slowly.

On the afternoon of our first chaperoned party, we gathered in our lounge to trade clothes and do hair. We tossed skirts and dresses across the couches. Bottles, jars and shoes littered the floor. The room smelled of nail polish and perfumed lotions.

A dark-skinned junior from Jefferson High School turned my damaged “do” into a proud and towering Afro. I sat on the floor between her legs while her fingers danced across my head. When her knees pressed against my shoulders and her hands tug at my hair, the acerbic voices of the past year receded.

Conversation filled the room like soul music on a pricey stereo. Citified soprano sassiness played against the low slow rhythm of country drawl.
“You tender headed?”
“Gi-i-r-r-l-l that is so cute on you.”
“M-m-m, that boy is fi-i-i-ne.”

And then they taught me how to dance. On the radio Martha and the Vandellas wailed, "Nowhere to run to Baby, nowhere to hide," and everybody jumped up. With rollers in my hair and boys in my head, I stepped steps I never stepped before. The high yellow bitch disappeared. The feral dogs retreated

At the party that night, when Stevie Wonder sang I Was Made to Love Her, a short, skinny boy took me by the hand. He strutted onto the dance floor and I trailed behind him. When he turned to face me, the music told my body what to do. The borrowed dress swayed around my legs and I forgot to be afraid.

Decades later, I taped the photo to the frig and traced the sad, pre-Upward Bound cheek with my fingertip. The dancers-actors-writers I became whispered thank you—for those first brave steps that let the music in. I glimpsed my reflection in the glass cabinet door - the face lit by fiery crystal earrings and a scarlet blouse. Stevie Wonder played in my head and a molten rhythm oozed through my hips. I danced through the rest of my day.

First published in Skirt! Magazine. © Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.


Dawn Downey is the author of “Stumbling Toward the Buddha, Tripping Over my Principles on the Road to Transformation. www.dawndowney.com

My Year at the Shelter

By Terra Trevor

The year I worked at a group home youth crisis shelter with runaway, homeless and foster youth in transition, are strung on a ribbon of memories as if it had been one long unending day.

Although my shift didn’t begin until 8 a.m., I always arrived a bit early so that I had a few minutes to check in with the kids before they left for school. Opening the big white front door, the scent of coffee greeted me. There would be a plate of scrambled eggs or pancakes warming on the stove, and a rush of teenagers stuffing books into backpacks. Girls, with their faces pressed against the hallway full-length merrier checking details, made last minute adjustments. When I first began working at the shelter that’s where I discovered my way in—getting to know the girls one-on-one, by doing what mothers say and do in the course of the getting-ready-for-school routine. Offering compliments, wishing them good luck on tests, helping the girls feel great about themselves as they began their day.

Usually the boys slept longer and stumbled into the kitchen, leaving barely enough time to grab a pancake before they headed out the door to catch the bus. So my opportunity to grab a quick chat with them needed to happen after school. Which is why I always stayed a few minutes longer after my shift ended in the afternoon.

The house, known as the “shelter,” was located on a tree-lined street in a working class neighborhood. It was impossible to drive by and guess that this home was different than all of the other houses on the block, unless you watched the comings and goings, because it was a licensed residential group “home” to as many as eight kids between the ages of 10—17 on any given day. It was a long-established home, active in the community for over 35 years and a trusted refuge and resource for youth and their families, with services available to the community 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This meant that an in-take—meaning a new resident, might arrive in the middle of the night, so each morning brought a surprise to see who the newest resident might be.

There is a 24-hour crisis hotline and frequently an intake began with a crisis call. Though intakes could also stem from a drop-in visit from a youth, parent or guardian, and intakes were also often precipitated by a phone call from Child Welfare Services or law enforcement. The phone rang constantly. An average stay at the shelter could last anywhere between three days and three months. Every word and deed was case noted and documented. At the beginning of our shift the first thing we did was received change-over information so that we knew what had occurred all day and all night with the kids and within the house.

The program is a Therapeutic Milieu. Consistency is key, with a continuity of care, the staff working as a team, just like parents do in the best of families. It was a structured family-like environment where the meals were home-cooked and everyone sat down together to eat. The kids did their own laundry and schedules were posted. The was a daily house meeting, the kids had chores that rotated on a weekly basis. They could earn an allowance based on their behavior and level in the program. There was homework time in the afternoon, with a staff member available to offer help. After dinner a group activity took place like board games or a watching a movie together.

Each day followed a planned routine, because if you didn’t keep the kids busy, they would keep you busy. It was the kind of family-like environment every child should be raised in, and it was a foreign world to the majority of the teens who were placed there for care.

Like the majority of the staff at the shelter I had majored in psychology. But the real reason I was hired was to serve as administrative assistant, to help with the volumes of office paper work that is necessary for running a group home. Since I was working in an office that was situated just off the living room area, in addition to administrative experience the job also required me to possess many of the qualifications required of the counselors who worked directly with the kids.

I hadn’t expected the boundaries between office paperwork and the kids would be blurred as much as it was because there were always two residential counselors slated to be on duty on each shift. Yet there were days when one had to drive a child to a doctor or dentist appointment and the other had called in sick, and I was needed to assist with the children.

Although I didn’t have any prior group home experience to my credits, I was the only staff member who was a mother. What I knew then about parenting was gleaned from being a mom for 29 years and from raising three kids, who are now adults. My husband and I raised our youngest daughter from infancy, our son came to us through adoption when he was 1-year old with special medical needs, and our oldest daughter who was adopted at age 11 had spent the majority of her childhood in foster care. 

There were very few parenting situations that I hadn’t experienced. When our oldest daughter joined our family she had moderate to severe unresolved emotional and behavioral problems stemming from abuse, neglect, deprivation, rejection. We had years of what felt like at the time as getting-no-where counseling. Never one to waste money, or admit defeat, I spent those sessions discovering my own thorns—we all have them. I’m an instinctive mother with lots of hard won experience. But I didn’t know everything I needed to know about parenting, and within the weekly staff training sessions I began to get a jump-start on learning. The trainings were a favorite part of my week. Finally I was receiving the training I needed to be a parent. Even though my own children were now grown, the new language skills I was acquiring brought us to a new level of better communication.

I looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to work. My office life at the shelter, with the constant noise and interruptions, was delightful. It reminded me of home. The pattern with the clatter of kids nearby was exactly like my work as a writer along with being a mother when my three children were growing up. Except now, instead of writing books and magazine articles, I worked on reports and filed paperwork all the while keeping a keen eye and ear tuned so I could catch any mischief, or heart trending moments when a child needed extra attention.

Each day instead of taking my ten-minute break and lunch hour alone, I chose to spend my time with the kids. When you work in a residential home youth crisis shelter there is always at least one or two kids in the house at any time of the day needing a snack, or needing someone to listen.

Because life goes on, even when you live at a shelter, there are intimate moments etched in my heart forever. Ben, whose real name has been changed to protect his privacy, ironing his shirt, getting ready to go to his senior prom, poking his head into my office door, beaming, showing me his new jacket. The snatches of conversation between us on an important day in his life, like mother and son, only we were not. Jeannie, whose name is also changed, discovering that she loves to write, has a talent for it, begins writing short stories and poems and asking me read them. Rachel, name again changed, who grew up in one of the toughest of tough situations, a mean girl, hard girl, letting her guard down around the house, showing her soft spots, loosing her edge, turning into a darn good cook, and become a caring, generous person, on her good days.

The one thing you can always count on in a shelter is change. Beginnings and endings, someone arriving and someone leaving. Staff did their best to make sure there was closure when it was time for a child to leave. If they knew ahead of time a special dinner would be prepared. There is never an easy way to say good-bye to the kids you treasured.

Which is why I felt sad each time a difficult kid left and everyone in the house was glad to see them go. After a thorny child departed the other kids had a wonderful way of banning together, dropping their defenses and coming together as one cohesive group, and for day or two life at the shelter would be easy and smooth. Then another child would arrive or leave and the cycle turned again.

Although I imagined working at the shelter until I was a very old person, one day it was my turn to leave. The economy had changed, funding was tight and in a budget meeting a decision was made to eliminate my position. On my last day I found a cake awaiting me, baked in my honor. A few of the kids and all of my co-workers presented me with homemade cards, each one carried a paragraph or two of sincere words recounting warm and funny memories. That was something the shelter was famous for; the personal touch of always assembling their own “homemade” thank you, birthday and good-bye cards.

At the end of my shift before I walked out the door I sat on the floor for a few minutes with a couple of the kids I had a close relationship with. We sat cross-legged in a circle; everyone was loose limped, all but me. I on the other hand couldn’t quite force my fifty-eight year old knees to lie flat on the ground and we said our good-byes. Tears streamed down the face of the toughest of tough situation, girl, the former hard girl who had begun to let her guard down. Then she said, “Each one of us will leave here eventually, we’re all just passing through. At first I thought I’d hate it here, and I still want to leave, but instead I’ve decided to make the most of my time here.”

Perhaps it is wishful thinking but I believe I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes, and that her sense of what is possible had been expanded. She had been able to let herself cry, instead of hiding her pain behind sharp words, and that was a good enough of a start for me.

Before I left I spent a few minutes wishing the kids good luck on homework assignments they had completed, and helping them feel great about themselves as they began their night. As I walked to my car I thought of all the ways this one-year had changed and shaped me. Although I didn’t want to leave, more importantly I’m thankful for the opportunity I had. And every night since I’ve been thanking my lucky stars, grateful for my year at the shelter.

First published in Fostering Families Today. Reprinted in The Huffington Post.

Copyright © 2011 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.


Born in California with roots in Colorado and Oklahoma, Terra Trevor is a widely published writer, author of a diverse body of work, a contributing author of 10 books, and an editor at River, Blood, And Corn.

Her work has also appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and literary journals online. terratrevor.blogspot.com

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel