Recently, I was the surprise commencement speaker at the promotion ceremony for a Seattle alternative high school. I spoke to 60 students, who’d come from 16 different districts, and had survived depression, attempted suicide, gang warfare, sexual and physical abuse, absentee parents, poverty, racism, and learning disabilities in order to graduate.
These students had read my young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and had been inspired by my autobiographical story of a poor reservation Indian boy and his desperate and humorous attempts to find a better life.
I spoke about resilience—about my personal struggles with addiction and mental illness—but it was the student speakers who told the most important stories about survival.
A young woman recalled the terrible moment when indifferent school administrators told her that she couldn’t possibly be a teen mother and finish high school. So they suggested she get a general education degree (GED) and move on with her life. But, after taking a practice test, she realized that the GED was far too easy for her, so she transferred to that alternative high school, and is now the mother of a 3-year-old and a high school graduate soon to attend college.
After the ceremony, many of the graduates shook my hand, hugged me, took photos with me, and asked me questions about my book and my life. Other students hovered on the edges and eyed me with suspicion and/or shyness.
It was a beautiful and painful ceremony. But it was not unique. I have visited dozens of high schools—rich and poor, private and public, integrated and segregated, absolutely safe and fearfully dangerous—and have heard hundreds of stories that are individually tragic and collectively agonizing.
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students—teens and preteens—who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as 10 have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.
And, often, kids have told me that my YA novel is the only book they’ve ever read in its entirety.