In April 2014, a fifteen year old boy named Yahya from Santa Clara High School, where I teach, stowed away in a wheel well of an airplane, surviving the flight from California to Maui, a feat that carries a 76% death rate, according to the FAA. CNN reported that Yahya had run away from home after fighting with his stepmother. He boarded the first west bound plane he could find in hopes of making a trip to Africa, where his mother lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He hadn’t seen her since he was seven years old.
Yahya was not my student, but was friends with one of my sophomores at the time, Abraham. Like Yahya, Abraham was from Eritrea, and had moved to Santa Clara when he was eleven to live with his father. Like Yahya, he hadn’t seen his mother in years and missing her was like a toothache, constant and painful. I remember him telling me at the time that he completely understood Yahya’s decision. He himself would do almost anything to see his own mother.
I can’t stop thinking about this conversation today. Earlier this week, I got an email from Abraham, who graduated in June. I get lots of emails and Facebook messages from former graduates, and like all teachers, seeing or hearing from a student whom I had a hand in educating remains the most satisfying part of my job.
But this email was different. Abraham was writing from jail. He explained that he had made some bad choices at a local department store where he worked, giving away merchandise to friends when they came through his cash register if they asked. He had gotten arrested and was soon to be tried. He wanted me to write a character reference to the judge for him.
I’ve written hundreds of letters for my students over my twenty year career, but this is the first time I was writing to a judge. This was the first time I was writing in a situation where my students’ physical freedom was at stake.
Through the magic of Google Drive, I still had a copy of Abraham’s personal statement for his college applications, which he wrote in September 2015 as an assignment for my class. As I struggled to find the best words to share with the judge the young man that I had spent his sophomore and senior years with, I defaulted to embedding his entire personal statement into my letter. I let him speak for himself. Here’s an excerpt:
My mom still lives in Kenya. My mom has always been there for me since I was a kid and I really miss her because I haven’t seen her in 5 years. When we lived in Eritrea, we were a poor family and my mom worked two jobs to put food on the table for me and my siblings. My dad was never really around at the time because he had gotten shot during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
I talk to my mom most of the time on the phone. She told me that I should never give up and keep doing good in school. I have changed a lot as a person since I last saw my mom. This last summer I worked at Great America and I sent my mom some money to help her pay her bills in Kenya. My mom has done so much for me and there’s nothing I can do to replace for everything she has done for me but to show her how much I appreciate her.
Me and my siblings came to America for better education and better life. I’m really lucky because most kids my age back home would have to go to the military now and they wouldn’t get a chance to go to school. My parents want me to have a good future and get a good job. That’s the reason why I always work hard in school and do all my homework and study for tests. From what I came from we were a poor family and we really didn’t have anything and now everyone depends on me to be something great.
I concluded the letter with an appeal to the judge that the young man I knew was a good, kind, hard working young man, and that I hoped he would be shown leniency and have a chance to redeem himself. I have a nagging feeling that my words fell short—that I wasn’t able to capture the young man I know well enough to persuade a person who will only know Abraham in one context, in one moment, rather than over years and through his own story.
The writing we do in school so often doesn’t seem relevant to students’ lives. While I wish that this situation hadn’t happened, that it hadn’t been necessary to write this letter, to share Abraham’s own words with the judge who will decide his future, I’m grateful that Abraham had a chance to share his story, and that I was able to use it in his defense. In a way, all writing is writing for freedom.
We need to tell our own personal stories, perhaps most importantly, our own personal horror stories. Stories empower us. Stories free us. It’s my greatest wish that Abraham’s story empowers him, that it gives him a chance to write a new chapter. When I think of Yahya in the wheel well of that 767, I think of all the horrendous outcomes that might have happened. By grace, he was given a happy ending. I wish the same for Abraham.