I met Josh in a classroom in South LA. It was the third session of a writing work shop. The students had interviewed elders of their families and were supposed to write stories about the elders' challenges and triumphs, memories they shared, what they had in common and what made them different. Volunteers like me were supposed to help.
Piece of cake - I am a reporter. Getting the story out of people is my bread and butter business.
Josh was hiding his face under a hoodie. Headphones over his ears and a tired smile made it obvious, that this was going to be a challange. Josh did never type a word into his computer, but he told me his and his grandfather's story. I was typing as fast as I could ...
Josh's grandfather was born in Jamaica. He had to carry stalks of bananas for little moeny. He moved to London, worked hard again and studied to be a lawyer, and came to Los Angeles. He first lived in his car close to Skid Row, made some friends who helped each other out, and invested his money in land. Smart move! "My grandpa owns apartments. And land. In California. In Jamaica and in Costa Rica." Josh told me.
"So, how about some memories you share?
They drove around to go to the apartments, Josh told me. And that his grandfather took him out to eat sometimes. They both liked Shrimp Alfredo at Olive Garden. "What did you talk about? Did the grandpa say anything you remember?" Josh was hiding again under his hoodie. He had not interviewed his grandfather.
Ok, next question: "What do you talk about with your grandpa now?" "Nothing. We stay in our rooms and mind our business." "So you are living together?" "Yes." "OK, and your parents?" "My Mom died in Costa Rica when I was in sixth grade."
So where do I go from here? I could tell, that this 17 year old was not eager to share his family story with me. I moved on to a more neutral place: "Anything you know about Jamaica? Where were you born?" Nothing about Jamaica. Josh is tired of talking about Raggae. Said, he does not know anything. "It was a colony?"
Josh was born in Costa Rica. Moved around, from there to Los Angeles, to New York, back to Los Angeles. His mom dropped him off in Los Angeles, told him, it was just going to be a visit, but then left him there with the grandfather. "Do you know why?" He shrugged his shoulders.
Sometimes Josh is tired of making new friends. "My grandpa talks to people and smiles. I don't approach people. When they approach me, I am nice." "Why do you think people approach you?" "I think I am handsome. That helps." "Can I put this in the story?" "Sure. Put it in there. Confidence also helps, I guess."
And with that the session ended. I came back a week later, happy to learn that I would be working with Josh again. Eager to continue writing down this story. Josh had told me, he was going to talk with his grandfther, and ask him a few questions, like: how old he is.
But this time, Josh almost never lifted his head from the desk.
"I don't do this project", he said. "This is not relevant," he said. "I am not close with my family like that. I don't want to talk about them." I tried different angles. "Why don't you write a bit more about yourself if you don't want to write about your family?" "Nothing interesting about myself." "Anything you admire about your grandfather?" "I don't want to talk about it, Miss." "How are you and your grandfather different? Anything you have in common?" "You keep trying, Miss. But I already decided not to do this project." I got maybe two sentences out of him.
I was disappointed. Mostly in me. Maybe I should have asked Josh, what he wanted to talk about. Maybe I should have left him alone. I am so curious about his story and the story of his grandfather. And the mother's story. "I don't know what to do, he thinks his story is irrelevant," I told the work shop leader. She put her hand on Josh's back. "Well, then we have to adjust to that."
Today I had to adjust to the fact, that not eveybody wants to share their story with me.