Every Christmas, I think about Julie Smit. As a 16-year-old in 1994, Julia wrote a first-person article about her life for L.A. Youth, a nonprofit newspaper written by and for Los Angeles teenagers. It started like this:
"As a couple of friends and I cruised down an alley to find a spot to kick back and smoke a joint, we saw a head with long blond hair pop up from a dumpster. In front of the dumpster was an old 10-speed that had been put together piece by piece. Every piece on the bike was a different color. Someone said, 'Oh! That's only one of those dumpster divers.' 'That's no dumpster diver,' I said. 'That's my mother.'
"My mom was homeless. It had been two and a half months since I last saw or heard from her. We made a bit of small talk and then realized there was not much else to say…. My mom is a speed addict. Whenever she has money it almost always goes for drugs. Once in a while, she gets a motel room but that never lasts long because the drugs run out and so does the money. My mother digs in dumpsters for food, clothes, things to recycle and anything else she can find.
"On Christmas I got a bag filled with a fluorescent pink Frisbee, silver rings, a plastic watch and other fun things. All of it came from dumpsters. But I don't care because I love her and it's the thought that counts. To prove it, I wear all the rings and sometimes even the watch."
Julie's story wasn't the kind most traditional high school newspapers would run. But it was an important story for her to write. For her, it was validation that her life, with all its difficulties, mattered. And it was also important for kids facing similar obstacles in their lives to read Julie's story and know they weren't alone.
Since the 1970s, high school journalism has been losing ground as education budgets have been pruned. The student press was dealt another blow in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that administrators had the right to censor articles intended for publication in school newspapers.
L.A. Youth, where I am publisher, tries to make up for what's lacking. In our first year, 1988, we published just two issues, circulation 2,500. Twenty-two years later we are publishing six issues annually with a print run of 70,000 copies. We distribute the paper, which is funded through grants and donations, free to 1,300 teachers in middle schools and high schools throughout Los Angeles.
Sometimes our teen reporters break news and shine a light on wrongs. Their stories have exposed the plight of teens who are marginalized in foster care, of teens who have limited access to college prep classes or who are growing up in crime-ridden neighborhoods. But another of the paper's most important missions is to let our reporters share their own stories, hoping that by doing so they will make other teens feel less alone.
Some of the pieces we publish, like 16-year-old Jessica Bernstein's account of her nose job, require an amazing degree of self-confidence. Jessica interviewed her plastic surgeon and posed for before-and-after photographs. Seventeen-year-old Sherry Lee, in a piece titled "My So-Called Boobs," wrote good-naturedly about the advantages of small breasts: "I can hug people, pull them closer to me, run around without a bra and sleep face down!"
Marvin Novelo wrote about being gay:
"When seventh grade began and I was 12 years old, I was very much aware that I was gay. It was the little things, such as how I felt when I saw guys in the locker room. I resented being gay and I wanted to think it was a phase I would grow out of. In church, my pastor would explain how homosexuality is an 'abomination of nature, the sin that is the worst next to murder.'
"At Byrd Middle School the motto should have been, 'No fags allowed. People were yelling, 'Look! That guy's a queer!'
"Toward the end of ninth grade, I was jumped on the way home by a group of boys who kicked me in the stomach and head. No one helped me."
The adult editors at L.A. Youth are careful. We try to help kids recognize the value of their ideas and guide them through weeks or months of writing and rewriting until the writer is thoroughly satisfied — and certain he or she wants to tell the story. A few stories have taken as long as a year before they were ready for publication. But it is always worth the wait.
Our writers often go on to college and launch careers. They frequently come back to check in. But not all of the stories have happy endings. Two years ago, Julie Smit called me. She had a baby, and the two of them were living in a shelter.
She was calling because she wanted to get a copy of that story she wrote so long ago. She wanted to share it with the other women at the shelter, who were also facing hard times. I sent it, of course.
I haven't heard from her this holiday season, but I'm still hoping.
Donna Myrow is publisher of L.A. Youth and a commissioner on the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care.