This article was part of my senior capstone class in Southern Oregon Unversity. The capstone class is a big project that all senior journalism students needed to complete in order to graduate. I took the group capstone class with tweleve other seniors. We all decided to shadow teenagers in high school who have dealt with serious issues such as eating disorders, drug abuse, family abuse, runaway, homelessness, injuries and
This article is on Chris Graham who lives in Medford, Oregon. I wrote this article in May/June 2009 and the article wasn’t published until January 2010. It was very hard to “find a teenager” to write on, at first I went to South Medford High School and tried to talk to the administration. I completed a background check yet nothing ever came of it. I finally received a contact from the Medford Juvenile Detention Center and met with a woman there who decided to help me. She introduced me to two teenaged boys and I interviewed both of them, however, when I first met Chris I instantly knew his story was worth writing about. I shadowed him for most of May and the first week of June. I attended class with him some days, hung out with him and his friends and went to his house. I conducted interviews with Chris, his teacher, the school’s office manager, his grandmother and his girlfriend. After all of the interviews, shadowing and observation I finally wrote this article for my class and it was published in The Ashland Daily Tidings. Enjoy.
Website for the article: http://www.dailytidings.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100102/NEWS02/1020312/-1/rss01
It also includes pictures (a photo journalism took the pictures for her capstone project).
Chris Graham was expelled from South Medford High School for bringing a knife to school. He now attends an alternative school in the Medford Juvenile Detention Center. When he grows up, he aspires to be president of the United States.
On this sunny, but foggy Tuesday afternoon he is standing outside the Minute Mart, waiting for the South Medford lunch period to begin. He waits for 12:30 every day, an hour and a half after his school gets out, so he can spend a 40-minute lunch break with his girlfriend. He holds the book “Into The Wild,” which a teacher gave him for being a good student.
He usually sits in the shade while kids he knows come up to him and talk. When the conversation turns to how high someone got yesterday or how fun it was, he moves away. Chris doesn’t want to hear about it anymore. He’s been clean and sober since Jan. 1. He still smokes cigarettes, but would like to quit that too.
Chris checks the time. She should be arriving at any moment. He looks around for her, brings his arms down and clenches his fists. His friends ask him what’s wrong. They look straight ahead and realize what the problem is. Chris has spotted a guy that he hates — a guy in a black shirt with a blue bandana around his neck. “I want to punch him in the face,” Chris says quietly.
Caught with the knife
On the day Chris was caught with the knife, he had decided to cut fourth period. Before he could get off campus, he was stopped by a security officer who accused him of smelling like marijuana. The officer asked if he could check Chris’s backpack and without thinking, he said yes. He hadn’t gotten high that day, but he was afraid for his life. A group of kids had accused him of making fun of their friend who had committed suicide. Chris denied it and says he told school administrators, but they said they couldn’t do anything about a threat. His grandmother called the school, but nothing was done.
Chris decided to take the matter into his own hands. He asked a friend if he could borrow a knife to protect himself.
. . .
The guy in the black shirt and blue bandana has moved on, but back on the corner, Chris can’t let go. Sitting on the ledge, Heidi wraps her arms around him and whispers in his ear. Chris says, sternly, “Did you see me walk a step towards him?”
“I shouldn’t have to worry about you all the time,” Heidi says.
Heidi’s friend, Pandora, who has bright, dyed orange hair with black underneath, tries to pull Heidi back toward campus. Chris follows them to the end of the block then stands, holding Heidi’s hand, across from the school.
The bell rings.
Chris and Heidi start to argue. She’s angry that she has to worry about him getting into a fight. He’s angry because he feels he held back and didn’t fight, even though he wanted to. He punches a metal pole with a “No Parking” sign on it and slams his book against it.
“Every time I’m near this school something … bad happens!” he shouts. Heidi steps back.
“Heidi, come on!” Pandora shouts, walking into the building. The second bell rings. Heidi tells Chris she has to go and walks away.
Chris isn’t sure if he’ll even be readmitted to SMHS. And he isn’t sure if he wants to go back. He says he’s afraid he will get into a fight on his first day. At Medford Opportunity High School, he and the other kids there don’t stand out as problems.
‘They’re just kids’
“They’re just kids,” office manager Jill Campbell said. “We love them, we take care of them, we show them that they can go to college and be successful.”
On the 10-minute break between classes, kids drop by her office to make peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. These kids need special attention, and they get it here.
“They are worthwhile human beings even though they have been put on the backburner by other schools,” Campbell said. “I think Chris is great. He’s very positive and we haven’t had any issues with him. He always has a smile on his face.”
. . .
Chris sits in a classroom that is plastered with signs encouraging kids to learn from their mistakes, to not join gangs and not drink and drive. He opens up a computer program and starts an essay on stem cell research. His teacher, Bruce Stranbridge, comes by and checks out Chris’s work. He nods his head and he reads over it.
Bruce started as a substitute teacher at Medford Opportunity, but fell in love with the program and applied for a permanent position. He says every teacher has their niche and working with alternative kids is his niche. He teaches both the morning and afternoon classes, which have separate sets of students. Chris attends the morning session and always arrives a half-hour before school starts.
Most kids turn in a couple of paragraphs for their essays, but not Chris. His are at least six paragraphs long, well-researched and detailed. Stranbridge calls him one of the brightest students in the class, describing Chris as, “intelligent, very bright, but he has issues to deal with.”
In the last half of class Bruce shows a wildlife video. When an alligator attacks a smaller animal Chris starts screaming, not wanting to watch, wanting the prey to live. Bruce sends him out of the room. Chris still screams as he walks out the door.
“He can get a little feisty,” Bruce says. “He has a temper and needs to tone it down a bit and to express his opinions in a way that doesn’t alienate people. He can be very successful if he sticks with it.”
As Heidi disappears into the school, Chris walks down the street and a car pulls up alongside him. Campus Security Office Daniel Ashworth gets out.
“Great,” Chris says. “Now I’m being pulled over. I didn’t even do anything.”
Ashworth is the same officer who caught Chris smoking a cigarette and gave him a ticket for being a minor in possession. He also found the knife.
Chris is mostly silent and mumbles to the officer’s questions. He wants to know why Chris punched the sign and screamed. Chris says it’s a personal matter and he doesn’t want to discuss it. Ashworth reminds Chris he can arrest him for disorderly conduct, but this time he will be nice and let him off the hook. He tells him, “Stop punching my signs.”
Chris stands on the corner of King Street and 11th. He leans on a metal fence and looks down at the book in his hand.
“I got a book. I guess good things can happen today,” he says. “I just don’t know what to do. This is the last week of school. I should be happy.”
He searches his pockets for a cigarette.
“If I was just any other person, they wouldn’t have called Ashworth.” He figures he’s been labeled a bad kid and watched closer than the rest. “If they just looked into my eyes and saw that my life was in danger”»” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
Chris bums a cigarette off two girls walking down the street and starts to smoke. He has always thought that for some reason he will have a short life.
“I sometimes think that people’s lives would be 10 times as better if I was never born,” he says.
Chris’s mom was 16 when she was pregnant. He has never met his father and the last he heard he lived in New Mexico, but that was years ago. His mom raised him, but says he grew up mostly in his grandparents’ house. At the end of middle school he officially moved into their house.
Although he sees his mother almost every week, he feels that she has her own life now. She’s remarried and is raising three small children. Chris feels there is no room for him. Whenever he wants to spend time with her, he says she tells him that he is bugging her too much.
In his room there is a brown bowl with black marker drawings all over it that Chris made. One scribble says “I love you — Mom.”
Chris says he wrote that. “She never says ‘I love you,'” he says, looking at the words he wrote. “I say I love you first and then she will say it back, but she sounds annoyed.”
One of Chris’s battles in life has been weight. Kids made fun of him constantly in middle school, and by freshman year he weighed 300 pounds. He says he lost most of his friends because of the constant ridicule. The next summer he decided to stop eating so much and start walking around more. He lost 100 pounds.
He met a girl who he thought liked him back, but ended up with a broken heart. The only cure he knew was drugs and alcohol. He got drunk every week trying to dull the pain and forget about his life. Then he met Heidi.
“In a way Heidi saved my life,” Chris said. “I was going to drink myself to death.”
He started attending class at SMHS regularly, got political, started thinking about college and what career he might want. Then Officer Ashworth found the knife. Chris was suspended for a week, but on his first day back he was called to the front office during his 4th period English class. They told him he was expelled for one year. When he told Heidi, she cried.
“I told Heidi I was going to do my best in school,” he said. “The chance that I wanted — it just wasn’t given to me.”
Life at home
At home, Chris’s grandmother, Shawn Graham, sits on the sofa, her spine stretched. She has a permanent hunch and trouble moving around. She can’t stand up straight anymore. She takes a lot of pain medication but barely visits the doctor anymore. She has a legal disability, however, she isn’t sure exactly what she has.
She has Chris’s artwork in her lap as she talks about he’s overcome so many obstacles. She believes he can do anything he wants. She’s noticed that he has become more angry, but to her, he’ll always be her baby.
“He’s got a very kind heart,” she says. “He thinks of others. He worries about me and he loves his friends very much.”
“I’ve always told him he can do anything he wants,” Shawn said. “If you want to be president, you can. Just put your mind to it.”
Chris has taken her advice to heart. His plans are to graduate from Southern Oregon University with a double major in political science and either business or journalism. He then wants to write for the San Francisco Chronicle for 10 years. After that he plans to go into politics, easing in slowly, running for mayor first, then governor. Someday he’d like to be the Democratic Party candidate for president.
He’d also like to marry Heidi when he’s 19 and have a family with her. Heidi also aspires to attend SOU and be a journalist.
“I know she’s only a freshman and I’m only a sophomore, but I feel like we’ve been through everything,” Chris said. “She taught me to smile and be happy. She made me into the person I am today.”
As Chris sits on his bed, his round, overweight dachshund, Harley, jumps up and waits for him to come over. Chris holds him in his arms and breathes in deeply. He feels enclosed by his four walls and trapped in his room. He hates being in his room and describes his walk home as the “pathway to hell.” He loves his grandmother and he loves Heidi, but he can’t wait to move out.
The only problem is that he hates to be alone. It is his greatest fear in life, besides dying.