Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Old Enough to Know Better: My Classmate's Killer is Finally Headed to Prison

In March of 2012 I left daffodils alongside a makeshift memorial with a stuffed panda, burned out candles, a framed picture of Annie, and a statuette of a girl holding a bucket that somebody had filled with Sour Patch. Here's what's left today.
Four years ago, I watched from my parents' bedroom window as the police pulled Annie's battered body from a yellow rescue raft and transferred her to a white van. A blue tarp covered her, so I wouldn't know until today how she'd been hit fifteen times in the face with a metal shovel, her features so smashed that her parents could only identify her by the dimple on her chin. But I would learn the very next day that we'd briefly attended the same middle school. She transferred before her death. Her killer stayed there with me. 
Let me back up. My house faces a river that runs along a jogging trail. We're the last street in my suburban town and that river, jogging trail, and surrounding no man's land divide us from the next town over. Before March 11, 2012, the only cars I'd ever seen on the trail were city maintenance vehicles. That was a Sunday. I came home from church and saw both police and civilian cars on the parkway, as well as a helicopter buzzing overhead. I thought maybe a child had gone missing-my parents never trusted me to play along the river when I was small. I could see all the cars converging on the same spot and grabbed a pair of binoculars to see what the situation was. 
Utah's Jordan River is a sluggish creek that not many bother to raft. But when I saw them raise a definitely-not-child-sized covered corpse from the water, I thought some river voyager had capsized. The river was swollen that time of year. Swollen so much that when my friends and I left daffodils at Annie's death point later that week, the trail was flooded and we had to take a different route, passing a news van in the process.
I spent the rest of my Sunday and the following days tracking the news. Slowly, her story unfolded. Female victim. Young Asian female victim. No, young Caucasian female victim, once they got a better look at her battered face. Suspected murder victim. Annie Kasprzak, 15, my age. Current student at Summit High School. But before that, we'd walked the halls of Oquirrh Hills Middle School together. Enough people knew her that we had a "wear red for Annie" day. Maybe Darwin Christopher Bagshaw showed up to school in red, too. As her boyfriend that would be expected. But I didn't keep tabs on him back then. You don't keep tabs on people before you know they're killers.
Chris was fourteen to Annie's fifteen, one of those ninth graders that hadn't hit his birthday yet. That didn't stop them from dating. Or anything else. That night, she left a note for her parents saying she and Chris were running away to California. Then she met up with him at the city park and they walked together until they left city limits. She told him she was pregnant* and he believed it. Did she tell him in the park? Or did he not know until they reached the no man's land? Did he lure her there, where no one could hear her scream, and where the river waited to receive her body? Or did she tell her tale on the parkway, where he snapped, grabbed a shovel that had been abandoned nearby, beat her to death?
At that point, I don't know. It all boils down to whose attorney you believe. 
Chris Bagshaw's defense says it was a crime of passion, and beyond that, we should look kindly on his crime because of his age. I'm surprised how many people who aren't paid to preserve his freedom legitimately share that opinion. A friend's mother told me yesterday that it was an "excusable crime" because fourteen year olds can't think straight or control their emotions. If my view is colored by the fact that I went to school with both these people, so be it. I don't think murder is ever an excusable crime. 
I've heard of cases where toddlers shake baby siblings to death or young elementary schoolers kill neighbors playing wrestling games. Those are accidents. Those are people who don't have the ability to process and react to their circumstances. Those are the reasons we have more lenient laws for child criminals. This isn't that. Fourteen is old enough to know what murder is. You can't accidentally hit someone in the face with a shovel fifteen times. 
I never knew Annie before her death, and I only knew Chris in a "Didn't we have science together?" way, but her murder impacted me. It changed the way I viewed life and death throughout high school. Reading back over my ninth grade journal, the next several entries following her murder are me coping with the death of a stranger. How I developed a fear of bridges since Annie was dumped off one. How I got scared when I took my hands off the railing and mistook blood from a cut on my finger for hers. How I denied the news people who found my friends and I leaving flowers at the bridge and asked me if I thought it was a suicide. How I cringed whenever someone said "kill" in a joking manner. How I wasn't sure if I could keep playing Hunger Games along the river with my friend Hanna because a teenager had actually died there. How I started listening to The Band Perry's "If I Die Young" on repeat and made my own bucket list. How I looked out at the sea of silver and purple caps three years after and imagined a timeline where Annie might have graduated with us.
Her death haunted me for years. When you're young, every death of a young person feels like losing one of your own, even if you weren't friends. I couldn't bring myself to buy a pair of red tennis shoes until college because that's what Annie wore at the time of her death. A lost bloody shoe promoted a trail walker to call the police, who later matched it to the one on her body. Just yesterday I went jogging along that trail and had to stop and read the "RIP Annie". It's still scratched into the bridge four years after the makeshift memorial was cleared away. Then I came home and found Darwin's face staring up at me from the newspaper. He was arrested during my senior year when he was still a minor. After more than a year of back and forth over whether he should be charged as an adult, he's finally been sentenced. Fifteen years to life, expected to average out at twenty. He is eighteen now. Some headlines are calling him a teen. In others, he's an "eighteen year old man." Most papers use the terms interchangeably throughout their articles. 
Eighteen is a no man's land too.
I agree that children should not always be held to the same standard of accountability as adults. Peer pressure and poor parenting too often motivate teenagers to commit crimes like theft, vandalism, drug use, curfew violations, and running away. But right is right and wrong is still wrong no matter how old you are. I'm sick of hearing adults talk about their former drug use as if it doesn't matter because "everybody smokes pot in high school." Um, no, I didn't. And you didn't have to either. Any child old enough to ride in the passenger seat of a car is old enough to understand the consequences and morality of their own actions. 
Ageism stops us from taking teenagers and their crimes at face value. A fourteen year old is no less of a murderer than his adult counterparts anymore than a fifteen year old can be less dead than an adult victim. If we continue to subscribe to the idea that teenagers are "unformed" adults, that their emotions-rage, fear, grief-besiege them differently than adults, pretty soon people start getting away with murder. If not in the justice system, then in the way we judge them in our communities. 

*Annie's autopsy later revealed that she was not in fact pregnant 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Find Your Answer

Last year my family spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Hawaii. While waiting for our flight back home, I sat next to a girl who looked about my age. We got talking. She told me she was twenty one years old and flying to Salt Lake, where she would then move onto Idaho and spend Christmas with her family before coming home.
"If your family lives in Idaho, what brought you out here?" 
I assumed it was college. Isn't that the only thing that brings new adults anywhere? But then, she might have moved out to be near a boyfriend or extended family. So I thought I ought to ask.
"I moved here after I graduated high school."
She shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea."
"Are you in school?"
"I'll do college eventually, but not right now."
"So you have a job?"
"Yeah, I'm a waitress." 
"Wait, you graduated high school, moved to Hawaii, and got a waitress job?"
"Sure. Why not?"
I couldn't decide if I should be jealous or horrified. That wasn't a checklist item on the to-do list all my friends were laying out. Graduate, little job, college, graduate again, big job, family-Hawaii just didn't fit in there. "It seemed like a good idea." And so she moved to Hawaii. Maybe she had some deeper reason she just didn't want to share with a stranger in an airport. But I'm going to take her at her word. 
Most twenty one year olds have some waitress type job anyway. If you're going to do it, why not do it in Hawaii? Sure, the cost of living is high, but you're in Hawaii. The beach makes up for it. Is that really such a bad way to spend three years of your life? You'll have plenty more to spend on boring things.
It's finals week at my university. Some tests are held in the classroom, but most are in the testing center. You stand in line, recite your professor and class name at the front, watch the printer spit your test out, and take it in a room with hundreds of people. Maybe someone in that crowd of hundreds is in your class, but you won't know it even if they are there. You wait for the first available seat, swoop down before anybody else can take it, and don't move for an hour or two. 
A Person of the Internet once told me that being a new adult is like taking a test, planning on cheating, and then realizing in horror that everyone has a different test. I've never cheated on an exam before, but I keep coming back to that analogy whenever I have a test there. 

I used to have my entire life lined up like a row of dominoes. I'm a planner-it's just my nature. In September of my junior year I got bored during a fire drill, so I made a mental map of what I was doing every night in November. This fall semester I spent hours upon hours on a school website called MyMAP (Major Academic Plan) outlining the classes I'd take for the next seven semesters. I knew I couldn't make one master plan that could account for all the variables, so I made dozens. I took into account different minors I might declare, languages I might learn, and study abroads I might go on. I found out which classes were only offered certain years or semesters and which ones could only be taken in companionship with other classes. When I didn't feel like paying attention in class, I'd list class acronyms down the margins where normal people doodle. Some of these plans were on whiteboards or phone notes I deleted a few days later. Others were mapped out on MyMAP years ahead of schedule. Some of my friends were still wandering around campus with no idea what they were doing with their lives, but I knew where I was going and exactly how I'd get there. 
Then all my dominoes came crashing down. 
I had a setback two months ago. The wounds are still to raw for me to publish a post about it, so all I'll say here is that I lost a lot of dreams. With them came all the structure of my life. Not having a plan scared me, and the initial event sapped me of a lot of self esteem, so I've spent most of the last two months doing nothing. I stopped blogging, abandoned the novel I was writing, and lacked the motivation to eat most days. I ate just enough to avoid migraines and tried to blame my hunger on stomach pains caused by bad posture. There were times I thought I was on the verge of dropping out of school, but I mustered the strength to get my homework done, even when I couldn't do anything else. Now, assuming I make it through finals week, I'll have a B or better in each class. 
It's hard to put one foot ahead of the other when you don't know where you're headed. I don't know what I'm doing winter semester of 2018 anymore. I don't even know what I'm doing this coming semester. Last Schedule Day, I went through Plans A, B, C, D, and E, emailed professors and talked to advisers about classes that suited my needs, and coordinated classes with a friend. I had all my Plan F classes open in separate tabs the day before and registered for all of them by 12:03 AM on Schedule Day. 
This time? I waited for Schedule Day. I clicked a class I absolutely need to take. I clicked another class I absolutely need to take. "What else did I want again? Uh, psychology. And a dance class. No, I'll take this dance class instead. Now I need to take this religion class to grad-nope, screw this, I'm signing up for floral design." 
I closed out before I could see what I'd done and checked back on the carnage a week later. Apparently the only two classes I need are at the same time. Back to the drawing board. I'm not sure what I'll end up doing, but I'm keeping that floral design class. Screw you, life. I like flowers. 
The problem with life isn't that it tests you. It isn't that everyone else has a different test. It's that life is an open response test, not multiple choice. You have to work harder to find your answer and there are different functional answers for different people. 
I have five friends who've had clinical depression throw a wrench into their educational goals. One is on medical leave for the tail end of her senior year but is keeping college in her sights. One won't walk with her graduating class and is going on a service trip to Africa instead of trying school again so soon. One withdrew from college after her first semester. One decided against college altogether.
Then there's this girl:

I snapped this selfie with my friends Nathan and Britney when we went out for ice cream after our scholarship interviews. We were so full of hope, all of us in the lineup to receive full rides to any school in the state of Utah. Only Britney advanced to the next level and ultimately none of us got the money we'd hoped for. Britney and I were waiting on our acceptance or rejection letters from BYU. One night in late January I got the email. Before I even had a chance to celebrate, I sprinted upstairs to grab my charging phone and tell Britney.
But she'd texted me first. Check your email! :) And later: I'll have to cancel our double date for this weekend. My brother died. 
We both got admitted to BYU. That was everything we'd hoped for. Before. We'd planned on being roommates, but Britney took stock of her life after her brother's death in a freak accident and decided she'd rather go to a different school. Utah Valley University is only one town over from BYU, so being roommates is still geographically feasible, but I think I've been replaced. And I couldn't be happier for her.

They get married next month. Britney never would've predicted her senior year of high school that she'd meet and marry her husband by age nineteen and a half. She wouldn't have met him at all if she'd followed me to school. But life has a way of throwing curveballs.
There are different right answers for different people. I spent all of senior year badgering one of my depressed friends to get her butt in college. Now I see that wouldn't have been the right path for her. Not yet, at least. Some people need to take time away from school. Some people need to get married at nineteen. Some people need to drop everything and move to Hawaii. So long as you're happy, healthy, achieving your own goals, and benefiting loved ones, you can live a good life. You'll find your way, and no rush. There's no need to sing all the verses of your song at the same time.
Your answer is out there.
 Go find it. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Own Your Success

When my brother started college at Cal Berkeley six years ago, my dad flew out to help him settle into his dorm and attend freshman orientation. After an introduction, the parents were separated from their now-adult children.
"How many of you are interested in learning how you can track your children's grades?" the parent tour guide asked.
Hands went up. These parents had diligently tracked their kids' test scores, communicated with teachers, and enrolled their students in SAT prep classes for years. Yes, all that had been "so you can get into college", but why stop there? They waited for the tour guide to impart his wisdom.
"Well...too bad! Your kids are adults! You have no legal right! Too bad, too bad, tooooo bad!"
My dad told me this story the week before I left for school as a de-stresser. I shared it on a university humor Facebook page after someone posted a joke about colleges holding parent teacher conferences. I got over a hundred likes, a couple of laughing comments, and one retort from a middle aged woman. She said she still expected her children to feed her report cards.
I blew it off as an isolated incident-until I read further down the thread.
First, I'm surprised how many non-college people follow college humor accounts. It stands to reason that if you do that, you'd be the type of person who likes college students, or at least enjoys jokes about them. Not an ageist. If you hate the entire species, don't try to immerse yourself in our culture. Just sayin'.
Second, a lot of parents argued that they had a right to know how their offspring were performing since they were paying for their education. Nope, wrong, you're a control freak. Google FERPA. Sometimes money just isn't power. I want to track down that ex-tour guide and take a picture of him....oh, wait. I can do that myself.

Parenting isn't a business deal. We might take care of you in your old age because we like you, but children aren't investments. We're people with our own goals, opportunities, and stresses. You need to respect that, both before and after we come of age, or we're never going to be independent.
All through middle school and high school, I knew kids whose parents paid them for grades.
I feel like that's a bad strategy. It's not analogous to the workplace-you can do an exceptional job and still get paid the same as your slacker coworkers. Will you give your all even if your boss doesn't give you a bonus? If it's not preparing you for anything, what is it supposed to do in the mean time? Motivate you to succeed? Getting a good grade should be its own reward. If you're getting good grades for your parents, you'll never own your own success.
If your kid is not on the verge of failing, I don't think non-monetary privileges should hinge on grades either. I joined the school newspaper in seventh grade. Our adviser broke us into sections and told us to exchange email addresses. To my horror, all the other girls in my group had their own email. I was the only one still using my parents' address for everything. I went home and told my parents I needed an email address for school projects.
"You can have it if you get an A in every class."
So I tried my hardest in every class. It wasn't too rough. This was my first quarter of seventh grade. I only had homework two or three times a week. My hardest subject was algebra, but even then I had some easy assignments. Our first homework was a little green paper with addition and subtraction problems any eight year old could solve with ease. It was assigned to us purely to demonstrate the differences between arithmetic and algebraic thinking. I turned it in. The grade never showed up online, but I was new to the grade tracking system and assumed I didn't understand how to read it. In the last week of the quarter, I still had an A- in algebra. I told my teacher I'd turned it in but he said it had never crossed his desk. My grade would remain where it was.
I excused myself to the bathroom and broke down crying. That was the first time, but certainly not the last, that I would cry over my grades. But I really wasn't shedding tears over math at all. I knew that I was capable of solving second grade sums. It wasn't about my personal success either-I knew I could survive with an A- in seventh grade algebra. But I was devastated that I couldn't prove myself to my teacher and my parents. I wouldn't get an email address. Everybody else had them, and lots of my friends were getting cell phones and social media too, but I'd still have to channel all my newspaper work through my parents' email.
My grade averaged into an A in the end and I got my email address. Was this a learning experience? You bet. When I decided I wanted a blog a year later, I created the site you're looking at now without asking my parents. But did it affect my future grades? No. I had a 4.0 for that first semester of seventh grade but didn't get it back until my senior year. I continued to get good grades, though. My school sent me an honor roll certificate every quarter and my parents used the backs for scratch paper. Sophomore year, I went over to my friend Sam's house and saw her one and only middle school honor roll certificate framed above her bed. I felt sick, like my own success had been wasted on me. Sam had worked her butt off for a spot on the honor roll. It was a moment to preserve for eternity. All my success piled up was just scratch paper in the computer drawer. Worthless, to both me and my parents, even though they'd pushed me to success in the first place.
In the summer after eighth grade, I told my mom I wanted to get into BYU, the pickiest school in the state of Utah. By tenth grade I regretted letting that slip. "Take this summer ACT prep class the week your favorite cousins are in town so you can get into BYU." "Do extra credit even though you have 103% in this class. It might be the one score that makes or breaks you for BYU." "I called the BYU admissions office and they said you're right on the bubble."
It wasn't long before the school's name made me cringe. BYU had been my dream, but she hijacked it. I reclaimed it in the end. I made her stop tracking my grades and I looked into other schools. End result? I'm writing this post in the BYU library. I'm happy here. The dream is mine again.
Parent-based motivation bothers me in the same way age-based morality bothers me. If you tell a kid that drinking, drugs, porn, and premarital sex are wrong because they're a minor-or not wrong at all, just not permitted under your roof-they'll feel free to do them when they grow up and move out. Maybe. More likely they'll do those things under a friend's roof. If you raise a kid to have a moral opposition to those things, they'll continue living your standards once they're on their own.
Don't you want your kid to have a good life once they're no longer living under your roof? Don't you want your kid to move out from under your roof? Then teach them independence, not parental dependence. If you have the means to support or supplement your kid's university tuition, do it because you love them. Don't make that money a shackle.
We spent twelve years trying to get into college. Now we're here, let us enjoy our happily ever after. We'll have new dragons to slay soon enough. If you're not scholarship dependent or grad school bound, then C's get degrees. Learn stuff. Pass classes. Don't get kicked off the football team. You're all set. Yeah, you should aspire to more than C's, but do it to please yourself, not anyone else. The top things employers care for you to do with college are
1. Get in
2. Get out, diploma in hand
If you are scholarship dependent or grad school bound, you have external motivation to get good grades. Parents shouldn't have to push you.
I'm grateful to my parents for working hard and helping me get through school. I'm glad I don't have to sell plasma to pay dorm rent like lots of my friends. But I don't think the average parent is some kind of superhero for helping the poorest person in their immediate family through the most expensive time of their life. You're a jerk if you can and don't. My friend Maya would love to go to college and achieve her dream of being a high school choir teacher. But the same parents who pay her sister's college tuition won't give her anything. They wouldn't let her work during high school, so she got two fast food jobs after graduation. She's working up to affording her own car. Then an apartment. Then she can think about college.
The ultimate goal of parenthood is not to coddle or corral a child, but to turn them into an independent adult. Watching your kid's grades like a hawk will provoke undue stress we automatically detach from our own goals for our education. Oh, and it will make teachers hate you.

Parent, let your kids have their own failures and their own success. And kids?
Be successful.
Then own it.