Posts Tagged ‘homeless teens’

breaking night     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.


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   Blink and Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones

While on the prowl for ‘guy books’ this week, I found a star.

“Guy books” is a sort of weird idea for me because it means that guys should like them. But girls should like them, too. When people in the book universe say ‘guy book,’ what they really mean is ‘not exclusively girl book.’

Blink and Caution is the story of two runaway teens, living on the street, desperate. We meet Blink first—so nicknamed because he is so nervous, so full of ‘Captain Panic’—that he has a tic, blinks constantly. He is prowling through a hotel, hoping to find some decent food leftover in the hallway, a room service tray put back out with lots of the meal left. Unfortunately, what he finds is a weird sort of criminal event across the hall. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but after a group of four men leave the room, Blink finds a wallet with 600 dollars and a cell phone. By picking up most of the money and taking the cell, Blink unwittingly enters into a crime that is national news.

Caution is so nicknamed because she considers herself toxic, harmful to those around her. Though the narrator doesn’t say directly why this is, as readers, we soon guess. (We are meant to guess, but Caution just can’t face telling the story). After running away from home, Caution finds herself hooked up with a drug-dealer who controls her, who beats her when he feels like it. She thinks he may kill her. In fact, she thinks she deserves to be killed. It’s a little miracle that she figures out how to run away from him, and of course, he is tailing her, actually has implanted a GPS on her clothing.

Blink finds the picture and phone number of a beautiful girl on the stolen cell. She’s the daughter of an important CEO whom all the news sources say has been kidnapped. But Blink saw him walk out of the hotel room. He decides to call the daughter and tell her that her dad is OK. Big mistake.

When Caution, having been rolled by a meth addict for all the money she took from the drug dealer, decides to steal from Blink, the two become inescapably connected and absolutely over their heads. That they have each other isn’t a given. One might desert the other, fearful of what will happen. But they both also have a sense that there’s nothing more to lose in life. By sticking together, they may learn to trust again and find their way in the world, forgive themselves for their imperfections.

Blink and Caution is super suspenseful. In addition it’s unusual in the telling, Chapters alternate between Blink and Caution. However, Blink’s chapters are told in the second person (“You lower your voice, curl into yourself.” ). It’s hard for a writer to make this work, but Wynne-Jones pulls it off. In fact, his excellent writing is one of the reasons you won’t put the book down. So if you’re a budding writer yourself, read this for a great example. If you’re not, just read it for the great, fast-action story.

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