April Issue
March 31, 2014

Student Stories: Youth Writing for Justice Project

Source: NYSUT United

youth writing for justice projectThe stories on this page were produced by high school students writing side by side with college students studying criminology, social work and education as part of the Youth Writing for Justice project. The project was established in 2011 by Herstory Writers Workshop, an organization dedicated to using guided memoir writing to give voice to people whose stories have been silenced and to change attitudes, policies and lives while creating a powerful body of new grassroots, community-based literature.

The workshop partners with Community Action, Learning and Leadership at SUNY College at Old Westbury, and the Sharing and Caring Diploma Program for Pregnant and Parenting Girls of Long Beach Reach and is spreading to other colleges, universities and public school districts.

The high school students who participate in the after-school project are chosen by their teachers and social workers. They represent a wide variety of backgrounds, yet their mission is the same: Learn techniques to tell their stories so the larger community will care. The college students, too, are learning the "dare to care" technique.

You can learn more about the program by reading "Students find their voice in community-based writing project" in the April 2014 edition of NYSUT United. Herstory is also featured in the latest edition of Educator's Voice, NYSUT's journal of best practices in education, available in mid-April.


Arooj Janjua

Hempstead High School
Youth Writing for Justice Project at Hofstra University

I just look like a Muslim to most, but to a few I am an unwanted creature, a terrorist. The thought of me being called a terrorist ran through my head over and over again as I tightened my scarf and took my first step into middle school in a hijab. I thought it was bad enough being how I was before.  Even though throughout 6th grade I didn't wear a scarf on my head, all I heard around me was, "ugly terrorist," "you need a bag on your head," and "immigrant." I went mute after that, barely spoke a word. That innocent little girl became what she believed herself to be.

It was an ordinary day. I woke up at 6:30, got dressed, and looked at the mirror. I stared at the girl looking back at me: with her long black hair flowing everywhere from the front of her face all the way down her back, her light brown eyes filled with confidence, such confidence that nothing could bring her down. Not until that day.

That day was nerve wracking for me. I mean making a huge change is nerve wracking for most people. Everything was okay at first. I sat in the cafeteria waiting for the bell, hoping no one would say anything, but I was wrong. People came up to me making a wall of intimidation around me, mentally and physically. They asked so many questions that I didn't know how to answer, mainly because I was afraid to speak. They laughed their hearts out. They touched my hijab, and one person actually pulled my scarf off my head. Everyone asked to see that innocent girl's hair. She felt insulted. She wanted to practice her religious views without all that crap. She wanted to yell. She wanted them to stop. She started to think it was a mistake to wear a hijab. She wanted them to leave her alone, but nothing came out of her mouth. She just walked away. She walked away with nothing left but tears in her eyes.

After that day I was very scared to do anything—scared to speak, scared to do work on the board, scared to change myself, scared to tell someone. I usually sat with my teachers at lunch and in the morning as well, whatever I could do to hide from everyone. I did whatever I could to get my mind off the thought of them hurting me again. I'd work, clean, draw, and help others. It suddenly hit me, what will I do next year? I can't keep hiding behind my teachers. Just that thought got me so mad.

Anyone who came my way never spoke to me again. I would beat up people at the portables. I would curse out anyone who said anything about me. I pushed people. I hurt them like they hurt me. I became a girl who reflected her feelings on others. I basically became the bully. When I realized that I was the bad guy this time, I stopped. I didn't want to hurt anyone. I went back to that helpless girl hiding from the world. I felt like I went through different phases of who I wanted to be as a Muslim.  People knew I was tough and rude so they didn't bother me as much; one good thing came out of that.  But they just left me alone. I never had a friend since.

I remember a girl who actually tried to talk to me and tried to be my friend. Her name escapes my mind but her face is clear to me. At lunch, I was sitting outside on the bleachers drawing henna designs all over my paper; she came up to me.

"Hi," I looked up and saw her face and thought it must be a prank or a dare to talk to the terrorist. I ignore her.

"What's your name?" I looked up.

"Arooj," I replied cautiously making sure that I didn't get laughed at. People laughed at my name, thinking it's so many things other than what it really is, Arooj.

"That's a nice name. What does it mean?" I looked up and she was still smiling.

"It means highest of all or rise."

"That sounds soo cool! What wou…," she couldn't finish her sentence. Out of nowhere two girls run up to us and I think, oh shit, please do not say anything.

"Who do you like? Chris, Jonathan or Kevin?" I looked confused. I didn't know any of them or like them. They asked again, "Who do you like? Chris, Jonathan, or Kevin?"

"Wait, did you say Chris?"

 I looked to my right and looked at her. She was still smiling. The two girls ran off to find whoever Chris was to tell him that someone likes him.

"Wow! So stupid" I looked down and continued to finish my flower.

"Wow!! That's soo beautiful! You have to teach me that!" she commented. I looked up and as soon as I opened my mouth to say something, beep, the bell rang. I grabbed my things and ran off to class.

Charlotte Ring

Mineola High School
Youth Writing for Justice Project at Adelphi University

I feel like there are two of me. There is the one born of darkness, lost in despair, the one that feels all too real at night when I am alone. There is me that smiles and is polite and acts like I am definitely okay. But I am inclined to believe that this one is not real. And though everyone feels this, it does not mean that it doesn't hurt. I sort every experience of mine into the things that build the light and dark parts of me. I share only the good and not-so-bad, hiding all the pieces of me that I cannot admit to.

I was about thirteen, which is never a good year for anyone. My mother keeps her files on the bureau in the kitchen, folders for taxes and information and my report cards among other boring adult things. One label in my mom's neat handwriting said, "Concerns about Charlotte."

"What are your concerns about me?" I asked her as I looked up from my homework.

"Stuff," she replied, as helpful as ever.

"Can I look in it?"

"Do your homework."

This reply piqued my interest. Perhaps I was descended from royalty after all and kidnappers were after me. Or perhaps they were worried I was a genius and I'd go to college at 16.

My dad is a teacher, my mom a homemaker, and me an only child. This meant that virtually every single minute at home is spent with parents (and I was always home since I had like two friends). This is hell for any pre-teen girl who wants use of the family TV or computer. So the 25 minutes each evening when my parents went on their walk were the best of the day. On this particular night, I had a mission. I waited a moment after the door closed to make sure the coast was clear. Gingerly, I lifted the blue (or was it purple?) folder out of the rack and placed it on the kitchen table. The house was dark, save the two lights in this room that casted a reddish glow across the surface of the table. I willed my hands to be steady. Perhaps I was an alien from another planet after all. I opened the file.

I only ever read the first sheet because I was afraid. I felt betrayed in the moment, though that wasn't really fair. The first sheet of paper featured a smiling boy staring up at me, his brown skin juxtaposed against the white writing. "How Children with Asperger's Make Friends." I knew this wasn't a diagnosis, barely an assumption. But my mom had torn this paper out of some magazine as… well, a concern about me. But in the moment, it was too much to bear. Hands shaking despite my efforts to stay calm, I closed the folder and slipped it back to where it came. Such fears about myself should never be realized. I felt not shame but fear that I may never truly fit in because of some reason outside my control.

Three years of forgetting this in the conscious but feeling its weight in the darkness of my life, took me to a place where I took an online psychology test as a joke on the internet. But I was honest in the survey and the result that said, "Mildly Autistic," had looked me in the face without such humor. Still, I was a curious person and I managed to casually state these results to my dad. He sighed. "You know I don't trust those tests. But if I'm honest, you might have gotten some label like that if we tested you when you were younger. And if you want that test, of course I'll take you. But I don't know if you really want to live with a label." His equally casual answer seemed rehearsed—as if they knew one day I would come asking the questions that they didn't have the answer to.

I always think that people are the sum of their experiences, products of their regrets. This was challenged by the idea that I was something from birth. We must learn from solely our experiences and forget all other inhibitions, for that is what forges one's true self.

Edwin Solis

Hempstead High School
Youth Writing for Justice Project at Hofstra University 

So many stories to remember… some good and great, while others are horrible and horrific.  Some stories we don't want to remember, but we can't efface from our minds.

It was a night where no light was bright, no light was in sight, and the darkness clearly won the fight. It started with a bloody yell, crying for help, but a hero wasn't present. People dashing to the scene, begging for a miracle, but a call wasn't returned. Copious amount of lights flickering and flashing, from the cop cars to cell phones, but there was only one light people were looking for, but it was never found. Flabbergasted faces couldn't believe what they were seeing, myself included. Cars screeching, people whispering, and the heavens crying. I walked over to get a better view, and, there, one could see red smeared deeply into the street concrete. My friend is dead.

It happened all so fast, as if it was a blur. Just a mere crossing the street, then soon a big bang where his body is laid out to rest, where my friends and I watch from the sidelines a couple of feet away in front of the apartment steps where we always sit. Dry reddish blood around his head where he lay unconscious, and at the same moment his girlfriend is screaming at the top of her lungs, "Where the fuck is the ambulance?! Where are they?!" In a furious, crying, sad voice she yells these comments out loud that give everybody chills down their spine upon hearing her desperate cry for help. I glance to my left where one of his best friends is tearing up, bewildered by the unexpected circumstance that just occurred. 

However, the biggest moment of all was my demeanor toward the situation. I was visually, literally, seeing my friend lying dead without any hope of coming back, and I didn't shed one single tear. It wasn't because I was trying to be strong, it was just that for some odd strange reason I simply didn't cry.  I cried a bit at the wake, but not at the actual death. I had a strong animosity towards myself for not showing any emotion at all.  A deep sick thought had manifested inside my mind that I don't dare to over think: Was the reason I didn't cry because I felt relieved that his death had actually happened?

Is it morally wrong to think this? Am I going to be punished by karma as the Hindus believe, or sent to hell as in the Christian religion for having these thoughts?  I had no hostility toward the kid, so why didn't a tear exit out of my eye.  Maybe it was just that my mind didn't fully process the information yet.  I didn't have animosity towards him, and my friends and I just played soccer with him outdoors, where it was the only place that our problems would efface, the sun sparkling at our backs and the wind rushing to our face, not to mention the Hispanic people outside who stopped for a minute to watch us play as if they were our own spectators.  It didn't matter who did it, or even where it happened.  The only thing that mattered was that he was gone and could no longer revive himself back to life.  I did feel morose about what happened, but it didn't show. I tried to cry on purpose to show people I did feel something about his death, but nothing came out.

I wasn't planning to go to his wake, but somehow found myself ending up there.  It was a regular night with different colors of cars lined up on the sidewalk.  I entered the side of the building, passing the boy's friends, where the oxygen was suffocating with the cigarette smoke around it made by the kids.  Opening the door, straight, there's a medium-sized hallway with a bit of chairs on the right side and a wooden bathroom door to the left, a chandelier on top of the room with a nice clean carpet on the floor.  A nice elegant place to feel morose and to collect memories and experiences one had with him.  Forward in the hallway is a big room where chairs are faced to the right where everyone is facing.  In the front of the left side lay his coffin where he rested; flowers left there for him and a television screen on the peak of the top right corner showing pictures slides of him made me feel sad just seeing that he died young.  His red hat with a nice color t-shirt on, smiling for the camera, not knowing that he's smiling for those who will soon see his dead body.  I was in line waiting to just to see a dead body, that's basically what I was doing.  My emotions finally took place and were released a bit for the first time when I saw his cold pale body in the coffin.  A lot of people said he didn't look the same; I went to check myself to see what the commotion was about.  His face was covered with a lot of makeup and it seemed distorted.  The makeup was used to cover his bloody face from the accident.  We are all born to die—the unmovable law of life.

I remember sitting on the right side, back row, near the middle section, with some of my family to my right, and a kid from middle school at the time to my left.  The ceremony finally went under way where a medium-sized height man, Hispanic, brown skin with black hair, rose up to the stand in front of the room.  I don't remember if he dressed in black or white but he looked like a man who often carried words and speeches to those who died regularly, as if it was his regular job and it just became the norm for him.  As expected, he carried this one well with a calm tone to it.  The man carried on talking about the boy and other things you should say in these types of ceremonies when the dead body is presented to the public for the first time.  As a few seconds or minutes went on, there was this particular man in the front first row of everyone for whom it seemed the death had surely taken a toll.  This particular man soon caught the attention of everyone in the room, including me as well.  This man kept on shouting things in Spanish, which in English translated to, "Oh, God!" "Help us, God, please!" "Let you watch over him, God!" "Give us strength, Jesus!"  The man kept on going while some kids found it amusing.  The middle school kids and others kept on laughing nonstop at this poor man's sorrow.

I was just leaning back in my chair, watching and observing the people around.  Some were talking, crying, or just being quiet during the ceremony.  I fell in the category of the quiet ones, thinking what time I would manage to get back home.  It was already late at night and I already came to see his body, and that's it, there wasn't any reason more to stay. As I was exploring my random recurring thoughts, the two men who were lecturing and the other who was preaching loudly, kept on going.  But I didn't pay much attention to them anymore.  The day is getting late, I thought to myself, it's probably already night time, the moon playing leap frog with the sun.  I turned to my left and saw people crying their hearts out. When my family finally left the building, leaving the ceremony of the dead boy, we then ate ice cream.

Erika Vasquez

Sharing & Caring Diploma Program for Pregnant & Parenting Girls, Long Beach Reach
Youth Writing for Justice at Hofstra University

"A Childhood Taken"

People might look at me and think, "That girl has a happy life!" Truth is my life has not been a walk in the park. I went from changing my dolls' diapers to changing my baby's diapers within a blink of an eye. But as you know, things happen for a reason. I have gone through so much that a child should never see or even know about. I have known violence, rape, and drugs. I am not gonna lie, I have had some happy moments throughout my life, but when you remember the bad times you forget about the good times and focus on the bad.

A small child sits on the swing; he tied it there. The swing is tied to the tree with thick yellow rope that creaks each time she swings…  I was seven years old at the time. I could remember it like it was yesterday. It was a sunny chilly day, the birds were chirping, the flowers were blooming. You heard the laughter of children playing outside while I was doing what I usually liked to do: watch movies like Snow White, The Lady and the Tramp, and everything that had to do with fairy tales.

I heard the sound of an unusual truck pull into the driveway. I got up from the old ripped couch that had gold flowers around it and made an annoying screeching sound every time someone sat on it. When I looked outside, I saw him tying a royal blue swing on the tree that was as tall as the clouds. I thought in my head, I wonder who the swing is for?  Maybe he has kids. I got lost in my thoughts. When I snapped back to the real world he was in front of the window telling me to come outside and try the new swing. Before I knew it, he was pushing me and I felt the wind go through my face and those little butterflies you get when you jump off a diving board. But not too long after, I began to feel him grab my butt every time he pushed me and I told him I wanted to get off.

As my feet kicked the dirt to help me stop the swing, he asked me if I wanted to buy ice cream. At first I felt uncomfortable, but when he said he would buy me a nice doll, I jetted down the driveway to ask my grandma if I could go. At first she said no, but when I told her my sister Nancy was coming, she said yes, but we had to be quick.  

As my sister Nancy and I got into rusty blue pickup truck, he told me to sit next to him. I didn't question why, but on the ride to Pathmark he kept rubbing my back. I felt weird about it, but I thought it was just an act of kindness. Inside the supermarket he told me and my sister to pick anything we wanted. I didn't know where to start. He bought me candy, ice cream, toys, make-up. I thought he was the coolest. But that was his way of winning an innocent child's trust.

I awoke to a knock at the door. As I searched for the light of the moon for some guidance, I realized that someone was already in the room with me. I sensed his warm breath and rough cold hands begin to touch my legs. I felt my blood turn stone cold. I could hear him breathe in and out, as if he was holding it in for a long time but could not catch up with it. I felt my heart beat faster and faster every time he took a step closer. When I finally realized what was happening, my adrenaline jumped up and I was racing to the door, but he was much faster. He pinned me to the floor, I began to kick, but when I tried to yell, it was as if my voice was not there, I couldn't hear myself yell, and neither could my babysitter. 

The nightmares begin. I wake in a cold sweat, trying to escape him and his blue pickup truck, just running over the rough green grass that keeps bringing me down every time I think I have won the battle. My grandmother wakes me and asks what is wrong, but I do not have the courage to tell her the truth that can ruin her and take her away from me. I remember when I was in kindergarten, how I would slow down every time I reached the big red doors that led me to the huge school where I would be pulled away from the safety of my angel, how I would throw myself on her and she would say, "Mi'ja, it's very hard for me as it is for you, but you have to come here so you can get an education."  

Every night I would curl up with my angel, curled up by her womb, the warmth and the smell of love and the feeling of safety that she would be there when I woke up. It was the only way I would feel safe, that I would know she would defend me, like a lioness defends her cubs.  But when the sun rose, I would lose that feeling because she was off to work. There, I would lie on the edge of the bed cold, lost, as if the smell of love had vanished. 

Joselyn Gonzalez

Hempstead High School
Youth Writing for Justice at Hofstra University

"Stronger than Me"

This is me, a girl with dreams, a girl with wild ambition. But what happens when people start to doubt you? What happens when the only people you've trusted, all of a sudden leave you? You begin to see what they see, and think what they think. And then you begin to doubt yourself. No one is on your side. Not mom, not friends, not anyone. Then you're alone, what do you do then?

My life was once full of excitement, once full of so much energy and happiness. Now, I lie here alone in bed. The walls are a vivid purple but they seem so gray. The sunset peeks through the blinds but all I feel is darkness. I hear the clock on my wall ticking but time seems endless. But I'm guessing every human eventually suffers depression; but not at this age, not in 8th grade.

Morning comes; I feel the soreness of my body. My eyes are swollen, my throat feels clogged. Something about this day feels different, strange, in fact. The air isn't as crisp. The skies aren't as blue and bright. I force myself out of bed and quickly get ready for school. But I'd rather stay home. I don't want to put up with the teachers, I don't want to put up with the work, and I especially don't want to put up with the students. I'd just rather not be here.

Sixth period lunch, this is the worst. I'm with a couple of "friends." They converse about the latest gossip and what their plans are for the weekend. I daze off into empty space, too involved in my own thoughts. No one bothers to pay attention to me, but genuinely I don't mind. I don't need their pity and sorrow. I don't need anyone to pretend like they care—I get that everywhere else I go. But these Hempstead kids make me feel so lonely and out of place… like a tomato in a fruit basket… technically it belongs, but it just doesn't feel right. They make me doubt everything I do, everything I want to become. They tease me and say I'm different. How am I different? Because I don't listen to the same kind of music as them? Because I've decided that school is my main priority? Because I don't speak and act like them? Yeah, that makes me so different.

It seems like I can't relate to anyone here. Do they cry because they're reminded by society that they aren't good enough? I can't imagine someone else going through my situation. It feels too personal, too unrealistic.

Heading home afterschool brings me happiness. At home I am me, no one else. I have my dad. He's my everything, the best friend I always needed. He's kind, patient and understanding. When everyone else doubts me, I know I can count on him. When I fall, there comes dad to the rescue to pick me right up.

I open the door to find my dad watching television, a soccer game, I remember. He always gets excited when he watches those.

"Joselyn, how was school?" he asks. He has a sweet smile on his face.

"The usual, dad. Same thing just a different day. I'll be upstairs in my room if you need me," I say.

"Alright, then. Don't forget to do your homework," he yells from the living room as I make my way up the stairs.

Alone in my room, once again. I slip my shoes off and jump into my bed. I pull out my journal. All of my thoughts and emotions are in one small pink book. God knows what I would do if I lost it. And I start to write in it revealing, once again, a deep secret.

Dear Journal,

I know what I've done is wrong. I know that it is a sin. But I have no one but myself. I can't tell my dad about this, he'll be too upset. I have no other choice, no other way to cope with my anger and frustration. No one is on my side. No one gives a shit. No one cares. No one will ever understand no matter how much I explain. I will never be good enough for anyone. I will never fit in. I will never make my dad proud of me. I will never make myself proud. My mom will never support me. My little sister will never look up to me.

And that's when I lost it. The anger had definitely built up. The frustration definitely overpowered me. I search my drawer for my hidden razor. This is what makes me feel better, this pain relieves my pain. The razor touches my arm, I sigh of relief. My thoughts have gone silent… the world is peaceful for a few more minutes. But this isn't right. I shouldn't be doing this to myself. I am better than this.

Quickly, I know the solution. It's time to tell someone.

"Emelyyyyyyy!" I yell so my sister can hear from across the hallway. She comes in with an annoyed look on her face.

"What?" she says.

"I need to talk to you. Promise me this stays between us."

"I promise," she says.

"Cross your heart?"

"Yes, cross my heart," she says while we both gesture a cross sign in front of our chest.

I explain to her what I've been feeling. I tell her what I've been doing to myself but she looks confused. Her facial expression brings tears to my eyes. Then she begins to speak. I see her mouth moving but I hear nothing. She looks upset and her eyes start to water. She looks at me with concern. She's still talking but everything seems blurry, including her words.  All of a sudden, she says nothing. The room falls into deep silence but I still can't make out her image. Then she begins to cry. My mood changes instantly. Suddenly, I feel the hurt again. I can read her eyes, see her emotions. I weep at the thought of me hurting my sister. I weep at the thought of letting her down.

"I'm sorry," I mouth.

She looks up and says nothing. But I know what she's thinking… her emotions and my emotions in a room that we share. Never have I felt that kind of pain before, and never will I ever wish it upon anyone.

"I don't want to hurt anymore. I don't want to hurt you anymore," I cry.

Emely looks up at me, she wipes away my tears. "You don't have to."

Now, I know my little sister is the stronger one. She is my pedestal, she is my rock. God has blessed me with my sister.

Osvaldo Nunez

SUNY Old Westbury
Youth Writing for Justice Project

It was a beautiful yellow evening, and the sky's breath had chased me out of the hot concrete that was the streets of New York. There was some kind of wish inside me, a wish to receive the blessing of the air conditioners whistling through the tired carts of the MTA. The stairs were rushed and faces blurred back and forth; only beauties were sharply defined in my eyes. It was only a few minutes till the next train to my destination would dock in, and, in those few minutes, time slowed down.

Almost for some ethical reason, I always hated myself for thinking too much... Simplistic ways of thinking ruled the streets, I thought.  Simplistic ways of thinking killed the worries, I thought. A moving chair strolled down, with a despaired rust color to it. On it, sat a man, solemn in the face but prideful, as he did not beg. He was a miniscule man, shrunken to a torso-for-living and a head-for-preaching his experience and sorrow. He was probably this way from a war, perhaps a crash, and was left to die slowly in the fast moving space of New York. That's when my scorned side hit… Why think so much if it isn't me? It isn't me. I shall get on that train and swiftly breeze through that sight, and by the time the train was wet from sunlight, the sight of that man would be a memory. And once I was home enjoying my own life, that memory would have already been discarded. That's what happens to us victims of indifference. But the subconscious powers that spoke in my mind made me realize I was truly a blessed man; blessed in mediocre levels to most, but I was blessed, and so was every fast moving face nearby, blessed to be able to move that swiftly. 

The seat remained where it was, perhaps with no true destination, his original dream gone with the wind along with his limbs. I looked him in the face. It wasn't like mine. It wasn't like theirs either. A façade portraying strength and the lack of need of help, but his eyes, they didn't lie; eyes never lie. His eyes spoke true experience, true pain, true sorrow, true sadness, true loneliness, true despair—hopelessness. His eyes were a desert, dry of all life that once flew through its colorful skies that once drank from the lake of dreams, now dry. But not once did his eyes ever beg, or self-pitied.

Justice, what is that?  Justice just is, a translation; but then, what is just? And so, I can only assume that my justice in that moment could have been different than the other people there. Certainly, there was a social injustice trailing around the rust color of his chair and the old promise he was guaranteed was obviously a lie. Whoever promised him, what is justice to them?  Whoever promised us limb-filled and complete, what is justice to them? To society, what is justice? And are we exploiting our divine luck? Which justice chose that man, and which justice chose you and I? And which justice chose the CEO of the next sky-piercer in vision? A true smell of injustice only seen by the naked eye, certainly brews.