Between the fact that it is #PrideMonth and the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is shining a light on the racial disparities of the US criminal justice system, I almost felt like it was kismet that I listened to this audiobook this week. I had added this book to my TBR list so long ago that I honestly forgot what it was about and simply knew it was something about two teenagers who crossed paths on a bus one day. Yeah… It was way bigger than that!
Sasha (they/them/their) was a white teen who attended a small private school where their “genderqueer” identity was simply accepted and taken in stride. The fact that they preferred to wear skirts was not really a big deal to anyone in their family or their circle of friends. Richard (he/him/his) was a black teen who attended a large public school and, though he wanted to turn around his life and graduate from high school, still hung out with people who made poor choices (like stealing and fighting). On the day that Sasha and Richard crossed paths, while riding the 57 bus home from their respective schools, Richard made a stupid and impulsive decision. Egged on by friends, and not knowing how incredibly flammable Sasha’s skirt would actually be, Richard flicked a lighter and held it to Sasha’s skirt. He thought it would be funny to see the shock and confusion of that “guy in a skirt” waking up to see their skirt had caught fire. He assumed Sasha would wake up moments after he flicked the lighter, pat out the fire, and that would be that. In reality, though, Sasha’s skirt enveloped them in flames and caused severe burns to their legs, and Richard was left facing the possibility of life in prison if he was tried as an adult for this “hate crime.”
The story alternates between Sasha’s and Richard’s sides of the story and presents both factual information about the case and the emotional rollercoaster that they and their families experienced. Not only did this story provide information about this specific case, but it also provided a great deal of background information about the GLBTQ community and the US criminal justice system. The author presented a primer on GLBTQ terminology people may not necessarily know (along with a disclaimer that terminology often changes and that people should respect the terminology used by individuals when they describe themselves) and included an abbreviated timeline of issues affecting GLBTQ people, particularly those who are transgender or agender. I really appreciated how the author focused on the vast disparities between the sentences and future outcomes of white juvenile offenders and black juvenile offenders in America from the 1980s through today. Unless we recognize the inequality within our criminal justice system, we cannot work to change it.
Long story short, this book gives me hope. Hope that we can move forward to be more accepting of people whose identities do not match our own and that our criminal justic system *can* be fixed if people continue to insist on reform. The most remarkable thing about this story, in my opinion, is how Sasha and their parents not only forgave Richard for his incredibly stupid mistake but also fought for him to be tried as a juvenile. That right there says it all. By responding with forgiveness instead of hate, and working to understand one another better, we can make this world a better place.