Rafael Perez didn’t talk much about it when his father died. “Son, have a good day. Come right home.” That’s the last thing his dad said to him, the same thing he’d said every day before Rafael went to school. But this time, he checked himself out of the neighborhood for good while Rafael was gone.
Rafael, now 16, turned a cold eye on anyone who wanted to poke around in his pain. “Man, he died,” he would tell the teachers and the guys at school when they asked. “Leave it alone.”
After that, nothing seemed to hold together. Rafael got thrown out of high school three times, missing his freshman year altogether, got arrested and was sent to youth detention when he started stealing cars and doing drugs.
It didn’t get any better the day he set out to write a story about it. But at least the sour place inside him leaked out for a moment. He could turn to the people he’d been shrugging off and show them the page. “My first life ended,” he wrote, “when my father’s soul was set free by his own hands.”
In a way, a third life began when Rafael wrote that story. It was published in April in a magazine with his picture next to it. Last summer, he read it in front of the Seattle literati at the Elliott Bay Book Co. The crowd listened in astonished silence, then cheered for this short kid with slicked-back hair from southwest Seattle whose old man kept telling him to have a good day, and to come right home. “Sometimes when people say things, you take them for granted,” Rafael read, a small voice behind the microphone. “And sometimes it sticks in your head forever.”
There are lots of stories about dead fathers and bloodletting and lonely young mothers in southwest Seattle--a district of rough, blue-collar neighborhoods and housing projects only a few miles from the high-tech offices and sleek coffee bars downtown. But most of the stories don’t get written down. And few of those who’ve lived them earn $5.16 an hour.
Contributors to “The Boot,” the annual publication of the Seattle Summer Young Writer’s Workshop are like any other kids looking for a summer job--except those who get hired are the ones who would have been turned away elsewhere: the dropouts, the street kids, the ones who got “the boot” from school.
The money they take home courtesy of the federal Summer Youth Employment Program is not for frying hamburgers or waiting tables; it’s for weaving their passions and betrayals, their faith and fear, into paragraphs and verse.
Street literature in recent years has become part of the nation’s literary mainstream, most recently with widely read collections of street stories in Chicago and Kody Scott’s popular “Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member,” which sold 100,000 copies. Increasingly, schools are turning to creative writing as an antidote to youth violence; a veteran English teacher in St. Louis was fired last year for allowing her students to write tough poetry laced with profanity.
Still, Department of Labor officials say a program where students earn federal money for their literary endeavors is a rarity. The program has been so well received that Southwest community career center officials are drawing up a curriculum to send out to schools across the country.
These reports from hell carry few refinements.
“I saw the guy in the car try to reach under his seat for the gun. So, C-Locc steps up and grabs him and pulls him out the car. . . . C-Locc mobbed his ass, man. Damn he was all binked in the head, blood was all over his face. . . . We took off. The stupid police couldn’t find me, but later on, they got me sleepin’. Sooner or later, they catch you wit the zees,” wrote Sam Vaipou, 17, a native of American Samoa who moved to Seattle two years ago from Los Angeles. “My life is dangerous.”
“I often say ‘The Boot’ is a weapon: It’s a safe and productive way to get angry, to lash out, to really make themselves feel heard,” said Andrew Epstein, who teaches the workshop for the city’s Southwest Community Career Center, a city agency. “A lot of them have said it’s just as effective as going out with a gun--that sense of power, that quest for respect.
“A lot of them, admittedly, are lured by the idea of getting paid to learn,” he added. “But what I expect of them as students is similar to what I expect of them as an employee . . . to work and be productive and earn their pay.”
Congress slashed funding for such youth jobs by 28% in April after an initial move to eliminate the federal program, which provides 600,000 summer jobs nationwide. The cuts will mean about 60,000 fewer jobs, but the city of Seattle has stepped in to continue full funding for “The Boot,” a program now entering its fourth year whose success in luring students off the streets has been remarkable. Of about 30 enrolled over the last three years--by referral from teachers, counselors, case workers and parole officers--only two have failed to go to work or back to school.
“It was great, because we could write whatever we wanted to, basically,” said Rafael, who attended three workshops and has since reentered Cleveland High School. “Andrew [Epstein] never acted like we were dumb kids writing about dumb stuff. It was like we had something important to say that needed to be heard.”
The idea, said Epstein, is to not limit what anyone writes about, or how they write it. These are stories and poems about street shootings, sex parties, heroin and schools depicted as “torture chambers,” where the students are “slabs of meat.” The language is so profane that much of it can’t be reproduced in mainstream publications.
Critics--some within the agency that runs the program--ask how such writing is preparing youths to enter the job market. Parents and some community members have raged after reading copies of “The Boot,” claiming to have discovered in its pages children whom they don’t even want to recognize and a glorification of the violence they fear eventually will kill them.
“The reaction has ranged from shocked and appalled to enthusiastic. I’ve had some very tense confrontations with parents,” Epstein said.
“The theme of the workshop is finding your voice in writing. So a lot of what we have them explore is how to make their writing sound like themselves. At first, they really go off the deep end. All of a sudden they can cuss on paper, and they do. Then, they begin to realize that the stuff in between the profanity are the stories.
“The people at the readings are just about blown away,” he said, “impressed by the honesty and the starkness and the realness of the writing. I think they [the students] begin to realize how important what they say and what they write is, and how powerful it can be.”
“All Kenyhata could do was sit there and stare at me. He had the look of someone who just had a piece of his heart torn apart,” Chantel Serrano wrote of the day she told her boyfriend she’d had an abortion. “I went on to ask him, ‘What could you have done for me and your child? . . . You’ve already slipped through the cracks.’ ”
Serrano, 20, sits in the living room she shares with a new boyfriend and a baby--the product of her third unplanned pregnancy. The baby sits in an infant seat in the center of the bare floor. The boyfriend takes dozens of phone calls at the kitchen table, ordering Serrano to fetch this or that as he talks. A procession of young men knock at the door and file into the kitchen, then go out again.
Serrano sighs and files her three-inch nails. “Everything in that story is true,” she says. “I can’t comprehend giving life to my child and being on crack and not doing anything for my child except smoking his life away. . . . I can’t say I’m financially prepared for this child now, but I am mentally prepared. From Day 1, I have taken care of this child by myself.”
Serrano said the workshop helped get her back in a high school equivalency program, from which she expects to earn her diploma within a year. Then she wants to go to Puerto Rico, where her parents are from, and open a nail salon and a dance club.
Writing for “The Boot,” Serrano says, she is able to talk about things she only has been able to think about.
“So much has happened to me in my life. I’ve seen people shot. I’ve been raped. I’ve seen people get raped. I think the only thing I haven’t seen is somebody get decapitated. That’s too much to see for a 20-year-old person. I can tell worse war stories than someone from Vietnam, and that’s not right.”
“The first time I met Aleki Keni was when my uncle Mac brought him over to my grandma’s house. He was big, stalky, and had a clean-cut fade goin’ on. He wore a shirt with a guy pumping iron. A moustache and goatee hung below these thick eyebrows. He was like my grandma’s son. Every time he comes into her house, he says, ‘Hi, Mom,’ to my grandma. She always smiles when he says that. Then she says, ‘Hi, Son,’ with a fat smile like she just seen God.”
Fotu Ativalu, 16, went on in his story, “Fate of the Hood,” to describe how Aleki was shot to death. Fotu happened on the scene, not realizing it was his grandmother’s nephew. “I seen blood all over the ground. It looked like someone emptied out 40 bottles of ketchup,” he wrote. “I remember how the police sat back and watched us, drinking coffee. I remember feeling like killing all the mens . . . in uniform.”
Both Fotu and his brother, Ahsan, 14, enrolled in the workshop last summer to help support the family. Fotu, whose native language is Samoan, had fallen two grades behind in school, struggling to learn English. “They told me you could write stories and poems, and I thought, ‘Hey, try it out.’ I thought it was time for me to do something positive for myself.”
In addition to the story about Aleki, Fotu penned several poems, a defense of the neighborhood gang that patrols Seattle’s High Point district and a story about the night he decided not to have sex with a girl at a party. "[Stuff] like STDs, HIV and AIDS and [stuff] just rolled into my head like a ’78 Caprice bustin’ u-turn around my brain,” he wrote.
In a hospital cafeteria, his mother, Tino, takes a break from her job in the radiology department and talks about the day she read these stories.
In a family where she works all day and her husband works all night, where family dinners are followed by a family prayer, she felt a creeping sense of horror as she read Fotu bragging about his sexual exploits and his violent defense of the neighborhood.
“I think I went overboard that night when I read it. I was outraged. I told him straight, ‘You disgust me.’ It was a disgusting feeling,” she recalls. “Our children . . . they’re brought up in a manner of respect and religious belief.”
Of all her eight children, Fotu always was the hardest to reach. And in some ways, the most cherished. “Fotu has always been a different child. When I tell him something and he doesn’t listen, I tell him again. And he will sit there. He will not answer me. Even if I give him a backhand, he’ll just sit there. He won’t shed a word.”
Months after writing about Aleki’s death, Fotu was gunned down in the neighborhood, stepping between his sister and a drug dealer. He went from house to house, trying to find a phone to call an ambulance, but no one would let him in. Finally, he lay down and waited, he presumed, to die.
The next thing he remembers is his mother rushing up. “She said, ‘You’re not going to die. This is just a warning from God.’ And when my mom told me I was going to live, it’s like all the burden lifted off my shoulders.”
“I don’t know how in the world I got there,” Fotu’s mother says. “While the doctor was telling us how critical his wound was, I was crawling on the floor of the hospital. I can’t tell you what I was feeling. There were no tears. I kept thinking the same thing I was thinking the day my youngest daughter was born. They told me she wasn’t going to live a day. I just kept saying, ‘God, if you will save her, I will continue to serve you.’ And suddenly I got the feeling he was going to be OK.”
In fact, he recovered fully. The workshop, in the meantime, has helped him take classes to make up for lost school time. Putting everything that’s happened down in words has, in a way, helped sort it out, he says.
“I started writing and, boom, everything came out. Feelings, you know? I just let loose,” says Fotu, a hulk of a boy in a knit cap staring at his clenched hands as he talks.
“I wanna do this again this year, but my mom don’t like it. She said, ‘You act like you don’t even have sisters.’ She was talking about suing the school district. I told her, Mom, finally I try to do something to fix myself, and you start trying to mess it up.” He stops, and looks up then. “It’s all too hard.”
“One day while we were stuck at a light, and I was taking a hit, Misty started to whimper and whine. I looked at her, but she was looking past me at another car. I turned to look, and looking back at me was this wrinkle-infested, saggy old woman. Her eyes were boring through me like I was the devil, and she was shaking a bony old finger that looked like it was about to fall off at me. The light turned and we took off laughing as though it was the funniest joke in the world.”
Sara Kershaw was fondly recollecting, in her story “P.K.,” adventures in her first car. As that issue of “The Boot” hit the streets in April, the 19-year-old, four-time high school dropout was living on the streets, out of school again and heavily using heroin.
One day last month, police say, she pulled a hood over her head, disabled the telephone and stormed with her girlfriend into her ailing grandmother’s bedroom. There, the two allegedly pointed a gun at the elderly woman and ran off with her purse. A few days later, Kershaw was slumped behind a visitor’s window at the King County Jail doing her best to be the old Sara: part-bluster, part-wisecracks, part-tears.
“I loved doing it. I was so proud when it finally got released. I grabbed like 15 copies and gave them to everybody and their dog,” she said of “The Boot,” which she began working on after leaving high school.
“I liked it because I could express my thoughts the way I wanted to. . . . If real school was like that, I’d have graduated a long time ago. One teacher told me, high school is here to prepare you for the rest of your life. To get up every day of your life and do something you hate.”
Susan Kershaw, her aunt, recalls a recent conversation with Sara. She confronted her about an earlier theft from her grandmother when, the family says, Kershaw stole $600 that had been set aside for a birthday party for Sara, who was turning 18, and for Susan’s son.
“I looked her in the face and I said, ‘I want you to tell me: Didn’t it bother you night after night to see your grandmother crying, thinking she had lost that money?’ And she looked me straight in the face, and she said, ‘It doesn’t bother me to see people in pain.’
“She’s gonna do it the hard way, I guess,” Susan said, choking back tears. “I love her like she’s my own daughter. But this could be the best thing for her. She can finish. She can get her high school diploma, she can write to her heart’s content. And she’ll be off drugs.”
Sara shrugs, and swipes a hand at her own tears when told what her aunt said. “It was desperation. Living on the streets and being desperate. Being stupid. . . . Now, I’m just waiting. I’m just sort of sitting here saying, OK, I’ll stay here for awhile and get clean. But right now, I’ll tell you, I’m a miserable wretch.”
She recalls that night last August at Elliott Bay Book Co., when she got up to read her stories and poems. She was as nervous as she’d ever been, until she faced the crowd. Then, her charm took over. Sara always liked an audience.
The people who were there that night say no one left the room unmoved by these awkward, aching stories.
Lori Will, whose Bulldog Beach Interactive company has published most issues of “The Boot” on a volunteer basis, remembers she was in a bad mood. But she found herself listening hard.
“I was so moved by their courage to stand up and read some of the deepest, darkest life stories you can imagine, out in public. I thought I was going to have to leave, or I was going to start crying right there,” Will recalls.
Afterward, she went up to Becca Stivers, who had written about her ordeal with cancer. “She could tell I was all puffed up and acting tough because I was really touched and hurting bad underneath, and I tried to compliment her on her read,” Will said. “She just shook her head and walked past me like, ‘Man, we all got problems. Deal with it.’ ”