A teacher gave me a copy of When You Were Fifteen, a modest paperback text made by Multnomah County’s Community Justice office (your parole officers), Reclaiming Futures and Write Around Portland.

Ahh you say, more bullshit propaganda. Nope. Quite the opposite. I cried all night.

Reclaiming Futures, a national nonprofit run out of Portland State University and funded by Robert Wood Johnson, has published simular texts in Anchorage, Southeast Kentucky, Seattle, and Portland.

The contents of the Portland version is a mix of short autobiographical essays from recognizable Portlanders, mixed with kids at Donald E Long – our jail for kids.

David Sarasohn of the Oregonian writes the introduction. Others writers include City Councilman Sam Adams, master drummer Obo Addy, verse libre poet Leanne Grabel, Lewis & Clark’s Kim Stafford (shown here), schools superintendent Vicki Phillips, addiction doc Jim Thayer, and retired rock star Art Alexakis.

Fifteen is old enough to know the truth and not know what to do with it. It’s a terribly fragile moment of freedom and dependence, of sexual magic, of opportunity to explode, of frantic creativity, of hunger for mystery, for passion, for love.

Not disappearing is often the result of a small effort which is incomprehensible at the moment. Like all our travels, our paths feel unique and hard. Separated by years, we pant with gratitude.

You can download a copy of When You Were Fifteen HERE.

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Why I Didn’t Disappear – by Sam Adams

At fifteen, life was difficult. There was a reason for that.

I lived with my Dad. He was a heavy drinker. Our home life in Eugene was infused with alcohol. It was an often violent place.

Once, a friend and I were on a binge. We got into a conversation about the meaning of life. We summarized life as, “booze and social mix.”

Things felt pretty bleak.

My Dad and I had a combustible relationship. I had to get out of his house. I feared for my safety. So I moved out. I lived largely on my own at fifteen.

Right away, I felt better. I joined the cross-country running team and worked on the school newspaper. I got a job at Mr. Steak. I realized that I had incredible opportunities, in spite of my circumstances.

There were two teachers at school who kept me going: Sue Addicott and Byron Dudley. They didn’t fawn all over me. I would not have liked that. They just showed a little extra interest.

They’d stop me in the hall once in a while and tease me. They teased
me in a way that made the point clear – they expected me to do something with my life.

And because they showed that little extra interest in me, I realized that I should show a little extra interest in myself. It didn’t take much. I didn’t grow up in a home with a lot of positive feedback.

Sue got me into photography. It turned out that I was pretty good at it. Sue didn’t pull punches with her criticism, but she always encouraged me. She told me: pursue what you like until you find something else. I’d never experienced that kind of support. I surprised myself when I won a statewide photography award.

Byron was the faculty advisor for the student government. My knees shook when I had to speak in front of any group. But Byron said something like, “You’re stubborn but in a good way.”

Now I’m on the Portland City Council. I am still stubborn about getting things done. When I was fifteen, me serving on a city council would have seemed impossible. Byron nudged me to try out abilities I didn’t even know I had.

If it hadn’t been for Sue and Byron, I would have disappeared. My siblings weren’t so lucky. They didn’t have the help I did to get through. They’re all right now, but they struggled for a long time.

My life could have gone bad, but Sue and Byron made the difference. I knew they were there, keeping an eye out for me, and helping me to see beyond the problems in my family to all the possibilities in my life. I think every kid deserves at least one adult who believes in them like Sue and Byron believed in me.

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