Rebecca Hedman was a 13 year old Tacoma, WA runaway. She was prostituting herself to support her crack addiction when she was picked up by John Medlock who bludgeoned her to death with a baseball bat and dumped her body. It was revealed that prior to this, Rebecca’s parent’s went to the Juvenile court telling them their daughter was out of control and they were looking for help. The courts said they were unable to help unless she had committed a crime. The outrage that was involved with this case raised a lot of questions about runaways and parental rights and so The Becca Bill was created as a response. This Bill states in part,
“… children between 8 and 18 are required to attend public school regularly, with few exceptions…students and parents can face serious consequences if a student has too many unexcused absences… students can be referred to juvenile court and ordered to serve time in juvenile detention. Parents will be fined.”
This is the tragic story of a lost little girl and the parent’s that didn’t know what to do. With all good intentions, this bill was designed to protect children who are endangering themselves.
Where am I going with this? Well, this bill had a large affect on the trajectory of my life.
After many, many unexcused absences from high school I found myself on the verge of getting tossed into juvenile hall, involving the courts, my parent’s fined… the works. By law, teachers must notify the parents of a student’s truancy before they make an official report to the state. So here I was, in this little room with my mom, all 6 of my teachers and the Principal to discuss “where I went wrong” after introducing themselves to my mother they then turned to me and asked,
“What can we do to make school more exciting?”
No one ever asked where I was 8 hours a day or what I was doing during that time but I’m sure they assumed the worst. Even my parent’s didn’t ask so I never told them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve told anyone until now so here’s my huge, dark confession…
I loved to read.
Sorry I can’t regale you with a tale of teenage sex, drugs, gangs and redemption. I justreally loved to read and was addicted to choosing a beautiful and inspiring place to take it all in.
I cut classes like P.E. so I missed a few days of lifting weights but a few blocks away I was sitting in the park absorbed in fun and strange new worlds. I just wanted to choose my own place of “lernin’, free from the sounds of “I got so fuckin’ wasted bro” and replaced it with the sound of the wind through the trees. I was focused and felt alive on me days. I chose to be here, to take in these words. I knew that in a few years I’ll be burdened with the “have to” but couldn’t understand why I couldn’t dictate my own hours now.
“If not now, then when?”
On rainy days, I hopped the bus to the Tacoma Public Library and spent my days in the NW Reading room. It was filled with rare archival books, *sniff* Aaaahhhhhh the smell of old information! I sat in front of the microfilm projector and looked at old police blotters from Tacoma circa 1902. I was having a blast. The librarians and security guards always gave me a double look since it was 10:00 am on a Tuesday. I wasn’t being raped or selling weed to the bums downstairs so they didn’t quite know how to handle me. I was being truant, disguised as research for school, which was really just a cover for following my heart that day.
Days blurred together when I was physically sitting in class but I will never forget the days I took off for myself. One that really stands out to me was when I read One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time (my all time favorite book). I was laying up against an old oak tree and when I finally read the last words I was bawling like a baby. It was so beautiful, sad and empowering. My head was swirling with the themes of the book: friendship, power, control, how we define crazy and fear. The smell of wet moss at my back just heightened the moment and as I sat there crying alone in the park a wind came up and dried my tears. I looked up and a stream of sunlight hit my face and I felt whole. So often I’m on auto-pilot but in that moment even reminiscing about it 15 years later – I was fully in that moment. It was mine and no one could ever take it away from me. I pulled myself together and then started to walk towards Frisko Freeze. “I need to replenish my strength, that was an emotional hour!” I grabbed a strawberry shake then noticed it was lunchtime at school. I strolled back onto the school grounds to visit my friends for that allocated half hour and asked, “Hey, what did you guys do in English last period?”
“Oh, we just watched Romeo and Juliet again… the new one with Claire Danes”
It felt like victory.
On the days I would go back into class I was miserable. Beyond the rebel teen “Parent’s just don’t understand” angst I felt robotic and fake. It didn’t sit right in my soul, in my skin. It wasn’t enough to just follow the schedule, and I didn’t know why. On me days I never told anyone what I did so it wasn’t for bragging rights, it was my little secret until now. I cherished it and it kept me nice and warm. Nothing my teacher’s said could’ve convinced me to sit in those cold seats and put a piece of paper on my keyboard so that my brain tells my fingers to stay on home-row. I tasted the rainbow, time was my own, I never bothered anyone and no one bothered me. And now you threaten my family with legal action?
I was pissed. Angry that tax payer money was wasted on a day-dreamer, that a law placed blame on my parents, my teachers and tried to “protect me from myself”. I was just seething in my chair during the meeting and refused to participate which only strengthened their argument that I was a lost cause. In the end, it was suggested that I find another school to “reset” the truancy that followed me like a criminal record and so my academic career at Stadium High School ended.
enter Oakland Alternative High School.
Oakland was a place of solace for teen moms (the only school with a daycare) and the last resort for crips, burnouts, dealers and me.
At Oakland, I found that teachers here had to deal with students that led very adult lives and the staff (though not verbally stated) believed in total personal responsibility. They also didn’t push too hard on laws that did not have real-life applications. They protected us from others, but never tried to protect us from ourselves. Besides that, the vibe was completely chilled and so I thrived… in my personal reading.
The second I got there I sniffed out the Library and it was empty except for the bright faced woman sitting at a desk. She was the epitome of what you think of when you hear that someone is a Librarian. She was tiny with her hair in a messy bun, thick rimmed glasses, long floral skirts and had a soft voice. I think when she saw me I was a welcome sight since I didn’t have any neck tattoos so we talked casually while I looked at the shelves. This quickly lead to a friendship and understanding that would span years. Day in and day out she let me sit on the couch in the corner and read… all day. This is great! Reading quickly became my school work and eventually she gave me the task of reading all the new books that came in. I was to read the books, give her an oral review and she’d then decide if the book were appropriate enough to grace the shelves. At first, I thought she was just trying to be overly nice and make me feel important but after reading a book about a released teen serial killer that is stalked by a promiscuous teen girl, and then reading another book about insest in the same week it became apparent that this was her job and a really legit one. But I didn’t care one bit, this was awesome! (Sidenote: Oakland, where did you get these books!?) and so it went… there was never any more talk of the Becca Bill and I was free to spend my day how I wanted and was left to read in peace. She adored me and I adored her right back and because my nose was always in a book, doing what I loved I can only assume I gave out an aura of tranquil focus and the rest of the staff took notice too.
Approximately one year later, I was nominated to receive the Thurgood Marshall Award of Excellence Scholarship.
I was just continuing to do what felt right to me and was given an award, monies and a sweet jacket! This experience taught me that even in the same zip-code you can be viewed as a crack whore or a bright scholar it all just depends on the culture and environment.
Since Thurgood Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court Justice, I was the only white recipient in the room so my principal made sure to announce, “She’s Hawaiian!” to make it OK.
Though our dream to quit our jobs, sell our things and live out of a backpack may seem crazy to some, I can’t wait to get out there on the road and find a travel culture that will (hopefully) befriend us and confirm that this is probably the sanest thing we’ve ever done. I know it is because I feel it in my bones and it’s never steered me wrong. Besides, there is no such thing as crazy…you just need to find your peoples.
This is not a post about ditching school or defying a well intentioned law but I am noticing a reoccurring theme within myself. Though this bill was set in motion to keep me in class and worse case scenario keep me from being murdered Monday – Friday from the hours of 7am to 2pm in the end what it really taught me was the importance of personal liberty and how precious our time really is. With this trip, I feel like it’s my time again to choose… to choose how and where I spend my days and where I’ll focus my energy. I’m done talking and want to take action to create the life I’ve always imagined myself leading on those quiet “me days”. Since this is my one go-round on this blue dot and death is our only guarantee my mind has long been made up and I choose adventure because…
“If not now, then when?”
May I never change.