A Brief Profile of Raymond Diggs
(and how the white-washed 'overcoming adversity' story arc can make us feel nice but can miss some important truths)
When I ran into Raymond outside the CVS downtown, I noticed right away that he seemed different. He wasn’t the kid I remembered from back during our community bike rides from Cherry Street, the one wearing the same over-sized hoodie every day, on-and-off-again in drama, often just around “hanging out” all day, and who wouldn’t quite look you in the eye.
He now simply held himself with a different air; looked like he had chosen his outfit with care; was proud to catch me up on what he’d been working on; and couldn’t stay to chat too long because he had things to attend to. A young man trying to get his shit together.
You know, a tidy piece fleshed out with a heartbreaking backstory, framed by a character-development arch and wrapped up with the bow of a bright and hopeful future: the kid of color from the poor city & broken background overcomes the odds!
“I hope my story will help everybody to change. That’s my big headline: “Change. Success. Live through the struggles.”
Now if that's not a pullout quote, I don't know what is.
Talking to Raymond made me think about the other side of the story arc, about how much someone can ever really recover from a youth of chronic trauma, about how much we expect of young people like Raymond, really -- and how much work it takes to meaningfully participate in a society that wants to punish you just for being you, anyway.
About how, when he succeeds, the non-profit social services that helped him will use him as marketing material in their newsletters, over-emphasizing their roles because that's how you get resources (I've done it) and that while Raymond will have benefited from their help, he'll also have succeeded despite living in a society where he was, from birth, set up in many ways to need their help.
And, can you ever fully sand down the sharp pieces that you've needed to wield your whole life to survive trauma? Or even get to the point where you want to, risk your protection, your edge? I made friends with a gentleman named Jim who I met at the library recently. We connected over an art book he was reading, and he was working on writing a Miles Davis album review for the 'zine.
We cooked him dinner at our house a few times and listened to some music and the birds together. He's homeless and carries a pocket knife. He cannot enter into a shelter with the knife, which made total sense to me. Until he pointed out that, on the many night he can't get into the shelter because the line is too long, and is out by himself again, he no longer has his knife and is unprotected in more than one way. So, rather than risk losing his knife, he doesn't try to get into the shelters anymore.
But Back to Raymond
Raymond’s biological mom died soon after giving birth to him, and his father died a year later. He grew up in the foster care system, “being abused in every way.”
He spent much of his childhood protecting himself and his little sister who has an intellectual disability and is deaf, “I was her rock.”
School was his safest place. One time, his mom didn’t want him to go to school, fearing teachers would see the marks of her abuse, so Raymond jumped out of his bedroom window and caught the bus. He showed his teachers, and later the police saw. But still, nothing happened and he remained with that foster parent. “It’s how the world works. Not a lot of people pay attention.”
He remembers his first charge of breaking and entering. He had just moved into the type of suburban neighborhood where all the houses look exactly the same and he walked into the neighbor’s front door by accident. The neighbors immediately called the cops on him. I asked him if he thought it’d be different if he had been white, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
He got out of incarceration for robbery over a year ago he didn’t have a place to stay, which wasn’t the first time he was homeless,
“I first started being homeless at the age of 18.” He had run away from his foster home and stayed with his girlfriend, “I didn’t know who to go to. You don’t know the next time you can eat, use the bathroom, shower. I slept literally in the snow with a sleeping bag behind the shed.” He got sick a lot, too, from living like that.
When in interviewed him, he was staying at a friend’s house. He barters his share of rent for helping her with her kids, taking them to school and picking them up afterwards.
Raymond’s working on getting his high school diploma and wants to continue on to RACC or another school to study business. He can’t study his first choice, criminal justice, he told me, because he can’t pay for the process to get his record expunged. His record makes it hard for him to find a job, too. But he decided to go back to school and start to get his life together because he wants to be a good role model for his kids, “I just got tired of [living like how I was]. [I thought that] my kids are going to look at me like I’m worthless. I buckled down and got myself into school and did what I had to do.
I thought, “I’m getting too old for this. I’m turning 27. It’s time to shape up or go back to jail and I’m not trying to go back to jail.” I told myself that I need to start doing something or I’ll be a failure to society.”
But in addition to his record and minimal support for aging out of the system, overcoming a lifetime of neglect and abuse isn’t so simple or easy,
“My anger grew more and more and I take it out on everyone. I try not to but the anger gets the best of me.” He’s working through his trauma but it’s hard to find someone who can ‘get it.’ He’s seen therapists, but none of them have actually been through anything remotely like what he’s been through and it can be hard to connect with them, “I tell them to switch shoes with me, and then come tell me what you feel.”
“I still have dreams to this day about my childhood...people ask me, ‘Why do you act this way?’ I tell them, it’s a long story, and you wouldn’t understand.”
Raymond may move, partly to be closer to his kids and significant other, and partly because he thinks it might be a fresh start to get away from Reading for a while. But, he wants to come back to Reading to open a shelter, with integrated programs like sports teams, job search help, schooling, counseling and health care. He’d emphasize teaching life skills where clients would also learn how to cook, how to manage money, how to drive and how to survive. He experienced the 18-year cut-off and knows how hard it is,
"Once you hit 18, it’s over. You have to fend for yourself. I basically had to learn everything on my own.” So, his dream program would focus on helping people transition out of the current system for minors into young adulthood.
So, here we come to the ending and you can choose your own: the neat and tidy wrap-up bit, or the ambiguous and authentic bit:
Raymond sometimes struggles to leave behind the behaviors that kept him alive during all those tough years not that far removed, “I grew up fighting. I had to learn how to fend for myself, so I did. I’ll still fight someone if I have to.”
Raymond dreams of continuing his education and coming back to his home town to give back, “When I see a teenager who is homeless, I remember how me and my homeless friends went through it together. I want to give the people something to look forward to. I’m trying to do better by the community.”
I believe in Raymond. And I don't think those endings are mutually exclusive. Maybe, both endings can be, and will be, true.