A standing-room-only crowd gathered at Café Louvre Tuesday evening, listening intently as 18-year-old Karla Martinez described the moment three years ago that she told her mother she was pregnant.
“She let out a sigh and her body weakened,” Martinez read. “She stared at me in silence, which hurt more than a million words would have. Her eyes started to water and she looked away. I had just broken her heart.”
Martinez’s story, “Positive,” is one of 15 pieces featured in I’m Finally Awake: Young Authors Untangling Old Nightmares, the fifth compilation of moving personal essays from Scriber Lake High School students. The essays, written by 14 students and one graduate, center around the struggles in each student’s life, from abuse, to addiction, to mental illness – things most teenagers don’t discuss, much less in a school setting. But since 2011, Scriber Lake English teacher Marjie Bowker has provided her students with an opportunity to heal from their experiences by writing and sharing their stories with others in an academic setting.
In a time where education is driven by standards, Bowker consistently kicks off her English class with a narrative unit in an effort to make learning more meaningful for her students. The students have to write two drafts of either a fiction or nonfiction story, and according to Bowker, a majority of them choose the nonfiction option.
“I always had a lot of luck whenever I asked them about their stories,” she said. “It’s really neat because as soon as they get that story out, they’re able to go on and they’re interested in other things.”
It was actually a group of students who were passionate about the stories they were telling in class that ultimately influenced Bowker to publish the essays in a 2011 book. It’s now a tradition at Scriber, and many of the students published in this year’s compilation agree that writing about their struggles has helped them process their pasts.
“I guess before the book, I never really forced myself to think about what had actually happened. I had always spent most of my time trying to forget about it,” said Alicia Verzola, who wrote about her complicated relationship with her alcoholic mother, who died after she left home. “It was really therapeutic, just to be able to relive it and be able to accept what actually happened.”
Of course, not every student had the exact same healing experience.
“A lot of people said that writing your problems out would be super therapeutic, and I actually found that it really wasn’t – but after I wrote everything and I read it, I was really proud of where I am now,” said Cole Moore, who described his struggles with depression. “I’m very proud of myself for coming out of that dark rut and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without a lot of support from my family.”
Scriber Lake is the Edmonds School District’s alternative high school, providing smaller classes for students who have fallen through the cracks in traditional school settings.
“Kids come to Scriber because they are determined to graduate and they have gotten lost in the system and they’re short on credits,” Bowker said. “These kids are all about meaning, you know, like intrinsic value, and so writing about their lives is meaningful, and so that is where they inspire each other.”
This can be seen most clearly in the reasons the students shared for writing and publishing their own stories. A large majority wanted their struggles to teach or support others in similar situations.
“[I wrote] this story mostly because, yet again, want to let everybody know, you’re not alone,” said senior Tatam Walker, who described her struggles with addiction. “Just because you’ve been through the shit and you’ve been through the ringer, doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it.”
Though I’m Finally Awake is the fifth book of personal essays Bowker has compiled from Scriber Lake High School students, it is the second published with the help of another Scriber English teacher, David Zwaschka, and the first without the help of Seattle memoir author Ingrid Ricks.
Bowker’s success has not gone unnoticed. Other high school English teachers in the Edmonds School District, like Alison Ersfeld from Meadowdale and Stacy Wright from Lynnwood, have implemented the program in their own classes. Despite the sensitive subjects of the books, the fact remains that students are benefiting from sharing their deepest struggles.
“In watching our students who have taken part in writing the books, they change,” said Kathy Clift, the former principal of Scriber Lake High School who helped Bowker start the program in 2011. “I admire their courage and I see the change in their personalities, but I also see the academic change in them and I see their desire to do more than just graduate from high school.”
The books have even changed the overall atmosphere at Scriber.
“I think now, because everybody has been so open about their stories, when they get there, the [students] are just like ‘OK, what’s your story? You know, what happened to you? How did you end up here?’ So there’s just a lot of empathy between everybody,” Bowker said.
After reading excerpts from their emotional essays, Bowker asked each student to share something positive happening in their life. Many said they would be graduating in just a short time, on June 15. Some shared sobriety dates. Others shared their future goals.
“I’m planning on publishing probably a fiction book about something like this and teaching English as a second language overseas – but no kids under like high school age,” said Shalyn Ensz, whose story centered on her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
“My goal is to be a nurse in an ER and in my senior year next year, I’m going to go to Shoreline College,” said Sarah Jean, who wrote about a past abusive relationship. “Hopefully by the time I’m 19, I’ll have my AA.”
“I plan on graduating as soon as I can, going to college and trying to become a marine biologist – and I hope to have a family one day,” said Kenneth Ash, who shared his story in hopes of end the stigma around men who self-harm.
But despite the students’ various future plans, their stories will live on in Bowker’s English class. In November, the stories from I’m Finally Awake will be portrayed on stage by Bowker’s students through a partnership with Seattle Public Theater. Students are not allowed to play their own roles, instead stepping into the shoes of others. The performance is free.
The books can be purchased online for $10. All proceeds cover publishing and program costs that allow the students to continue sharing their stories.
— Story and photos by Caitlin Plummer