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Who is Avonte Oquendo?
“Attempting to transform “our taken-for-granted frames of reference” into frames that are “more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8) is especially challenging when the transformation involves deeply held beliefs about one’s basic self-concept or identity” (European-American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness, 2005, p. 121).
“The NYPD is looking in previously searched areas for Avonte. Police have scoured train stations and subway tunnels to find the mute, autistic teen because he is fascinated by trains.” (abcnews.com)
I need to write about Avonte. No, I need to write for Avonte.
Not because Avonte Oquendo has been missing for three weeks, though it troubles me. I need to write for Avonte because when I google his name all that pops up are news articles about the what and when. What happened? He ran away. When? During school. I need to write about Avonte because very few articles talk about who he is, what he thinks, what he feels. He is a subject we talk about, instead of a person who is a valued member of society. Oh yes, he is autistic, and mute. We need to find this child who “suffers from autism” as I keep hearing on the recorded subway message every day. I need to write for Avonte, because for me, he has become a symbol of the youth who remain silent in our city.
Perhaps it is because he represents the silent, those who cannot defend themselves, that if we find Avonte, we can sleep at night. We saved him! But saved him from who? There is an implicit message is: Avonte cannot save himself. He is running away because he doesn’t know any better. Forget that he might have run away because his school was boring. In the media, he is presumed incompetent. His story becomes irrelevant because it has already been constructed by the news outlets who so desperately call for his return.
Yes, Avonte is labelled autistic, and yes, he does not use oral communication. Still, how should we conceive of knowing Avonte? One mode that we privilege in our society, verbal communication, is not his chosen mode of participation. Some articles refer to him as mute, others says he is non-verbal (an often used term in New York City’s special education discourse). No one writes about him. As a fourteen year old boy, one with a story to tell, with preferences, with thoughts and feelings. Since they cannot be communicated through speaking, they remain unknown—at least in the mass media. I imagine if you spoke to Avonte’s family they would tell you quickly, his favorite food, the shows he watches on TV, what subject he likes in school. There are many other modes of participation, different modalities for telling ones story.
I worked for three years as a teacher in District 75, the special education district in New York City. My first year we received a grant that gave us materials and resources (Teaching Artists) to support our students in writing a musical. The youth at my school wrote the play, music, lyrics, made the sets, designed the costumes. The opening song: No one wants to be forgotten, no one wants to be left behind. Sad, lost, mad, frustrated. I want to hit something. I never forgot those words because that was the first time I realized how I was constructing the identity of the youth I was working with. I would argue the same type of identity constructions happens with court involved youth. I think as the quote at the beginning states that it is only through examining our own beliefs and identity that we can begin to transform. Why do we allow Avonte (and other youth) to be constructed as silent? How do we stop treating youth as subjects and develop capacity oriented models by which to re-imagine and understand youth.
I hope that more people write for Avonte and I hope that he finds his way home. Mostly, I hope at some point in the not so distant future we get to hear his story.
Avonte Oquendo left his school is Rego Park, Queens, three weeks ago. For more information about Avonte Oquendo please read the following article: http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2013/oct/17/find-missing-autistic-teen-avonte-oquendo/ (Amsterdam News: The new Black view).