While the search for Avonte was a shared NYC experience, I think it had a different resonance for people who have seen a severely autistic family member bolt away. I can still see clearly in my mind my 8-year-old brother running down the road before I chased after him almost 20 years ago. When I watched the security footage of Avonte running out of his school, I thought, “I know that motion. I recognize that speed, that force of will.”
What made the search for Avonte so important to me was that suddenly so many people cared about the fate of a child who would otherwise have been invisible to the mainstream media. The fact that the Department of Education was responsible ensured that his face was inescapable in the NYC subway system, and like many people I kept seeing his face in strangers and having fantasies about discovering him on the street and returning him to his family. Back in October, when there was still a strong hope of finding him, I jotted down this little poem as I was walking:
I thought I saw Avonte
Upon the thoroughfare
But then I saw his eyes betray
A not-so-vacant stare
His clothes were clean and fitting
His pallor hardly wan
I should have asked a question
Just to check, but he was gone.
I’ve found it a bit incongruous that everyone in the city of New York would be sharing an experience that would otherwise have been smaller and more personal, and I wonder how different this story would have been if Avonte had bolted from his home and not his school or if he had been 22 instead of 14. I would have had the same reaction, but would have the city?
The day Avonte’s death was confirmed, I was reading Amiri Baraka’s poem “The Incident” and these lines jumped out at me:
“Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit
sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than
his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying…”
Just as I will always remember my brother running down the road, I think I will always see Avonte’s face on those ubiquitous pictures that forced an entire city to confront what for me had once been so familiar.