Heartbreak at START

my.operaLast Thursday was Victim Impact with young people in the START (Short Term Residential Treatment) program. This where juveniles land when all else fails, when probation conditions have been broken and less intensive interventions are not working. START is the last stop before full on detention in one of Texas’ lock-down facilities is ordered. The program is 90 days, includes peer-to-peer counseling, one-on-one counseling, group counseling, educational resources, parent inclusion and of course Victim Impact.

I have been doing Victim Impact for years now; you would think it would get easier to tell the story, it doesn’t. You would think it wouldn’t hurt so much; you would be wrong. Some days it is worse than others, there are days when my calendar pops up to remind, ready myself to make the drive to whatever facility I am speaking and my heart clenches, my eyes tear up and I think to myself, “what if I just call and cancel, say I am ill or have had a fatal accident.” I never do though, not once in all these years, no matter how much I didn’t want to stand up and tell the story.

Last week, was one of those days. I didn’t want to stand up and talk. I didn’t want to talk about what happened to my family. I didn’t want to talk about the three young men who ruined their own lives. Last week, I simply didn’t want to do any of it. Last week I found myself hard pressed to find compassion in my soul, the one thing I need when I look into the faces of these young people and tell my story.

Sixteen young men and one young woman marched single file into the room and took their seats. If I had to guess their ages, they were between fourteen and sixteen. None older than sixteen, none younger than thirteen, I have seen them younger but I have never seen them older. These are hard young people; they have seen the world through the prism of indifference, anger, hunger, bad schools, racism, drugs, violence, the foster care system and a host of other things most of us can never imagine, not in our wildest and worst nightmares. This program, it is their last shot before they are permanently marked as unsalvageable and outside of societies care.

Image Tradenewswire.net

Image Tradenewswire.net

Despite the admonishment to sit up straight, they slouched down in their seats staring at their own or my feet. There was a rumble through the introductions; my audience clearly did not want to be in this small cramped room to hear what I had to say. Well, honestly, the feeling was mutual but nevertheless here we all were and we were going to get through this together.

When you look at me what do you see?

Every time I start the same, it breaks the ice and helps me understand how far in the process each group is. Their answers rarely differ much, though sometimes we have some fun. This group, they were more observant than most:

  • Scars, you have had a hard life.
  • Tattoos, a few were showing despite being mostly covered by sleeves and pants.
    • ‘You’re OG aren’t you?’
  • Lots of piercings.
  • You thick (said quietly until I made him speak up) then there was lots of laughter.
  • You dress good.
    • I said well and got blank stares, so I explained.
  • You white.
  • You hard but you smile.
  • You seem like you smart.

That was the list. There were a few more, mostly about my clothes, my hair, my eye color. The list is so they can think about it as I talk and so I can reference it when I am done, so I can make my own list.

The story is always the same; it doesn’t change how could it? Slowly their attention begins to shift from the floor to me. This also isn’t unusual; I am a good storyteller able to speak to them in a language they understand with characters they might have known. The protagonists could be them, the victim not a hero but someone they can see. I don’t hold them for ransom keeping the spotlight all to myself instead I allow discussion throughout.

We talk, I answer their questions; some are silly. Yes, it does hurt to be shot. Some are not silly and I have answered this one more than once, No, I do not regret offering to help a young man I thought was in trouble, though the outcome was something terrible. Some questions are hard though I am asked every single time I speak; No, I do not hate Black people, no I am not afraid of Black men young or old, no I do not even hate my offenders.

Then I was asked a question that broke my heart.

“Do you ever wish you hadn’t lived, with all the pain you have suffered since then; do you ever wish you hadn’t survived?”

The question stunned me. I looked into the eyes of this young man, he couldn’t have been more than fifteen, his eyes held such pain. My heart cracked a little bit as I tried to draw air into my lungs and search for the right answer to give. The real answer was, ‘yes, in the early days sometimes I did wish that.’ This though was my answer.

‘No, I don’t regret living. I don’t even regret the pain; it reminds me I am alive. If I hadn’t lived, I would have missed all the joys in my life. Like seeing, my sons marry and holding my grandchildren, like falling in love, more than once. If I hadn’t lived, I wouldn’t have known what it meant to be stronger than I ever knew was possible, overcoming more than I thought possible, learning to walk again and the great joy of going dancing again for the very first time. No, I don’t regret living.’

In that moment, I felt my compassion finally bloom.

I stared at that young man, but at all the young people in the room. I told them again, they had great worth; they were worth more than they believed and they could choose to be more. I told them again I believed and that was why, even when I didn’t want to, I got there and I stood up and talked to them. They asked how I climbed out of where I started from; I told them I read books. They asked what books, I gave them reading lists. I don’t lie to them, I tell them truth about my life, where I came from and what I did that I was really one of them at one time, ‘A real OG.’

Two hours and some change later, I gave them my list:

  • Mother
  • Grandmother
  • Sister
  • Aunt
  • Friend

When they can see a stranger on the street, see instead of ‘other’ they are the same, then they will begin to understand empathy and compassion. By the end though, that is what they saw in me. They didn’t care I wouldn’t tell them my race or ethnic heritage, only that I told them it wasn’t important. They didn’t care that I wouldn’t tell them my religion, only that it informed me.

In my hour-long drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking of some of these young people, the ones who might make it and those who likely wouldn’t. The ones who fronted to look hard but asked questions that told a different story. I weep, for them and for us. We fail them, each time we cut back on education and services, when a young person says to me his only option is to commit crimes if he and his siblings are going to eat that day, I weep. When a young man hangs his head and repeats my story of delinquency, foster care and running away, holding his head in his hands; I know it is his story. I weep. When a young man begs for a reading list because his school isn’t serving him, hungry for knowledge and way out, I weep.

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So should we all weep. But when a young man asks if I sometimes wish I hadn’t survived, then my heart breaks because no fifteen year old child should know that much pain. Ever.

 

Victim Impact the Series: https://valentinelogar.com/category/series-victim-impact/

The Story: https://valentinelogar.com/category/series-crime-and-punishment/

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