[Love] Letter IV: Have You Seen This Girl?

photo (1)

Dear Abbie,*

Well, it finally happened this morning…

The coffee was brewing behind me, the blup blup pop of water percolating through the system felt comforting on an early Tuesday morning, warming my back hours before the sun would be able to do so.

In front of me sat strawberries and a banana waiting to be cut into oatmeal; and a peripheral view of the television, streaming the local news that broke overnight—four out of five criminalized faces featured on the top left corner of the screen have been those of young Black men. It’s not even 6:30 in the morning…

The screen faded to black for a moment—commercial break—I tune out for a few moments, the advertisements fading into my background, the blup blup pop cacophonous as it slides back into my audial forefront—fade to black again—waiting for the next headline, but first…

A familiar musical lead-in—the TV sounds only just beginning to fade back into my consciousness—the deep voice of a male announcer asks New York, asks me, “Have you seen…Abigail?”

You know those network-sponsored “Save Our Children” spots where information about missing children is posted in the hopes that someone in the five boroughs might know something? Name, age, height, weight, hair color, date last seen, and a photograph. My heart drops when I see these public service announcements, that is, when I’m paying attention to them; when I’m not also writing emails, or on a phone call, or playing with the puppy.

It’s difficult and uncomfortable to admit that more often than not these calls for action, these cries for help blend together, fade into the background…

They are glossed over with glazed-over eyes hyper-stimulated and tired from staring at a computer screen all day…checking Facebook or writing emails…

I will say that as a result of being in Youth, Media and Educational Justice, working with court-involved young people in New York City since September; reading, listening to, and learning about the realities of the juvenile ‘justice’ system, being in foster care, going AWOL, etc., I’ve tried to make more of an effort to pay attention to these announcements. If for nothing else, than to pause and recognize the importance of a young person’s life; to consider the role that a lack of support and resources might have played in the young person’s disappearance; to take a moment to humanize this young person, to remember the importance of care, and to hope that they make it out on the other side of whatever it is they’re going through.

I wonder if anyone else ever holds their breath for a second when they hear, “Have you seen…” waiting to see if by some crazy coincidence they might know the young person in the photograph.

I honestly don’t know why I looked up right as the announcer said a girl’s name. Reflex? Coincidence? I looked at the girl’s first and last names printed in big navy blue letters on the left; looked at the photograph of a young girl taking up the right half of the screen. It took a few seconds to register, while the “Save Our Children” theme song played, giving viewers a moment to take the information in (a best case scenario). And then I heard myself say out loud, “Oh no…”

The spelling of the first name…that last name, I recognize it…the photo, I’m watching at an angle so I can’t be sure…

I run around the kitchen counter into the living room diving for the remote control so as not to lose another second—disregarding the fact that we pay an extra $6 a month so that we can fast-forward through commercials or rewind and pause something when we need to see it again, to sit with it. My fingers stumble over the buttons, I go back a commercial and a half, then too far forward. Ugh. I press the rewind 15-seconds button once more and time it perfectly…the screen fades back in from black and I hear the familiar music, which now feels like sandpaper in my ears. And then, it’s you

The quality of the photograph isn’t great, and it was definitely taken a few years ago because you look so young, but it’s you. You’re wearing glasses. The look on your face is hard to decipher; the corner of your mouth is slightly curled up but I’m really not sure that it’s crawling into a smile. You look pensive, as if you’ve just been interrupted, like someone called your name and you turned your head to see who might be disrupting whatever it is you’re doing. There’s blonde woven through your dark chocolate hair, it’s shorter than it was when I last saw you. Your gaze breaks through the fourth wall of the camera and hits me in my lower abdomen…

Missing Since:

1-24-14

Age Now: 15 yrs.

Lt. Brown Hair

Brown Eyes

5’4   110 lbs.

It’s the first time I’ve seen your face since December. Hello. I want to ask you a million more questions than I did in my first letter to you, the most important one being, Are you ok? And then, just like that, you were gone. The announcement was over. Back to the next headline:

“…Teen charged after Brooklyn fire leaves cops critical…

Damn it.

What do I do with this?  I know her, but I don’t know where she is…

What are the chances? I know her. 

Up until now, I’ve been able dwell in a space with boundaries that have only flirted with the periphery; I’ve held my breath for a moment in the last few months every time I see one of the ‘missing child’ ads, knowing that the chances of me actually knowing the young person are small. The young people missing are often youth of color; and while I work with such a minuscule percentage of young people as compared to all of the “urban youth” in NYC, this is another factor that has prompted me to watch these announcements more closely…I watch praying that I never see the face of one of my students on the screen. This is flirting dangerously close to being [perceived as] a savior narrative so I will stop here with this thought. But again, I bring it up to acknowledge the safe space in which I have been able to engage with these reports, doubting I’d ever actually know the young person, until I did…it’s a really difficult, stubborn feeling.

I took a photograph of the TV screen and plan to show it to the woman who runs the mentoring program where I met Abigail. I’ll see her tonight, when we convene for the last official group mentoring session of the year. I’ll be meeting with my newest mentee, Maggie, who I’ve seen every week for the past month and a half. She’s older (and therefore has more privileges) so we were allowed to exchange phone numbers and we text often. She’s just completing her high school coursework and hopes to enroll at a SUNY school for the fall term.

We’re still learning about each other, and while we get along so well that I feel like we’ve been paired since October, she is more reserved in what she shares about her past and it’s because she is working so hard to be in the present and be focusing on her future; to make it out on the other side.

I write this not for sympathy. While it is about an experience that I had, this is not about me. The purpose of writing these love letters is for me to occupy hybridized spaces in which to engage with ideas and experiences that up until this academic year, have been so far out of my realm. They’re love letters, as opposed to theoretically-founded or empirically-based papers, because there is a level of humanity, humility, and reflexivity that I would never be able to reach or call upon in more traditional academic and analytic spaces.

If there is one thing that the young people I’ve worked with this year have helped me to begin to understand, it’s this notion of resiliency. I’m working on it…

 

…and I continue to be humbled.

 

Yours truly,

Emily

 

* Name has been changed