A Most Happy Story That Begins With A Sad One – Part One

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead

Paradyse Oakley
Paradyse Oakley

Paradyse Oakley, a 16-year-old junior at Lawndale High and the person who brought POPS the Club to her school, is passionate about justice and the civic process. Her passion is fueled in part by who she is—a smart, dynamic, heart-centered powerhouse who, at the age of 11, when she was in sixth grade, sat in court for almost two years through her father’s trial for a DUI that resulted in the death of three people. When her father was convicted and sentenced to serve decades in prison, Paradyse was forever changed. She is well aware of the fact that her father broke the law and her heart breaks for the lives lost. She recognizes clearly that her father had to serve time for his crime. But she also knows that her father’s lawyer spent the retainer her family scraped together to pay for his own eye surgery; and she knows that her father wasn’t properly represented in court; she speaks eloquently about the fact that the lawyer never spoke about the absence of lights on the road, the trees blocking his view, the specific circumstances of this story. And she knows if her father had been a wealthy white man (or a celebrity) instead of a poor black man (and nobody famous), his sentence would have been entirely different. She knows if he had had proper legal representation, it is unlikely that she and her two little sisters and her mother would have lost their father and husband to the system.

Paradyse lost her father to prison in 2011. Five years later, in late July 2015, just as I was about to head out of town for a holiday, I received an email from her. She wrote:

Hello  My name is Paradyse Oakley, I was wondering  if  I could  be able  to  make  a Club at my school for students  like me.

I wrote to tell her YES, YES, YES. I didn’t ask her what she meant by “students like me.” I knew she meant someone whose life has been touched by incarceration, and one of the golden rules of POPS the Club is that we do not ask what brings you to the club. When a student is ready to talk about that, he or she will.

But I did ask Paradyse how she had learned about POPS.

Thank you for responding to the email and being so accommodating. I was at UCLA for a Writing Foundation Camp and my professor was Mr. Gozonsky. He was talking about his upcoming novel and it related right with my story. The next day he brought a book about PROJECT WHAT! [Another fabulous program supporting students with incarcerated family members http://communityworkswest.org/programs-2/project-what/]

Paradyse went on:

and he told me his friend helped to start a program at Venice High School…

I wrote to suggest we double team her school’s administrators. I would write to the principal to tell her about POPS the Club and to ask if we could bring the program to Lawndale High; and meantime, on her return to school in August, Paradyse would talk to them.

On Wednesday, August 26, Paradyse wrote:

Today we had a meeting for starting clubs I went and got all the information. Dr. Kwong [Vice Principal] said he will be emailing you very soon.

The saga unfolded as it does. In September I met with administrators at Lawndale High and the six of us sitting around the table agreed: Paradyse is magical. The first student to reach out on her own to POPS, she recognized that she needed POPS and was certain that others in her school did too.

Later, Paradyse told me that when Mr. Gozonsky, her teacher at UCLA and our friend, gave her a copy of Ghetto By the Sea, POPS the Club’s second anthology, as soon as she began to read the stories, she knew she had to bring POPS to her school.

There are other twists and turns to this story, because nothing ever happens in a straight line, but long story short:

Paradyse asked Michelle Lee, an English teacher and the cheerleading coach at Lawndale, a woman of enormous heart and energy, to be the club sponsor, and POPS Lawndale launched on November 3, 2015. That day one of our volunteers, Katherine Fay, and I drove to the school with lunch and sat in the room where six young women sat in a circle as Paradyse led us through a Power Point introduction to POPS the Club.

A Power Point introduction. I was amazed by her organization, her maturity, her intelligence. This young woman had a lot to teach me.

Ever since, POPS Lawndale has been growing stronger and larger. But that isn’t the end of the story of the remarkable Paradyse.

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