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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

When literary life becomes reality

This is the third summer that I have taken advantage of the free audio books from Sync Audiobooks for Teens. I know, I know. I am not a teen. But I teach teens, and the summer program has introduced me to books and authors that I might not know about otherwise.

I am also currently enrolled in a children's and young adult literature graduate library sciences course. For this class, I have two projects for which I get to pick the topic and readings. My professor encourages the use of audio books to build a broader perspective.

In week four of the Sync selections, I downloaded In Our Backyard: Human Trafficking in America and What We Can Do to Stop It by Nita Belles. I cannot say I was looking forward to this particular text based on the content, but I always give every audio book a shot. I cruised through the entire book, and every bit of it was painful. I had no idea how much trafficking takes place in our own country, and now every time I see a missing child notice, I wonder if he or she has been dragged into this underworld.

While listening to this book, one of my classmates recommended Sold by Patricia McCormick during our poetry unit. I have had this book in my classroom library for years, and I happened to bring it home this summer. This text also happens to be about human trafficking. Because this is a novel written in verse, I read it quickly, realizing that I had unintentionally stumbled upon my topic for one of my book projects: human trafficking.

I am not one for light and fluffy topics. I am willing to delve into the heavy stuff and share it with my students. I want them to be world-wise, and being ignorant of important issues happening, literally, in our backyards is to be lacking an important awareness. These readings have made me think about all the times my young teenage girls have come to me to discuss the older boy they are dating or the guy they met online. Any of those situations could have become an incident of human trafficking. Fortunately, they did not.

 Unfortunately, the topic did reach into my personal bubble last week. While on vacation, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and caught a news article posted by a former student:

"Pimp" Sentenced to 293 Months in Federal Prison in Child Sex Trafficking Case

Underneath the article title was the name of the "pimp" and his age. In the comments of the Facebook post, someone wrote, "Didn't we go to school with him?" My response, "Why, yes. Yes, you did."

I taught this young man when he was in seventh grade. I remember our first encounter clearly because I did not know if he was a boy or a girl. He had long hair pulled back into a ponytail and a name that could apply to either gender, a name that I am intentionally not using in this post. I misaddressed him as a girl, and he became very angry.

Later in the school year, he became the first student to ever get in a fight in my classroom. It was the last class of the day, and the final bell rang. I was escorting my students from the classroom but had turned away from the door for some reason. By the time I turned back a few moments later, the fight was in full effect. It got so bad that there was blood on some of my desks. Sadly, the young man's role in the fight made an impact on me, but I could not tell you who the other student was.

My son was in the same grade as this young gentleman. When I asked my son if he remembered him, not only did he respond that he remembered him, he also remembered the boy being picked on all the time. My son said that he had it pretty bad.

I never sit in my classroom, looking at my students, wondering who the criminals will be. I know the odds state that there will be some, but I always think the best of every student in regard to their long term success. Stories like this break my heart. I hurt for the young girl and her family. She did not deserve this. I hurt for my former student as I wonder how bad the pain in his own life became, leading him to this life. I refuse to allow that to be an excuse, but something led to his following this path.

We need to educate our kids, even when the topics are tough. When they come to us talking about the older boy they met online, we cannot dismiss it. My students talk to me because they trust me, but they know that if they share anything with me that indicates a danger, I will share that information, not simply because I am legally required to, but because I refuse to let any of my students disappear into this underworld if I can help it.