Politics With Posy

How I taught my 18-year-old foster kid to get into politics when I can barely bring myself to read the news.

An older adult and a young adult both read the newspaper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Ranta Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Posy, my foster child, is 18 and a senior in high school. He’s bright, funny, sweet, sometimes inscrutable—a teenager, in other words, albeit one who has had it harder than most kids his age. He’s been with our family for six months now, and in his first week at school this fall, he brought home an assignment sheet, explaining that every week, for government and economics, he was supposed to find a news article dealing with local, state, or national government, summarize it, and write about the ways he thinks the issues in the article will “affect the populace.” Posy then informed me, his journalist foster dad, that he expected me to help him find those articles and figure out what he should write.

I wasn’t quite sure why this prospect filled me with dread. The assignment seemed designed to teach the kids how to process and read political news critically, and perhaps even develop an itch for it. I got into journalism because I love this stuff—or at least, I did. But I don’t even know what it would mean to love politics in 2018, much less teach a kid to love it too.

When I was Posy’s age, I took political science with Mr. Reynolds, a gruff, gigantic Vietnam vet who towered over boys and girls alike. He loved nothing more than stirring up his most argumentative, engaged students. His signature assignment was for us to choose an op-ed from the paper every week, summarize it, then write whether we agreed or disagreed. As a proud teenage opinion-haver, I was in heaven. I wrote about the national deficit (against it), the constitutional requirement to keep prayer out of schools (good thing), and all sorts of other issues of the day. The class sparked what would become a lifelong interest in politics.

At 17 or 18, I had a notion that for America to thrive, the left and right must be maintained in a perfect, Tao-like balance. I fashioned myself an independent thinker in this grand tradition, with all the invincibility of being young, white, and middle class. (I was also figuring out that I was queer, which would eventually complicate and deepen my political worldview, but it took a while to realize that the status quo wasn’t on my side, or to be trusted.) In some two decades since, it is fair to say my thinking has evolved, but I always maintained my love for “the discourse” and a civic sparring match. At least until the past few years. I still consider myself engaged, but who enjoys politics in 2018? Who wants to debate family separation or travel bans? Who opens the New York Times excited about what they might read? I still work in journalism, but my days as a cheerful interlocutor of political ideas feel long past.

That brings me back to Posy. It was now my responsibility to encourage an 18-year-old to take an interest in government and current events. It didn’t feel quite right to try to pass on the spirit of argument for sport and pleasurable political spectatorship from Mr. Reynolds’ class in 1996, not in this era of daily new horrors from our government. But I also did feel some urgency to teach him how to engage with the world. I kind of wanted to grab him by the collar and implore him (and his generation) to save our democracy. But that never works. And he’s taller than I am.

“So, what do you think about politics?” I asked Posy early on, just to feel him out. We were driving to school, which always feels like a good time to ask him questions, because he’s trapped.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “Like, it all seems really stupid, and it’s not something that interests me at all.”

Well, hell.

I needed a way in. One small-scale issue or area of policy to draw his interest, something to make him care. I started listing topics—maybe one would catch. LGBTQ rights? Not interested, to my surprise, because one of the ways my family had formed a bond with Posy was over our shared queerness. Laws telling kids where they could ride their skateboards or bikes? He audibly scoffed. Uh. Did he know that there were places that had laws against people sleeping in cars?

“Really? Like, there are still laws like that?” he asked. This, finally, seemed promising. After I dropped him at school, I searched “California law against sleeping in cars” and found a piece from 2017 about a restrictive map that had been drawn to keep homeless people from sleeping in their cars in most parts of Los Angeles, and later overturned by a judge, and texted him the link.

Homelessness, and the vulnerability of displaced people, seemed to weigh on Posy. When he read the article, he perked up. “Oh, this is good,” Posy said. “It says they voted to spend $1.2 billion to build affordable homes.”

“Hmm. That’s over the next decade,” I told him.

“And they probably couldn’t afford these so-called affordable homes anyway, if they’re sleeping out in their car,” he replied.

We were getting somewhere.

It took about three hours for him to write the first assignment once he started. He’s not a bad writer, which fills me with pride, although I can take no credit for it. My input, after choosing the article, mostly consisted of asking questions, fixing typos, and finding areas where he could elaborate on his thoughts. Posy wrote a full page on laws against sleeping in cars in Los Angeles. He thinks the city should spend more on homeless shelters and other direct services. I’d describe his current thinking as a bit more punitive toward the homeless than my own, with some “what they really need is a job” ideas. But the important thing was that he thought the issue through.

After homelessness, I found an article for the next assignment about laws that allow agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples in foster and adoptive placement. Posy wrote powerfully, from personal experience, about the need for queer youth to find homes where they can be accepted and understood. We talked about families of origin and families of choice, and how family has a special meaning for queer people like us. Around this time, we found out that he needed a topic for his senior project, and my wife suggested that he focus on LGBTQ issues in foster care. His plan is to develop  training materials for people in the foster care system about the needs of queer foster youth and the unique ways LGBTQ families can help them thrive.

Not all of my suggestions have been such hits. I thought at Halloween it might be fun to do something about laws that dictate when and how kids can trick-or-treat, and he turned in less than a full page. I would have loved that question when I was young. But parenting a real, live 18-year-old with opinions, ideas, idiosyncrasies, and traumas, many of which we’re still only beginning to see, isn’t a straight shot. There are challenges, and there are rewards. When Posy read me his essay about the need for same-sex foster parents, he reminded me of my old fervor.

I’m not sure yet if the season-long assignment had its desired effect on him, but in November, Posy completed a mailer ballot, voting in his first election. It was a surprisingly stirring moment—and a welcome reminder that there will be life beyond our political moment. I still haven’t grabbed Posy by the collar, but I am beginning to think he won’t need it.