BLOG: Finding Keisha Washington
[Note: This is the first in a series of blogs exploring the characters, writing process, and behind the scenes of THOUGHTS & PRAYERS.]
When I first opened myself to Keisha, listening to what she had to say about herself, and what others whispered, I had the experience of seeing a possible new friend from across the room, someone I wanted to get to know. We were in a crowded auditorium with kids hung together in groups of five or two, a few introverts huddled in their seats, heads down, opening their notebooks, an administrator bustling across the stage to check the sound system before the event began. “Testing, one, two, three, testing.”
But when I keyed in on Keisha, it was as if she had been waiting in the back of my mind for me to find her.
Keisha Washington stands five feet, six inches tall. Her long hair is in braids and pulled back away from her face in a ponytail. Considered beautiful by her parents and annoyingly perfect by her peers, she’s slender, strong from playing tennis year-round, and president of the senior class at Rockwell High School. She’s dabbled in fencing, chess, learning Mandarin and writing for the school paper. But her favorite thing is the debate team. She loves to see her opponent rendered speechless, unable to form a counterargument.
She skis, swims, goes with her family to the beach every year, and her choice in jewelry goes from staid pearl earrings to wild woman metal and feather decorations. No piercings or tats because her parents would freak and why annoy them like that. She wears what everyone else wears: leggings, jeans, crop tops, sneakers, boots.
She doesn’t think of herself as calculating; she’s focused. With A’s in her five advanced placement courses, top of her class, and near perfect SATs, her target school is Harvard. She won’t accept anything less than Princeton or Stanford. She intends to be president of the country.
And she is completely unprepared for bullets to pierce the security of her high school classrooms.
I saw this all with no effort. I knew about her family, how her mother was a doctor and her father was a lawyer and also a delegate to the state legislature. I imagined a childhood for her that I had not had—financially comfortable with successful, doting parents who expected their daughter would be good at whatever she chose to do—and asked myself what could go wrong. Not externally but internally, what would happen to her emotionally and psychologically that would change her life and awake her to what she really needed.
Keisha is nothing if not persistent. If she gets a notion to do something, she’s going to do it, no matter how many times it takes her to perfect her performance. It takes a lot to shake her confidence that her idea about something is the right one. When I realized that, I knew what I had to do to her.
Although she gets abundant kudos from peers and parents for speaking out, nothing changes. The system is broken and organized against her. She’s seventeen. She has to be twenty-one to run for state office and older to run for national office, but she can buy an AR-15 now. She can also enter the military and be issued a weapon. If she works, she has to pay taxes, but she can’t vote. Her frustration grows. The system seems insane to her, the law twisted and arcane.
This girl begins the story at the pinnacle of her success, and now I was going to put her through the ringer. I experienced a twinge of conscience about this, a small reluctance to do it to someone I liked. Would she be strong enough to come out the other side of the Rockwell High School tragedy? What would the other side look like for Keisha Washington?