Surviving the Journey: Literature Meets Life
"Lethbridge, Alberta-When he was six, school mates doused him with lighter fluid and threatened to torch him. By 14, he wouldn't leave his house for months because he was frequently kicked and punched by peers who considered him a squeaky voiced geek, a pimply-faced loser. One attack left a hole in his lower lip so large he could put his tongue through it. For a lark, a girl took pictures of the beating. When he finally got up the nerve to register an assault complaint with police, his file got lost. Nothing was done for months. At 14, say psychologists and psychiatrists, he had become so lost and explosive, he took a sawed-off semi-automatic rifle into W.R. Myers high school in Taber, Alberta, and opened fire at the first students he saw. He didn't know Jason Lang,17, who was fatally shot, nor did he know the student he seriously wounded. Details of his life, revealed at recent court hearings, were held under a publication ban that was lifted with the boy's guilty pleas yesterday."
18 November 2000 - Canadian Press.
This is the opening of a disturbing piece that appeared in Canadian newpapers as I was preparing to leave for Milwaukee. It is particularly poignant in its resonance with the fact that every adult associated with this boy had failed him.
We can never assume anything when we look at a young person. We may be looking at someone whose support systems have all the outward appearance of solidity, whose family we may think we know intimately. But young people who are in the process of falling off the rails don't always give off signals that anything is wrong. They become masters of the social mask and they can keep their secrets, whatever they may be, or, in some cases, whomever they may be protecting - from everyone, even from close family members.
Kids do not go wrong or fall into despair for no good reason. There could be legitimate medical causes such as undiagnosed emotional or mental illness. There could be issues of physical or emotional or sexual abuse, either inside or outside the family. There could be certain extremely challenging issues arising in adolescence which revolve around sexual identity. There could be the slow erosion, for whatever reason, of the family unit. Poverty has no corner on any of this. And we all know that bad things happen to good people no matter what their life circumstances. And so we have the young alcoholic from the upper middle class neighborhood who, unbeknownst to his parents has some very unpleasant memories, from between the ages of four and six, involving his trusted baby-sitter. Or the young woman who can't quite seem to make a decision, who seems forever immature and flailing and stalled in her journey to adulthood, whose uncle or older brother or cousin or family friend regularly abused her, stole her childhood, and uttered threats that he would kill her if she told anyone -and indeed she hasn't. She loves her parents. How could she tell them anything so awful. Or maybe its the 17- year-old girl whose doctor father is distracted and rarely available, and whose sad and harried mother is the anxious and frustrated caregiver not only of three teenage daughters, but also of an elderly mother, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
This 17-year-old has known most of her life that she prefers girls to boys; she also knows that her parents will not, under any circumstances tolerate her choice. And that may or may not be true. In any event she opts not to tell them that she is a lesbian, and the growing estrangement and its repercussions are deeply wounding and mystifying to everyone around her. To everyone except, of course, her latest girlfriend. We expect a great deal from our children. We fill their lives, where we can, with lessons and sports and incredible stimulation. We spend time with them. Give to them. Love them. Most children grow up just fine in this sometimes scary world, filled at it is with the odd dragon behind the cupboard door. We are safe and they are safe and the world as we perceive it, as it translates to our own corner of Milwaukee, or Fargo, or Winnipeg, Manitoba, is safe. Safe to us and to our beloved children.
But when adults who are supposed to be protecting young people are not paying attention, or are avoiding certain untenable truths within their own lives, things can go wrong very fast. Patterns of family dysfunction may be involved, as well as the eroding stress of simply trying to keep life going. Balance, or harmony, is synonymous with beauty to the Navajo way of thinking; they even have a word for it: horzho. But we all know that finding balance within a modern world with its reeling and often completely unrealistic demands is a trick that many of us find out of reach.
For a few years our house had a revolving door for disenfranchised young people. They are all grown up now. Some still call me Ma, or Mum, or Mommy, or simply Martha where the image of "mother" does not carry with it the standard warm fuzzy memories. These young people have taught me a great deal about patience and compassion and trust. Of the three that I remain closest to, one was born into a life of privilege, the other two into a life of poverty. Their shared experience is that the adults around them either let them down, or could not protect them, or a combination of the two. The other things they have in common are intelligence, awareness, creativity, warmth, pride, courage, considerable charm, amazing resilience, a marvelous sense of humor, and a daily struggle with personal demons. Life is not easy when you have suffered early sorrow and have learned that the world can be unimaginably unsafe.
The young people who survive this place of unsafety, I have found, have an innate ability to recognize nurturers, making the conscious choice that is involved in seeking them out, basking in their often unwitting warmth, looking for their advise, a smile, a pat on the back, a shred of hope. These nurturers can be a teacher, the woman next door, a minister, a music teacher, somebody else's dad, the family of a girlfriend, a librarian, or as one young man who is close to me remarked, when I asked him, with affection, "How did you turn out so good?" "It was girls," he responded with a quick smile. "Girls kept me out of trouble and saved me."
When you see street kids, it's easy to think, okay, they fell onto hard times because of extreme social issues. But when I walk around in my own upper middle class neighborhood and I see a young person who stands out, whose personal aura sends forth the message: screw-up-I don't blame the kid, I say to myself, "What the hell happened here?"
Despite the truth I am speaking we are all inculturated to certain areas of social blindness and denial. And the function of all good literature is to break though that. Just as I took those children into my home, I take readers into my books in an attempt to unmask and show inner realities. In my work I want to explore the fact that life throws us curves, things we don't expect or deserve. I want to present the reality that good people do bad things and can survive and grow from the experience. I also want to present the fact that there is not only for young adults but for adults, as well, a sense of passage in everything we do. We are continually moving. Reconstructing. Re-examining. Re-focusing. And for each of us there are those private unheralded moments of utter courage. And many of us live those moments daily.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book, Bone Dance, my own daughter guided me through the intricacies of spiritual awakening. We had had a hard time, she and I. Now we were both healing. On the day of summer solstice she invited me out to a sweat lodge for a naming ceremony, her own. I will briefly explain, here that she is a published poet, a playwright, and more recently, partly because her association with her spiritual teacher, an Ojibway elder and healer, is in her premasters year of anthropology, crossexaming Ojibway and Icelandic cultures. The actual event was stunning. Stars shot up the prairie sky. All good prayers and songs were offered to the Creator and influencing sacred forces. In the mist and flames and scent of cedar, and in the presence of many good and humble people, my daughter received her new name and found a different kind of family and a different sense of belonging. As for myself, I came away thinking in a more profound way about the Lakota phrase: All my relations.
We are bound together on this planet. We are all related whether or not we choose to believe it or to accept it. And it's often the young who show us the way. In them we can see ourselves-alive, imperfect, and everlastingly hopeful.
Martha Brooks, an award-winning playwright, novelist, and author of short fiction, gave this stirring talk as a panelist at the November, 2000, ALAN Workshop, NCTE Conference. The topic for the panel presentation was "Compassionate Teenagers Making Choices." She presented alongside authors Kimberly Willis Holt and Virginia Ewer Wolf.
Reference Citation: Brooks, Martha. (2001) "Surviving the Journey: Literature Meets Lifer." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 64.