Literature has long been fascinated with fostered, adopted and orphaned children, from Moses to Cinderella to Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. So why do many parentless children feel compelled to hide their pasts? Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay tells his own moving story. (Filmed at TEDxHousesofParliament.)

Who is he:

Lemn Sissay is an award winning writer, living in Great Britain. He was brought up in the U.K. within the foster care system, and wrote of his experiences for BBC radio. His presentation was widely acclaimed and nominated in 2010 for the Sony Award.

Why you should listen:

In our country today there are over 400,000 children in foster care. Many have been abused by their parents and removed from the home, only to end up in situations that were at least as bad if not worse.

Lemn Sissay tells of his experiences, as he experienced the system and ultimately was reunited with his birth mother. It is a story of courage and triumph – truly a story worth sharing. His is a story of adversity, but also a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Sissay says that many fostered or adopted children keep their histories hidden. Why do you think that might be? Is there any evidence to suggest that this is changing?
  2. Has the attitude toward unexpected pregnancy (for a young unwed mother) changed much since the 1960s? How? Do some research to support your conclusions.
  3. After having lived with his foster family for 11 years, he began to act out. This got worse after being sent to four different children’s home in a four or five year period. As a psychologist, to what would you attribute this behavioral shift?
  4. What goals does he have for his life? Can you imagine that his life could have turned out quite differently? Write about alternative paths that could have been taken and alternative outcomes.
  5. Create a piece of visual art that is representative of his feelings during the turbulent teen years.
  6. Create a poem that puts those feelings (see question 5) into words.

Making Connections:

This NPR presentation discusses the problems with foster care, but it also points to some of the successes:

A child of the state with Lemn Sissay


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