When my son was six he begged me each day not to leave him on the steps of the large Brooklyn school house.
Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphanage [courtesy harvardartmuseums.org]
He hated his teacher. Fair enough. When the bell rang and the kindly police officer took my son’s hand and led him inside, my son looked back in panic and I’d have to turn away. I ended up homeschooling him that year but that’s another story.
When our foster kid was taken to a mental health facility after finding out her mother had given her up to the system she cried for days. We’d visit and she’d beg us to take her home. When she said “home” it was expressed with such profound yearning and pain it was hard for us to bear. Home meant with us or with her mother or with the last foster family who decided they could keep only her siblings.
A long time ago a six-year-old boy named James E. West took his last walk with his mother. I imagine it a quiet, tense one. Maybe James sensing his mother’s anguish held her hand a little tighter. Maybe Mother didn’t say where they were going for fear that young James would make it more difficult than it already was going to be.
Coughing blood into her soiled handkerchief Mother knocked on the orphanage door in Washington and left her boy with his large, panicked eyes on the steps as she raced away, unable to look back. She died three months later of tuberculosis.
When James complained of hip pain it took a while before he was treated for a tubercular infection in the hip. It took two years (one of those years strapped to a painful leg brace intended to straighten his bones) for him to be strong enough to get around on crutches.
Most boys were loaned out to work, but poor James with his weak leg was sent to sew with the girls in the sewing room. Across the street was a real school for normal kids and James spent many a sewing afternoon gazing out in envy at the kids with books and nice coats. A friend of his mother’s made the effort to lobby for James to attend school. And so he went and excelled.
James was one of those exemplary people who when fortune smiled his way he shared it. He begged the orphanage to open its library to the children and when they said the books would get too worn out James organized the children to cover every single book. Using the money he earned sewing he offered his fellow inmates a penny for every book they read. He taught himself how to ride a bicycle, graduated high school and left the orphanage as a staff member at age 19.
James studied law and passed the bar, never forgetting the children. When Theodore Dreiser hired him to oversee The Delineator Magazine “Child Rescue Campaign” for orphaned children James found his calling. Each issue featured an orphan and their needs. The response was tremendous. Requests to adopt poured in. People all over the country wanted to help.
I wonder what James thought. He was no longer a child and no one had begged to adopt him yet he worked tirelessly for others. Eventually he met the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington at The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He asked this question which revolutionized the way Americans looked at child welfare: “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents–aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”
The question is loaded, isn’t it? Worthy character, temporary misfortune, suitable homes . . . we still struggle with the messy, horrifying realities of child abuse, neglect and poverty, yet there are little known boys and girls who rise up despite their misfortune. There are men and women who nudge the system to send a child to that school across the way.
James West gives me hope.
Essay inspired by The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage by Dale Keiger