How East Texas nurtured the importance of family in Tasneem Raja

The Tyler Loop co-founder Tasneem Raja shares a story about family in five parts at Out of the Loop, Season 2: True Stories from Tyler and East Texas.

Portrait by Jamie Maldonado

Part one: It’s a crisp, fall day and I’m a middle schooler growing up in suburban Philadelphia. It’s Saturday morning so you know I’m watching TV. Big-haired Bob Ross is on the screen, somehow turning weird little squiggles into a bank of majestic pine trees. And I’m just eating a handful after handful of Reese’s Pieces Peanut Butter Cups cereal thinking, “How did he do that?”

An ad comes on. A lady and a little girl are walking up the sidewalk into a house, and they’re holding hands, but they look kind of awkward about it, like they’ve maybe never done that before. And they get inside. The girl sits down at the kitchen table and the lady heats up a can of soup. She pours it into the bowl, it’s all nice and steamy.

And the girl takes a taste and her eyes light up and she says, turning over her shoulder, “Thanks, mom.” And the lady is obviously trying to play it cool. But she just kind of turns and locks eyes with the little girl and she just nods. The end. Two words: “Thanks, mom.” But I knew exactly what had happened in that ad. This was an adoption story. The little girl and the lady are becoming a family, and the soup is not just soup. It’s a symbol that these two people are embarking on a new journey together.

So growing up, I had always asked for baby dolls and played house with the other girls on the block, just to play along. And my next door neighbors, Susan and Stacy — we would play in their backyard sometimes on the swing set. And sometimes we would do this thing where they would chant the names of the little babies that they were going to have in the future. And they would have this whole, endless recitation, and I would make some names up on the spot too, just to fit in.

Inside though, I was like, “This is weird.” But sitting there that morning with the Bob Ross and the Reese’s Pieces Peanut Butter Cups cereal and that ad — suddenly a little light blinked on somewhere inside where it hadn’t been on before. And I couldn’t help but notice.

Part two: It’s around the week of Thanksgiving about a year ago, exactly this time. And my husband, Chris, and my beloved step son, Logan, and I are all piling in the car, because we’re going to go see a movie at Studio Movie Grill, and the movie is called “Instant Family,” and some of you might have seen it. It’s about three kids in foster care — siblings — who all get adopted all at once by a family, a couple in their late thirties who suddenly decide, “So maybe we should have some kids”. And so they adopt these kids, so, “instant family.”

Before we went to see the movie, I looked up some statistics about foster care in East Texas, because I was curious, and I was surprised by what I learned. It turned out there is a serious — in recent years, at least — there has been a serious shortage of foster families in our region. And in 2016, there were 1,000 kids in foster care in East Texas, but a lot of them were being sent out of East Texas counties, because there weren’t homes for them.

And experts in these articles were saying, you know, kids who are going through loss and trauma and transition — it’s really better, in most cases, if they can stay in the school that they’re in, oftentimes in their hometown. And that bothered me. I was really glad when Chris and Logan said, “Yeah, let’s go check out that movie.”

I met Logan when he was seven, about seven years ago. And in the beginning, he used to hold my hand all the time. We’d go to Target, we’d go to Stanley’s, and he’s holding my hand. And by the time we went to go see the movie that night, last year, it had been a really long time since Logan held my hand.

But that night, walking into the darkened movie theater, going down that hallway, Logan grabs my hand all of a sudden for like two seconds. He looks at me and he says, “You are going to cry throughout this entire movie, aren’t you?” And I said, already eyes wet, “Oh, yes.”

Part three: It’s Christmas time last year. And we just bought this beautiful, cozy, warm home in the Azalea district. Chris and Logan are hanging ornaments on the tree. The dogs are curled up at my feet and I’m clutching a mug of hot cocoa. And you would think I would be sitting there so relaxed and contented and happy and excited about everything that was to come. But I’ll be honest with you: I was sitting there panicking and restless and anxious and scared.

Family is hard for me, and it always has been. Some of you know this, but I have been estranged from almost my entire family for a very long time. I haven’t spoken to my parents in years and I don’t know when I will speak to them again for a whole host of very, very complicated and very, very painful reasons that I can’t get into tonight. And so holidays are hard. And here in Tyler where family and holidays sometimes feel a little more intense and a little more formal than other places I’ve ever lived, holidays have been extra hard.

But then again, I looked around at this little family that I had created here in Tyler. And the reality is that between me and Chris and Logan, actually, there are no bonds of blood there. We are already a family that is created through adoption and a blended family. And I came Tyler, made this — what seemed like an impossibly hard and scary and confusing and uncertain choice to leave everything I had known and come and live in this place, Tyler, Texas — to be part of this family. And even though at times it was really complicated and really kind of scary, it was absolutely the right thing to do. So I decided to just sink back a little deeper into the couch, feel the warmth of the mug of hot cocoa and the fire and the fireplace. And also the glow, that little light, somewhere deep inside that had never really turned off, but sometimes burned a little brighter, sometimes burned a little more quietly.

Photo courtesy Jamie Maldonado.

Part four: It’s late winter, early spring of this year, and Chris and I are lost. We are somewhere in the beige and fluorescent bowels of the — okay, I’m going to try to get this right —The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, I think — up on North Gentry Parkway and the loop. And we’re here for pride training. Pride training is a mandatory class that you have to take to become licensed as foster parents, and we finally find our classroom. Our instructor, Jenny, is this stylish, kind woman who happens to be British. It’s really a lot of fun to hear Jenny’s crisp accent leading this classroom of buttery, East Texas drawls. I really get a kick out of that. And over the course of the many, many hours that we will spend in this very, very drab room, we learn a lot.

We learn that the prescription drug abuse epidemic is the number one reason that more and more kids are ending up in foster care in East Texas. We learned about trauma-informed parenting, which means, yeah, we all think, “Oh just, love conquers all. You just got to love them hard enough.” Well, yeah, love is really important, but you have to learn new skills and new perspectives about the ways that trauma can impact a child’s development, and then you can really help them learn to heal and grow.

We learned to ask questions about where our decision and our desire to grow our family fit into larger questions of equity and especially racial equity in East Texas and beyond. There have been too many instances where parents have lost their children, not because they are the clear cut villains and abusers that they are often made out to be, but because of the sin of being poor. And I think most importantly, in many ways, for me personally, I learned in that class and also in my own hours and hours of research on these issues, the importance of hearing the voices of children who have actually gone through the system and parents who’ve had children go through the foster care system. It’s a lot easier, for a lot of complicated reasons, to hear from people like me — current and prospective foster and adoptive parents — than to hear from the other people involved in what we call the adoption triad. And I was really grateful to learn those lessons.

I will never forget the last night of classes. Our last pride class, Chris stayed up late into the night doing our homework, our state-mandate questions about our readiness to become parents. And there’s binders and folders in front of him at the dining room table. And I just kind of sat and watched. I know it doesn’t sound as romantic as watching your partner paint a nursery, but it’s a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Part five: when Jane meets storytellers to be in this show, one of the things she always tells them is, “Don’t feel that your story needs to be finished. Don’t feel like you need to tie everything up with a nice, neat little bow at the end, and then you’re ready to be in our show. Just tell us where you’re at right now.” Well, the reality is our story isn’t finished, our journey isn’t finished. In a few short weeks, Chris and I will probably be moving back to California where we used to live before, for an amazing new opportunity. It’s a bittersweet, but it really is the right move at this time. And we intend to continue figuring out the rest of the story.

Photo courtesy Jamie Maldonado.

Unfortunately, our hours of training and CPR certification and all of that good stuff, won’t transfer. We can’t take it with us to California, so we will have to start over in some ways. But I’ll tell you something. I actually wouldn’t have it any other way. These years I have spent in Tyler and Smith County have been incredibly important to me — incredibly important to me. I needed this time to learn what family means to me, and I needed this time to speak to, actually, many of you who I’ve seen here tonight, about my dreams and my goals and my hopes for growing my family. And I think without this time here with all of you, I wouldn’t be able to stand here tonight and feel that glow burning so brightly inside me. I’m grateful to Tyler and Smith County for giving me the time and the space and the resources to nurture and feed that glow and that dream. Thank you.

Have a true personal story about life in Tyler and East Texas you’d like to share at the next Out of the Loop storytelling event? Email storytelling director Jane Neal and describe your story in a sentence or two.

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.