Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Adventures with TESSA at the Juvenile Detention Center

It's the ultimate acid test for any book -- presenting it to the experts and letting them critique it. For my novel, Tessa: From Fear to Faith, the experts are people who have lived the dysfunctional, abusive, drug-ridden, heartbreaking and sometimes violent life that my character Tessa was born into.

When the door opened to share my testimony and talk about TESSA at the juvenile detention center last fall, I was excited... and nervous. Excited, because I always wanted to do something like that, but nervous because I have no experience at all with kids. I felt thoroughly unqualified. And okay, a little bit scared too, especially after orientation. The staff told me how dangerous the kids could be and that I should be ready to defend myself if necessary.

When I went in with the chaplain and met the kids, though, my first impression was, These kids could be my brothers and sisters from 10 years ago. I felt like I'd gone back in time to when I was a teenager myself, sitting in a circle with my siblings and parents in the living room for worship, my brother slouched in a chair staring at the floor because he really didn't want to be there, me silent and cringing because I thought God and my parents were put out with me for being so "bad."

When my chance came to speak, I told the kids about my life and how I came to know Christ at the age of 21. It was my first time giving my testimony, and no, they didn't fall under conviction and all give their hearts to the Lord. But I continued going in with the chaplain, and each time I relaxed more and talked more freely. My second time there, I left a copy of TESSA for a girl to read. She loved it and begged me to let her keep it, so I did.

A few weeks ago, I went in by myself for the first time. I was nervous that I would run out of things to say and make a fool of myself, so I did a lot of praying ahead of time, and asked others to pray as well.

The first thing I did that morning was read the kids Chapter 14 of my book (where Tessa decides to run away again, gathers all her stuff to leave, and then can't find the car key). I then went on to read from the Bible and talk about other things. When I was done, one of the kids asked to see my book so he could read the back cover. That turned into passing it around, which turned into all 4 of them wanting a copy, which turned into an animated conversation (which was really fun). In the end, I  agreed to donate a copy to the library  so they could all read it. That met with approval, so they passed the book back for me to sign. One boy, who had been rather bored by the rest of the meeting, wanted the book passed back to him once it was signed, declaring, "I'm gonna read it first!"

After the meeting, one girl wanted to talk with me. She explained that she desperately needed her own copy because the story paralleled her life and she "knew" it would help her remember why she needed to make good choices and not end up in the detention center again. I figured she might be pulling my leg, but after some discussion I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. So I told her I had written into the story the things I learned in overcoming my own problems. Because of this, I believed if she read the book and engaged with the truth in it, she would be changed. I had only brought one copy in with me, so with the staff's approval, I went out through three locked doors, down the elevator, and out into the sub-zero parking lot to sign another book. That wasn't easy; the book was so cold the ink froze in the pen tip and it barely wrote. I then rode the elevator back up to the third floor and left the book for her.

It's going to take me some time to learn when I should say yes and when I should say no. The kids can be very persuasive! But until then, I'd rather err on the side of generosity. Kids (and adults) need someone to believe in them and make them feel special. In the end, maybe that's more important than any message in a book.