This week's Fosters had more unexpectedly positive moments. Tara and I are looking forward to digging into the disability representation in this one...
JESUS AND FAMILY - FAMILY MEETING - LIVING ROOM
Mariana: You should have SEEN Stratos's face when Mama busted him!
Stef: [To Lena] We're very proud of you.
Lena: Well, I got a big assist from Mariana.
Tonia: I was glad to hear Mama mention this, not only in front of Mariana, but in front of the other kids. It will give her a boost that she can trust Moms next time.
Jesus: What's...gonna happen to Nick?
Lena: Well, I waited with him until his parole officer showed up, and then he took him to a halfway house.
Tonia: I'm sure it's a big relief that Nick isn't just out and about...
Brandon: What happens if he tries to call Mariana again?
Mariana: Well...I'm getting a new number for one. Mamas already know.
Tonia: Awesome and about time. Seriously. You've had that same number for way too long, and he's had a direct line of contact to you. Glad that's finally being addressed.
Callie: That's a good idea.
Lena: Yeah, and Mariana did the right thing by coming to me FIRST and not going to see Nick. So, let that be a lesson to all of you.
Tonia: And again here. I've heard (in a past job working with kids) that adults in a child's life should "praise a child ten times more than you correct them." Because the criticism sticks as truth while the praise is that much harder to take in and believe.
Brandon: So, uh, is that it?
Stef: No, actually. We would like to talk to you guys about Jesus.
Jesus: [Presses his lips together. Half-shrugs. Seems nervous.]
Stef: We need to change the way we've been treating him.
Lena: It's called 'ableism.' We've been expecting him to control things that he can't and keeping things from him that we assumed he couldn't handle. Like what happened with the treehouse and with Emma.
Tonia: So, we pretty much freaked out when we heard them talking about this. I know I was totally expecting more family stuff like "Mom's birthday's this weekend. Party in the backyard!" Not, "We need to be sure we are all on the same page about not being ableist to Jesus anymore."
The disabled community often gets left out of conversations about discrimination. I have never heard the word 'ableism' spoken on TV before this episode of The Fosters. I never dreamed I'd ever hear a conversation like this, where parents have not only realized their ableism but make sure to follow through and talk to their kids about it, too. My hope is, that as it was only a mention, all the kids left and looked up ableism on their phones later, for a more complete picture of what it is.
Tara: I loved seeing the family's treatment of Jesus addressed. And instead of being preachy, I found the less-is-more approach surprisingly effective. Because, as Tonia said, the kids are all old enough to Google (and so are most of the viewers), so they can then find more information if they so choose. But in order to see a problem, you need to know a problem exists. Ableism exists.
Mariana: We were just trying to protect him.
Tara: Very real to see Mariana's justification here.
Lena: That's what we THOUGHT we were doing, but we were actually just underestimating him. [To Jesus] We weren't letting you be in charge of your own life.
Tonia: I liked that Lena addressed Jesus here.
Tara: Thank you, Lena. This is a great start.
Stef: So, going forward, we're all gonna need to be a little bit more patient, honest, understanding. [To Jesus] We're gonna follow your lead, bud. But that means you gotta let us know what you need, yes?
Jesus: [Nods] Okay.
Tonia: Trusting Moms again after months of abuse is not as easy as expecting Jesus to let them know what he needs. I understand where Stef was coming from, letting Jesus know that they need him to give them a heads up in order for them to know how to help. But...he needs to know it's safe to do so.
Maybe with biological kids, safety is implied in a remark like this, but I guarantee you - for Jesus (whose background is steeped in trauma) - it is not.
Tara: The thing about letting Moms know what he needs is that Jesus himself may not know right away. Brain injury survivors often have a Before to refer to. In the Before, if things weren't clicking for us, it meant we had to focus more. Try harder. Study longer.
And in the After? Focus may not come. Trying harder yields nothing but frustration. Studying longer may actually be a detriment, when factoring in cognitive fatigue. So, in the After, what actually needs to happen is adaptation and accommodation. And that can take some trial and error.
(In the case of writing these recaps, we first wrote them the day after the show aired. Too often, I was disappointed in the quality of writing I was producing in the time constraints. As time went on, we realized that if I had one extra day to process and gather my thoughts, I was able to be much more cohesive. Another accommodation I eventually realized I needed? Larger font. Not because I could not see it, but because larger font means less text to filter on-screen at a time. I am 20 years post-injury, and I am still figuring out what works for me.)
Another thing to consider here is the aphasia of it all. "You gotta let us know what you need" sounds good. But with aphasia, it is not that simple. Jesus may need specific one-on-one opportunities to discuss his difficulties and what he may need with Moms. He may need them to ask him questions. (One question at a time.) He will need them to give him time. To understand that he may not always have the words to tell them. That he may not know what might help him in a certain situation.
(PS ^This is when having disabled adult friends could come in really handy for both Jesus and Moms. They could network and see what has worked in similar situations for people who experience the world more like Jesus does.)
Stef: Okay. Back to homework. BEFORE electronics. Please.
Mariana: [Puts a hand on Jesus's shoulder]
Brandon: [Pats Jesus's knee]
Callie: [Rests a hand on Jesus's leg; looks him in the eye.]
Jesus: [Smiles at Callie]
Tonia: The siblings all touching and connecting with Jesus here is so meaningful. For a long time, they were very distant from him. Brandon and Mariana were even actively fearful of him. Callie, particularly, taking the time to look Jesus in the eyes stood out to me. It's like she sees him. I'd still love to see them able to really connect at some point. Maybe over their shared love of art?
Tara: I also noticed that most of the siblings went out of their way to touch Jesus here. After months of isolation, I'm sure this meant a lot.
[ALL THE KIDS STAND TO LEAVE; JESUS STANDS, TOO]
Lena: Jesus... Just, uh, one second... [Waits until everyone else leaves and she, Stef and Jesus are alone. Then Lena stands, too.] I wanted to let you know that I heard what you said about David...
Jesus: [Looks down]
Lena: ...being so awful and I'm really sorry. He will not be coming back.
Tonia: This makes me wonder...was there a subsequent conversation about David Being Terrible? Has Jesus told them how David kept him for an undetermined amount of time, forcing him to finish a math test when he was clearly past his limits? Because Jesus saying only that David was "annoying" does not translate to "awful" automatically to me. Perhaps they spoke more after support group?
Tara: Yes, I was wondering this as well. It does seem likely that a subsequent conversation was had.
It should also be said that this is not a case of Jesus being spoiled and Moms bending over backward to placate him. As an aide, David was at best useless and at worst abusive. Jesus was well within his rights as a human being to make his concerns known to his parents, who did the right thing by essentially firing him.
Tonia: Also, Jesus is still so ashamed about David. And that's the thing. You are constantly mistreated by people (in this case, an aide) and on top of that? You are made to feel that it's your fault. If you would just fix yourself, try harder, focus, then everyone else's life would just be easier. My heart breaks that he feels like any of this is on him...but it makes so much sense that he does.
Jesus: Wait. So, no... No para...professional?
Lena: Well, you still need someone to help you manage your homework and your classes...
Jesus: Can YOU do it?
Lena: [Surprised] Uh...yes. Yeah. Okay. Sure.
Jesus: [Smiles] Okay. [Hugs Lena] Thanks, Mama. [Takes his glass of water and leaves]
Tara: So, Jesus asks "No paraprofessional?" And Lena does not tell him, "Actually, you still need one." Remember the whole debacle with Emma and the ring? Clear communication, people. Let's make it a thing.
Not to mention that this is clearly something that needs follow-up conversation. Moms should be sitting back down with him and figuring out what worked and what didn't for Jesus. (Yes, they would perhaps still be held to the IEP/504 Plan for legal reasons, but it would be nice to see what they could do within those limits.)
Tonia: This hug instantly brought me back to the countless times since Jesus's TBI that we have heard his family say they "miss him" or they "want their sweet boy back." Because as Tara has said many times over these past months: He Is Right There.
He never went anywhere. His warmth and sweetness. His kindness. They have all been right here within him. But he was being forced to use all of his energy in the past months to cope with a constant onslaught of abuse. So there was no time to breathe, much less try to communicate what he would prefer, much less express his relief at being heard.
It also strikes me that a hug is perhaps a Big Reaction to a small action. But when you have been surrounded as Jesus has been by misunderstanding, lies, control and fear, feeling heard for the first time in months? That does feel huge.
And a hug feels necessary. (He is likely so used to being treated badly that now - at the appearance of being heard - being treated with respect feels like it's this Big Amazing Thing.) Not sure if the show was meaning to hit all these nuances, but I'm noticing them nonetheless.
Having a break from the ableism, being heard, being spoken to with respect? These basic human dignities can feel almost obscene, especially if one is used to just not having human stuff. Our level of gratefulness feels gross but often we cannot stop it. Not only are we feeling it but we are told by those around us to feel it. (I once had a woman tell me it was "so nice" that Tara brought me a plate of food. Even after I'd said "thank you", this woman persisted in telling me how it was "so nice" of my sister to bring me food...but was it? Access to food is a basic human need...)
[STEF AND LENA WALK TO THE KITCHEN]
Stef: Are you sure you can do your job and keep an eye on Jesus?
Lena: That's what I should've been doing all along.
Tonia: Yes, it is, but you didn't really answer the question, Lena. Which makes me nervous.
(Also, I'm so relieved that this is the only instance we see Jesus being discussed behind his back.)
Tara: Careful, Stef. You're veering perilously close to "Jesus is a burden" here.
JESUS AND LENA - MATH CLASS - THE NEXT DAY
Lena: [Walks in]
Lena: [Approaches Jesus's math teacher at his desk]
Jesus: [Is just behind her]
Lena: [To the teacher] Hey.
Math Teacher: Hey.
Lena: [Hands him a folder] This is just a little literature about traumatic brain injuries to help you better understand what Jesus is dealing with.
Tara: Looks like Lena is overcompensating here, which makes sense. Sometimes, we overcorrect before realizing that things can be done in a more understated but still respectful way. (I appreciate what she is trying to accomplish with the folder as far as advocacy, but it may just overwhelm Mr. Math Teacher to be given it before class even starts.)
Jesus: [Watches. Seems a little pensive.]
Lena: There's also a copy of his 504 Plan and a list of accommodations as well.
Tara: The teacher should have (and would have) had the 504 Plan and would have been to Jesus's IEP meeting before the terms starts.
Tonia: True, but I can give a little leeway here.
First, because there were times that a particular teacher could not make my IEP meetings. They would always try to come but timing did not always work out. So, it is possible Jesus's math teacher did not show up at the meeting.
And secondly, even if Jesus's teacher was there? Lena's being thorough. (Maybe too much so with all the TBI research...) but she's right to follow through here, IMO. Just because a teacher may have been to a meeting, has a copy of the IEP and knows a student's accommodations does not mean he will adhere to them. (Though, to be fair, this teacher seemed to be respectful of Jesus's limitations so far.)
Math Teacher: Oh... Uh... What happened to his paraprofessional, David?
Lena: Uh, he didn't work out, so I'll be assisting Jesus. Oh, and also, short-term memory is a problem for Jesus...
Tara: "Oh, and also, Jesus will need accommodations to help him with short-term memory."
^This may seem nitpicky, but when your disability is constantly framed as a problem or a struggle or an inconvenience, it impacts the way you see yourself. This type of wording makes it more difficult to successfully integrate your disability into your identity. (And whether you choose to integrate it or not, disability will be part of your life, no matter how hard you work at overcoming it. And that's okay.)
Jesus: [Looks back at his classmates here. At least the ones in the front are close enough to overhear Mama's loud whispering all about how his brain injury affects his short term memory]
Lena: ...so, if you could please print out his homework each day..
Jesus: [Still taking in his classmates, mortified]
Lena: ...as well as any in class work for the following day, so he could be prepared, that would be really helpful.
Math Teacher: Yeah, sure.
Jesus: [Ducks his head]
Tara: Lena, I feel as if you have overwhelmed Jesus before class has even started. (He can hear you!) That is so much to filter and process. (This conversation could have taken place in the privacy of her office before school.)
Tonia: I like that Lena respected Jesus's privacy with regard to the whole David situation, but she needs to learn discretion when talking to teachers about his symptoms, especially in front of other students.
I like that we see Jesus's perspective here. That he's worried about his classmates overhearing his medical information. As a child, as a teenager, as a human being, all we really want is to be able to do what everyone else is doing and get the same respect. Jesus knows that his peers overhearing this will impact how they treat him.
Lena: [Turns to Jesus] Okay. Where do you wanna sit?
Jesus: [Whispering] Wait. Are you--? You're not gonna, like, SIT with me in class...are you?
Lena: Well, not for all of them, unfortunately, I have my own work to do. But I will drop in on your other classes and see if you need anything. [Motions to the only open desk, in the front by the door] Is this good for you?
Jesus: Yeah. [Sits]
Lena: [Loudly moves a chair so it's beside Jesus's desk]
Jesus: [Sits ramrod straight and leans away from Lena.]
Lena: [Pats him on the shoulder]
Tonia: Lena, remember when Stef said Jesus needed to let you know what he needed. He is letting you know. Respect his hesitance at having you sit at his side through all of math class. Respect the fact that he's clearly uncomfortable having you sit with him for the duration of math class.
At the very least, I'd have thought there would be some follow up convsersation with Jesus about what "helping him manage his homework and classes" actually means. Because, I guarantee, if Jesus knew this is what Lena meant? He would not have asked her to help him.
Tara: Lena... Oh my... Once again, your response to Jesus was far too long without appropriate pauses. You're giving him no choice but to "yes" you out of overwhelm.
This is going to be a learning curve. I'm hoping Moms add some disabled adults to their social circles soon.
JESUS - WALKS IN THE KITCHEN - AFTER SCHOOL (LENA, MARIANA, POPPY AND LENA'S FRIEND, JENNA, ARE ALL THERE)
Lena: Hey, honey. How was school? Do you have your homework?
Tonia: This was such a welcome change from last week's after school greeting. She seems happy to see him. (Maybe too many questions right off the bat though???)
Jesus: Uh... I--I got some of my classes. But I forgot math.
Tara: Tonia asked whether Lena asked too many questions. Notice that Jesus only answered the most-recent one.
Tonia: His honesty at what he forgot here... You can bet he's afraid to admit this. What is Mama going to do? Is it going to be his fault?
Jenna: [Waves at Jesus]
Lena: [Sighs] Craig is supposed to remember that. [Takes out her cell phone]
Tara: That sigh. That disapproval. Ultimately, Jesus knows if only he remembered his math homework, that Mama would not be disappointed. That Craig would not be apparently getting chewed out over the phone. That sigh feels like it's about him.
Jesus: [Steps forward, alarmed] What-- What are you doing?
Tonia: Again, Lena, with the "letting you know what he needs." Watch his nonverbal communication (especially right after school when he is exhausted).
Take him aside when it's quiet (after he's rested, even better) and ask him how he'd like you to handle these things.
Lena: They're all supposed to be supporting you.
Tonia: Wasn't math the class you were assisting Jesus in, Lena? If the homework got overlooked there, that's on you, ultimately, isn't it?
Tara: ^THANK YOU!
Math Teacher, Craig's, Voicemail: Hi. You've reached Craig. Leave a message. [BEEP]
Jesus: [Looks exhausted. A little scared. Stuck. Clearly, he wants to say something to Mama, but he can't.]
Tara: ^Aphasia. We are seeing again and again how it is nearly impossible for Jesus to let Moms know what he needs in any given moment. :( And people generally don't see a moment like this and say, "What were you going to say? We have time."
A more appropriate course of action with the teacher would be:
#1. Double-checking that she had written the homework down, as she was the in-class aide during math class.
#2. But again, as this was the first day and mistakes happen, a private meeting at school between Craig and Lena to ensure they're on the same page and these things don't get missed.
JESUS AND BRANDON - KITCHEN - THE NEXT DAY - (STEF'S BIRTHDAY PARTY IS GOING ON IN THE BACK YARD)
Jesus: [To Brandon] I don't know, dude. She called the teacher AT HOME. Okay, I know that she's trying to help me out...and all...but having a MOM in class is WAY WORSE than a para...
Brandon: Well, remember what Moms said, I mean, how they're trusting you to tell them stuff...
Jesus: How am I supposed to tell Mom she's bugging?
Tonia: I thought it was super notable that Jesus is talking to a sibling about something he's dealing with at school, but also found it glaring that Brandon is nondisabled and therefore isn't in the place to really advise Jesus about what to do in this case as disabled people's experience of the world is so different from nondisabled people's.
Tara: Ablesplaining - Ablesplaining is a patronizing "explanation" of any aspect of disability from someone who does not have the lived experience of being disabled. An ablesplainer's opinion is often shared without request and with a grossly inflated sense of entitlement. Don't be an ablesplainer. (Urban Dictionary)
^Cough Brandon cough
Tonia: Jesus brings up such a good point here:
Because again, Moms have told him he needs to tell them what he needs, but when he tries (verbally or nonverbally), they don't notice or think they know better. No one has told him how to navigate this. More importantly? No one has told him it is safe to speak up.
And while Moms brought up the ableism that was common knowledge in front of the other kids, they did not mention Mama threatening to institutionalize Jesus if he did not behave as she wanted. This is always on his mind. This is his biggest fear. He needs to know how to bring this up so he'll be heard and he needs to know the bottom won't fall out of his world when he does.
I really, deeply appreciate that Jesus's hesitance about this is shown. It's a real issue, as disabled people are most often not born into families with disabled parents. So we don't have people to advise us about our unique struggles. Other minority groups often find their community ready made in their family members, or can connect with strong support systems. But often with disability, we cannot.
I really want to see where this goes.
Tara: And again, this is where becoming more involved in support group and/or the disabled community would come in handy. Those in his community would have ideas about how to navigate aphasia with parents. Maybe we see Madison (who spoke during group) again? Maybe she and Jesus start to form a friendship?
WHAT ABOUT STEF?
Tonia: For the past few episodes, we have also seen Stef coping with what appear to be panic attacks. These progressed from brief instances of losing her breath in 5x10 to having to leave work early and having a panic attack by herself in her room in 5x11.
In this episode, we see Stef's anxiety has come to a head. She frantically scrubs a pot three times to reroute her anxiety (and then finds a clean dish to scrub once Lena leaves the kitchen.) She's tense and cannot open up to Lena or anyone about what's wrong.
But we hear from Mike (in 5x10) that "This happened all the time when we were married. You'd forget to breathe." Brandon also mentions in 5x12 after offering to play piano for her that it's something he had done in the past to help her deal when she got stressed. After lying on the couch and hearing Brandon play piano again (maybe letting her guard down a bit) this happens in bed that night:
Stef, at this point, does not have a specific diagnosis, but I wanted to comment on the fact that her panic attack - specifically in 5x11 - was super well done. I have only ever experienced one, but it was just like that. I've read in a couple places just how authentic others who experience panic attacks find this portrayal, and I tend to agree.
I'm glad, at this point, she has told someone. And I look forward to seeing where her story goes.
Tara: I also like the way we have seen Stef attempt to deal with her mental health issues alone, not unlike the way Jesus has been trying to manage his TBI largely alone until recently.
All in all, I'm very pleased with the way the show has been progressing these last few episodes.
Please let us know if you have questions or comments! Thanks for reading!
For more: Disability on The Fosters