Schooling | My Journey Through Foster Care, Part 8

It was my fear of being trapped in a miserable life forever that drove me to complete my schooling.

Paul Knowlton May 23, 2016
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I know the futility of trying to concentrate on school work while being mentally exhausted and emotionally bankrupt. I also know the fear that later drove me to end my prejudice against schooling and embrace education as the means to reverse my foster care legacy. Notice that I make a distinction between schooling (having to slog through school, a story I share here) and education (acquiring useful knowledge and wisdom, a story I share next).

Without delay, let’s acknowledge that many foster youth are in good situations and able to perform academically at least as well as their average non-foster classmates. For that first group of foster youth, there’s little or no reason they can’t rise to the challenge and perform well in their K-12 schooling. Then there are the remaining foster youth. The youth in this second group aren’t performing academically as well as their average non-foster classmates. I can point to significant gaps in my K-12 schooling that sprang from being a foster child who was moved yearly.

This second group, in which I traveled, should consider a counter-intuitive approach to their schooling. From an insider’s perspective, effective education is all but impossible when all your mental resources are at capacity thinking about your parents, missing your siblings, fearing or hating the people you live with, fighting with classmates, and dodging the teacher trying to grope you. At least that’s my experience and, given the experiences others have shared with me, it’s nothing unusual. Any one of those distractions by itself is a substantial barrier to effective education, let alone piling them all on at once. So how was I saved from not dropping out?

By the start of my high school sophomore year, I was so tired of schooling that I knew in my heart I couldn’t endure three more years. For several weeks I stopped trying and started planning to drop out and go to work in a motorcycle shop. But then a couple of things happened in quick succession that helped me realize that if I dropped out, my adulthood was going to look worse than my childhood. Take a moment and try to comprehend the piercing fear of that realization to someone with my childhood. To continue with sixty or more years of the same misery?! I simply couldn’t face that prospect, which literally scared me into knowing I had to finish high school. While I don’t recommend being driven by fear regularly or long term, I’ve learned to go with it when it’s the only motivation I’m given to save myself.

But now I was in an even tougher bind. I couldn’t endure three more years, but neither could I drop out. What could I do? The answer presented itself not long afterward when I met a girl in my high school who was a year older and graduating a year early. When I asked how she could skip a year, she angrily explained that she was sick of school and got help negotiating with our principal to finish a year early. I never learned why she was so angry, but I’m forever grateful to her for paving the way and handing me the solution to my problem. Although I knew I couldn’t do three more years, I felt I could do two.

Within what seemed like a few days, after meeting and negotiating with our principal, I had newfound hope in the form of a plan. I traded in study hall and elective classes for a full schedule of mandatory classes and added summer school to get in the remaining classes. Now I just needed to do the hard work of executing the plan. Foster youth can’t afford to slack off when it comes to rescuing themselves just because doing so is hard work.

Working hard, I soon came to an important understanding. Much, if not most, of what I was being taught in high school was useless, which made it all the more difficult to care, so I stopped caring about the information itself. And that was okay because, from my insider’s perspective as someone in that second group of former foster youth, what I was learning wasn’t the point or goal of high school anyway. The point of high school seemed to be to acquire the discipline I lacked through the routines of studying, taking tests, and meeting scheduling demands. The goal of high school seemed to be to receive a diploma that was the proof of that discipline.

Given my situation and options, I’m glad I took my perspective and counter-intuitive path. I think foster youth who are questioning the usefulness of high school shouldn’t be told they’re wrong, but shown how to win at the game. I won. It might have been nice if I could have enjoyed an easier journey, but I’ll never know. I do know the easy journey just isn’t available to many foster and former foster youth.

During high school, as I concentrated on the practical side of preparing myself for independence, my dreams of acquiring useful knowledge would have to wait until later. Gratefully, those dreams were later realized in college, in law school, in seminary, and in my everday life as I commit to being a lifelong learner.

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Paul Knowlton

Writer, speaker, and thought leader Paul E. Knowlton is a former foster youth turned lawyer. In 2004, as the author of The Original Foster Care Survival Guide, he introduced and has since advocated for a better way to prepare foster and former foster youth for successful adulthoods, which includes mentoring, self-assessment, modeling wisdom and spirituality, and teaching critical thinking and leadership. Paul’s formal education includes degrees in engineering, law, and theology. He can be contacted through his website.


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