The room is set up when I arrive. I feel scattered and fatigued, yet eager to learn. It is the second day of the Digital Storytelling (DST) workshop, a week-long program developed for teens in foster care and offered every summer by the agency I work for. The purpose of the program is to empower teens in foster care or adopted, to give them voice and a platform to tell their stories via digital storytelling. There are two female teens, one of whom I already know from the adopted children’s group, participating in the program this year. Typically, there are more teens. A handful of adults are also present who will be the guides, the program supervisor, who is also my supervisor, the program director and another staff person whom I have not yet met. She has a blonde bob with a bright red streak on one side. I learn that she has helped with the DST program since its inception nine years ago and was the previous adopted children’s and teen group facilitator before I came on board. We are all social workers. There is one other staff person from Admin. She presented her story at our last All Staff meeting, including a short film about her experiences. She has a history like many of the kids we serve in foster care, abuse, neglect, loss, but never went into the system. I give the teen from children’s group a hug as I enter the room, surprised to see her. I make the mistake of calling her by the wrong name. Darn it! I am convicted immediately as she looks at me as though I have three heads. I am full of apologies, annoyed by my own poor memory. She had recently been placed into a new foster family at the start of our children’s group. The family wants to adopt her.
I missed the first day of training and am a little behind. I am surprised when my supervisor asks if I would like to create my own digital story, as I came fully prepared to assist with the teens. The thought is, If I am to help facilitate the program one day, I will need to participate and experience it personally. My other co-worker from Admin is also creating her own digital story, as she hopes to use her story to convince our CEO to roll DST out to all of our regions. I am happy to participate, yet feel pulled towards helping the teens with their stories. We are each assigned our own Mac laptop to work on during the week and are using a program called Final Cut Pro to create our digital stories. The program combines video footage, voiceover, text and music to create the final product.
The first step is to write down what the words “family” and “adoption” mean to me, like in word cloud fashion. Everyone has already completed their word cloud and is now working on their narrative, or voiceover, which is limited to 800 words. This is the story our audience will hear. I write down “Family” in the center of a blank white piece of paper. I have mixed feelings and thoughts about family and find it difficult to bring words to the front of my mind. I have three families, my adoptive family, my birth family, and my own family. Slowly, I begin jotting down words: “Love, fun, togetherness, history, memories, vacations,” the positive stuff. But, I also associate family with hurts. I add, “unknowns, adoption, doors, unsafe, character, forgiveness.” I take out another blank piece of paper and write “Adoption” in the center. Words immediately flood my mind, enough to fill a book!” I write quickly, “ignorance, distance, secrets, othered, voiceless, fog, woundedness, shallow, loss, anxiety, separation, identity, blanks.” I add, “healing, strength, power, groundedness, journey, culture, reunion and distance.”
Since I missed “Story Circle” yesterday, my supervisor invites everyone to come together so that I have the opportunity to share my words and decide what part of my story to tell in the digital storytelling. We go to a corner of the room situated with a few armchairs, which provides a more intimate setting. I wish that I had heard everyone else’s sharing, as I’m not sure where to begin, exactly how much to share about my story. So I start by reciting a few of the words I’ve written down. I am asked questions by my co-workers/guides that encourage me to tell more, and I fill in the blanks. My supervisor is curious why I chose the word,”unsafe,” related to family. I share that I did not always feel safe in my adoptive home. My mom went into rages, often yelling, sometimes throwing things, especially during my teen years when I was struggling with fitting in, acceptance and identity. The more controlling she became, the more rebellious I became. I was cautious about the words I chose when sharing, as I wasn’t sure how the teens might take in what I said. I didn’t share that I hated my mom during that period of my life. I didn’t share that she pushed me backwards so hard once that I fell onto my bed (better that than the floor), and she shook me so hard that my shirt ripped. I didn’t share that she yanked my telephone out of the wall once and threw it across my bedroom while I was talking to a friend. I didn’t share that my mom and dad abused alcohol and smoked incessantly, which really bothered me. I didn’t share that I was terrified of my mom. I continue and talk about “secrets,” how my adoptive parents hid my adoption contract and true identity from me. I learned on the day of my mother’s funeral that I was not Japanese and Vietnamese as I grew up believing, but Chinese. This I learned from my adoption contract, one of the many secrets dispelled that day.
What happens next comes as a huge surprise. I talk about coming to a place of understanding after giving birth to my daughter. I understood how much a mom loves her child, the lengths she would go to protect that child. I share regrets, that I never had the chance to make things right with my mom before she developed Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to recognize me. I can say now that I believe my mom did the best she could raising me considering her generation and lack of education related to raising a child of another race. I was not an easy teen to parent. Suddenly, I am crying. I have carried regret and sorrow for so many years because I never told my mom that I forgive her, and I never asked for her forgiveness. “I think that’s your story,” my supervisor says gently. I’m astounded. I never connected forgiveness to my story. I was unaware. Many people ask if I feel angry towards my parents because they hid and possibly lied about so much of my history. I am not. If anything, I feel sad. Sad that my parents did not feel they could share these things with me. But given all the conflict and hurts in our family, it’s no wonder. Things had a way of being swept under the carpet. One of my co-workers, the one with the red streak in her hair, adds, “You said that your mom did the best she could with so few supports. But, you also did the best you could during those teen years. You managed in the best way you knew how.” This is the first time anyone has ever pointed that out to me, and I am greatly comforted. I didn’t expect to share so much of me during this workshop. I’m wondering what the teens are thinking as I’m crying and processing my own past hurts.
Over the next few days, we are busy shooting footage and compiling photographs to incorporate into our digital stories. We’re encouraged to use the footage and photos metaphorically to illustrate parts of our story and to avoid simply stringing personal/family photographs together to make a slideshow. This is the story our audience will see. Once our narratives or voiceover tracks are laid down, photos and footage are dropped. Finally, we add music and text. I am frustrated by slow Internet connection and buffering, which makes it more difficult to complete my project. It’s a bit like editing a podcast. In the end I have created more of a slideshow than a digital story. But, what I have gained overall is much more valuable to me than the actual digital media. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is such an integral part of my adoption story. I am struck by the fact that healing from adoption continues. There are parts that will always be tender. As my wise and compassionate co-workers remarked, adoption has many, many layers of complexity. And, I am grateful to work for an agency and with staff who truly understand that.