On the second floor of the Supreme Court building, in a room not open to the public, a 14-year-old girl stood in front of a lectern and described the moment she learned to stop trusting strangers.
Flores described the scream she couldn’t summon and what happened next: How, through a haze, she could hear taunts thrown at her father by the man, a neighbor. How she ran home to grab a phone so her mother could call the police and how that, at last, made the man flee. How she went to bed that night with red and blue lights flashing outside her window and woke up changed.
I sat in the audience, listening to her talk, impressed by the steadiness of her voice. She made sure each word was heard.
Afterward, when I complimented her on that composure, she told me that her hands had been shaking.
Often when we hear from young people about how violence has affected them, it is in the immediate aftermath of some horrific event. In those moments, their words come at us through a fresh filter of pain and anger and fed-upness.
But if you really want to understand how violence changes children, how it follows them for years, fueling doubts in some and gonna-change-the-world goals in others, then you’ll want to hear about the group that came from across the country to the nation’s capital this week.
They were chosen by their communities based on essays they wrote in middle school for the “Do the Write Thing Challenge,” and before they flew home Wednesday, they left a piece of themselves in D.C.
On the same day Flores and four others read their stories aloud in the Supreme Court building, the group gave a leather-bound book to the Library of Congress.
The book contains 50 essays. They tell of sex abuse, bullying and lost friends and relatives. One boy was in the car with his cousin when he was murdered. Another child was told by a friend “I don’t want to go home,” just before she did, and was killed. I read all the essays. They are intimate and illuminating. They are also a reflection of adult failures.
Here are lines from three of them:
I am a kid who knows what it’s like to be dead inside.
I’m tired. Tired of not being able to be myself, to blend into the norm. Tired of feeling useless. Tired of fighting for a better tomorrow. I’m tired of feeling weak.
I should not have to question if I’m gonna be the next one drowning in blood, begging god to save my life.
That last one was written by Aliyah Harrison while she was in seventh grade at the West Education Campus in D.C.
“As children, we should be safe, especially in the nation’s capital right? We shouldn’t have to worry about our lives being taken right? We shouldn’t have to pray for miracles right?” Harrison wrote. “All of these questions are getting asked, and only a selected few are trying to really find the answers. Instead of keep asking ‘Why,’ why don’t you try to take an active part in finding the solution?”
Daniel Callister, a retired D.C. attorney, said he came up with the idea for the essays more than 25 years ago after reading about a young person who killed another over a pair of shoes. He went home to ask his then-teenage sons why they thought someone would do that, and his youngest replied, “Do you really care?”
His son, he said, told him that if he did care, he wouldn’t be asking two kids who lived comfortably in Bethesda.
The Challenge began as a pilot program in D.C. in 1994, and two years later, through the creation of the National Campaign to Stop Violence, it expanded to communities across the country. (It is not in Virginia or Maryland).
Callister, who is the chairman of the board for the national anti-violence group, said books filled with select essays have been given to the Library of Congress for at least 20 years. Some themes remain constant from one year to the next, he said, but one that has come up more frequently is sexual abuse.
“I don’t recall as many students talking about it as we saw this year,” he said. “I think the fact that we don’t have stable family units is definitely showing up in a lot of essays.”
Callister said that over the years, he has witnessed the students’ words push adults to “get off their butts and do something.” He has also seen how important it is to the children that they are heard. He recalled how a few years ago a girl asked him whether she could be among the students who read their essays aloud. He asked the organizers why she hadn’t been chosen, and they told him that her essay contained a graphic description of her rape.
“I went back and said, ‘Do you really want to read this?’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘I need to read this.’ ”
Before Flores spoke at the Supreme Court, a small-framed girl stood at the lectern. She was just barely tall enough to see over it.
She held a sheet of paper and began reading from it.
“At the age of seven years, I was introduced to the worst chapter of my life, which was going through physical and sexual violence from multiple family members,” she said. “One night, I was sleeping when I heard my door open. It was dark and I was half-asleep so I didn’t care. Five minutes later I felt someone carrying me and I saw it was my stepmom’s boyfriend. I remember the exact words that he told me when he was carrying me. He told me, ‘You scream, you tell anyone, or don’t do what I say, I will hurt your sister and I will make your life like your worst nightmare.’ ”
She continued reading, detailing the abuse in that home and in the one that followed. She then thanked two relatives who “were so kind, respectful and the perfect family” for saving her sister and her.
She said that two of the men who abused her are now serving 25 years in prison and that she planned to take the stand against the last one.
“That is why I want to become a successful criminal lawyer,” she said. She wants to put away those who hurt people and stop other children and adults from suffering, she said. “And to show those children and adults that they are not alone and for them to see that they have someone to help them fight for their happiness.”
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