Hali Morell, Upper School Community Service Director at Crossroads School, invited me to speak at the school’s Community Service Assembly. Having attended our event at the Kirk Douglas Theatre back in June, Hali was moved by the stories of all our students and by our mission, and she wanted to introduce POPS the Club to the students and faculty of her school. The assembly is designed to introduce Crossroad’s Upper School students to opportunities to do meaningful community service and to introduce them to organizations and issues (like POPS the Club and needs and desires of the loved ones of the incarcerated), issues they might not otherwise consider. Hali asked if there was a POPS the Club student who might be interested in reading and speaking, and because this was happening on a Friday morning, the middle of a school day, obviously this would have to be a graduate. It didn’t take me long to decide to ask Bianca Lopez who graduated two years ago and who is now volunteering with POPS and is becoming, more and more, a powerful spokeswoman and activist. Kelly Slattery, another volunteer, also came along to offer one more perspective and to support us.
Bianca had never seen this beautiful campus – there we were on their stunning outdoor basketball court under a bright blue sky as 300 students poured into the space and took their seats. We sat in the front seat, practicing what we would say, and when it was our turn to speak, both Bianca and I took the stage.
I briefly introduced POPS, letting the students know what POPS the Club is, why and how I founded it, telling them we would welcome them as volunteers and briefly letting them know that I believe every high school needs a POPS club, including Crossroads. I could see some of the yawns beginning to form—just one more adult standing there telling them what to do and think and know.
Then I introduced Bianca, and she told her story. It went something like this:
One day when Bianca was 11, she was on the bus coming home from Mark Twain Middle School. When they reached the end of her street, the bus was stopped by police tape, and all the kids looked out the window and saw SWAT teams swarming, guns drawn. At first she was terrified something had happened to her little niece—that’s all she could think about, but no one could tell her what was happening. All anyone knew was that she couldn’t get to her house, so she’d have to walk to her auntie’s house, almost five miles away. She walked there, accompanied by a few people from the bus. It was only when she arrived that she learned her niece was fine. But her brother had been arrested and taken away.
For the next year and a half, Bianca said, she blamed her brother (who was 17 when he was arrested and charged) for the sorrow and trouble his imprisonment (and his 29-year sentence). She refused to have anything to do with him. As she got older and learned the whole story, she began to understand her brother was not to blame—not solely, and that his sentence was wrong. She began to reconnect with him, and still, for another 4-1/2 years she never spoke about him, never told anyone about him. She was drowning in shame and embarrassment, sure if she did tell anyone about him, they would assume there was something wrong with her.
When Bianca was in 11th grade at Venice High, one of her close friends, Chelina, kept telling her to come to POPS the Club; Chelina was a member of the club, and an anti-death penalty activist. But Bianca said, over and over again, she told Chelina, “No, no way, I’m not going there. I’m never going to talk to people about my brother or our family…”
Then one day in second semester junior year, Chelina said, “Come on, come to POPS, there’s food,” and she was hungry, and she’d smelled the food, so she walked into the room and there, she said, she saw these fabulous toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. She ate two, and then she ate Chelina’s leftovers because they were so good.
That day there was some writing going on in the room, and someone gave her a piece of paper and a pen, but she just looked at it and thought, “I’m not going to write anything here…”
And then, Bianca said, “Amy came over to talk to me and asked me what had brought me there, and Chelina said, ‘You can tell Amy,’ and I just started to cry, and I started to tell her about my brother, and Amy asked me if I’d ever written a letter to my brother, and I said, no, no I couldn’t do that, but Amy told me to try, that I could write it anonymously and never send it….”
Then Bianca said, “I never wrote anything anonymously and I never will, but that day I started to write this letter, and I want to read part of that to you. It’s published in our first anthology, Runaway Thoughts (https://www.amazon.com/Runaway-Thoughts-Stories-P-P-S/dp/1495113590) and it goes like this:
Brother, I wrote a poem a while back that reminds me of you. Well, it’s basically for you. Here it is:
We live our lives day by day,
with twists and turns that go every which way.
It throws out obstacles to overpass
never knowing if we will come in first or end up last.
Keeping faith to make it through,
knowing it’s easier with someone next to you.
Someone to listen and try to understand, or just be there to lend a helping hand
Things will happen, and sometimes you’ll fall
but before we can walk, we first must crawl.
When your world becomes filled with anguish and fear
just take a look, and realize a best friend is always near.
No matter how close, no matter how far,
both reaching for the same bright star.
The one that will come and make everything right,
the one you both wish upon every night.
For both of us, there’s been so much change,
some made us happy, the rest filled us with pain.
In the end, it turns out all right, but getting there is a tormenting fight.
Everyone fights that dark battle within, but keep your head up,
I promise you’ll win.
When things get tough or if ever you stray,
I’ll try to always say and do the right things,
so hopefully we can both make a change.
With my best friend beside me, there’s nothing I can’t do,
My best friend,
my brother, my best friend is you!
Bianca was going to read the last lines of her letter, too, but before she could go on, the crowd burst into applause. She looked up and flashed them that beautiful smile of hers, and she just breathed in the admiration and love and understanding.
When the applause settled down she finished with this: “We’re giving you a set of our three anthologies. I’m published in all of them. And now I’m in college, and I also work as a volunteer at LA High School for the Arts POPS Club, and I’m a spokesperson and an activist.”
I looked down at Hali in the front row and she mouthed, “One more minute,” so I closed with a few words about how they could be in touch, letting them know we had brochures if they wanted to grab one to learn more.
Afterwards, a few kids stopped by to ask Bianca for a brochure, and when Kelly and Bianca and I walked out, Bianca looked at us and said, “You know, every time I do something like this, I feel more doors opening…I feel all these doors opening…”