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Dispatch from a once-invisible teenager

One of the young people who talked to us described family as sometimes being the source of many problems for young people. That was my situation.

Shanta Lee Gander is a member of The Commons’ investigative team, working on a range of upcoming difficult stories that will appear in the months to come. She and her husband and writing partner, MacLean Gander, reported and wrote “‘It’s not just a story. It happens to people every day. And it’s real. The violence and the pain and the drugs.’: For young people in Brattleboro, it is all too easy to get trapped in a world of violence, few economic opportunities, and lack of life skill” [News, March 20], the story that prompted this postscript.


This column is inspired by all the young people I talked with for the story we recently wrote about youth. I continue to think about the strength, and resilience of many of the young women who talked with us. Upon returning home at night and taking off my journalist hat, their stories made me think about my own invisibility during my adolescence.

I grew up in Hartford, Conn., and my interior life was different from my surface life. I masked the dysfunction of my home.

I’m going to continue to pull back the curtain and offer a sketch of what it was like to be young and have no emotional support within a home, while carrying the burden of appearing supported and adjusted.

After reporting for weeks about the challenges that the youth are facing here in Brattleboro, I thought I should share my own story, too. I am sure some of us have been there.

* * *

Here’s the context. My mother was a girl originally from a small Connecticut country town. She met my father when she was 16 and he was 26. My father is originally from Ohio, the oldest of 12 siblings. By his mid-20s, he had served in Vietnam, had a marriage, and had my brother and sister from that first union.

My mother gave birth to me at 19. I believe it was her fear and her reality that drove her to being strict — no dating, no talking to boys on the phone, and my participation in sleepovers was banned.

One of the young people who talked to us described family as sometimes being the source of many problems for young people. That was my situation.

By the time I was 8 years old, I’d been taught how to fight in an unpaved driveway because I allegedly came home from school with a black eye.

I was skilled at changing my brother’s diapers, smoked my first cigarette thanks to a childhood friend, watched my brother get taken away by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), knew that our neighbor’s daughter gave birth at the age of 13, held my first gun, and was a witness to my mother hitting the windshield during a drunk-driving accident.

My father was at work during the car accident. A male friend — named “Bunkie,” of all things — drove us in a purple Cadillac.

My father worked hard for our family and was at work a majority of the time. Thus, much of the physical and emotional abuse bestowed upon me by my mother was unseen.

My interior life was invisible to my parents. By the time I was 14 years old, we survived being homeless for what felt like several months, I had kept my period a secret for two years, started a summer job within a summer program the previous year, and tried having sex for the first time.

There were many moments of normalizing the chaos, starting with the regular episodes of physical and emotional abuse at home.

An ex-boyfriend disappeared after we dated briefly in the ninth grade. Upon returning, he stated, “I really fucked my life up.” I did not realize he was in jail until he told me, but during his time away, he sent a male friend to deliver a threat.

A male friend responded to my hourly wage at Taco Bell: “Damnnnn, that’s it? I guess I will keep sellin’.” I pondered entry into drug dealing to bail a friend out of serious trouble. It seemed like fast cash.

My special-needs brother was often my responsibility, and I also played a key role as the proxy parent. While my father was at work, I attended school meetings with my mother. I had the added pressure of speaking to a room of administrators, voicing concerns about my brother ranging from his special-ed teachers to his medication management.

* * *

I vacillated between suicide and teenage pregnancy as potential escapes from home. Instead, I planned to run away, and I did so unexpectedly the night of my induction into the National Honor Society.

In the end, I was still trapped and making regular calls to DCF while exploring emancipation. To give DCF some credit, I probably talked more about wanting the life that Rudy Huxtable had within my television family (the Huxtables, from The Cosby Show), rather than focusing on the abuse. Emancipation would be impossible, especially the prospect of paying rent or other expenses.

Amidst all of this, I discovered that my mother stole most of my money that I had saved.

I worked because I urgently needed to take care of myself because my parents were not doing so. That became evident during key moments, like when I saw my parents purchasing perfume from a street vendor instead of buying the bathing suit that I needed for swim class.

Taking my brother anywhere was often very complicated. I regularly promised to do so while offering to buy my mother wine. I learned that money could be used to bribe my way out of the house.

None of these episodes include my early adult life, which is a different story. I’ll just say that at one point, I vaguely learned about investing money to get a return, so I bankrolled a drug-dealing boyfriend in my early 20s, hoping for just such a quick return. I continued to pursue my careers — a street side hustle just did not work out. But that is a story for another time.

* * *

In their own dysfunctional ways, my parents reinforced the importance of doing well in school and going to college. I knew about the concept of building resources, though I was not shown how.

But the network of friends I created reinforced the idea that a way out was not impossible. We gave one another the support missing in our relationships with our parents.

And honestly, I never gave up on working toward a better life as an adult. As one interviewee from our recent story aptly put it, “this is all real.”

I am not anyone’s victim, and honestly, I share my stories with individuals so they hear the message — you don’t have to stay stuck. The road isn’t straight — it is bumpy, and sometimes you may have to walk it alone to find a path.

After all those interviews with the young people, I kept thinking about how much I caught glimpses of myself in all of those faces and their wisdom. Each young person faces different challenges. What I share is one of many.

What I find troubling about what we reported is the reality that so many young people perceive that they can’t depend on us as an overall community.

We are a community that seems to care more about plastic bags, about carbon footprints, and about wrapping our arms around something that is as impossibly big as the planet. We wage war against our language and argue over whether the food we eat is organic rather than taking real, everyday opportunities to engage.

For those of us who are busy trying to solve problems that allow us to keep the real at a distance, many individuals within this community could use our help. They are tangible.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #505 (Wednesday, April 10, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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