How my experiences have impacted me.
My heartbeat mimicked the blare of the sirens. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” I stood by as the detective searched the scene. It was then that the face of the perpetrator became visible to me. I recognized him from somewhere: third period Honors English. Not many high schoolers can say that they ditched school, investigated a shooting, and arrested one of their classmates all in one day, but for me it was completely ordinary.
I’ve grown up in the neighborhood that soccer moms avoid at all costs, the place where struggles constantly appear on the news; an economically distressed community. A victim of white-flight, Wilkinsburg was once a flourishing suburb: “The Holy City,” birthplace of radio broadcasting, a popular shopping destination. With stores and homes left empty after the death of the steel mills in Pittsburgh, the population and tax base plummeted, bringing economic hardships and social ills to the borough.
The now defunct high school had struggled similarly. The building, erected in 1910 when the community was thriving, was in need of much cosmetic work. Entire floors were closed off because of declining enrollment, yet the hundred-some students that remained took on the challenge of making the noise of the thousands that the school could hold. What was once one of the best schools in Pennsylvania was now the second worst. It was utter chaos.
In the midst of all the chaos, there I was, the sole white girl, quiet and striving, sticking out like a sore thumb. I already stood out, so I had nothing to lose—might as well add a police internship to the mix to make myself more of an outsider.
I have always had an interest in crime, instilled in me from my mother’s love of murder mysteries. By day two at Wilkinsburg High School, it was abundantly clear that the curriculum would be too easy for me. With that in mind, I reached out to the gifted teacher. It was arranged that I would do an independent study class in forensic science, but that wasn’t enough for me. I suggested that some real life experience might help with my studies and reached out to the local police chief. It was set: the next week I found myself in the basement of the police department, surrounded by bloody and battered clothing, evidence from a recent shooting. I was also hooked. What was meant to be a one day experience, turned into a year and half long internship.
The saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that is easier said than done. As much as we hate to admit it, we all have our own preconceived notions. Media portrayals make Wilkinsburg out to be a violent wasteland, and as such I expected my experience in the police department would be constant excitement. This was not entirely the case. Sure there was some crime, but most of my time was spent patrolling the neighborhood, listening to the constant sound of the police radio communicating crimes in the so-called “better communities.” The crimes that were ingrained in my mind as disgusting are often out of need; the actors often being good people pushed over the edge due to circumstances.
“Violet?” “Here.” The name that followed my own was the student I arrested, his seat behind me empty. With yet another student lost, my class dwindled to nine students. The boy’s twin sister remained, unaffected by the arrest of her brother; desensitized to the effects of crime. The entire class period I was distracted by the impact of my actions on the boy’s life. I knew it was not my burden to bear, yet I still felt the sting of the stark realities of life in distressed, urban environments – places I know, and places I am determined to improve.