The story of one teen setting another on fire while riding a city bus earlier this week seemed unreal, perhaps a prank gone badly and the foolishness of youth crossing a line from silly to stupid. But this story is not so excusable, forgettable. The person set on fire on the bus was lit ablaze because they were wearing a skirt. And the homophobic boy sitting near them found that unacceptable and set to fire the body of another.
The victim suffered severe burns and will undergo skin grafts and a painful recovery that will take months. My mind goes to the parents of Sasha, the victim, to the feeling of horror they must have felt when they received the call about their child being harmed in such a barbaric way. My mind goes to Sasha, set on fire while they slept, their body burning because of the hate, fear, and confusion of a another. As a mother, the thought is unbearable to me. As a human, the thought weighs heavy on my heart. So heavy.
I was following this story and trying to make sense of it when a PPBB Community Member contacted me with the message I was looking for. Jessica’s email to me carried the hope I needed to present this story to my community as a story of love not hate, of learning not barbarism.
Jessica wrote: “Hi Melissa, I live in a pretty progressive town in the Bay Area of California. When I read stories about kids getting bullied for being gender creative I always count my lucky stars that we live in Oakland; a town where my son can wear nail polish to karate class and no one bats an eye, and my daughter can dress as a firefighter for Halloween and no one asks why she’s not a princess. But this Tuesday, only two blocks from my house, a young person napping on the bus had their skirt set on fire by another young person. Sasha, the person wearing the skirt, appears to be male, but identifies as agender. Since the incident, I have come to find out that Sasha’s dad is a teacher at Sequoia Elementary School, a school down the street where many of our friends go. The dad sent a letter to the school community. It is so beautiful. So rational. So much more forgiving than I think I could be if my child was SET ON FIRE. It is being passed around a lot, plus the newspapers have already released Sasha’s name (since they’re 18), so I don’t think the family would mind that I’m sharing it with you. I want as many people as possible to read what he has to say.”
The letter from Sasha’s dad moved me to tears and I quickly responded to Jessica and asked her if she would reach out to Sasha’s father and see if I could print his letter here. While we waited for his reply, Jessica and I learned that a fellow passenger jumped on the burning teen and used his body and clothing to put out the flames eating at Sasha’s body. Evil and good ride the same bus, apparently.
Our reply from Sasha’s father came quickly:
Dear sweet Sequoia family,
As many of you know already, my 18-year-old child Sasha was seriously burned on Monday afternoon. Sasha woke from a nap on the 57 bus to find that, apparently, another passenger–accidentally or on purpose–had lit Sasha’s skirt on fire. Sasha is now in stable condition, and being very well cared for in a terrific burn center in San Francisco. We have every reason to believe that Sasha will eventually be able to return to life as usual, although the recovery process will take some time. I wanted to take this time to send thanks to everyone who has offered words of support and love. And many even contributed to the online fundraising site set up by Sasha’s cousin Josh (it reached its generous goal, and no longer accepts donations, but the comments section is still open.) I can’t tell you how moved we have all been by the outpouring of loving kindness, and how helpful that has been.
I also wanted to address how to talk to your kids about this incident. It’s in the news, and especially since it involves a Sequoia family, it may come up at school. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that none of us can know the mind, motivations, or intentions of the person who set flame to Sasha’s clothing. Oakland Police have a 16-year-old high school student in custody, based on video camera footage from the bus. As far as I know, police are the only people who have viewed the footage. I certainly haven’t, so I can only guess at what happened. At this point, I choose to assume that this kid was playing with fire, and that he gravely underestimated the consequences of that. Others may make different assumptions, but it’s important to remember that they are all just that: assumptions. So when I talk to my students about this, I will emphasize the importance of fire safety. “Don’t play with matches or lighters.” And of course “Stop, Drop, and Roll” if your clothing catches fire.
Another aspect of this story that has gotten a lot of attention is the fact that Sasha was wearing a skirt, “even though” Sasha appears to be a boy. The fact is, Sasha self-identifies as “agender,” and prefers the pronouns “they”, “them”, and “their” when people refer to Sasha in the third person. (English doesn’t have commonly used gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns yet.) Being agender simply means that the person doesn’t feel they are “either a boy or a girl.” I realize this is a concept that even adults have difficulty wrapping their heads around. (My wife and I frequently slip up in our pronoun usage, much to Sasha’s chagrin!) So I can’t pretend that it’s an issue that all young children will grasp. But what they certainly can and should understand is that different people like different things. Different people dress or behave or look differently. And that’s a GOOD thing. Sasha feels comfortable wearing a skirt. It’s part of their style. They also frequently sport a necktie and vest. Sasha likes the look, and frankly, so do I. It makes me smile to see Sasha being Sasha.As I wrote above, none of us can know the mind of the kid who lit a flame to Sasha’s skirt. But I have a feeling that if he had seen Sasha’s skirt as an expression of another kid’s unique, beautiful self, and had smiled and thought, “I hella love Oakland,” I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Again, many thanks for all of your love and kindness. Let’s all take care of each other.
Thank you Jessica Russell for making this post possible, I very much appreciate all of your help!