It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.
As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.
Then, later in the story, you get to hear about the boy who flicked the lighter, Richard Thomas:
“Can I be in your program?” Richard asked.
Wilson was taken aback. Students didn’t usually volunteer for her program; they were assigned to it. She wasn’t exactly trying to fill slots either — she already had a caseload of some 800 chronically truant students, and her program was meant for freshmen and sophomores, who are easier to get back on track than juniors and seniors. But when she looked up Richard’s file, she saw that his grades were poor and his attendance spotty.
“I want you to help me like you help them,” Wilson remembered him saying. “Because I’ve been to a lot of schools, and I’ve been in trouble, but I’m really not a bad kid.”