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My first professional longform piece

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Nathan_C_Deen, Oct 25, 2012.

  1. Nathan_C_Deen

    Nathan_C_Deen New Member

    This was a rare blessing to get the opportunity to write this article considering I work for a weekly and we usually don't publish a 3,000 word piece. They let me split it into two parts, so it ran this week and last week. Unfortunately, the managing editor and I met some resistance from the editor about part two and I wasn't too happy with what finally ran (she is much more of a news person than features). As a result, there was actually a mistake made in the article so I can't even use the published version as a clip. I went home last night and rewrote the story to how I thought it should be read. My final version is below and I would appreciate any feedback. Thanks to all in advance.

    Picture Perfect: An accident that left Anthony Hernandez with a traumatic brain injury may have given him the gift that will carry him through the rest of his life.

    When Anthony Hernandez steps on to a cross-country course, he tries to outrun his past. But sometimes he can’t. The scars, the memory loss and the confusion stick with him, no matter how much he wants to break free.

    At Chattahoochee County High School in Cusseta, Ga., more than 600 students pass through the rotunda, which sits at the heart of the school, every day. Those who are familiar with it have no trouble navigating it — much like a local road residents know, but can be confusing to out-of-towners.

    The ceiling is about 20 feet high and in the center lies the school’s statute, a panther walking along a tree branch like a death-defying tightrope walker. The rotunda is the access point to five different hallways, with the library right behind it. It’s a nightmare for a new student trying to familiarize him or herself in a new environment.

    It’s easy for anyone to walk down one hallway and come back and forget which way they came in. The sign that points toward the main office is just small enough that it isn’t easy to locate right away.

    Hernandez, a freshman, says he has gotten used to it since the beginning of the school year, but that feeling of confusion is something he struggles with almost on a daily basis. For him, this is what remembering the past is like. It hangs over him, like a shadow.

    His brain doesn’t take well to new settings. As a cross-country runner, he knows the Chattco course like the back of his hand, but a new course will instantly become his biggest obstacle at meets.

    During the first meet of the season, he had to stop to figure out where he needed to go. Fortunately, he’s usually far enough ahead of the competition to where it doesn’t make a difference.

    “He could have finished a minute faster and he was still impressive at that first meet,” said his coach, Tanya Morgan.

    Hernandez’s story is one that leaves you asking many questions, such as: How can a boy with impeded navigation skills suddenly vault his way up to be the No. 1 runner on the school’s cross-country team? How can someone whose knees were crushed by a truck be outrunning everyone on his team four years later? And how in the world could he go from drawing stick figures to full-fledged, three-dimensional characters following such a traumatic injury?

    To this day, there are many questions about Hernandez’s future still unanswered after a go-cart accident changed his life.

    Will he stop losing his memory? Will his speech ever return to normal? Will he be able to drive a car in two years? Will his knees deteriorate?

    But those questions are much more optimistic than the ones that ran through the minds of his parents, Steven and Sophia Hernandez, on the day of the accident. Will he ever walk again? Will he live through the night?

    Anthony doesn’t remember much about Sept. 13, 2008, just the sound of a helicopter, blood and searing pain.
    At the time, the family lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., while Anthony’s father, a Soldier, was serving on a 15-month deployment to Iraq.

    His mother said he’s tried to explain why he crashed. He was trying to slow down, she said, but panicked when the go-cart began going too fast. But exactly what happened at that moment remains unclear.

    The gas-powered go-cart belonged to the mother of one of Anthony’s sister’s friends. Her house was two blocks from the Hernandez home, and Anthony decided to walk over to get his sister, Krista.

    Sophia recalled that the mother of the household alleged she was in the shower at the time, while she herself was at home caring for the family’s newest addition, Ethan.

    When Anthony arrived, the mother’s boyfriend had a friend over and he persuaded the boyfriend to let the kids ride in the go-cart.

    “He didn’t tell (the mother) that he was going to let the kids ride it,” Sophia said. “Anthony was the first one to go into the go-cart. He had never ridden one before.”

    The man neglected to make sure Anthony had a helmet before he put him in the cart, she said. Moments later, Anthony crashed full-speed into the back of a white utility truck down the street, pinning the go-cart and Anthony’s body underneath it. Witnesses estimated Anthony was driving 40 mph.

    Sophia was met at the door by her daughter’s friend’s mother, who had rushed to her home to tell her that her son was badly injured. Krista was right behind her.

    “You have to hurry, mom,” she said.

    Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs was 30 minutes away, and Anthony was taken by helicopter to the emergency room. Residents of the neighborhood couldn’t get him out from under the truck — he was stuck until the fire department arrived.

    “When I arrived, he was very bloody and crying in pain and he was stuck underneath the truck,” Sophia said.

    Sophia had to handle all of this without her husband, who was deployed. She said she was thankful she had good neighbors, who she left her other three children with while she rushed to the hospital.

    “I’m used to (Steven) being deployed and having things going on and me being in charge, so it wasn’t as stressful as if it were my first deployment and all this was new to me,” she said.

    Meanwhile, Steven, who has deployed four times in his 15-year Army career, found out about his son’s accident via an email from his wife.

    He said the message was brief. Anthony had been hurt badly and Sophia would keep him updated. “The kids have been hurt before, but when I read the message, I knew something was worse than normal,” he said.

    Later that night, he talked to Sophia, and his company arranged for him to be on the next flight back to the U.S. Unfortunately, because of sandstorms, that didn’t happen until seven days later. Anthony was in a coma for that entire time, which frustrated Steven because the usual suspects (paperwork and getting a flight) didn’t delay him.

    The first day was the hardest for Sophia. Doctors told her Anthony may not survive the night. But after a few days, the question became how long he would remain in the coma. After the first day, he was transferred to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.

    As Steven tried to make his way home, both of Anthony’s grandmothers and immediate family responded quickly to help Sophia and watch his siblings.

    Throughout his 15 years of marriage, Steven was away from Sophia for over four of them. The couple married just before Steven graduated high school. She went to a rival high school. Both grew up in Covina, Calif. She went to Covina High School, while he went to Northview. They met for the first time during a group outing at a drive-in movie theater, which was premiering the movie Clueless.

    He knows what it’s like to be away from his family for an extended period of time. But there’s no explaining how long it felt during those eight days it took him to get back to Colorado.

    On the eighth day following the accident, Steven finally returned to Colorado Springs and immediately drove to the hospital. The sense of urgency overwhelmed him, and he said he couldn’t resist driving 90 mph on the highway. But he calmed down the moment Sophia called and told him Anthony was awake.

    The accident caused Anthony’s brain to swell for two days, his jaw was wired shut, his cheekbone and eyebrow bone were crushed and steel plates were inserted on the right side of his face. Pockets of air holes in his knees had to be surgically closed.

    The visible wounds healed over time, but the invisible ones became the biggest concern, and slowly surfaced as time went by.

    “There’s no study on how much he will recover what he lost,” Sophia said. “That’s just a day-by-day process. “Things weren’t funny to him as they used to be. It was a like a personality change and he slowly got over it.”

    One of the things Anthony could do during his hospitalization was watch movies. The hospital had a wide selection of titles to choose from. Sophia ran through the list with Anthony and he settled on the animated film Bee Movie. The next time he wanted to watch a movie, she went through the list again, and again, he wanted to watch Bee Movie. It wasn’t because he loved it so much the first time; he acted like he had never seen it before. That wasn’t the only sign of his short-term memory loss.

    “He would ask, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ I’d say, ‘The bathroom’s here.’ He’d come back and say, ‘Where’s the bathroom,’” Sophia said.

    As for the man who put Anthony in that hospital bed, the Hernandez family never filed charges. Sophia said they were unable to because of the circumstances — authorities ruled, among other reasons, he wasn’t liable because the accident occurred in a public place, and he was not the owner of the home. He didn’t even remain at the scene, she said.

    “We never talked to the person,” Sophia said. “The mother said that night, he got drunk and took a rock and threw it into their front window. He took off. He never apologized or said anything to Anthony. To this day, I don’t really know who this person is.”

    Anthony remained in the hospital for three weeks and immediately began rehab. Sophia’s schedule was consumed by appointments, evaluations and adjustments to the effects of what doctors diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury.

    Ask any doctor that evaluated Anthony, and Sophia said they would be astonished at what he’s able to do now. She said they were unsure how well he’d be able to walk, let alone run.

    But mentally, his problems continued. The TBI weakened his learning abilities. He went from a B student to a student who struggled to make Cs in nearly every subject. Math was the most difficult. He could not process basic multiplication tables and ended up failing.

    Physicians gave him writing tests with essay questions, and each time he went off on a tangent, which indicated he forgot what he was originally writing about.

    Anthony wasn’t cleared to play any contact sports, but Sophia said she didn’t want him to be completely inactive. He remained in Cub Scouts and eventually progressed to Boy Scouts. When he was released from the hospital, his local chapter held a welcome-back party at Talbott Elementary School. At the party, Anthony received a surprise visit — the firefighters who pulled him out from under the truck.

    One day in the summer of 2010, Sophia suggested he consider running cross-country.

    “I felt cross-country was the only sport he could physically do, and it’s something I did,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting him to be an all-star athlete. I just wanted him to be physical in some way.”

    That August, Anthony ran in his first meet for Watson Junior High School. Sophia watched along the side of the course with about two scores of parents. While he started off in the middle of the pack, he finished with a top-three time, Sophia said.

    While Anthony was just glad he finished, Sophia tried to fight off the tears.

    “I got very emotional the first time I saw him race,” she said. “I didn’t think that he’d be able to do that. Everyone around me didn’t know his story. I wanted to tell everyone, ‘Look, this is a miracle that he can actually go out here and run.’”

    The Hernandezes moved to Fort Benning, Ga., in the summer of 2011 and Anthony became the best runner on the Faith Middle School track team. In August, he walked into the rotunda of Chattahoochee County High School for the first time as a new student with a new environment and plenty of new obstacles to overcome.

    Stan Lee and Bill Everett’s comic book series Daredevil tells the story of Matt Murdock, a lawyer by day and superhero by night. Here’s the thing though — he’s blind. An accident involving a truck carrying radioactive material took away his sight, but it improved his remaining senses ten-fold.

    Something similar happened when Anthony crashed full-speed into the back of that truck. The accident took away a lot from Anthony, including his rate of learning, some of his memory and normal speech. But it may have given him a gift he would not otherwise have had.

    Of course, this can never be completely proven. All that’s known is what he could not do before the accident, and what he could do after it.

    “Like any kid, he could draw a picture, but it wasn’t anything spectacular,” his mother, Sophia, said. “After the accident, he had this great artistic ability. His drawings blow people away.”

    Anthony has a notebook full of drawings — each one drawn after he was inspired by something, he said. Before the accident, he had little interest in art. If he saw a nice painting, he called it just that — a nice painting.

    Now he loves animation, particularly that of the Japanese variety. His favorite animated film is Spirited Away by Japanese anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, and he cried during the Pixar film Up.

    One day he decided he wanted to draw Pikachu of the Pokemon series. That drawing wasn’t nearly as good as the ones he can draw now, he said, but he knew something was different.

    “I felt like there was hope,” he said.

    He took no drawing or artistic lessons from anyone, but over the course of a year, he progressed immensely.
    He signs each of his drawings with his nickname, ‘Shadow.’ That’s what he’s known as on the Chattahoochee County cross-country team as well.

    He sold some of his drawings, one for as much as $15, he said, to classmates or anyone who was interested.

    Nearly every case of TBI results in the degeneration of the damaged parts of the brain, said Henry Aucoin, a physician’s assistant at the Columbus Neurological Institute in Columbus, Ga. Aucoin said his clinic sees plenty of victims of go-cart or four-wheeler accidents, but he’s never treated a case like Anthony’s.

    “That’s not very common at all,” he said. “When we do see it, it’s marvelous. Generally it’s a debilitation rather than an enhancement.”

    One explanation, Aucoin said, could be that the brain is still trying to send signals, but because it can’t send them to those damaged parts, it communicates with another part — in this case, Anthony’s artistic abilities.

    Running cross-country and track will only get Anthony so far in life. If he’s successful, it may be his ticket to a scholarship and a college education, but what about after that?

    Now, he has aspirations of becoming an artist. His dream career, he said, would to become a comic book author, or be able to work on animated films.
    But that’s a long time from now — he still has four years of high school to complete. For now, cross-country will do. And indeed, Chattahoochee County cross-country coach Tanya Morgan expects he will be very successful.

    “I remember thinking, ‘This kid is only a ninth grader and he’s already one of the top runners,’” Morgan said. “He’s got a great future ahead of him. If he keeps working as hard as he is, he’s going to be a special runner before it’s all over with. I feel like he’ll be the top in the state.

    “He goes at it full-speed every day. You have other runners who come to me and say, ‘My knee hurts,’ or, ‘My ankle hurts. I won’t be able to run today.’ He runs full-force every day and he has a lot of aches and pains. He does not let anything stop him.”

    Anthony feels pain in his knees almost every day he runs. The accident made sure of that. There’s still a question of whether the muscles and tissue in his knees will deteriorate. Doctors are optimistic and have told the Hernandezes not to worry about it for now.

    Anthony sure won’t. He’ll be too busy protecting his No. 1 spot on the team from Antwan Mobley, the sophomore who came into the year expecting to be the best runner on the team. Some days he is, but Anthony won’t ever admit it. He’ll congratulate Antwan when he finishes first at a meet, but always blame himself for not doing a better job.

    Ever since the accident, Anthony’s peers have always thought he was strange. Most people get a wrong first impression and don’t give him a second chance.

    Making good grades is hard enough. Anthony has been bullied at worst and has heard people talking behind his back at best. His parents said he sometimes comes home after school and vents about what ‘so-and-so’ said about him.

    Even Antwan didn’t like him at first. Maybe that had to do with Anthony treading on his turf, and his social awkwardness only further convinced him.

    “I didn’t get him,” Antwan said. “At first, no one really talked to him.”

    But that was before he knew about the accident, and Antwan had a change of heart. So did the team. He’s made everyone on the team better, especially Antwan, who said he’s worked much harder than he ever thought he would this year.

    “This year I was thinking I would get first, no problem,” he said. “When I saw how far ahead of me he was during that first practice, I had to step up my game.

    “We just go at it. Whenever, I’m in front, he’ll just zoom by me. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll keep my pace. Sometimes I catch up with him, other times I don’t even see him.”

    If you went to one of the team’s meets, like the one it had at nearby Schley County High School on Oct. 10, you would have never guessed there was ever any previous conflict.

    “(Anthony) knows he’s different,” Morgan said. “I think it bothers him sometimes, not just on the course, but in the classroom. (Running) is something positive and he’s good at it, and it’s helping him overcome the adversity he feels in the classroom.

    “I think they were slow to accept him and he was slow to accept them. Now, he’s just a regular part of the team.”

    Anthony finished second, behind his teammate, Armando Colon. Antwan finished third. Anthony was upset at his performance, though he achieved a personal best time of 19 minutes and 29 seconds. He went over to his parents to tell them of how he got mixed up on the course again and was disappointed. His dad said he hates to lose and they are working on his attitude.

    Steven calmed him down and reminded him it’s not the end of the world. It wasn’t the end four years ago when he thought his son may never walk again.

    After the race, Steven was more impressed with his son than he was the day before. He gets more impressed with each race, he said. His parents love to watch him run because they know it produces a confidence in him that none of them knew before.

    “I get emotional when I see him become proud of himself,” Steven said. “When he comes across the finish line, and he has that look on his face that says, ‘I did it,’ — he may be exhausted, but it’s still there — that’s when I start getting emotional.”
  2. BDC99

    BDC99 Well-Known Member

    A few quick thoughts ... It's a good story, but I think it is much longer than it needs to be. I think you could easily cut a third of it and it would be more effective. You have some good anecdotes, but they seem a bit disorganized to me. And it really bothers me that the accident wasn't mentioned earlier in the story. I like the description of the rotunda and how it can confuse even "normal" kids, but without knowing the accident story, I really expected you to tell me that he hurt himself somehow by banging his head on the statue. Also, the part about "the man who put Anthony in that hospital bed" was a bit much for me. The guy should have been smarter and had the kid wear a helmet, but it was an accident. Do you say how old he was at the time? I might have missed it, but it's not uncommon for kids to ride go-karts, though I've never been on one that goes 40 mph. And did the guy REALLY throw a rock at their house? Why? And if you can't prove this, then I would have left it out. The story can use some editing, and if I could work through it with you I would, and maybe change things around. I'd like to see the published version and how it was different. Maybe your editor had some valid points.

    I enjoyed reading it, though. And it's a good story. Would have been better if I could see photos of the kid and his artwork. The presentation would definitely help me, because the Stan Lee thing was jarring, and I had no idea where it was going, but if there were some visual cues I might have gotten that a little easier.
  3. Nathan_C_Deen

    Nathan_C_Deen New Member

    Thanks for your input, I can see how the Daredevil comparison would be confusing without the photos we published with the story. I live in Georgia and unfortunately we don't have the resources or time to confirm everything the family told me that happened in Colorado, which is why I attributed a lot of it to them, but you are right about that one sentence, it was ultimately an accident so he shouldn't be described like that. Thanks again, I appreciate it!
  4. BDC99

    BDC99 Well-Known Member

    No problem. It's tough to organize that much info, so I think if it was a little shorter it would have been more cohesive. Enjoyed the story though.
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