Shift 38: Another Summer


When summer came, Deon drove me up to the mountains again. He told knock-knock jokes the whole drive. Usually, his laughter’s contagious, and even if I don’t find his jokes funny, I find him funny. But maybe it was the long drive. I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt a little off and worn out, actually.

Deon stuck around for the weekend. He introduced me to the new ranger, who’s graduated with an environmental science degree from USM.


He said that USM students do a lot of field work up here, so if I specialize in forest ecosystems, I’d be coming up a lot, too.

“You really ought to think about going into forest management,” he said. “That’s where the jobs are.”

But I’m not into the going to school for the jobs. I really do want to study plant genetics, just like I pretended all those years ago when I first met Deon at Oasis Springs National Park.


I figure I’ll use the summer to do some of my own investigations on genetic variations in the high alpine plant communities. You don’t need fancy equipment to study genetics. All you need is a good eye, the ability to notice trends, and accurate measurements and record-keeping.

I want to make every second count this summer. If I’m not doing field work, I want to be training. The high altitude will be great for developing speed, strength, and greater lung capacity.

And if I’m not training or doing field work, I want to study with Ted, so he can teach me more folk uses of the wild herbs. I’ve got so much to learn!


Deon left to head back to work. “Don’t be so hyper focused all the time,” he said. “Take it easy a bit, too! Remember it’s your summer vacation!”

He gave me a jar of Ted’s favorite pepperoncinis to deliver, told me he’d see me after Labor Day, and off he went, driving back to the gardens of the low lands.

And I headed up to the wilderness of the high country.


It felt like coming home.

Like I expected, Ted was out wildcrafting when I arrived, but he left me a note, telling me to make myself at home, and saying that he was looking forward to seeing me somewhere around my birthday.

I’m gonna be 17 this summer.


What a luxury to have the place to myself!

I slept well, ate a lot, and of course, I kept up my training.


After a week or so, I was out in the meadow doing yoga when this weird feeling came over me.

I felt empty.

I figured it must be one of those spiritual things that always seem to happen to me when I come up here.

But it felt weird. It was sort of pleasant, but I couldn’t really feel my body. I just felt really, really empty, and really, really tired. I sort of felt exhausted.


<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 37: Verbal


People still call me Jazz. I like it. I introduce myself as “J.D.” It sounds cool: Jay-dee. Nobody calls me Jenny, but that’s how I’m listed in the track and field team roster.

Name: Jenny Trevalyn | Event: Women’s Mile | Class: Jr.

I’m training all the time, every free moment, except when I’m studying, sleeping, or eating.


Donnie’s been training a lot, too. Early in the semester, he said we’ve got to train hard if we hope to get our verbals this year, and if we don’t get verbal commitments this spring, chances of signing with a college next year are slim to none.

Xavier and Nadja are athletes, too. Xavier plays football and basketball, and Nadja swims. They’re not planning on getting athletic scholarships, though. Nadja is aiming for an academic scholarship, and Xavier’s going for the ROTC. Either that or studying at community college for the first two years and working part-time.

Still, they like to work out with Donnie and me on days we don’t have practice or meets. All semester, we’ve been joining up at the San Myshuno gym.


I’m still doing most of the cooking at YOTO. I’ve been researching nutrition and training diets. Right now, I’m into peppers, tofu, and brown rice. It’s not as boring as it sounds, and it’s packed with protein and B vitamins.


Early in the season, my coach was really working with me on the splits. He had me on the treadmill, and he’d programmed in the rate for the work out. That way, I could feel what it was like to run splits at various times.


Donnie and I made a pact with each other to stay positive.

“Look,” he said, “we’re not gonna be on our game if we’re doubting ourselves and our future all the time. Promise me you won’t bring me down with worrying, and I’ll promise you the same.”

It’s a good thing we made that deal because Luiza sometimes gets worried. Marquis is so smart that he knows he’ll get into the college of his choice, and he’ll get Pell grants and loans to help with whatever scholarships don’t cover. And Xavier’s got his plan down. But Luiza, she worries. She doesn’t even know what she wants to do.

Aadhya tells her she doesn’t have to know, and she doesn’t have to worry, and if she wants to take a year off, she can work at YOTO while she looks into college options. But Luiza worries anyway.


“I think I’ll be a librarian,” she said one evening.

“That would be so sweet,” said Marquis. “You could recommend my books to all the angtsy teens.”

“What books are those?” she asked.

“The ones I’m going to write.”


Everyone laughed but me. Marquis will be a great writer, I’m sure. He’s got more imagination and greater insight than almost anyone I know.

Around mid-February, Donnie told me he’d gotten an email from the University of San Myshuno wrestling coach.

“He wants to take me to lunch,” Donnie said. “He said he wants to tell me about the program.”

This was such good news. Two weeks later, he met the coach at a coffee shop and the coach gave him the verbal agreement. “Stay healthy, keep up the training, keep the weight in your bracket, and we’ll sign you in the fall.”

Donnie’s got it made.


In March, Nadja got her SAT scores. They rock.

“Ninety-ninth percentile?” she said. She was in shock. “Can you believe it? It’s a mistake, right?”

But it wasn’t a mistake, and now she can pretty well write her way into any college she wants.


Donnie and Nadja tried to downplay their successes. They didn’t want to rub it in, and Luiza had been freaking out more and more.

Aadhya took Donnie and Nadja aside whenever she wanted to plan with them or whenever they need to let loose with a little bit of excitement about their futures.

As for me, I just kept chasing the mile record. It’s elusive. I set a few track records. I kept winning races. But I couldn’t get closer to the high school women’s mile record. I tried to keep my spirits up, all through March, when I didn’t hear from any coaches. All through the beginning of April.

I kept training. My coach kept telling me he saw college coaches checking me out at meets. I kept feeling positive, even though inside I was a nervous wreck. Never once did I let myself say or even think, “What if…” But you know, I had to keep every single “what if” at bay.


Then, in mid-April, the coach from University of San Myshuno called. She said she’d been watching me. She liked my style, my attitude, my level of fitness.

“I can tell you’re not even close to the top of your pinacle,” she said, “and I like what I see already. You’ll get there, J.D. And when you do, I want you to get there with us.”

“Is this my verbal?” I asked. I was so nervous.

She just laughed. We had a few more meetings. She showed me around the university, took me to lunch, introduced me to the head of the botany department, showed me the track (which I’d been running on every time it was open for public running, anyway), and then she said, “Jenny Trevalyn, the University of San Myshuno would be delighted if you would run track for us. We know you’ll be breaking that collegiate women’s mile record, and when you do, we want you to be on our team. Now this is your verbal, and we hope to sign you in the fall.”

So, I’ve got to stay healthy. I’ve got to stay fit. I’ve got to get myself into record-breaking form. And if I do all that, it looks like I’ll be running for USM the year after next.


<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 36: Jenny


I could tell from Britney’s face that she meant what she’d told me earlier: She’s got really big news for me.

When she called to tell me that she had everything in order for me to be Jenny Trevalyn again, all I needed to do was to sign a few papers, she also said that she had discovered something. She had big news.

“Who do you want to bring with you for moral support?” she asked.

Moral support? I supposed there was only one person for that. I called up Deon and asked if he could meet us as the restaurant.


She was jubilant when we arrived, so I assumed the big news was good news.

I looked through my Twitter account–I could open a new one, I realized, under my real name. Or maybe, I could see if I could change the name associated with this one.


“Did you really get everything set up?” I asked her.


“I did!” she said. Then she launched into a big long story that I couldn’t even follow. There were so many trips to attorneys’ offices, and stops by offices of public records, and so many forms that had to be filled out, but she said it was all “a piece of cake.”


“And the timing is really perfect, Jazz,” she said.

She went on to explain that spring semester of junior year is the best time to get the whole identity thing straightened out.

“Coaches will be watching you during track season,” she said, “and you’ll be fielding offers! And of course, there are your school transcripts. We get it all set now, and it’s smooth sailing during senior year as you get ready for the final transition to college!”


“You’re gonna do it!” Deon said. “I’m so proud of you. No GED for you! No community college for you! You’re graduating high school and going straight to university!”

I looked up the Twitter page of University of San Myshuno, which is where I’m hoping to go. It’s funny–I was just getting to the point that when I dream, I let myself dream. I finally stopped being paranoid that nothing good would ever happen anymore.


“So that’s the good news,” Britney said. “But that’s not all the news. I found out more.”

My dreams screeched to a halt.

Why is it terrifying to see someone pause before speaking?


I tried stalling her.

“So, before we move on,” I said, “I couldn’t quite follow all the steps you told me before. Can we go through it again, and this time I’ll write it down?”

So she reiterated all that I had left to do, which was really nothing but sign a few things, like she’d said, and she’d take care of filing everything.


“I met a lot of people,” she said. “Your grandmother was one beloved lady.”

This, I knew. Britney shared with Deon that everyone she met in our old town knew of her and spoke highly of her. I wasn’t surprised, of course. I know Gran was loved.


But it felt weird and sort of giddy to hear people talking about her. I hadn’t even mentioned her–not as a real person with a real name, Guadalupe Cisneros–for years.


“Your grandmother sounds like a beautiful person,” Deon said. “And I’m not a bit surprised, for she raised you, didn’t she?”

“Yeah,” I said to Deon. And I realized that he’d never told me about his family, too. Maybe he never would. When you go through what we’ve been through, me and Deon and the kids at YOTO, sometimes it means a clean break from the past. Stories sit inside, untold. The people of the past become ghosts within us, haunting us still, but never to be talked about. We carry on layers of “former” into the present, and sometimes we forget who we are for not knowing who we were.


“There’s more,” Britney said. “I met people who know all your family.”

She went on to tell about meeting my grandmother’s attorney, who told her the “big news.” It was about Scott.

“You know how you were worried about your uncle?” she said. I could tell she was trying to break it to me softly, but I was already so emotional and nervous that I don’t think there was any “soft” way to hit me with a two-by-four. “You don’t have to be worried anymore.”

I just looked at her.

“He passed away, two years ago. He got in a fatal auto accident.” She looked away.

Deon said something. I couldn’t hear it. I just heard his voice–or felt it, really. That warmth that is his voice.

Uncle Scott was dead.


“Are you OK, Jazzie?” Deon asked.

I didn’t know what to feel. I felt relief, of course. But I also felt mad. Two years when I could’ve been Jenny, stolen from me.

“Why do I feel sad?” I asked Deon. I’d hated my uncle when he was alive. I’d wished I was a boy so I could kill him. Sometimes, on dark nights, I thought of plans of finding him, when I’d grown up, and killing him anyway. I wasn’t going to do it. I’d met too many people whose hearts were full of love to go down that path. But that didn’t keep me from thinking of it on nights when I couldn’t sleep.

Deon said, “Of course you’re sad, honey. You can hate somebody and wish them dead. Then when it happens, you still feel sad.”

“I’m really all alone now,” I whispered.


There were so many more words. I sort of tuned them out.

Britney had lots of condolences, of course, and there were so many details, still. But it came down to Uncle Scott was dead.

Britney talked on, and I zoned out.

I heard her saying something with excitement when I finally tuned back in.

“It’s not a fortune, but it’s plenty!” she said.

“That’s amazing!” said Deon.

I was still in a daze.


It turns out that Gran’s estate was never fully settled, and with Uncle Scott dead, I’m the beneficiary, and the attorney was just sort of sitting on everything, hoping I’d show up or something.

So I got some money coming to me when I turn 18. It’s not a lot. But it’s enough to help out with college, in case the scholarships don’t cover everything. And there might even be some left over, to help with a house or something some day.

I don’t know what to feel. I’m just numb, I guess. I mean, it should be good news. I can be Jenny without worrying about Scott finding me. I’ve got a small inheritance. It’s big news, but some of it is good news. Something good comes from every something bad. That’s what Gran always said. I should be feeling relief. I should be feeling good. It’s just that I’m the only one left. I didn’t really want Scott dead. I just wanted him to leave me alone.


<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 35: Negative Splits


Winter break ended, and the new semester started. Clara Bjergsen told me that this semester was the important one, since I wanted an athletic scholarship. Though the official signing with a university team didn’t happen until fall of senior year, it was in junior year that the scouts would be checking out all our track meets and the coaches would offer verbal commitments.

I felt scared and excited, and I wanted to do everything right. I had to keep up my grades, of course, too.

I asked Aadhya for advice, of course, like I always do when I want to do my best.


She got quiet for a moment.

“I’ve been watching you, Jazz, since you first arrived here nearly a year ago,” she said. “You always work so hard. You’re a straight A student, and anyone can see you’re fit as can be. Just stay healthy, don’t work too hard, keep your life in balance, and you’ll do great!”


I wish I had her confidence in me!

When I went out for my weekend runs, I tried to believe her: Just keep my life in balance, and I’ll do great!


But when I ran, my mind kept thinking. I kept on breaking down the splits I’d need to shoot for in order to break the record.


4:35.42. That’s the number I’m aiming at.

I’m going for negative splits. During cross country, our coach really drilled that into us, and I like it. It feels like the way I approach life, starting out slow, holding back some of my capabilities, and then letting it all loose as I near the finish line.


The hardest part for me is holding some back. Even in practice, once I’m on the track, I want to start full out. So, during my training runs on my own, I work on running within myself. I try to feel if I’m running at two-thirds capacity, one-half capacity, three-quarters or full out.

I try doing a quarter mile at each.


Donnie said he wants to run with me. He wants to build up his wind so he’ll do better at wrestling.

We ran together one day. He kept up during the first mile, and nearly kept up during the second, but when I let out during that last 200 yards, I left him so far behind.

I know I shouldn’t feel good about it–I mean, he’s not a runner. But it still felt really good.


He was an OK sport about it–a little mad, but that’s to be expected, I guess.

The feeling of pulling away from him when I hit the home stretch felt so great. I tried to remember all the sounds and sensations: our feet hitting the pavement together, the cadence of our breathing, then the rush of adrenaline as I pushed forward, and the feeling of breaking away. This is something I love.

This is freedom.

I’m going to start trying this at practice –running with the pack, the pouring it on, and feeling that opening that happens as we reach the end, and I leave them all behind.


<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 33: Advice

Sofia’s mom, Clara, ambushed me Saturday afternoon.

“Come! Play a hand of gin-rummy with me,” she said.

I got that something’s-going-on feeling that I pick up on when I know adults have something they want to talk to me about.

She’s the volunteer college-readiness counselor at YOTO, so I figured it had something to do with that.


“I read the profiles you wrote for our fund-raising campaign,” she said. “That piece was so well written!”

She went on about how “talented” I was. I was pleased with how the piece came out myself, but I haven’t wanted to let it go to my head.

“Let’s see if it results in an increase in contributions,” I said, “and then we can decide if it’s a success or not.”


“Have you put much thought into your career goals?” she asked. “With talent like yours, you could be a professional writer! Or communication specialist!”

“I want to be a botanist,” I replied.


“Seriously?” she asked.

She went on to talk about how many jobs were available for writers, including social media, marketing, communications, journalism, and web-media.

“There are a lot of jobs for botanists, too,” I replied. “And botanists have to be able to write.”

I was thinking of a project I dreamed up last summer when I was with Ted. It’s sort of like profile writing, but it’s writing the profiles of healing herbs that grow wild in the Sierras. I don’t know enough to write it now. I figure it might be a good college project for me.


Clara laughed. “Well, as long as you use your talents! That’s what counts! Follow your interests, use your talents, and you’ll be set for life!”

She went on to talk about my “map for the future.” She had it all worked out. After winter break, I’ll be entering my second semester of junior year. Since I want to get an athletic scholarship in track and an academic scholarship–in addition to a Pell Grant–now’s the time for me to start preparing.

I’ve got to train, so I’ll be in good shape in track season. If I set a record or two, I can pretty much choose my college. Keep my grades up. Study for the SAT.

“And I’m here to help,” she said. “I’ll be checking in to make sure you’ve got everything on course, and if you have any questions, I’m here.”

I appreciate her help. I really do. I’m starting to feel the pressure. While we were talking, I started feeling it even more. What if I don’t make it? I guess I can go to community college for two years. I’ve got to remember that it’s not my job to become the poster child for YOTO or to live up to anybody else’s expectations. It’s my job to do my best to meet my goals. For me. For me and for all the plants of the high country that want to have their stories told!


<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 32: Stories


Four other kids agreed to be profiled as part of the YOTO fund-raising campaign. After I talked with them, when I was composing their stories in my mind, I felt so drained. What a crummy world that these things could happen to people. Drug addiction. Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Neglect. Power and control cycles. Wars. Car bombs. What kind of world is this? How did we even survive?

But then I realized, everybody’s got heartache. Or if they don’t yet, they will. That’s part of life. No escaping it. Even if you’ve got the safest, cushiest life, somebody you love is gonna die someday, and your cushy life will change. Or maybe even you’ll die before you lose anyone you love. And that’s tragic, too.

So in a way, our specific heartaches don’t matter. They’re just more of the same. The stuff of life.

But what we decide to do in spite of heartache and hardship, that matters. And each of us has faced our challenges and decided to do something.


That’s what I want to share.

Here’s what I wrote for the overview to our profiles:

If I told you our stories, you’d cry. But tears are cheap. Motivation, Dedication, Inspiration: That’s what costs more. And that’s what YOTO provides by giving us guidance, security, and a place to stay. I won’t tell you our sob stories. Instead, I’ll tell you our dreams and goals. And you can decide if you want to help kids like us find the motivation, dedication, and inspiration they need to achieve their own dreams. Doing this isn’t cheap. But it’s real. It lasts. And it makes a difference.

I was a little surprised that Karim volunteered to be the first one to be interviewed. He’s hardly ever even talked to me. He’s always hanging out with the cool kids, acting cool.


About five years ago, after his family was killed, he left Syria to become a refugee in Jordan. He was one of the lucky ones who got sent to Canada, where a cousin lived. But the cousin was no good, so he fled and eventually made his way down here.

Britney’s been working with him to get papers and official refugee status. She knows people in all the local aid organizations.

“I have faith in Britney,” he told me. “She has taken me to meet all the people who need to be met, in all the offices. We will get the papers, I know this.”


When I asked him what he wanted to do in the future, he said, “Are you kidding me? I want to become a civil engineer. We have a world that needs rebuilding. I want to be one who helps with that job.”


I was shocked when Donnie agreed to have me write his profile. At first he said, no way. He’s on the football and wrestling teams at Oasis Springs High, and he’s one of the popular kids.

“I don’t want them knowing I live here,” he said.

I told him I could understand that. I know what Oasis Springs kids are like. I told him how they treated me when I went to Oasis Springs High, and how I swore never to go back there.

Donnie was quiet for a moment.


And then he went all chivalrous.

“You know what? Screw them,” he said. “You interview me. I want to show them that just because you don’t have a home, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a person. My popularity score might take a few hits, but screw it. Who cares?”

It took us a few minutes to get past the bashful feelings.


But then, Donnie really opened up. It’s the common story: his dad died when he was a little kid. His mom remarried. The guy she remarried is a jerk, and life on his own seemed better than what was happening at home.

I know what it’s like when you’d rather be on your own than living with somebody like that.

“I want to go to college,” he told me. “When I was at home, I stopped believing I could do anything. I just believed everything he told me. But Aadhya’s been talking to me. I think she’s maybe getting through. I mean, all sorts of kids go to college. Why not me?”

He’s been working with Clara Bjergsen. She’s an admissions officer at University of Windenburg, and she volunteers here to help us navigate the college admissions process.

Clara says Donnie should be able to get an athletic scholarship–wrestling, not football.

“I want to be a cop,” he says. “Either that or a history teacher. Maybe I could teach at a high school and coach the wrestling team.”

When I asked him why history, he said, “I like knowing all the things that happened before. Most of what we gripe about either already happened, and people somehow figured it out and survived, or it’s something that stems from what happened before. Either way, knowing the past just helps us do better now.”


I knew Marquis would want to talk with me for the stories. He’s always been really open about how his mom used crack cocaine, even when she was pregnant with him, and how she’s been in and out of rehab.


“What would you want to tell people?” I asked him.


He thought for a minute.

“You can say anything!” I said. At that point, I hadn’t yet figured out how I’d be writing the stories. “Anything at all you want people to know about you, or other kids in your situation, or any of us here.”


He said, “I’ve had enough of labels. You know when I was in grade school they called me a crack baby? I went home and asked my aunt what that meant, because my mom wasn’t there at the time. When she told me, something sort of died inside. I felt how I’d be different always. Somehow, I had this idea that I’d grow up normal, and that what I was experiencing then was just a phase. But that day, when my aunt told me what that meant, I thought it meant I was broken.”


But then Marquis started chuckling. “I found out later they were wrong!”

He was tested by a psychologist later that year, but not because he was stupid or damaged, because he was smart.

“I got into the Gifted program,” he said. “It was awesome.”

He did research later and found out that the whole idea that crack babies could never be normal was bogus. Turns out that the biggest thing many kids suffer when their moms are users is neglect. That’s bad enough, for sure, and that’s what eventually ended up causing Marquis to head out on his own. But it’s not brain damage.

“I don’t know what I want to be,” Marquis said. “Lately, I’ve just been into being.”

I recognized Aadhya’s influence.

“But I’m going to college. I’ll take all the classes, and then I’ll decide.”


Nadja didn’t want to talk about her past.

“It will get people in trouble,” she said.


“I have seen so much. So many bad things. If I even say anything, people I love will be punished. It’s enough that I’m here, across the border, where I am relatively safe.”


She shifted the conversation to the future. Maybe she’s the one who planted the idea of focusing on our dreams and goals, rather than on the dangers and hardships of our pasts.

When I first met Nadja, she wanted to be doctor. But she’s changed her plans this year.

“I want to go to University of San Myshuno,” she said, “because they have the best social justice program. I’m going to become an attorney, and then I’m going to work for the rights of people who have no one to stand up for them.”


When I wrote up the profiles, I began to see an amazing pattern. We aren’t broken kids. We’re kids who’ve had tough things happen. But we’ve healed–or we’re healing. And we’re getting hope. And, each of us, we’re thinking now of ways we can do something to make the world better for somebody, and not just for ourselves, but for somebody else.


This is what I call “The Gift of YOTO.” And suddenly, instead of feeling sorry that I ended up here, I am seeing it as a privilege. Because of what’s happened to each of us, the world’s gonna be a better place. It’s a hell of a price to have paid–but YOTO shows me that we’re strong enough to pay it, and then to pay it forward.

<< Previous | Next >>

Shift 26: Return


It took me all day to walk home. The sun was just setting as I arrived in the meadow.


It’s the golden hour, and I love how Ted’s flowers light up as if they are filled with the essence of everything.


Ted was waiting for me inside.

“How was it?” he asked.

“It was…” I had no words. I started to say, it was like any day. But that wasn’t right or true. I started to say it felt amazing. But that sounded cliche.


He looked at me and smiled. “I can see how it was. It was a success.”

But I said, no. It really wasn’t. If it was meant to be something transformative, then I’d failed. It hadn’t worked. Because I felt the same as before. I felt strong, sure. And I felt good. But I had to admit that I was just a normal person.


He laughed. “It just hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “Give it time to do its work. And besides, who says that magic isn’t normal?”


I felt something pop when he said that.

This is normal.


I was living a miracle, and I always had been, and I was totally and completely changed, but it had happened so gradually and then so completely that I hadn’t even realized that it was happening.

“You may not know it,” Ted had said, “But you’re sparkling.”


I slept for a few days. It was weird because I didn’t feel wiped out. I felt really strong. I was just really, really tired.


When I got up, I was ravenous. Ted had a pot of beans on the stove and some bread on the table, and I ate three bowls and half the loaf.

Then I found him outside.

“How’d you sleep?” he asked.

“Pretty good!” I replied.

“Are you ready to harvest some herbs?” he asked.


We headed into the back country to some meadows where wild currants grow. Ted said every bruja worth her salt knew where to get the wild currants and gooseberries.

<< Previous | Next >>