Since my father died, my inner light, the one that helped me see and feel, went out. I lived in a dark space, not unhappy, really, just dim. Shapes had lost their outlines, love had lost its purpose, and all the things that used to matter to me no longer did. Like a moth at twilight, I flitted silently, aimlessly, looking for any bright spot to move toward, searching for a spark that would brighten, however briefly, the nebula of my inner space.
Then I met them, those vulnerable teens struggling to find meaning in a world of uncertainty, the sons and daughters of mostly Mexican immigrants attending SOS, an alternative Watsonville high school for children who would otherwise fail. The message they heard every day was one loud assault. You are not wanted. You are not loved. You are not smart enough, white enough, or rich enough. You don’t belong here. Go back to where you came from. An immigrant myself, I had heard similar messages as a child, but never ones as potent and deadly as those blasting through our country today, landing on young minds like missiles of hatred and defeat.
As part of the Young Writers Program, I was one of the volunteers asked to help the students write about, of all topics, social justice – something they had never experienced. But they had all endured social injustice, and their stories were poignant testaments to its belittling and bewildering consequences.
M was the youngest of thirteen children, a large boy with stooped shoulders and soft brown eyes that darted away when someone spoke to him. He had brothers who had been or were in gangs, and a mother determined to keep him from that path, a mother so strict that he seemed to flinch when the teacher admonished him in any way, in what had to be a learned reaction. He told me he couldn’t write, but then he did, about racism in law enforcement. It took a while for him to get started, and when he finished, after several weeks of effort, he was proud but reluctant to make many changes. Changes would have implied criticism, and criticism would have meant failure, a trigger to total shut down. So I let him shine, as he should but probably seldom did. “I am responsible for everything I do because I am a student,” he wrote, “so why not the police?” Proud that he had finished first, he opened up and helped his friends with ideas and suggestions.
Beautiful J, with long brown hair, chestnut eyes and an easy smile, usually sat next to M. I could tell that he liked her, a lot, and her cheerful banter put him at ease. His sarcastic observations, delivered in a random, laconic way, were funny, and she always laughed. She tried to explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor, which he already knew but pretended not to, and he made up silly examples to entertain her. I was startled when J told me that severe anxiety had kept her from attending a regular public school. Even here, she had started and stopped several times. Largely home schooled, she lacked grammar and spelling skills, yet excelled at expressing herself easily and fluidly. She, too, wrote about police prejudice: “One time my father got pulled over because he is the color of Nutella. The officer asked him, “Did you steal something today?” And my dad answered, “No, I’ve been with my kids all day.”” The police made them all wait in the car until they determined he was not “the dark man in his late 30s” they were looking for.
B, I was told, was “special needs,” and a solid-looking woman sat nearby in the classroom, assigned to him for what seemed to me no apparent reason. He had a mischievous smile and an innocent eagerness, the complete opposite of what I had been told to expect. He said he wanted to write a poem, like rap. He did several drafts, and I helped him find the words that rhymed and rearrange them in poetic order. He was thrilled to pour out his view of the politics of hate he sensed all around him, the reality of living in a community where a knock on the door could be the Feds, and no one was safe, not even in school. His pride in the poem he wrote was so real and so moving. On the last day, he read it out loud to the class. “We will rebel/We will never let them kill/What our people have done/And the freedoms we have won.”
When F joined our group, the session was almost half over. At first, he said nothing and sat with his head bowed, his golden-hued face and almond eyes half-hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. As he slowly began to trust me, he poured out a story of his arrest for tagging, and how to him tagging meant freedom and excitement and self-expression. I suggested he write about it, as it was what mattered most to him, and he was surprised that I thought so. I sat next to him at first, and he dictated while I scribbled down his words. I told him writing was just that, putting on paper the words that come from your head and heart. This essay, he wrote to me later, was the first he had ever written:
“Instead of putting us young graffiti writers in jail or on pointless probation, why not encourage us to express ourselves by creating our art somewhere safe where we won’t be judged as criminals by authorities? Why not give us sketchbooks and pens and let us draw? We could spend probation hours drawing and learning instead of picking up trash. When we are treated as criminals, we eventually become criminals.”
If F fails to beat his second offense and gets charged as an adult instead of a juvenile, he will go to jail. What a terrible waste of a gifted and passionate artist. The path from drawing on a wall to surviving as a gang member is not that long when the odds have always been against you.
What these kids needed to hear was that their stories were unique and interesting. Their stories mattered. Their lives mattered. As the weeks went by, more and more students failed to show up for class. The fear of ICE in this farming community left a trail of shattered faith and family chaos. All the good done by Charmaine Ryan, the remarkable teacher whose whole life is dedicated to helping these most fragile of students, could not shield them from the forces of racism and hatred.
A was another beauty, intelligent and verbally engaging, but her haunted brown eyes held the secret shame of sexual abuse, the private injustice that cannot be rectified. Her mother left when she was four and never returned. Abandoned so young, she and her brother went to live with an aunt, and it was there that an uncle began molesting her. When she finally had the courage to speak up, no one took it seriously. No one wanted to believe her. After all, he was family, and you don’t expose family, especially in the Mexican culture, where family is everything.
The best educated of my group, A prided herself on being a good student. I asked her why she wasn’t at a regular high school. She told me that she, too, suffered from debilitating anxiety that made navigating a typical school environment, especially as a Mexican American, impossible. She had internalized fear, her own post-traumatic stress disorder, and it kept her trapped. “I wanted to leave/I wanted to fight/I knew it wasn’t right/All I feel as I run down the hall…/The fear of his hands on me as I fall.”
After the class ended, I would remember their trusting eyes as I read and reread their thank you card: thank you for your time and kindness, thank you for pushing me to do better, thank you for all the help…I needed it. What they didn’t know was that I was the one who needed help. They were the ones who made me feel alive again. They were the ones who helped me know that my own life mattered. Thank you, gentle souls, for letting me share your light.
To learn more about the Young Writers Program, go to youngwriterssc.org. Volunteers are always needed. You can also help by purchasing a book of students’ writing at Bookshop Santa Cruz.