The prevailing wisdom used to be that children should be seen and not heard. But when the number of at-risk and abused kids seems to be growing faster than the government can cut programs to potentially help them, the need for them to be heard is even greater.
Late this past May, We Are Absolutely Not Okay: Fourteen Stories by Teenagers Who Are Picking Up the Pieces—a shattering self-published collection of true personal stories about gang life, depression, cutting, drug addiction and gender identity issues—debuted as an eBook on Amazon. On June 6th, a party was held for the paperback launch at a local yogurt shop in Edmonds, a suburb of Seattle where the school is based. People formed lines down the street waiting to meet the fourteen young authors behind the incredible stories. That evening alone, more than four hundred copies of We Are Absolutely Not Okay were sold. The book has become so popular locally–in part due to the authors being interviewed on King 5–that the Edmonds Bookshop struggles to keep it in stock. And thanks to the exposure received through Amazon’s KDP Select Program, online eBook and paperback sales are also building momentum.
This is the story of how the book came to be and—more importantly—how its success is helping at-risk teens deal with today’s prevalent and life-changing issues and move forward with their lives. American broadcast journalist Bill Stout once said, “Whether or not you write well, write bravely.” These fourteen kids certainly have.
The Story Behind the Book
by Ingrid Ricks
Shortly after self-publishing my coming-of-age memoir, Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story last November, I received a call from Marjie Bowker, the English teacher at Scriber Lake in Edmonds. Marjie told me that a mutual friend had given her my book to read. Her next words were an early Christmas gift.
“Hippie Boy is the book I’ve always wanted for my students,” she said.
Marjie explained that Scriber Lake was a small, alternative high school with teens who had endured extensive hardship and adversity. She said she was attracted to Hippie Boy because it was a story about a teenager dealing with the kinds of obstacles she knew her students would relate to, and carried a message of strength and hope that she wanted them to hear. She asked if I would be interested in forming an author partnership with her school.
Neither of us had any idea where our partnership would lead, but we felt an instant connection and knew we wanted to give it a try. We started brainstorming and Marjie was soon crafting a curriculum that used Hippie Boy as both a reading and writing guide to show her students how they could also claim their power by sharing their personal stories in a narrative format.
Our in-class partnership kicked off January 4th. We originally planned on a month-long course that ended with an in-class reading of the students’ work. But by the time the reading rolled around, the students were so charged up by the power they had found within themselves that Marjie and I realized we had to keep going. With the full support of Scriber Lake Principal Kathy Clift, we decided to offer an intensive weeklong mini-course to help interested students turn their draft life scenes into finished stories and publish them in a group story collection.
On April 16th, fourteen students came together for the four-day intensive mini-course, where they revised, edited and polished their stories and then jointly developed the book concept, title and cover design. While I discovered the incredible power of self-publishing with Hippie Boy, it’s this project that has made me realize the critical role indie publishing plays in giving a voice to those who need to be heard.
Similar in some ways to the “It Gets Better Project”, which has provided support for gay, lesbian and LGBT teens, We Are Absolutely Not Okay gives troubled and at-risk kids the opportunity—by giving voice and form to their stories—to make sense of, and take back some control of their lives.
They are also connecting with other struggling teens—letting them know that life does get better. And thanks to their book, other students at Scriber Lake High School will get the opportunity to write and publish their stories because all proceeds from book sales will help fund the school’s new power writing/publishing program that Marjie and I will be spearheading this fall. Having experienced the enormous validation and healing power that comes from personal storytelling, Marjie and I plan to expand the program to other high schools and teen organizations. You can find more info on our Facebook page.
by Carolina Mooney
I cut deep into my skin with a sharp, thin blade and wince. I chuckle to myself as a distraction from the stinging in my leg. Tiny little drops of red start appearing through the surface. They flow together and roll off my ankle. I let out a sigh of relief.
Thank. Goodness. Another slice follows the first. The hair growing on my legs— more than overdue for a shave —sticks out about a quarter of an inch off my lower leg. I watch as the blood trails around the hairs like a river running through a forest.
Each “cutting session” includes the same routine: I think of one reason or another as to why my self-harm is justified. Thought, cut, thought, cut, thought, cut. I’m a terrible best friend. First incision. I never do anything right. Second incision. I’m not good enough. Third. I can’t believe I slept with him. Fourth. Nobody will ever love me. Fifth. I should probably just kill myself. Sixth.
I think up thirty-three reasons and create thirty-three bright red horizontal lines up and down my left lower shin.
I think about the night before last. I’m lying in bed with a stranger. His strong, rough hands are running down the small of my back and over my ass. He touches my body in a way that suggests he knows me, that he loves me. But this isn’t love—this is a mirage of what love might look like. There’s no emotion in this situation. He’s following what his penis wants and what he thinks his heart wants. I’m only here because I’m naïve and want to feel loved—I need to feel loved in order to feel alive.
I don’t look him in the eye.
“Do it from behind,” I say. Please, don’t see how hideous I really am. I fake the finish so he can have an actual finish. I immediately get up and put my clothes on. I grab my bag and cigarettes and start the hour and a half walk to my house. I hope my boyfriend doesn’t find out about this.
I make another cut and think back to last week.
I watch a red coffee mug fly over my head and smash against the wall behind me. I duck low to the floor—the cup just barely missing my head—as scalding liquid splatters my shirt. Standing, staring at me from where the mug flew is Renée. Tears run down her face. Her make-up is smeared over her beautiful pale, freckled skin. I can see the hatred burning behind her glossy, blue-grey eyes. I can feel the coldness as she speaks hard and truthful.
“What the fuck?” A common question asked by Renée. “Didn’t we just go over this?”
“I know. I’m sorry,” I whimper in response.
“He’s nothing but unhealthy for you. And he’s ruining our friendship.”
“I need him, Nay. He—he saved my life.”
“I’ve been here for you for eleven years and then this guy just shows up out of the blue and he’s the one to save you? Is this a joke?”
“That’s not what I mean. You’re my best friend. It’s just—“
“It’s just what, Carolina?”
I don’t know how to respond, so I just stare at her sadly.
“That’s what I thought. It’s him or me. And if you think he’s so much more important than me, then fine. I’m done.”
I’m so confused and shocked and sad that I can hardly breathe as she turns and walks out the back door of my house. It’s bad enough that I want to put a bullet in my head. For real. Now it feels like my best friend is validating my decision.
Another memory flashes through my mind. At least, I think it’s a memory. I vaguely remember it happening.
I’m five or six years old. A neighbor boy and I put blankets all around the trampoline to create a fort underneath, concealing the bright summer afternoon. He tells me to take off my pants. Being naïve and a few years younger than he is, I assume we’re going to play a game. I do what he tells me. Then he unzips his pants and makes me touch his “private parts” as he touches mine.
I have never thought much about this memory that may or may not be true, but for some reason, it sticks in my mind. I am thinking of it now. I don’t know what to make of it. All I know is that it’s a good enough reason for me to cut.
As I sit on the sand-colored carpet in my bedroom, I make sure the black towel under my legs will catch any blood that’s dripping. I can’t let anyone see what I’ve done. I wonder who would care. I know for a fact my father wouldn’t. He abandoned me as a baby, leaving me to be a bastard child so that he could live with his perfect little family. That worthless piece of shit is the reason why I have so many issues. He doesn’t care about me at all. If he did, he would have actually wanted to see me. He’s never even taken the time to call me. He has not even inquired about me. He’s the reason why it would be so easy to commit suicide. If my own father doesn’t want me, how could anyone else?
I press one last time into my beat-up flesh. I start low on the inside of my ankle, slowly pulling the box knife up toward my knee. There is only one thought running through my head. My vision turns to black. I hope I don’t wake up in a hospital—I hope this time I wake up dead.
A Note From Carolina Mooney
Now that I’m eighteen years old, I have not inflicted any self-harm for three years. I am currently in a healthy relationship with a very amazing boy. We have only been together for three months, but we are both perfectly content, and I know I will never ever cheat on him. I’ve been going to therapy in order to help deal with my past, and I’m learning to forgive myself. I am on my way to “happily ever after.”
RUN UP OR SHUT UP
By Fabian Vazquez
“Don’t be scared,” my homeboy told me.
I was shaking. Sweat was building between the palm of my hand and the handle of the single action .22 revolver I was holding. I had never held a gun and, being the size that I was, I thought it was really heavy. I felt the pressure in my head, imagining how it could all go wrong. It seemed like the whole world knew what I was about to do and the glares of the few people that walked past terrified me. But I couldn’t show any type of weakness. I had to make it seem like I was in control of the situation.
I had received the call that would place me here a couple of days before from one of my homeboys.
“What’s good, little homie?” he had said over my cell phone’s speakerphone. His ranking was a “Soldier,” meaning he was one of many roots that held the gang in place. He had been in the clique since it started.
“Nothing,” I replied with a rough voice, trying to act tough.
“You down to put in work this weekend? Because there is a meeting set up and your cousin talked about you coming in. It’s now or never little homie,” he said in a voice that made my heart pump faster.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, not wanting to hear or see what was coming next. “Is he going to be there?”
My cousin had been in the gang for a couple months before I joined in and he was already ranked as “Third Word” in the gang, meaning that his words counted when the gang made a decision. We had moved from Mexico City two years earlier when I was ten. Neither of us had known anyone, and we couldn’t speak to anyone. The transition was difficult, but through the gang he had found a family who understood what we were going through. As a result, they were quickly becoming my family too and I wanted in.
“Na, he says it’s your decision and you’re on your own. But don’t worry. Ain’t nothing out of the ordinary. We just going hunting, trying to get some cash. You up for it?” he asked.
“Alright then, I’m down,” I said firmly. A feeling of desperation washed over me.
I had just given my word and I couldn’t let them down.
“Cool, I’ll be seeing you little one,” he said, and then hung up.
After that call my mind had just two thoughts, to rob or to leave and never step up. If I didn’t do this I would never be able to join the gang.
A couple of days later, I was mobbing through the streets of downtown Everett with three other members and a gun, looking for a mark.
“All you got to do is point and ask for everything. If they don’t give it up you just take it,” one of my homeboys instructed me. I didn’t answer. I knew what I had to do. If it all went bad and the police found me or caught me in the act, I knew I had to keep my mouth shut. We kept walking and my homeboy passed me a joint.
“This will keep you calm,” he told me.
I didn’t hesitate to take a couple hits. “It’s the good shit,” I said.
I slowly drifted into the clouds and wished I could keep getting high, but I felt nervous so I knew my high wouldn’t last long. We walked through a parking lot and saw a middle-aged woman stepping out of a grey metallic Lexus that was sitting on some fresh wheels.
“You ready?” my homeboy asked.
I nodded and started trailing the woman. My homies stayed behind. I felt scared, my heart pounded to the rhythm of her steps. She was wearing all black: heels, leggings, skirt and a blouse. She looked like a grumpy old lady that was never pleased about anything in her life. This fueled my anger, as if she had done something that enraged me to commit some sort of revenge on her. Horrifying thoughts filled my head, like shooting her accidentally and going to prison for half of my life. My body temperature dropped. I felt myself shaking more than ever.
Then I felt the demons, like shadows, slowly enter my body. They were filled with evil and were looking for a victim who was confused and lonely. I heard a voice in my head that spoke to me in a slow, angry voice. “If you do this, your lifestyle will be better,” it rasped.
“How much better will it be?” I asked.
“I’ll make your lifestyle even better than you can imagine or dream of,” it answered. I came back to the present and realized I was right behind the woman. I looked around to make sure I didn’t spot anyone.
This is it. Fuck it! I said to myself. I took a deep breath and swallowed.
“Hey!” I yelled.
As she turned around, I grabbed her and threw her against the wall. She tried screaming but I put the gun to her head and whispered, “I’m going to make it easy. Give me all you got and I won’t have to blow your head off !” I yelled at the end, but I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted her to act quickly before this turned into something I would regret.
She froze. She looked surprised and shocked. I could see fear in her shiny blue eyes, but they looked at me with such power that I almost ran away. She didn’t say a word. I felt like crying. The evil thoughts in my head pushed the fear back inside me.
The woman was shaking. I let go and snatched her purse away, still pointing the gun at her head. I quickly fumbled through all of the items in her purse with my other hand to make sure her cell phone was in there. It would have been a red flag for me if I left the scene without that cell phone. Even I knew that.
“Don’t say shit!” was the last thing I said to her.
She gave me one last glance filled with disgust before I took off and ran. As soon as my homeboys spotted me they booked it, too. I followed them, running through the back streets. I watched them jump into a red Honda Civic that pulled up in front of them from out of nowhere. For a moment I thought they were going to leave me there, but then the Honda pulled up next to me and I got in. I exhaled in relief, sat back, and then said to my homeboys, “I need a cigarette.” I didn’t smoke cigarettes, but at that moment the adrenaline was rushing through my body and I needed to have one.
I took the pack I was handed and began combing through the woman’s purse while we sped away. I became irritated because there were so many things inside. The purse was cluttered with makeup, keys, tissues, a mirror and other useless things.
“Fuck, there’s hella shit inside this thing!” I said in a loud voice. I was relieved to be done with the job, but now I worried that I hadn’t come through for my homies. There had to be something good in there.
My homies patted me on the back. Not one of them seemed concerned about whether I had actually scored anything worthwhile. “That’s what’s up little homie,” they said. “You really down for this shit, huh!”
I finally spotted her wallet. I opened it and found close to five hundred dollars.
“We about to party tonight,” I said in a happy tone, feeling no remorse whatsoever.
I don’t know if it was the money that made me feel good or the fact that the whole thing was over. Either way, this was the new lifestyle I had chosen, and from then on I was a regular criminal. I had crossed the threshold and now considered myself a menace to society.
A Note About Fabian Vazquez
Fabian Vazquez is a junior at Scriber Lake High School. He was born and raised in Mexico City with his younger sister. He came to the U.S when he was just ten years old and has been living in the Shoreline area since then. Fabian is a very smart, intelligent young man who has been able to succeed in life with the help of his parents and teachers, as well as other influences.
He has gone through a rough past living in poverty in his country and tried to fit in with the wrong crowd when he came to the U.S. Fabian got out of a gang before it was too late and his main hope now is to let other teens know that gangs are “no way out” and that they are “the road to no success.”
He is now a 4.0 student and is always on track with his schoolwork. He holds the record at his school for sit-ups (1001 in one session). He has received awards for many subjects including English, math, art and science. He was also selected for the Edmonds Exchange Club “Accepting the Challenge of Excellence” Award. Fabian definitely wants to go to college and would like to do something related to arts or architecture.
A TASTE OF THE REAL WORLD
By Leandra Hall
“Oh come on, baby. I just wanna spend some time with you.” The man’s deep, low voice sent shivers down my spine. The feeling of his hand rubbing my upper back kept me frozen in fear. “How much will it take?”
A day that had started just like any other turned out to be one I’d remember for years to come. Aside from my uncle visiting from California, it was a typical day at home. There was some yelling and fighting, with things thrown across rooms. I was thirteen years old, and the way I saw it, if anyone tried to take authority over me, they were automatically an enemy. I was going to do drugs, have sex, run away and whatever else I felt like doing and no one but me was allowed to control it.
I didn’t know my uncle very well. Since he lived so far away, we’d only met a few times. Of course, he tried to lecture me about something and we got into an argument. I put on a jacket, grabbed my skateboard, and was on my way out of the house. My parents didn’t know where I was going. In fact, I didn’t really know where I was going.
I acted without thinking. I skateboarded down the street to the 101 bus stop on the highway that would bring me northbound, toward Everett. Along the way I devised a plan that involved picking up a few friends who always hung out at the bus station, then taking the hour-and-a-half long commuter bus ride all the way to Seattle. We could go to my first rave. This was exciting because I had tried to go to at least five raves and had never actually made it.
It took two buses to get from my house to the Everett station. There was a point on the main road where I had to get off the 101 and transfer to the 9. This is where I met him.
I stood at the bus stop along with about six other people. They were all responsible-looking adults who gave me funny looks when I first walked up. I stared impatiently at the intersection where the 9 was to turn left to pick us up. The highway was busy as usual for a Friday afternoon, with what seemed like hundreds of cars passing each minute.
Finally, I saw the bus; it was ten minutes late. Those last few seconds of waiting seemed to drag on for minutes. As I waited for the other people to get on and pay their fares, a black man wearing a white turban and dark clothes stepped off the bus. At first I didn’t pay much attention to him.
“I like your skateboard,” he said from behind me.
“Oh, thanks … ” I mumbled shyly after turning around to see who was talking. “
You smoke?” he asked.
“Cigarettes?” At this point, I actually faced him and got a good look at him.The sclera of his eyes was as yellow as his teeth, as if he had jaundice. He looked old, at least in his mid-thirties. He was relatively skinny, but he was still a lot bigger and taller than me. Altogether, he was about twice my size.
“Yes,” he said, smiling back at me with those horrid yellow teeth.
“Yeeeah … ?” I said in a questioning tone, since I didn’t understand why he was asking.
“Want me to buy you a pack?”
His offer really caught me off guard. People don’t usually ask thirteen-year-olds if they want a pack; it’s usually the other way around. I was a little suspicious about why he would go out of his way to offer that.
“I don’t have any money,” I said, trying to get him off my back. I started walking toward the door of the bus.
“I’ll buy ‘em for you!” he called after me, sounding desperate to keep me off the bus.
I stopped. Why not? I reasoned with myself. It’s a free pack of cigarettes. I can just wait for the next bus and I’ll have cigarettes to smoke to take up some time. I knew deep down that he had intentions other than just “helping out” some kid, but I pushed that thought aside.
I turned to face him. “Okay,” I said, then proceeded to look around for the nearest convenience store. I pointed out the Chevron only about a half a block away, on the same side of the street.
As we walked he asked me some basic questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you going?” These questions were seriously boring the hell out of me.
“What kind do you want?” he asked me once we got within twenty feet of the convenience store’s main entrance.
“Marb Menthol Light 100s.”
“I’ll be right back,” he replied.
I carefully stood out of the cashier’s sight through the window, within a few feet of the side of the building. Once again, I played the waiting game. I had nothing to do but to think, and nothing to think about except how much I wanted to hurry up and leave so I could get to that rave. I also thought about how this guy was a little creepy and if I didn’t get away from him soon, he could try to rape me or something else that might happen in a movie. I wasn’t scared though. I figured that I was grown and could take care of myself.
He finally emerged from the store with the cigarettes and a white plastic bag carrying two silver cans. He handed me a small white- and green-colored box filled with twenty sticks of tobacco and cotton, wrapped in the same colored paper. I quickly opened them and started to smoke one.
“Do you smoke weed?” he asked.
“Wanna come to my apartment and smoke a bowl?” he continued. “I just live about a block away.”
At this point I was certain he was up to something, but I was stupid and naïve. I was a wanna-be rebel trying to live on the edge. So, in my insanity, I decided to go with him.
After walking farther down the highway for two or three minutes, he veered to the right, off of the sidewalk, onto a driveway which quickly ended with a black barred gate a few inches taller than me. It had sharp points at the end of the bars on the top. Once we reached the gate, he typed a code into a keypad housed on the left side of the gate, next to where it opened.
For a moment I wondered how I was going to get out of the complex when I left. In my mind, I pictured him walking me all the way back to the end of the parking lot to open the gate. I quickly decided that was unlikely.
Through the gate I could see a complex of tan and light brown three-story apartment buildings. We entered the complex and started up the stairs of the third building from the entrance. Once we reached the second floor, he stopped at a door and unlocked it with a set of keys from his pocket.
My first thought when I walked into his apartment was to question the emptiness. This one bedroom apartment had nothing in it but a few dishes in the kitchen and a mattress with two sheets lying on the living room floor. He had me take off my shoes, so I threw them next to my skateboard.
He walked out onto the porch. When I stepped outside, he was smoking the weed with a pipe made out of duct tape, which I had never seen. We passed the pot back and forth until it was out and my vision started to blur like the vision in a dream. I got really tired and lethargic, but that was normal for me. My body was shaky and I felt uncomfortable. We went back inside.
“You want a beer?” he asked, pulling one of the silver cans out of his bag.
“Sure,” I said, and took it out of his hand. I examined the can since I hadn’t recognized the purple “211” writing on it or the name “Steel Reserve.” I opened it and took a sip of the worst tasting drink in the world. I sat on the mattress and forced myself to keep drinking it.
After another few minutes, I checked the time on my phone and realized it’d been over an hour since he stopped me from getting on the bus. I got a little nervous, worried that I might not be able to get to the station in time to catch my friends.
“Oh wow. I should really get going. It’s been a really long time,” I said. I got up, sat the beer on the counter, and made my way toward the front door.
“Wait! Stay a little longer and spend some time with me,” he practically begged.
“No. I should really go,” I quickly responded, concerned about why he sounded so desperate for me to stay.
“Well, do you have any money?”
“No, but that’s okay. I can get some from my friends,” I said, even though I really wanted him to give me money. I just knew he wouldn’t give me money for free. I continued walking toward the door.
“How much do you need? I can give it to you.”
“I only need twenty-five dollars but that’s okay, you don’t need to give me any money,” I said while putting on my shoes.
He walked over to me and asked for a hug.
After getting my shoes all of the way on, I tried to give him a quick hug, but he started to beg me to stay and “spend time with him.” I knew what he really meant —he wanted me to have sex with him. I was shaking uncontrollably. My heart pounded, my body went numb, and I thought I might pass out. He gripped me tighter and started rubbing his hands on my back. He continued to beg.
“I’ll give you twenty-five dollars; I’ll give you forty, eighty, a hundred dollars.”
“No!” I screamed and, almost out of nowhere, I followed the urge of my instincts telling me to act. With adrenaline pumping, I pushed him off me. I guess his grip wasn’t as tight as it felt, because I almost made him fall.
I grabbed my skateboard and slammed the door behind me, running down the stairs as fast as I could. I just ran without even thinking about it. When I got to the gate, I didn’t even bother to give myself time to figure out how to get it open. I just threw my skateboard over and started climbing, squeezing my feet between the bars. Once I reached the ground, I jumped on my skateboard and moved as quickly as I could, back to the 101 bus stop.
I got to the bus stop and sat for a moment. Then I decided to lie down. It was getting dark, and I was cold and scared. I just wanted to be home, I didn’t even care about the rave anymore. I felt violated because of the way he had touched me and because he had even thought about having sex with me. At home I knew I would be safe and right then it was worth putting up with the dysfunction for safety. For the next fifteen minutes, I cried.
By the time the bus pulled up, I couldn’t wait to get home.
A Note From Leandra Hall
Today, I’m seventeen. After some other experiences in my life, I don’t run away anymore and I’m clean and sober. This story was one of many events that taught me to appreciate my family—my mom, my dad, and my four sisters. I take full responsibility for the mistakes I’ve made but I don’t beat myself up for those or my imperfections because I learn and grow from them. I was lucky to have gotten away so easily and it took me a long time to realize it. This story is for any teen who thinks breaking the rules is necessary to have fun. I never saw that man again and I’ll leave it at that.