• Cary Martin Shelby

The Myth of Slipping Through the Cracks

Updated: Aug 9, 2020


Slipping through the cracks is not what it seems. It’s more like squeezing yourself through a narrow concrete tunnel that you intuitively know is impossible to fit through. Protruding columns of jagged rock formations obscure the sight of the tunnel’s end. Every strand of logic urges you to forgo even trying. As you look over your shoulder, throngs of crowds are screaming the same chant of surrender. Crowds that represent the status quo. Negative statistics bear down on your chest.

I hastily decided to defy my logic out of sheer desperation. The abuse burned through my will like acid, but I just had to crawl towards college to give myself one last shot at dignity. The poverty made me feel perpetually hungry, but law school provided me with a rare opportunity to provide for my family in a way that no one else could. Foster care almost catapulted me to self-destruction, but I just had to pursue academia to further chase the vision of womanhood that ignited my dreams.


Making it to the other side of each tunnel felt far from triumphant. There was no one on the other side cheering me to the finish line. Grave, yet invisible, wounds would form across my body from the concrete scraping against my skin. An exhaustion that sleep couldn’t cure engulfed me in a thick cloud. When the loneliness hit, it almost took my last breaths away. There was no one on the other side who fully understood my journey.


And the crawling never seemed to end. Once one tunnel ended, another one formed right in its place, even when I could still see my blood dripping from the walls of the previous one. It seemed as if my very presence created a dense web of never-ending tunnels. Persisting through so many tunnels made me feel as if years were being taken from me, like a rose that began withering long before it was supposed to.


Attempting to deconstruct why I survived each tunnel is a tunnel in itself. Raw intelligence is simply not enough. Grit, coupled with a willingness to persevere, still isn’t enough. Perhaps the abuse numbed me to the constant pain of the concrete rubbing against raw wounds. Maybe it taught me how to adapt to a broken system. Or maybe it was sheer luck or happenstance from the people who miraculously helped me along the way. Trying to understand why they helped me is yet another code that is impossible to fully crack.


My survival could have also resulted from my willingness to leave others behind. To peel away anything holding me back from moving forward, even if it hurt me. Even if it seemingly hurt them. When I think about who I left behind, I am overcome with grief.


Although my life’s tunnels have not yet ended, they have fortunately become easier to navigate. Tools of a spiritual nature have provided me with new surges of optimism. For instance, I am increasingly empowered by the justice that inevitably results from having a voice and using it. I've come to learn that injustices often reside within interlocking grids of silence. Giving and receiving love has further provided me with endless opportunities for healing. There’s nothing quite like the rejuvenation that comes from untainted love, and I am eager to spread the love that I have so generously received. Moreover, I am driven by the hope that others will continue to realize just how inhumane it is to rely on such a system. Where survival depends on "slipping" through a never-ending stream of rigged cracks, tunnels, and canyons.


I'm elated to see that my hope does not exist in vain. The system is improving incrementally. Illinois no longer calls children the demoralizing term, "wards of the state", but rather, "youth in care". Legislation has been introduced to expand access to housing waivers to youth who are emancipated from the system. I am deeply grateful for the advocacy that has been done on behalf of our community by organizations across the country. Yet, there's so much more work to be done. We are suffering.


While each individual must ultimately decide how and whether to move forward, we owe it to ourselves to make the process of doing so more humane. There just has to be a better way.


By: Cary Martin Shelby

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