Her mom was the strongest woman, no, the strongest person I’ve ever known. And the two were inseparable. She wanted nothing more than to “grow up” and be  just like her mom.

Our lives are fragile though. She sat just outside her cell, telling me her story. The English teacher in me could not help but think this young girl belonged in a college prep class, not in the most secure youth incarceration facility in the state. Her vocabulary was impressive. Her phrasing, almost poetic. That elusive quality, “voice,” all writers work to hone, came naturally to her. Her story flowed easily, pouring from her in the only release she ever allowed herself. She would not cry. She would not falter. But she would tell her story.

“I just don’t want any other girl to go through what I’ve gone through,” she explained.

She could not know that I felt a kinship with her, a connection between our stories. But I survived relatively unscathed from my experiences. Despite the love of her mother and faith in her god, a middle class upbringing, and scholarship eligibility–she had faired far worse than I had.

How strange, I thought. All I had was my own mother’s love, and my own determination. Of course, I never turned to drugs.  Of course,I lived in a different state, a different time–before zero tolerance, even before meth.

So, before me was a beautiful, petite blonde from a kind of privilege many only dream of. And her world had crashed in around her.

“My mom thought it was just self-medicating,” she choked down a bitter laugh. “But that wasn’t it at all. I’d been using everything from caffeine pills to diet pills to keep my grades up for years. Those just didn’t cut it anymore–sometime around freshmen year, I guess. I started mixing drugs and texting the kids who reportedly dealt so I could supplement my uppers.”

She looked down at her warped nails on her dainty hands. No polish was allowed “inside.” She hadn’t earned that right yet. She had only arrived a month ago and had done little to endear herself to the other girls, let alone the staff.

“It turned out meth was just what I was looking for. And you have no idea, none, how amazing it feels when you’re on it, so don’t judge. I miss that feeling more than anything–except my mom.”

“So what happened?”

“He moved in and my whole world changed. At first he was good to us, like when they were dating. But soon, I couldn’t sleep with all the yelling, cursing, and all the crap he’d throw around downstairs while I tried to study or sleep.” She took a deep breath, almost a sigh. “So, I looked for something to help me sleep. I tried everything. I did everything. I guess I was already an addict, but that was the “tipping point,” my therapist says. … I don’t regret it though, because, by the time he came for me, I knew how to numb myself. That was self-medicating.”

“How did that affect school?” I asked. She had been in my first grade class years before. I was her principal now and knew I had to meet with her when I saw her name on the intake list. She had been all smiles and potential at six. At sixteen, after years of addiction, abuse, and living on the streets, she weighed about what she had when we last saw each other and she looked barely alive, even after nearly a month clean.

“I started missing first period. Then, my grades tanked in everything but English…. I was sent to DT twice for showing up high and flipping out on my teacher–and the SRO. DT wasn’t bad, but there was no catching up after missing so much school So, I stopped going. I also stopped going home. I wasn’t safe with him and my mom knew it. She just didn’t know how to get out–until she saw me here, that is. That seemed to do the trick. Hah!” She let out a forced laugh, a terrifying sound really. “See how helpful I am?”

“Anyway, one thing led to another. You can’t assault an officer more than once or be hauled out of a drug house, without making a name for yourself with the courts. My judge ran out of options, she said, since I kept running from any semi-secure placement. So, here I am.”

“… And you said you don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m sure someone knew I was using before I started getting in trouble. I’m sure someone, like a counselor or one of those school social workers, could have recommended treatment for me–or better yet, asked if I felt safe at home. You know, the first time I failed a class, I got detention at school instead of a talk with my counselor. I don’t get that. I also can’t understand why no one noticed him, what an overbearing creep he was or how he looked at us–or how I changed after he started using me to satisfy his sick needs.” She paused.

I knew only too well this part of her story. And the truth is I had been there myself. No one noticed in my case either. No one wanted to see the damage done to the brilliant beautiful little girl with so much potential. They wanted only a success story.

Then she looked at me with those eyes that always smiled up at me with such hope and such joy when she was younger. The blue in her eyes had faded considerably. The look was fleeting and quickly clouded over with disappointment. In that moment, I knew she felt betrayed.

“You said we’d always have someone looking out for us at school, Mrs. R. And we have all those people, so many people,  but I ended up here. And I’m not the only one. Do you know that some of the kids were recommended placement here by their principals? I thought they wanted us in school, learning.”

“Well, you’ll finish your diploma here. I’ll even help you start college. We have concurrent enrollment now, you know.”

“That’s great. Now I can be separated from everyone and no one needs to feel guilty.” Those words gave me something to think about.

I’m still thinking, three years later. She did graduate, early, and started university course work. She and her mom are moving to the southern end of the state as soon as she gets out–so they can start fresh. They will both go the university. It is a success story, I suppose. But I still feel guilty. We let her down as a system, and she’s not the only one.

I am working on my doctorate and studying juvenile justice issues. I get discouraged often. But I remember that look she gave me–the one from her childhood, the one I saw before she admitted she felt betrayed (though not in so many words), and the one she had on her face when she looked up at before before giving her speech at graduation. I remember her hope.

And I feel hope. Maybe, in sharing her story and the story of others like her, of others fighting for and supporting all the youth like her, maybe we can make a change. I hope.