Apex/Bruce & Jolene McCaw
Jasmine Gifford – Author, Be\lie\ve
It was an incredible experience to be a part of We are Absolutely Not Okay. I never thought that I would receive an opportunity like that in high school, and that our teachers, principal, and school district would be so supportive and encouraging. Especially because we knew we wouldn’t be censored; it was all about us, we could write whatever was in our hearts. In those last few months of school when that was all happening, I’d never felt so close to my school, my community, and my classmates, who, after the book was finished, all became dear friends.
At the book signing on June 6th, it was surreal seeing the turn out. None of us expected that many people, AND a camera crew. We were honestly surprised to see that so many people care about what we have to say and want to know what we’ve been through.
My personal story was about when an ex boyfriend-—if you want to call him that—told me he didn’t love me, and threatened to leave me under a freeway bridge in Seattle at three am. It was difficult writing it because it was such a personal, closely held memory and it was one that I had never told anybody (nor planned to.) At first I didn’t think I could do it because of the emotion and all the background, but I felt like it was one I should tell, and I had to do it justice.
I wish there was a little more of a clear message in my story, but what I would hope to get across is that young girls need to have more self respect, and don’t know how. We let guys control us because they know they can. He could have convinced me to do anything, and if I hadn’t switched schools to go to Scriber, I would have never graduated. I was skipping school so much because he told me that school wasn’t important. It’s true that we accept the love we think we deserve. After a while, I truly felt like I deserved all the things he did to me. I can’t even say stand up for yourself, because I tried that; all we did was fight and then the fights got worse and worse and if the relationship hadn’t finally ended, I know the fights would have gotten physical. So my message is more towards adults: help girls learn how to love themselves first, because, trust me, we will never admit how insecure we are.
We Are Absolutely Not Okay was a huge learning and growing experience. It helped me with a lot of things in my personal life, because it made me feel like I had just let something go that I needed to. That’s how we all felt—it was like a weight lifted off our shoulders. We all will continue to grow, learn from our mistakes, and know that through this book we will all be each other’s support system.
Read Jasmine Gifford’s story in We Are Absolutely Not Okay: Fourteen Stories by Teenagers Who Are Picking Up the Pieces. Jasmine is also the author of Broken Mirrors, a powerful collection of stories about family, relationships, and maneuvering life has a teenager.
By Leandra Hall – Author, A Taste of the Real World
When I first started writing about the time I ran away from home and encountered a man who forcefully begged me to have sex with him for money, the incident had already been on my mind for several weeks. Though four years had passed, I still couldn’t get over it. Looking back on it made me feel violated and uncomfortable—sometimes even sending shivers down my back when I thought of it in detail.
I was skeptical about sharing my story at first. The idea that telling your story helps you get it off your chest and makes you feel better sounded like something your mom would say. But I decided to give it a shot and write about it in my English class. Sharing my experience with others was like taking down all of my walls and defenses, and allowing people I barely knew to see the hurt little girl who was hiding inside. At least that’s how I felt.
When people started reading my story, they made me feel better about the incident by reminding me of how messed up a man that old must be to desire such a small young girl. They also made me feel good about myself when they praised my storytelling abilities. I’d never felt confident in reading or writing and always considered English my worst subject. But here were these adults and classmates telling me that I was actually good at it. It made me start to really enjoy writing– as long as it’s in small portions.
As I stated briefly in my story, I went through a phase in my early teen years when I’d decided I could do whatever I wanted to do and didn’t have to listen to my parents. As a result I got into some tangled situations that were pretty hard to get out of. I just want those who feel the same way I once did to realize that by refusing to listen, you can encounter a lot of danger and really get hurt. Rape and kidnapping really do happen. I’ve had to learn a lot of life’s lessons the hard way and the thought of others having to do that is terrifying. I understand that not all may listen. But I hope that by sharing my story, at least a few will get it.
Leandra’s powerful story is can be found in We Are Absolutely Not Okay: Fourteen Stories by Teenagers Who Are Picking Up the Pieces — available on Amazon or BN.Com.
Interview by Ingrid Ricks
I met Mercy Pilkington online through GoodeReader.com, where she posts stories on new indie books. She was excited about our student story project and ran a wonderful spotlight on the book. What I didn’t know was that Mercy also teaches English and science to youth at a Juvenile Detention facility in the South. Our story project struck a chord with her because she is committed to empowering these teens and ensuring their voices are heard. It gave her the idea to launch Writers On The Inside, a story blog featuring her students’ stories. I recently talked with Mercy about her students and the goal with their story project.
IR: Tell us about the youth you work with.
MP: Typically, our students are between 12 and 18 years old. The major offenses are drugs and assault, with burglary/robbery and sexual assault rounding out the typical offenses. We do from time to time have students here for murder or attempted murder, but at this age those are less common.
The very odd thing about our facility is we are a detention facility, not a sentencing facility. What makes that so difficult is the students have no idea how long they will be here, and neither do we. It is incredibly stressful on the kids. As for being a teacher, it means that I walk into work every single day not knowing who my students are going to be. Three students had been released since I left work on Friday, and twelve new ones who have never been in my class were waiting for me this morning.
MP: First, the website gives the students a place to be heard. They live every day with practically no one in their lives caring about what they have to say or what has happened to them. This is a place for them to be heard. It’s also a place to show off, which is why sometimes the stories are just great fun short stories. Most importantly to me, when students leave without my knowing it, we take their school work folders and shred them for confidentiality reasons. I got permission to have this website for their work because they will have a way to find the stories they wrote when they are no longer with me. They can go to the website and show their parents or take their story and finish writing it.
My very first year at the facility, I let a student enter a nationwide essay contest. He worked so hard on that essay, and ended up winning an Honorable Mention in the category he entered. He doesn’t even know it, because he was released before the results were mailed to me. They also sent a copy of the anthology that his story was published in, and that book is still sitting on my classroom bookshelf because he is gone.
IR: What has surprised you most about the stories these teens are writing?
MP: I was prepared for them to want to write about their pasts, but not prepared for the raw honesty. For a male student to look me in the face and hand me the pages where he detailed his experiences with serial rape while his mother stood by and did nothing was surreal.
IR: We were excited to hear that our teen story project: We Are Absolutely Not Okay, inspired you to publish the stories of the teens you work with. Is the blog the first step in this? And can you tell us what you are planning from a book standpoint?
The project absolutely caused me to wonder why we couldn’t at least publish students’ writing, even if we didn’t have the kind of facility that lets us work together on a long-term basis. Seeing the reactions from the students and the community to We Are Absolutely Not Okay made me want to give my students even a small piece of the satisfaction and justification that it can provide teen writers.
I plan to put out a CreateSpace edition of some of the top writings on the blog for each school year, and provide a link so that students whose work was featured in it will at least have a place to request a free copy from the school. They will have something tangible to say, “I did this. I’m good for something.”
IR: What has this story blog meant to your students?
MP: I put the website up on my whiteboard and let them read the comments from people who’ve read their stories. They were shocked, not just that people liked their stories, but that people even bothered reading them. They were probably more impressed by the web traffic than the comments!
IR: Anything else you want people to know?
MP: When I tell people where I work, the most common response (especially from teachers) is, “I don’t see how you can work with those students.” I usually reply with, “These are YOUR students.” These kids come from their homes and their communities, and if we want to blame anyone for the situations they’ve gotten themselves into, I suggest we take a close look at ourselves.
By Carolina Mooney – Author, Bastard Child
All my life I’ve had low self-esteem and tortured relationships with boys. I don’t know my father, which has led me to engage in every form of self-destructive behavior possible. I’ve been promiscuous, constantly cheating on my significant others. I’ve never had a monogamous relationship that lasted longer than six months. Until now.
Last year, my high school English teacher gave me what I thought was yet another standard high school English assignment—a weekend’s worth of work at most.
Boy, was I wrong. This “simple assignment” was to write a non-fictional short story from my life in four days and have it essentially ready to publish in a student story collection by the end of the fourth day.
When I first wrote my piece, I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I participated in a live interview on a local television show with two other authors from our book that I understood the full potential of our publication. We had written a self-help book for others while helping ourselves with our own healing process.
I originally decided to use a fake name for my story because I felt like I could hide behind it. The content of my story was extremely personal and graphic and covered things I didn’t like to talk about with the closest of friends or even think about really. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my past and I felt that if I used a made up name, I wouldn’t have to deal with the reality of the situation. My family knew nothing of the content of my piece other than the obvious part about me not having a father. Even then, they didn’t know to which extent the lack of a father figure had affected me.
When my family ended up reading my story at our book release, party, I felt violated and their reaction made me wish I hadn’t written it. I had told them repeatedly that I didn’t want them to read my piece and that if they did, I would be really angry. But how could I expect them not to? They were proud of me for having something published regardless of the content, and they were curious as to why I didn’t want them to read it.
Although I was initially pissed off that they had read my story, it laid everything out on the table and forced us to talk about issues that really needed to be brought up. In doing so, it has changed my relationship with my family for the better.
While this experience was really difficult and exhausted me emotionally, if I ever had the chance to do something like this again, I definitely would. It was a great learning opportunity and I know that it has helped me immensely. I now realize that I need to own up to my past —that my past has made me who I am. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and since my secret is out, I no longer need to hide behind a pen name.
It’s my hope that my story can continue to help others.