(We are beyond blessed to welcome Ed Shoemaker to the Massachusetts Parents United team. You might want to grab some tissues before reading his story and why parent advocacy is so important to him.)
By Ed Shoemaker
Education has always been very personal to me.
I was born in Montreal before I moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts and I had attended all French schools where you would get in trouble if you spoke English for the teachers would not be able to understand what you were saying.
Looking at me, most people would never know that English was my second language. (My Latino friends, does this sound familiar?) Although I spoke English at home, the majority of my life was in French. My thoughts, my dreams, and my understanding of the world were all, “en francais”.
From a young age, I was curious, energetic, and kind.
But my mother had a drug addiction that caused me to change schools frequently as she changed boyfriends — all of whom beat the hell out of me on a regular basis. At first, she would try to shield me but when that lead to her ending up on the receiving end of physical abuse, she quickly learned to join in on the action.
I don’t have many memories of my father, but luckily the ones I do are good. He taught me a love for hockey by watching Habs play and even bringing me to the Molson Center for a game to cheer for Patrick Roy. He taught me a love for reggae making sure I knew all the words to all the Bob Marley classics. Most of all, good old throwing the ball around, roughhousing and wrestling.
By the time I was 6, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and put on medication — but things didn’t improve. Once my mother forced fed me almost a whole bottle once because I was making “a ruckus”.
Shuttled back and forth between parents, my father’s girlfriend had a strong distrust for Big Pharma (for which I don’t blame her) and took it upon herself to concoct a herbal remedy that caused bed wetting, loss of bowel control, and occasional projectile vomiting.
All of which meant a severe beating.
Then it was back with my mother, and back to the United States. Desperate to escape living with my mother again, I told the Border Patrol agent that we had 1 million dollars in the car. This almost resulted in my mother’s arrest due to a small number of drugs in her possession.
Needless to say, another beating.
When I got back to Nantucket, it was during the winter and school was not in session. Every day I would get dropped off at the library from open to close.
I later learned that it was because my mother would spend the day drinking and smoking crack. (At least she had the decency to drop me off first).
The thing was, I knew cursive, I knew how to read and write very well, but only in French. I could speak English, but I may as well be illiterate. During this time, I taught myself how to read and write English at the age of 7 and a half.
It still blows my mind. But I know I was only able to do it thanks to a librarian who helped me get started on a series of computer programs to learn to read from scratch. One was themed after The Busy World of Richard Scarry, one was Franklin, and the other was Arthur. After I worked through these programs, I could actually read and write.
After living with my mother and her partner on Nantucket for a year and a half, things began to get worse. In fact, my mother called the Department of Children and Families herself and asked them to take me from her custody. Instead, they sought to support her and give her the tools she needed to keep me in the home.
My mother wasn’t happy but concocted a plan. You see, I had always wanted to camp in the car. So when my mother finally capitulated to the idea, I was happy — even if it was close to the end of February.
I awoke to lights flashing and banging on the car window. When I got out I was confused, I told the officers I was camping in the car. When they walked me to the door of the house and attempted to investigate my mother answered the door drunk and yelling “he’s not allowed to sleep in this house!” I stood there confused — and then whisked off to a home off the off the Island.
After that, I was in 12 homes in 2 weeks before I was moved to a shelter in Yarmouth. I was angry — so angry. In fact, I was so angry that I decided I didn’t want to turn 10 years old and attempted suicide.
From there my life went from bad to worse. I went from home to home and placement after placement until I aged out of care and was homeless at 18. From the time I left Nantucket Elementary until I started my first of five high schools, I received no meaningful education (coaching DCF kids to pass the MCAS aka practically giving us the answers doesn’t count!)
The one major thing I had going for me was my intellect and survival skills. From a young age I was able to grasp some concepts very quickly while my peers struggled to understand. And because I was a survivor, I found myself in a position that I could advocate for myself and others very successfully.
Whether it was a peer being taken advantage of because he didn’t know his rights or lobbying the powers that be to take us on a fun trip, I quickly learned how to squeak in order to get the grease.
After I aged out of foster care I started facing many of the problems societal problems folks read about — poverty, homelessness, and hunger — all without a safety net. Experiencing all of that and getting through it only hardened my resolve to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
This led me to want to study political science to better understand to systems and processes that make up and inform our government, our body politic, and our democracy. Throughout my career in politics and community organizing, I have mentored and advised countless former and current foster youth so that they can learn how to avoid the pitfalls that propel so many into a common statistical reality. Improving statistical outcomes do not happen in a lab or on a spreadsheet. They occur one caring conversation at a time.
What I have found is that systemic inequity and structural racism compound just about every struggle. Arming parents with the tools and they need to advocate for their themselves and their children and overcome societal challenges is how we hit at the heart every issue.
The children are our future, that is why I believe so strongly in supporting parents. I fully understand the differences our children face when parents lack the skills and abilities to advocate for themselves — or who are ill-prepared or just not equipped to give their children a strong foundation. And I know that we can break these cycles — and change things for our children.
Most importantly I believe that these issues are best worked on by people who have skin in the game, have experienced hardship, and can help navigate others through it. As a new father with some major goals for my family and my son’s future, I am proud to join Massachusetts Parents United to work for all of us to have a stronger voice for our families and to break the cycle of poverty and violence that so many of us have had to endure. (And I’m excited to work on Keri’s team as she is a fearless and tireless advocate that I have looked up to for some time.)
The future can be different for our children. But only when we decide to work together, respect those who have first hand experience and listen to what they bring to the table.