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Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.
* * *
Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,
It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.
Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.
To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.
What we have done.
Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.
Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.
…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;
…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.
What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?
She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.
What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…
How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?
What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.
Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?
I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”
And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.
And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.
And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.
I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.
I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.
And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.
My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.
I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.
We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.
I stand up.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”
She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.
That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.
…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…
But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?
I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.
In love and gratitude,
Many of my posts in the past have revolved largely around the foster care system, however, just tonight, I came across an interesting article on Gawker, “Letters From Death Row: Ray Jasper, Texas Inmate 999341“. As it is said in the article, every year, Hamilton Nolan sends a letter to each person on death row set to be executed in the upcoming year. The above linked letter is the first reply. I don’t pretend to be able to add anything meaningful to Mr. Jasper’s response. It is beautiful and poetic. I also don’t plan to take a stance on the death penalty. However, I do think that there are many, MANY important conversations that need to be happening that are not happening. May I also recommend another book to follow your reading of Mr. Jasper’s letter: Autobiography of an Execution. Learning more about the Death Penalty, setting aside even the question of guilt or innocence and instead engaging in a conversation about justice is something we cannot avoid in the new year, or any year. It’s one I most certainly look forward to having.
I recently came across the article about Davion, a 15-year-old orphan living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Having spent his life in the foster care system, Davion took a pastor’s message that God helped people that helped himself, and therefore took to a local church to make a plea that someone adopt him.
This story caused me to take pause to think about both Davion’s bravery, but also how discouraging it is that the children in our foster care system feel the need to take to a pulpit, a platform, a stage to market themselves as valuable humans worthy of a home and family, something so many take for granted. To stand in front of a group of strangers hoping that one of them might want you or know someone who might want you is utterly heartbreaking.
At the time of this post, Davion has not yet found a home, though it is reported that several people have inquired about him. This is discouraging to hear though as it would be a joyful ending that Davion had found a home but equally troubling at the precedent it would set. Would foster parents or foster homes take to “auctioning” off children, or exploiting them in some way to move them along? However it also raises the concern that perhaps the foster care system is too “out of sight out of mind” for most Americans, and Davion’s step to the front of the church is symbolic of how the entire foster care system should be a more central point of conversation and policy making in this country. However, in doing this a balance would have to be found that bring foster care to the spotlight without exploiting the children who are a part of it.
I hope Davion is matched with a family–someone to take him to football practice and provide him what he has waited so long to find. That would be my hope for every foster child. The question is, short of every child in the foster care system having to sell themselves on a stage, how do we take the burden and place the system on the stage instead?
- Florida Orphan Pleads for Family to ‘Love Me Until I Die’ (abcnews.go.com)