I grew up in rural South Texas. An impoverished community of roughly 5,000, a couple card table restaurants and a Pizza Hut to drive circles around after Friday night football.
I had big dreams, but escaping a volatile family that looked good from the curb seemed impossible. But a creative mentor empowered me to turn words and images into momentum. To take my fear and rage to the page and write a different ending for myself.
Fast forward. After the release of my third novel Fat Angie, a book about underdogs who face bullying, suicidal thoughts, issues of self-image, belonging and questions of sexuality, I wondered if I could pay inspiration forward. Could this little book be the foundation to inspire kids on the fringe to be their own difference through creative writing?
Deemed an unconventional and unprecedented book tour, I packed and stacked my life into storage. In July 2013, I rented a Ford Focus for the first leg of a four month book tour across America. With boxes of Fat Angie and my first two novels, documentary gear to capture the experience and a single piece of carry-on luggage, I rolled out of Cincinnati into the great unknown of winding roads, tornado weather and every imaginable thing to challenge my phobias. All in an effort to empower at-risk youth through writing at zero cost to their programs.
In September 2013, I was in California when news broke about the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a Florida girl who took her life after an alleged year-plus of bullying. Staying with author C.G. Watson's family, I was crushed by another suicide. Another body bag. Was I doing enough? What was enough? After months of being on the road, I wanted to quit.
A few days later, I went to Fair View High School in Chico, California. It's an alternative education school that harbors the kids deemed by many as the criminals, the rejects and the misfits. These students inked with gang tattoos, dyed green punk hair, post teen pregnancy appearances or linebacker-sized guys with hidden identities who don't conform to the norm of traditional high school, soon became my heroes.
We demystified the GoPro cameras for the documentary At-Risk Summer by showing the real-time playback on my weathered iPhone 5. We chuckled at the "wiener" shotgun microphone I toted like a 1950s T.V. host because I couldn't afford to rent a wireless mic at that point in the tour.
I picked kids to act as director, camera operator and sound recordist because I was also a one woman crew. With their new roles as indie filmmakers, I hoped for cinematography that wouldn't be an homage to the shaky-cam in The Blair Witch Project. After some trust building and our group creative burst, I "spit" out a narrative from their words on the spot.
With their applause, we were ready to write their stories. I said:
I've been counted out more than I've been counted in. And I know that people have done the same to you. They've counted you out. But today you're counted in. Today you have a voice. You matter.
The prompt "If Someone Only Knew..." went up, and every single kid wrote. Pin dropped!
Teacher, Erica Scott, weaved between desks and put her arms around me."Thank you, so much," she said, her voice shaking. "Thank you."
In the back of the room, Mr. Quiet, I called him, caught my eye. His over-sized, baggy white t-Shirt, starched khaki pants met against his strong silence made him something I knew people feared. "Mr. Quiet, I think you have something to say today."
His eyes dropped, and he shook his head. I didn't push it. I moved toward another part of the room when I saw a hand go up. It was Mr. Quiet. "I'll go. I'll read," he said, his voice soft, not scary.
Dexter, my student sound guy, and I made our way to the back of the classroom. Mr. Quiet was nervous, but then he began:
If someone only knew who I really am, they'd probably not see me the way they do. Most people just try to judge me by what they see. But only a few take the time to really listen to what I got to say. I am a person who wants to help a lot, and would never leave someone in need.
He was vulnerable and genuine and real, and I was honored. This was the answer to the enough question I had after Rebecca's suicide. This was how I could do enough. Everyone clapped for Mr. Quiet. Kids who never spoke up shared their writing.
When my first session wrapped, the next group filed in. The bell rang and I was about to start when, well, when it happened. Kids from the first session streamed in with slips of paper excusing them from their next class. More and more of them. And those kids, they lit up the whole room. They were on fire!
Let me tell you. Showing up has currency. It has absolute, uncut possibility. And it's something magical to see it happen.
And it happened again and again. At The Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where community is cultivated with teen mom's through college prep, arts and the sport of rowing; at Portland, Oregon's New Avenues for Youth where homeless youth have opportunities to stay off the streets; at Philadelphia's IDAAY Out-of-School Time Program where African American youth receive a structured space to do homework and learn life skills. And again with the Reach Program in Red Bluff, California where kids on the fringe overcome the horrors of life and prove they are some of the bravest, most brilliant and enthusiastic youth.
For those communities who still deem the youth I met as "clearance kids," I say no markdowns are necessary. These kids are collectibles. Their value has yet to be set. Their stories represent a new American voice -- the voices of those who can never be counted out.