In a soft voice, Lorica Michel, 15, read to classmates at Wyandanch Memorial High School her account of the day she heard that her father had died.
The news came in a phone call in 2014 to her mother, Marie Laurette Eliacin, in Haiti. Her father, who was in the United States and had plans to bring the rest of the family there, had died of blood cancer. Upon hearing that, Michel's two older siblings burst into tears.
“I was still standing there. I wanted to cry, too. So I did,” Michel, who was 6 at the time, read. “… After the funeral of my father, we cried some more.”
Her narrative didn’t end there. In December 2014, her family arrived in New York. The move "was something I thought would happen overnight. But it didn’t. It took months, months, and many more," she wrote.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Herstory, a Centereach-based writing program, launched “The Elephant in the Room” project at Wyandanch Memorial High School more than a year ago, including multiple workshops.
- Since December, students in eight English and Spanish classes have participated in a 10-week workshop where they wrote first-person narratives.
- The format provides a safe space for students to address the invisible forces that affect their learning and well-being, a process the school principal called therapeutic.
On Tuesday, Michel shared her story with a circle of four classmates, the school psychologist and two facilitators of Herstory, a program that helps participants write first-person narratives that serve as a means to heal, and as its founder, Erika Duncan, put it, "to change hearts, minds and policies."
Herstory, based in Centereach, was created by Duncan, a Sag Harbor novelist. Since its founding in 1996, its projects have featured voices that often have gone unheard: immigrant youth who crossed the border on their own; incarcerated women; and survivors of violence. Stories have been written and read among circles within the walls of jails, libraries, schools and community centers across Long Island.
Despite its name, it grew to include men and boys and has partnerships in several other school districts, including Westbury, Hempstead and Uniondale, according to Duncan.
'Elephant in the room'
In Wyandanch, Tuesday marked the last of 10 workshop sessions that began in December and were held in English and Spanish classes. The project began more than a year ago and is called “The Elephant in the Room,” referring to the invisible forces weighing on students that affect their learning and overall well-being.
“It’s all kinds of elephants. It's the kids' experience, what they're going through, what those burdens are, what the trauma is,” said Paul Sibblies, the high school principal. “When they have these kinds of thoughts and challenges, it impacts learning and it impacts self-esteem.”
The format provides a safe space for students to address the "elephants in the room” through memoir-style writing, which Sibblies said can be therapeutic.
“There is apprehension about discussing or talking about it,” he said. “To alleviate that, we allow students to write, and when they write, everything comes out.”
For John Villalta, a ninth-grader, the elephant in his room is race.
Villalta, who turned 16 last month, contemplated the birthday that allows him to apply for a learner’s permit and what driving meant to him as someone of Salvadoran heritage.
“One thing that will be rough is driving, not only because it's hard to drive but because I have to be cautious in the streets,” he read what he wrote in class. “I'm a Hispanic kid so I [could] be treated differently.”
Barbara Levin, a trained Herstory facilitator, applauded Villalta for moving forward.
“We can't let it stop us,” Levin said. “That's what came through in the piece, that you're not letting anything stop you, that you recognize the pitfalls, but you keep moving on.”
Strength amid loss
Michel, in her writing, detailed the loss of her father but also the strength she saw in her mother.
Daphney Pierre, the school psychologist whose parents also emigrated from Haiti, told Michel she heard resilience and family unity in her story.
“Writing this piece: How did it make you feel?” she asked.
“It actually made me feel good. It was as if I was going back in time,” Michel answered. “I was just writing and it’s like replaying a video.”
Levin chimed in.
“The main thing for me is her giving people an opportunity to see who she is,” she said. “It changes your perspective about people when you get to find out a little bit about who people are.”
Lauren Alfaro, another ninth-grader, had some classes with Michel, but the two girls didn’t know each other well. Hearing Michel’s story shed insight on how she saw her classmate.
“It shows a lot of your character,” said Alfaro, 14.
Pattianne Reilly, the other Herstory facilitator, said she was struck by Michel’s ending. “The love of your mom kept coming through for me,” she told her.
In her narrative, Michel wrote that her mother held her hands, enabling her to get her to where she is now.
“One day she won’t need to hold my hands,” Michel wrote. “I will hold hers.”