My'onna Hinton, 5, who was shot by a 7-year-old relative who thought he had been given a toy gun

My'onna Hinton in a recent photo from a GoFundMe site set up to help with her care

For the past five years, John Woodrow Cox has worked to master the art of helping children talk about a fraught but rarely covered subject — the long-term physical and psychological effects of being victims and witnesses of gun violence. His mantra: “Always go and always stay.”

Cox, an enterprise reporter for The Washington Post, spent five months earlier this year  immersed in the struggles of 5-year-old My’onna Hinton and her mother, Brayonna. On May 25, 2020, My’onna was shot in the neck by Tee, a 7-year-old relative who was playing with a gun he thought it was a toy. The gun was illegal, loaded and left in an unlocked drawer in an apartment they were visiting.

My’onna is paralyzed from the waist down. Tee remains a constant, often awkward, visitor. Juwan T. Ford, the 23-year-old gun owner, was given an 18-month sentence after pleading to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence; after the shooting, he had run off with the gun, which has never been found.

John Woodrow Cox of The Washington Post

John Woodrow Cox

The day Tee shot My’onna, the national epidemic of gun violence was at a 20-year high. It continued to increase as COVID besieged America: By the end of 2020, ”bullets,” Cox wrote, “would kill more than 43,000 people, including hundreds of kids.”

Those numbers don’t tell the stories of children who are shot and survive. Cox spent countless hours sitting quietly on the couch in Brayonna’s Washington D.C. apartment, watching and recording My’onna’s playtime, her physical and emotional troubles, and her mother’s unstinting care and patience. He spent time with My’onna in her bedroom — a useful place to interview children, Cox says — playing catch as she sat in her electric wheelchair. He joined her on trips to Baltimore for physical therapy. His dedication paid off as both children — My’onna and Tee — opened up to him.

His 5,500-word narrative, “Two kids, a gun and the man who left a 4-year old to die,” was published in September. It unspools a heartbreaking narrative driven by dialogue, active scenes and verbs, and a simple but graceful prose.

Damaged lives and flawed systems

As  a storyteller, Cox says he was drawn to the tension of the children’s relationship.

“From my very first conversation with My’onna’s mother I learned that My’onna still, in many ways, deeply resented Tee,” Cox told me. “That’s so compelling and devastating. Of course, she’s 5, right? The idea that she would understand the concept of forgiveness and moving on is ludicrous. But at the same time, this little boy had done nothing wrong. He was 7, he thought this was a toy. I just badly wanted to get into that world and see what it looked like, having no idea where the story would go.”

The damaged relationship between My’onna and Tee is the through line, launched by two cinematic scenes that start with the shooting and follow along as paramedics work to save the girl’s life. More scenes — My’onna at home, asking “Why can’t I move?” as she dangles “like a marionette” from a harnessed treadmill to exercise her leg muscles; the live-streamed sentencing of the gun owner — tumble like dominoes, until the final moment when My’onna must decide whether to forgive Tee.

Cox also lays out the porous system of laws that fail to prevent children from getting access to loaded guns. It’s not a polemic, however, but a story about two children’s fractured lives revealed in quotidian detail as they maneuver their way forward after tragedy.

Cox was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for a portfolio of stories about children involved in gun incidents who were, if not physically harmed, traumatized nonetheless, “which was the area of the crisis most overlooked.” He expanded the series into “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” a disturbing but must-read book for gun owners and parents.

Nieman Storyboard spoke with Cox about how he persuades children to share their inner lives, his passion for structure, and the symbiotic relationship he has with his editor. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the narrative.

How did you get involved in My’onna’s story?
It was a news story by my colleague, Peter Hermann. Peter has covered gun violence for decades, first in Baltimore, and then in Washington, and he wrote a daily story on a little girl who had been shot and left paralyzed. And at the exact same moment, I was writing the epilogue of my book. And just in a single paragraph, or two, I referenced My’onna’s story as one more example of this continued inability to keep guns away from children. It just really spoke to how unnecessary all this was.

What lingered with me was this photo of My’onna. It was the last photo that was taken of her before the shooting. Her mother had this Instagram page that she’d created to help her daughter’s modeling career, so she would post all these photos and My’onna is just striking. She’s a beautiful little girl.

She was always in the back of my mind. Here I have to give credit to Jo-Ann Armao, a former editor who now is on the Post’s editorial board. She read the epilogue of my book and asked about My’onna. After that, I came upon My’onna’s YouTube channel where her mother was tracking her daughter’s recovery. I emailed her Mom and that’s when it began.

You were present for so many pivotal moments in My’onna’s life as she struggles to recover from the gunshot that paralyzed her. How much time did you spend reporting the story?
I reported this starting in April and my reporting wrapped in early August. Brayonna, My’onna’s mother, has a really chaotic life. She works nights in security because that’s the only time that the nurses can watch her daughter, who needs 24/7 care. She’s taking her up to Baltimore all the time for therapy. I had to be patient and just spend time with them when it worked for them.

That was one advantage of reporting a story that is close to where I live. This would have been impossible if I had needed to get on an airplane and fly there. And it was not a story I could have reported in a week. It had to be a place I could drive to and, thankfully, Brayonna was really generous with her willingness to let me just come hang out.

Can you take us through the writing process?
I tend to structure stories in my head as I’m reporting them. It evolves from one day to the next, and from one interview to the next. But I start drafting a story in my brain as I’m going through it.

This story changed a few times. Once was when I realized that I was definitely going to get access to Tee, the little boy who pulled the trigger. And then again at the hearing for the man who owned the gun, and realized that he was going to be sentenced under a law that would allow him to potentially have his record cleared of these charges before My’onna turned 10. Both changed how my editor, Lynda Robsinson, and I thought about the structure of the story.

I knew the ending when I saw it: It had to be the final scene. That day of reporting was one of the best days of reporting in my life. I called Lynda on the way back and on that drive, we structured the entire story. It took maybe 30 minutes, and we both felt really confident about the arc of the story: Where it should begin, where the court scene should go, where the rehab scene should go.

I’m obsessive about story structure and love really clear outlines before I start writing. Earlier in my career, I would take copious notes and wouldn’t record as much. Now I record everything. I find you can be more confident that you’ve got dialogue, you don’t miss anything. What that means, of course, is hours and hours and hours of transcribing, which is a miserable process but a necessary one. After I finish I just set off on the writing, already knowing exactly where each beat will go. Sometimes that changes because you see that this is too long, or that the rhythm doesn’t exactly work. For me to really write with confidence, I have to have that conversation with my editor. First, I trust her judgment. And it helps me a great deal to work through all that structure and all that outlining.

Often, I’ll be reporting in real time, and I’ll have a line or something will strike me as particularly emotionally resonant. And I’ll just text it to myself. I will write at least a line or a paragraph or something like that in the moment because those lines often only live in my head a few minutes before they’re in the wind.

Your story has the characteristics of fiction, with its dramatic opening, rising and falling action, and an ending that shows a transformation in the protagonist. Did you have any specific models in mind?
Surely, through osmosis, but nothing I can immediately point to. But there was the gift of that ending. It delivered the arc that informed every line I wrote before it and the way that the details were revealed because I knew where it was going. In that moment, I’m just sitting there, like Tee, not knowing what My’onna is going to say. But no matter how she responded, that scene was going to be the ending — the drama of him asking that question and testing her empathy and her willingness to forgive even just a bit.

Are there journalists and other writers who influence your work?
The Post is, in my view, the best narrative paper in the country, so I’m surrounded by people who influence my work in meaningful ways. Too many to name. And then there are all the folks who have influenced me since the early days of my career: Anne Hull, David Finkel, Kelley Benham French, Tom French, Tom Junod, Gary Smith and lots of others. Kate Boo is the gold standard; she can make accountability narrative read like a novel.

What’s your approach to getting children to talk to you?
I talk to them like an adult. I explain who I am and what I’m doing. My’onna is a very mature little girl and could understand things well beyond her years and so I explained what I do and why I was there —  that I work for a newspaper and I’m here to tell her story if that’s okay with her. I often like to talk to kids in the spaces where they’re most comfortable, which is frequently in their rooms because they want to show you their toys and the things they liked the most. I make sure my eye level is not higher than theirs; I don’t want to be above them physically or think I’m an authority figure, because I’m not. And I want them to know that they can always stop talking about something if they don’t want to talk about it.

Reporters sometimes think that kids will be tougher to interview than they actually are. But ultimately, kids love attention, like any of us. If you’re sincere, and genuine in your interest, they can sense that and they’re often willing to open up, even about the hardest things.

What was your goal for My’onna’s story?
I hoped that people would see My’onna and the thousands of children she represents more fully. These kids are largely invisible in our society — kids who don’t die, kids who survive these things. Another goal was to fully fill out the boy who shot her because those kids are never featured. They are a single line, often unnamed, just an age. That’s it. But he has to live with this forever.

I also wanted to use this story as one more example of how easy it would be to prevent these sorts of tragedies. All it required was the gun owner to lock up his weapons. If people just locked up their guns, overnight that would make a dramatic difference. It’s not taking anybody’s gun away. Hundreds of children wouldn’t take their own lives. More than half the school shootings in America would end overnight. Children like My’onna wouldn’t be paralyzed. Kids like Tee wouldn’t live with a lifetime of guilt. It was just to show, in many ways, how one negligent decision led to all these lifetimes of anguish.

Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Cox’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu or the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device.

 

Two kids, a loaded gun and the man who left a 4-year-old to die

The children will never recover from what happened inside a D.C. apartment. The owner of the illegal gun faces far less serious consequences.

 

By John Woodrow Cox

Editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

Sept. 27, 2021

 

She never wanted to be left out, so My’onna Hinton, who was 4, followed her 7-year-old relative down a hallway and into an unfamiliar apartment in Southeast Washington. Tee was used to that, because My’onna had been trailing after him since she could first walk.

The two of them had been close all her life, despite their differences. She loved Barbies, Disney cartoons and having her toenails painted bright pink, and he was fixated on football, LeBron James and crashing cars in Grand Theft Auto V. But My’onna looked up to him, and Tee looked out for her. Were you consciously foreshadowing the ending of the story? I was. This line was meant to foreshadow the ending, and the last beat of the lede — “trailing after him since she could first walk” — nodded, perhaps too subtly, to what the shooting was about to take away from her. When and how did you settle on the story’s opening and structure? Before I start writing, I talk through story structures in great detail with my editor, Lynda Robinson. We had no doubts about where the piece would end, but deciding where to begin was trickier. We could’ve started with a moment in the present and flashed back to the shooting but elected to open with it because we immediately needed to introduce the gun owner and allude to the justice system’s alleged failure to hold him accountable. The best way to do that, we thought, was with the inciting incident. I tend to think of narratives as a collection of “beats” with dozens of bridges between them. It’s just the next thing I’m writing toward, whether a section ending or a mid-scene revelation.

Now the kids were inside the apartment, and the 9-year-old boy who lived there wanted to show Tee something. With no adults home, and My’onna’s mom doing a girl’s hair in the building next door, he took them to a back bedroom and opened a dresser drawer. Inside was a gun.

The boy, Tee said later, handed it to him.

“That’s not real,” Tee responded. “That’s a toy.”

Then his finger squeezed the trigger, Tee recalled in an interview, and he heard a boom. You break into the drama of the scene for attribution. Why? We added this late in the process after deciding it was important to signal to the reader that Tee’s account didn’t come only from court documents. I had actually interviewed him. As much as I hesitated to break up the flow of this graph, we thought it was the right call. Then he felt the gun’s butt slam against his chest. Then he looked down and saw My’onna on the floor, blood streaming from her neck.

Tee knelt beside her.

“My’onna, are you okay?” he asked.

She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. He tried to pick her up, but My’onna, lying on her side and staring blankly ahead, couldn’t move. Tee cradled her head and cried. How did you reconstruct the opening of the story and verify that it was accurate? I stitched it together with hundreds of pages of court records (which included interviews with all three kids present, as well as several adults outside), testimony from two hearings, detailed descriptions of security camera footage and my own interviews with Tee and Brayonna. The level of detail in the opening sections wouldn’t have been possible had the apartment building not been fitted with cameras. [/annotate]

It was May 25, 2020, and America had just entered its worst stretch of gun violence in at least two decades. By year’s end, bullets would kill more than 43,000 people, including hundreds of kids. You’ve been covering this issue — gun violence and children — for years. Do you consider it a crusade? I wouldn’t call it a crusade, though I certainly believe this is the work I’m meant to do during this season of my career. I hope the run of coverage, including my book, achieves a couple things:
First, that it opens people’s eyes to the scope of the crisis. Take this shooting, for example. My’onna is the only child here considered a victim of anything, legally. But what about Tee? What about his mother and his loved ones? What about the other two children in the apartment and their families? The lives of millions of kids, not hundreds or thousands, have been transformed by our gun violence epidemic, but the overwhelming majority of Americans haven’t grasped that.
Second, that it leads to some tangible change. I can’t say that these pieces have prompted any sweeping legislative reforms, but after the book excerpt published, I heard from lots of parents who bought gun safes because of what they read. That alone made the four years I’d spent working on the book feel worth it.
Children have paid an especially brutal price in the nation’s capital, where 95 of them were shot — nine fatally — last year. But even in cities and states with the toughest firearm laws, America has long struggled to hold gun owners accountable when they leave a weapon somewhere a child can find it, a reality that would prove true for the man whose negligence left My’onna bleeding last summer. In your nut graf, you segue from a wide angle of the gun violence epidemic to a close-up of the theme of gun owner accountability? Why? It was important for readers to understand early on that this wasn’t just a story about one little girl’s shooting and recovery. We wanted to signal that it’s also about why she got shot and how our societal failure to hold negligent gun owners responsible isn’t isolated to this single case. It’s systemic.

As Tee held her, the boy who’d showed him the gun dashed outside to find Juwan T. Ford, the owner of the unregistered, illegal weapon. Ford, 23, had stayed in the apartment off and on for months and, according to court records, was sitting in a car talking to a friend. Although the boy spoke to him, he didn’t move until Tee and another child also ran out. Then Ford sprinted into the building, and all three kids chased after him. Why did you attribute this to court records? We felt obligated in moments throughout the story to be transparent with the reader about where I got these details and descriptions.

Inside, he found My’onna sprawled in the bedroom’s doorway. Ford, who had a child of his own, stepped past her small body and, a prosecutor later said, ordered Tee to hand him the weapon. As the kids fled, Ford wrapped the gun in a black T-shirt, then he walked out, leaving My’onna to die alone. From what you know through your reporting, is this kind of behavior unusual? It is, very. We thought his decision to leave her there warranted a prominent place in the story. Other than the lede and kicker, I don’t think any space is more prominent than the last beat of the opening section.

‘Get us a helicopter’

Brayonna Hinton, My’onna’s mom, didn’t understand. Tee was standing in front of her, crying, his shirt splotched in red. She feared he’d been hit by a car. You use short, declarative sentences — subject-verb-object. How do you think of their function in narrative? In my view, action is almost always best delivered in tight, straightforward, S-V-O sentences. Varying the pace and rhythm of these scenes is important, of course, but I want to let the reporting and detail selection do the work here.

“I didn’t know it was real,” he told her.

“What?” she asked.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” said Tee, who is being identified only by his middle name to protect his privacy. “I’m ­sorry.” What lay behind the decision to shield his identity? His family didn’t want him to be publicly identified, and neither did I. He’ll live with what he did for the rest of his life. Creating a permanent record of it online would have caused him unnecessary harm and done nothing to improve the story.

She rushed outside, and into the neighboring apartment.

When she found her daughter, Brayonna feared she would pass out. Chest pounding, she called 911, then used a towel in the kitchen to press against the side of My’onna’s neck, unaware that the round had traveled through one side and out the other.

“He shot me,” her daughter muttered.

Her eyes were still open, but she wasn’t moving, Brayonna told the operator. She pleaded with them to hurry. The bleeding was getting worse.

“You’ll be okay,” said Brayonna, 23, though she didn’t believe that. Her only child, she thought, was about to die in front of her. How did you report the details and dialogue from Ms. Hinton’s perspective? The first time I met Brayonna, we talked for more than two hours, mostly about that day. We had many hours of conversation afterward, too. She vividly remembers those moments in the apartment with My’onna and, as painful as it was, described them in great detail.

My’onna had been fading for nearly 10 minutes when a pair of D.C. firetrucks pulled up, and Alex Henry and Eric Budd, both paramedics, darted through a chaotic, screaming crowd and into the building. How do you know the time frame, and that a crowd had gathered? The security footage included time stamps that allowed me to pinpoint each moment down to the second. The paramedics, Brayonna, the security footage and the police reports all described the crowd.

The bullet might have struck her spine, the men surmised. They debated stabilizing her back before moving her, but there was so much blood — a trail of it now running at least eight feet down the hallway.

“We don’t have time,” said Budd, a father of two. “We gotta go.” How comfortable are you using reconstructed dialogue? Ideally, I can rely on at least two sources, as I did in this case. Both men clearly remembered what they said and did that day. But even when people have vivid memories — each of them described this call as perhaps the most memorable of their careers — I never use reconstructed lines of dialogue that extend beyond a few words. I feel comfortable using bits (“We don’t have time” or “I’m the mother,” for example), but it’s unrealistic to believe people could accurately recall lengthy exchanges.

Henry, a thick-armed veteran of 12 years, scooped the girl up, cradling her 33-pound frame like an infant’s to keep her head from moving. Budd cleared a path through the crowd until they reached the ambulance. Why focus on Henry’s arms as a physical descriptor? And tell me about the choice of “scoop” as your action verb. In my head, at least, it helps convey the stark difference in their sizes, his paternal instincts and the rush he was in to get her out. I wanted readers to see him carrying her. They needed to understand how tiny she was, and, hopefully, juxtaposing his arms with her weight created a compelling image.

Frantic, Brayonna chased after them, but the doors swung shut before she caught up.

“I’m the mother,” she shouted, begging to get through, but the first responders kept her away.

Inside the ambulance, her daughter’s heart had stopped beating. How much of the story is based on narrative reconstruction compared to on-scene observation? I reconstructed the scenes in the first two sections, the early months of recovery described in the third, descriptions of the crime scene in the fourth, and the final anecdote in the fifth, about her sock coming off. The rest of it I witnessed myself. So I’d guess about 60 percent of the story came from first-hand reporting.

As both men scrambled to change into protective gear — gowns, hair nets, gloves, face shields — Henry placed the base of his right palm on her chest, pumping with only one hand because her body was too small for two. Where did you get this heartbreaking detail? Henry mentioned in passing that he placed one hand on her chest, and I stopped him to ask why. Like the detail about her weight earlier, it’s an effective way to remind the reader that all of this awfulness is happening to a 4-year-old.  A half-minute later, she started breathing again.

The men knew they had to get her to Children’s National Hospital, but they knew, too, that she probably wouldn’t survive the six-mile drive through D.C. traffic.

“Get us a helicopter if you can,” Budd called over the radio before threading a breathing tube down a dime-sized hole in her swelling throat. As a reader, I feel I am there in the ambulance. Budd and Henry were terrific interviews, and they remembered every moment of that rescue call. They met with me for nearly two hours to go through all of it, beat by beat. When I’m interviewing for reconstruction, my job is just to keep people on track and prevent them from skipping ahead in the chronology or leaving out the fine details. I want every moment accounted for so I have an abundance of rich material to choose from when I’m finally mapping out the scene on my keyboard.

Stay calm, the men told each other. Deep breaths.

A Park Police helicopter was soon on its way to a landing zone on Wheeler Road, less than a mile away. It gave her a chance, the paramedics thought, even after she needed a second round of compressions.

At the landing spot, they loaded her into the helicopter, its rotors churning. She was close now, just three minutes from a hospital equipped with what she needed to stay alive, but as the helicopter neared the roof, the men watched her heart rate plummet on the monitor: 90, 85, 80, 75.

By the time they landed, it had dipped into the 60s.

By the time they reached the elevator, it had stopped.

Henry began pressing again, but on the monitor, the number didn’t climb.

Pump. Pump. Pump.

The elevator door opened, and a team of nurses and doctors awaited. Budd told them what he knew: gunshot victim; entry in the neck; exit through the neck; three rounds of CPR.

But the third round wasn’t over. Henry lifted his palm from her chest as a member of the hospital staff pushed one in its place.

Budd and Henry stepped to the side, their gowns soaked with blood and sweat.

Combined, the paramedics had treated more than 200 gunshot victims in D.C., That’s a startling figure. Did you ask them what kind of emotional impact it has had on them? As many people do in these jobs, they’ve developed ways to compartmentalize the horror of what they see every day, but both men had struggled to do that with My’onna. Never had they wanted someone to live more than the 4-year-old whose name they still didn’t know.

Pump. Pump. Pump.

Then, at last, a heartbeat.

‘Why can’t I move?’

She had four choices: red, blue, green and what she called “lellow,” which meant yellow.

“Mommy,” My’onna said. “I’ll be the blue, and you be the red.”

“Okay,” Brayonna replied on that June afternoon, snapping together the plastic pieces to Hungry Hungry Hippos while her daughter watched from an electric wheelchair parked in their apartment’s living room.

Brayonna slid a table over.

“Put your feet up so I can put this right here,” she said, because My’onna’s legs were still dangling off the front of the footrests. What was the process of getting cooperation from Brayonna and the health care professionals? Brayonna was willing from the start to let me tell her family’s story. It took some effort to get all the paperwork signed, especially because I was dealing with two different hospitals, but their PR people worked hard to get it all done. The folks at Kennedy Krieger were especially accommodating. I was the first journalist to report from inside one of their facilities since the pandemic began.

“You do it,” her daughter replied.

“No, you do it,” Brayonna insisted.

It had been 13 months since the day of the shooting, the same day that My’onna walked for the last time. In the “before,” the single word they now used for their old life, she and My’onna disagreed over her daughter’s bedtime or if she could eat another bag of Cheetos. Now, in the “after,” what they often debated was whether My’onna would try to pick up a pencil or hold a spoon or move her foot. Did you ever consider leading with this scene and then flashing back to the shooting? The story might have started here had we not needed to introduce the gun owner and foreshadow the lack of accountability right away.

This time, the girl relented. She braced her left hand against the wheelchair’s armrest and pushed back, staring down at her legs, willing them to respond. Teeth clenched, she hoisted the heel of her left foot up a couple inches.

“I see you moving it. Good joooob,” Brayonna said, reaching down to lift her feet the rest of the way.

“Can you feel me holding it?” her mom asked, squeezing her left leg.

My’onna paused to think about it. She wasn’t sure.

Brayonna told her to close her eyes and look up.

“What am I doing?” her mom asked, running a fingernail across her shin.

“Oh, you scratching it,” My’onna said, and now she was feeling confident. “Do it again.”

Her mom smiled. My’onna might have peeked, but it didn’t matter. In the after, Brayonna had learned to become more than a parent to her daughter. She was also her chief encourager, near-constant playmate, at-home therapist and primary caretaker, though most days she got help from her boyfriend and nurses provided through a Medicaid program.

After she’d fed marbles to the blue hippo, My’onna wanted to play in her room, and that meant Brayonna had to go, too. My’onna maneuvered her wheelchair past the list of rehab instructions taped to her door, past the “Smiles Are in Style” sign on the wall, past the pink Minnie Mouse bedspread covered in a pee pad from the last time Brayonna had changed her daughter’s catheter. I admire the way you present information like the pee pad and catheter without elaboration, letting the image sink into the reader’s mind. Did you feel at any point like you were violating My’onna’s privacy? It is deliberate. What more could my words possibly add to those details? The only decision I have to make there is which other details to juxtapose with them. And no, I didn’t feel as though we were violating My’onna’s privacy, though that is a constant concern when I’m reporting these stories. We always carefully consider what to include and what to leave out, but you have to balance that cautiousness with presenting the reality of a person’s life. The reality of My’onna’s life now is devastating, and readers need to understand that.  In the corner of the room, she pulled up to a five-foot Barbie Dreamhouse, studying the current arrangement.

“Mom, let’s play,” she said, motioning her hand, fingers rigidly curled in a ball, toward one of the dolls. “Take that Black girl. Put her in the wheelchair.”

“Oh, she belongs in the wheelchair?”

“Uh huh,” she said.

“Get her in the elevator,” My’onna instructed, and she pointed to the dollhouse’s most remote room, obscured behind two doors in the bottom left corner. “Put her in the basement. And let her lay down.” You make this an effortless read. Where and how did you learn how to write such powerful accountability narrative? It never feels effortless. On the best days, it feels hard. On the worst ones, it feels painful. I was an awful writer when I decided to become a journalist back in Mike Foley’s reporting class at the University of Florida. But I’ve been blessed with an abundance of terrific teachers, editors and mentors in the years since. I’ve worked hard to get better, but if I’m any good at this, it’s because of them.

A year earlier, Brayonna had been told that her daughter might not ever talk again, might never regain feeling below her neck, might need tubes in her throat to help her eat and breathe for the rest of her life.

After the flight to Children’s, another helicopter had moved My’onna to Baltimore for an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The bullet had burst her C5 vertebra, but, remarkably, the round had tumbled millimeters past her major arteries and narrowly missed severing her spine. Her surgeons cleaned out the shards of bone, replaced it with a graft taken from her pelvis and hoped that her body would begin to heal.

And it did. The doctors discovered that she could breathe and eat on her own, and when they took the tubes out, she could speak, too. What’s the purpose of the flashback that takes up most of this section? I work hard to avoid the conventional background section that appears in so many narratives. It’s usually the second or third, and it begins with something like, “Two years earlier…” But you still have to deliver the background and show people how My’onna got from her heart restarting to where she is now. When possible, I like to weave the background into a present-day scene. I also needed the opening of this section, and especially that first line, to provide the reader some relief after the intensity of the first two sections. Here’s My’onna. She’s alive. She’s playing a game with her mom. She can’t pronounce “yellow.”

“Mommy,” came the first word, buoying Brayonna, who slept beside her daughter nearly every night at the hospital.

My’onna could move her arms, though her right didn’t work as well, and she struggled to extend her fingers on either hand. To control her Roblox character on an iPad, she used the knuckle on her left pinkie.

“Why can’t I move?” she asked her mom one day. “Is it because the bullet did this to me?”

After more than a month at Johns Hopkins, much of it spent in intensive care, My’onna transferred to the nearby Kennedy Krieger Institute to begin inpatient therapy.

On her first visit to the gym, she threw a tantrum, spitting at her therapists.

As her child life specialist Emily Winter-Cronan watched, she realized My’onna was reckoning with what the injury had stripped from her. Why do you paraphrase here instead of directly quoting Winter-Cronan? I always keep in mind something an editor told me early in my career: Only use your subjects’ quotes if you can’t convey the messages better or more clearly than they did. I don’t think that’s always true, but it’s a helpful guide.

My’onna could no longer scoot down waterslides or kick her feet in the pool. She couldn’t bounce around Chuck E. Cheese, collecting tickets to exchange for cotton candy. She couldn’t ride her pink bicycle. She couldn’t dance to TikTok videos. She couldn’t strike elegant poses in a faux fur coat for the Instagram page Brayonna created to help her daughter become a model someday. She couldn’t even pick up a Barbie.

Winter-Cronan began designing “science experiments” that put My’onna entirely in charge. She mixed glue, soap and gardening soil in buckets and let My’onna smear the slime on her hands, face, hair, wherever she wanted. And that was the point.

My’onna studied photos of herself from her time in the ICU and, over and over, asked Winter-Cronan to explain what each piece of equipment had done. She learned to describe what had happened to her — “my spine got hurt” — and obsessed over how other kids’ injuries were different from her own.

One afternoon, My’onna called Winter-Cronan closer to her bed and whispered in her ear:

“I got shot.”

“He didn’t mean to.”

“It was an accident.”

My’onna knew that was true, but when she returned to life in Washington after three months of treatment at Kennedy Krieger, the consequences of that truth became harder to accept.

“Can I go play?” she would ask when her mom drove past kids on swings and slides, knowing that she couldn’t.

The most frequent target of her frustration was Tee, who she still saw all the time.

Sometimes, My’onna demanded that he not join on family outings.

“I can’t walk no more because he shot me,” she once declared.

Another time, when Brayonna bought her ice cream, she asked that he not get any.

When Tee would call to check on her — “What’s she doing? Can I talk to her?” — she’d refuse to speak with him.

It wasn’t his fault, Brayonna reminded her. The person responsible was the man who had left the gun in the drawer.

That was the same thing the family had told Tee since the first night, when his mother gave him a bath to wash My’onna’s blood off his skin. Tee told himself that, too. But the assurances couldn’t stop his nightmares, always of the gun, or quiet his fear that My’onna wouldn’t ever forgive him. Why do you paraphrase the boy’s feelings instead of quoting him? His family shared some of his struggles, and Tee told me about the nightmares he’d been having, but like many kids, he didn’t always talk in tidy, usable quotes.

Tee never talked to her about what happened.

“If she hear that,” he said, “she get mad.” How did you get him to talk to you?  Tee is a sociable, albeit hyper, kid, so I didn’t find it difficult to engage with him. I’ve developed a long list of techniques for interviewing children (too long to list here, so I’ll include a link to what I wrote for Dart on the subject), but above all, you have to explain to children who you are and what you’re doing and make clear that they’re in charge and don’t have to answer anything they don’t want to. Many journalists are reluctant to talk to kids, especially about trauma, but I find that they’re often eager to share and they almost always have something profound to say.

‘A slap on the wrist’

Brayonna fidgeted atop a stool at her kitchen counter, waiting for the man responsible for the after to start talking. Juwan T. Ford, inmate No. 358457 at the D.C. jail, sat in a conference room in front of a camera for his live-streamed sentencing. He had a thin mustache and short hair and wore a white shirt beneath his orange jumpsuit. Tell me about use of “before” and  “after” to frame the narrative. It came to me while I was reporting at their home, because Brayonna used it so often and so casually. It was, for them, a simple shorthand, but what it actually meant — the reason it existed at all — was devastating. Of course, for me, it was a useful device, especially in this spot (a suggested add from Lynda) because it economically reminded the reader what Ford’s negligence had cost My’onna and her family. Why did you use Ford’s inmate number? This is where the reader learns that Ford had been arrested, and I liked revealing that with the specificity of this detail.

“I’m sorry for what happened and I apologize to the family and also to my family,” he said, his voice quiet. “There’s not a day that I didn’t think about the situation.”

Ford had been locked up since Sept. 30, four months after My’onna’s shooting and five days before she returned home for the first time.

D.C. police had recovered security footage that revealed what happened in the moments after Ford wrapped his gun in the black T-shirt and walked out.

In the front yard, he spoke to a friend, later claiming he told her to call 911. He also shoved Tee, a gesture that police interpreted as a demand to leave. Then Ford ran up the street to get rid of the evidence, investigators said. They never found the gun.

Detectives interviewed Tee before speaking to the two other children present at the shooting, and both claimed in nearly identical accounts that Tee had brought the gun into the apartment. The kids also denied knowing almost anything about Ford, including his name, despite the fact that he had lived in the home off and on for more than two months. Investigators believed Ford had ordered the two children to lie, the prosecutor later told the judge. What’s your source for this? The police referenced it in the case file, and the prosecutor made the allegation in open court.  

After his arrest, the U.S. attorney’s office decided not to charge him with cruelty to children, a felony that could have sent him to prison for a decade but would have forced Tee and the other kids to testify. Do you know what lay behind that decision? These cases put prosecutors in such a tough spot. They’ll have compelling evidence that a person has committed a serious crime that could, perhaps, lead to a fairer punishment, but to get that felony conviction, it requires the very young victims to testify at trial, which might only add to their trauma. Instead, Ford took a plea deal, admitting to carrying a pistol without a license and attempting to tamper with evidence.

Ford later suggested to a probation officer that he’d taken the gun out of the apartment not to protect himself but to protect the other children, a contention he seemed to raise again at his sentencing hearing, as Brayonna watched on her phone.

“I just wanted to help,” he said to D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz. “All I could do is help.”

He’s a liar, Brayonna thought, because he’d done nothing to help. How do you know what Brayonna thought? She told me. It was hard for her to sit there and listen to Ford, who had left her daughter to die, claim that he’d done it all to help her.

To her, it sometimes felt like no one understood how much Ford’s negligence had cost them. Before the shooting, she had envisioned becoming a police officer or enlisting in the Army, but now, all she could do was work nights as a security guard in downtown D.C., because that’s when nurses were typically available to watch My’onna. She didn’t want to depend on the government assistance that helped cover their meals and rent, but how, as a single mom, could she ever pursue a real career when her daughter would need 24-hour care for years, if not forever?

At an earlier virtual hearing, she’d pleaded with the court to hold Ford responsible.

“How could someone be that careless and that uncaring?” she said, before addressing him directly. “Now you want to act like you care. You didn’t care then when that baby was laying on the ground, sitting there bleeding. You walked away. And of course now you care. Now you have remorse because you’re facing jail time.”

This was his third “armed offense,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emma McArthur had written in a presentencing memo. Although the prosecutor acknowledged Ford’s two previous arrests didn’t lead to convictions, she argued that he already knew the danger of handling illegal firearms.

And yet, two months before the shooting, Ford made a music video in which he gripped a black pistol in one scene. Even after My’onna’s shooting, McArthur noted, Ford posted a video to Instagram in a room with ammunition and what appeared to be a rifle.

“He has gotten a slap on the wrist … for each of his arrests,” McArthur argued to Kravitz. “Mr. Ford has not once learned that his conduct can have consequences.”

Peter Newsham, D.C.’s former police chief, had been making the same argument for years, insisting that the judicial system wasn’t doing enough to hold the city’s gun offenders accountable.

Through July, 49 percent of the people known to have committed a homicide in the District in 2021 had a prior gun arrest, according to a review by D.C. police. In 2020, it was 53 percent.

The vast majority of the time, Newsham said, people caught with illegal firearms in D.C. — among the country’s hardest cities to legally buy a firearm — face less than a year of incarceration, if any. At minimum, he argued, those convicted should face three years. Why did put illegally in italics? For emphasis. I wanted the contradiction to register: D.C. makes it exceedingly hard for people to buy legal firearms but struggles to hold accountable the people who wield illegal ones.

Kravitz, the judge overseeing Ford’s case, had to decide more than just the length of a potential prison term.

Ford’s defense attorney, Billy Ponds, who didn’t grant a request for an interview with his client, contended in court that he should be sentenced under the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a D.C. law that gives young adults a chance to have their records wiped clean from public view.

The Youth Act, as it’s often called, was created in 1985, long before protests for criminal justice reform swept the country. The law’s supporters say it helps curb mass incarceration by offering young former convicts a better opportunity to get jobs, loans and housing. An analysis done for the D.C. Council found that people who have their criminal records sealed are less likely to commit another crime.

The law’s detractors, including police and prosecutors, have long criticized it for providing a reprieve to violent criminals, because only those guilty of the most heinous crimes — murder and sexual abuse — are barred from consideration. Five years ago, a Washington Post investigation found hundreds sentenced under the Youth Act went on to commit robberies, rapes and homicides.

Despite those findings, the D.C. Council voted unanimously in 2018 to expand the pool of people who qualified, raising the age limit to 24 because of research showing that young minds aren’t fully developed before then. You compress a great deal of information to convey this legal process. How many drafts did the story go through? Our process almost never requires substantial revisions because Lynda and I talk through the structure, and work out most potential problems before the writing ever begins. I wrote a first draft and shaved off a few hundred words before filing, then Lynda cut a bit more, but not much. After that, it was just fine tuning.

Without that change, Ford, who was 23 at the time of My’onna’s shooting, wouldn’t have been eligible.

Seldom discussed in the debate over the law is how often it’s extended to gun offenders in a city where more than 1,600 people were shot between 2019 and 2020, leaving 307 of them dead. Tell me why you twinned My’onna’s situation with a discussion of the legal climate regarding accountability for gun violence? Readers needed to understand that My’onna’s plight is not unique in D.C. or elsewhere in the country. She represents tens of thousands of children who’ve been shot with guns that adults failed to lock up, and time after time, our judicial system struggles to hold those adults accountable.

Of the 610 convicts sentenced under the act during that same period, according to court data, at least 51 percent had committed a crime with a firearm.

Kravitz wasn’t obligated to add Ford to their numbers, but the defense attorney urged him to, maintaining that his client should be punished only for owning and getting rid of the illegal gun, not for what the children did when they found it. He also detailed Ford’s difficult childhood: Section 8 housing, a mother who witnessed a murder, bouncing between relatives, expulsion from high school.

To McArthur, none of that excused Ford’s callousness. This was a father, she said, who saw a child dying and thought only of himself.

“Rejecting the YRA is the very bare minimum that can happen in this case,” the prosecutor told Kravitz. “This little girl has a permanent lifelong reminder of what Mr. Ford did. She cannot walk into school. She cannot play with her friends. The least that can happen is Mr. Ford has a conviction that tells him that his conduct … is not okay.” You are present for so many crucial moments in this story. So much of immersive reporting is just showing up, staying as long as you can and accepting that, often, you’re not going to see anything that makes the final piece. To capture the memorable scenes, you have to sit through a great many forgettable ones, but it’s all an investment. The more time you spend with people, the more comfortable they get, and the more comfortable they get, the more natural they act around you.  

The judge acknowledged Ford’s “chilling” disregard for My’onna, but he compared leaving the loaded gun out to driving drunk. On most nights, the driver would make it home safely, but what if he crashed into another car and hurt someone?

“It depends on how you look at these things, whether you’re punishing the conduct or punishing for the effects of the conduct,” Kravitz said. “That’s a tricky question.”

Ford, he decided, deserved leniency, calling his decisions “the crimes of an immature young person.”

“I think he’s precisely the type of person that the Youth Rehabilitation Act exists for,” concluded Kravitz, who, through his office, declined to be interviewed.

He sentenced Ford to 18 months in prison, with the threat of another 12 if he broke the terms of his plea deal before finishing three years of probation and rehabilitation. That means Ford, who received credit for the nine months he’d already served, is scheduled for release next spring, and his record could be cleared by 2025, just before My’onna’s 10th birthday.

Brayonna cried. More than anything, she wanted Ford to live with what he’d done for the rest of his life, as her daughter would.

About then, the front door to her apartment opened, and a nurse wheeled My’onna inside. She was asleep, exhausted after three hours of rehab in Baltimore and the two-hour round trip spent strapped into the back of a van. Soon, she would need to wake up to have her catheter changed, as she did six times a day, and after that, she would take doses of a laxative, vitamin D to strengthen her weakening bones, a medication to stop her muscles from spasming, melatonin to help her rest and a drug to ease the pain she felt every day, all over her body. This is a powerful summary of the lifelong consequences of that one moment. Did you consider ending the story here? I didn’t, although I did think a great deal about how to close this section. I wanted all of it to build toward the judge’s decision to offer Ford leniency, and then take a sharp turn to convey how much My’onna was suffering in the same moment. I could’ve revealed all the medicines she took, and why, somewhere else, but this felt like the right spot.

‘Did you feel that?’

She called the place “Therapy,” a tan, six-story building with vaulted ceilings and sprawling walls of windows that overlooked Baltimore. Three mornings a week, she arrived in a van with her mom or a nurse, waving to the receptionists in the lobby who knew her as “MyMy,” passing in her wheelchair by the wall with the cursive inscription: “In my mind, I am full of hope.”

Those same words greet thousands of kids with disabilities treated at Kennedy Krieger each year, including nine children left paralyzed in shootings since the pandemic started.

Among them was a 16-year-old shot in the stomach and a 13-year-old shot in the back, a 14-year-old shot on a hunting trip and a 6-year-old shot through his bedroom window during a drive-by. Did you consider profiling any of these children before settling on My’onna? How do you choose your story subjects? I didn’t have access to any of those kids because Kennedy Krieger could only share the basics about their situations. I’ve done a version of the “audition” process before, where I have an idea and try to find an ideal family that fits it, but that’s not how this one came to be. My’onna’s story was like none other I’d ever told.

The youngest was My’onna.

Their emotional wounds make caring for their physical ones uniquely challenging, said Michelle Melicosta, medical director of Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient rehabilitation unit.

“How hard do you push a kid to keep going when they’ve gone through something like this?” Melicosta asked. “Do you cut them slack? Do you treat them like any other kid?”

Beth Myers, a physical therapist, was wrestling with those questions one morning in June as she strapped My’onna into a harness and pasted electrodes to her body. Irritable after a rough night of sleep, the girl swatted at Myers’s face shield.

“Get off,” she said when Brayonna held her arm down. “I hate y’all.”

“Okay, here we go,” Myers said, her voice calm, scooping My’onna up and carrying her to a custom treadmill, where a rehab technician clipped the girl into a lift that hoisted her up until each foot sat flat on the walking belt.

My’onna hung in silence. How difficult was it to witness My’onna’s helplessness? Having written for years about children killed and injured by guns, how do you cope emotionally? It’s always brutal. I believe my job is to bathe in people’s suffering so I can then deliver it on the page. If I keep it at distance, the story will lack the necessary intimacy, detail, dimension and nuance. But, of course, the more you immerse, the more you’re affected. Journalists who endure secondary trauma should consider talking to a therapist, though that’s something I haven’t done (yet). If you don’t talk to a professional, you have to talk with someone. Internalizing these experiences will make for a short career. I have an editor who cares deeply about my well-being, colleagues willing to listen and a wife who is eternally supportive.

The belt began to move, rotating at 1.2 mph. The technician held her hips and Myers gripped the back of each calf, pushing and pulling her legs to make them simulate walking. The exercise activated her atrophying muscles and stimulated the undamaged portion of her spinal cord below the injury. She needed those neurons and synapses to stay healthy in case of a breakthrough.

“You’re doing a great job, MyMy,” the therapist said.

“Are we almost done?” she asked, 30 seconds after they’d started.

They took a break after 10 minutes, and before they started the next 10, she slumped her head to one side, asking the technician to hold it up for her. This had been a chronic problem when she started rehab because the muscles in her neck were so weak, but she hadn’t struggled with it in months.

“Okay, you going to have to hold your head now,” the technician said.

“No,” My’onna snapped.

“We about to start walking.”

“Noooo.” I admire the cinematic reality of the scenes you craft. I think a lot about tension when I’m deciding whether to take on a story and when I’m reporting and writing it. The tension compels the reader to keep going. In a general sense, I try to establish tension by posing questions that the reader wants an answer to: What happens to the girl who got shot and the boy who shot her and, beyond that, will she ever forgive him? In a specific sense, I’m trying to build tension by taking readers inside a moment. I want them to see what I saw, to feel as if they’re in the room.

Myers sighed. She realized how unfair this must feel. My’onna was 5. She should have spent that summer morning swimming in a pool or running around a playground, not dangling from a machine like a marionette. This is a poignant simile. When did it come to you? During the reporting. She look liked so much like a marionette that I had to use it.   Myers understood, too, that no one could predict how much movement My’onna would recover, and that meant all these hours of effort were an investment in a future that might be out of reach.

One morning, though, My’onna had been on the treadmill when she asked to pause.

“My sock is coming off,” she said.

Myers was skeptical, but she checked anyway, and there, inside My’onna’s right shoe, the sock had come off.

“Did you feel that?” Myers asked, realizing that, if she had, My’onna was for the first time sensing something in a place her doctors feared she never would.

“Uh huh,” My’onna responded, and her therapist’s eyes began to well.

‘How’s he doing?’

Tee was playing alone with a red rubber ball in Brayonna’s living room when he heard a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” he shouted.

Brayonna opened it and in walked paramedics Alex Henry, Eric Budd and five other masked firefighters carrying gift bags and balloons, one reading “You’re So Special.” How did you know to be there when the paramedics who first treated My’onna arrived? Brayonna had told me the paramedics might stop by, but she wasn’t certain and I didn’t count on it. I’d gone over that day to spend time with Tee, and we were sitting on the couch talking when the paramedics knocked at the door. It was a remarkable afternoon.

For months, Brayonna had hoped to meet the men who saved her daughter’s life. My’onna, she explained, was still on her way back from rehab.

They didn’t mind waiting.

“Me and him talk about it an awful lot,” Budd said of that night last year, motioning to Henry, who had carried her to the ambulance.

They exchanged memories. Budd and Henry didn’t know Brayonna had chased them out to the ambulance, and she didn’t know they were resuscitating My’onna in the same moment.

Tee listened from the couch, saying nothing. None of the men knew who he was.

“What you been doing all summer, bud?” asked Lt. Paul Patterson, who’d also responded to the scene. “Staying out of trouble?”

Tee shook his head, no, and the guys laughed.

He tossed the ball to Henry, and Henry tossed it back.

“He’s the one who accidentally did it,” Brayonna said from the kitchen, her voice low.

“What’s that?” Budd replied.

“He’s the one who accidentally, umm —”

“Oh, okay. All right.”

“How’s he doing?” Patterson asked.

Okay, Brayonna said.

The room went quiet. Tee, they knew, was a victim of gun violence, too, just not the kind people brought gifts and balloons to. The third-grader still hadn’t gone to therapy but said that his mom wouldn’t let him play with toy guns anymore. When anyone talked in front of him about what he’d done, Tee tried not to pay attention.

He tossed the ball back to Henry.

Five, 10, then 15 minutes passed, and Brayonna worried that My’onna wouldn’t make it back before they had to leave for the next emergency.

At last, the door opened.

“Hi, My’onna,” Patterson said. “You have some visitors.”

“I do?” she said, surprised.

Brayonna took her wheelchair from the nurse and moved the girl to the middle of the living room.

“Hey, My’onna,” Tee said, waving from the couch, but she didn’t respond so he said it again. “Hi, My’onna.”

Her eyes remained on the strangers towering in front of her.

“We got you some cool stuff,” Henry said, and her mom started to unpack the bags: kinetic sand, slime, a pair of gift cards to buy whatever she wanted.

“Jelly fruit!” she said, immediately settling on the popular candy.

“You say ‘thank you’?” Brayonna asked.

“Thank you,” My’onna said.

“Of course,” Budd told her. “We’re so glad we got to see you.”

“You want to show them that you can wiggle your feet?” Brayonna asked.

She looked down at her purple toenails and tensed her body, raising her left heel off its footrest for a half-second.

“Awesome,” Budd said.

“If you want, we could take a picture with her?” Patterson suggested, and as the men gathered around, Tee tried to get her attention again.

“My’onna,” Tee whispered, and she glanced over. “I wanna take a picture with you.”

She looked back at her mom and smiled for the photograph, revealing the bottom tooth she’d lost the night before.

Afterward, Patterson turned to Tee, who was curled up on the couch holding a pillow.

“Do you want to take a picture with us?” he asked.

Tee hadn’t expected that. He eased over.

“You can get right here,” Budd told him, pointing to a spot beside My’onna. Tee knelt down, resting his arm on her chair’s wheel. He grinned.

As the firefighters said goodbye, Tee darted back into My’onna’s room to retrieve the red ball.

“My’onna, let’s see if you can catch it,” he said.

He gently lobbed it into her lap, and she corralled it with both hands.

“You catch it, My’onna!” Tee said.

They kept playing with the ball until he bounced it, loudly, and Brayonna asked him to stop. Then he started squeezing one of My’onna’s balloons, and Brayonna told him not to do that either. Tee got a bag of Doritos but dropped a few on the floor, irking Brayonna again. Afterward, he retrieved the ball once more and the kids played with it until, this time, he started throwing it too hard and too high.

“You going home,” Brayonna said, annoyed.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because you too hyped,” she said.

He promised to settle down and tried to enlist My’onna’s help in staving off exile. She was scrolling on her iPad, considering what else she might use her gift cards to buy just a few weeks before her sixth birthday.

Tee could still remember My’onna from before he pulled the trigger and heard the boom, when she didn’t struggle to catch a ball or type on an iPad. Sometimes, he felt nervous around her. She got mad at him a lot, and he understood why, but he wished she didn’t. He wished things were the way they used to be. Did the boy tell you these things? Some of this came from him and some of it came from the family. His anxiety around her — and his desperate desire for her to show him love — was obvious from the first time I saw them together. With his mother’s permission, we did two interviews, both at Brayonna’s apartment. We just sat on the couch and talked, sometimes tossing a ball back and forth. When he wanted to stop talking, we did.

Now he stood and walked over, waiting beside her while she fiddled with the tablet.

“My’onna,” he said, but she ignored him.

“MyMy,” he continued. “My’onna. MyMy. MyMy.”Finally, she looked over.

What?”

“You want me to stay?” he asked. “You want me to stay or leave?”

My’onna turned her head away, pausing to think about it.

“Stay,” she said.

What a touching ending. It brings an emotional resolution to the situation raised in the opening — the relationship between two children who had been damaged. It’s among the most memorable moments of my reporting career. It was a good reminder of what makes this job so compelling. I had no idea what she was going to say in response, but either way, that was going to be the ending. I admire her grace and am grateful I was there to see it. How is My’onna doing since you wrote the story and what is the nature of her relationship with Tee now? Her gofundme has surpassed $21,000, largely thanks to generous readers, so that’s been heartening. It meant a lot to her mom. She’s also attending in-person school for the first time since the shooting. I’m hopeful she can continue. She and Tee still see each other often. I’m sure her feelings of resentment will come and go, but I’m hopeful that they can help support each as they get older. What was the reader reaction? A lot of people were deeply moved by My’onna’s story and wanted to help. And a lot of anger at the system and the judge and just everything that led to the gun owner getting what many people viewed as a really light punishment for behavior that this little girl is going to have to deal with forever, as is the little boy who pulled the trigger, as are the two children who witnessed it and their families and on and on. When you spend months and months and months on one of these pieces, you hope that it makes some sort of impact at least in people’s minds. And so when it does, that’s a great feeling.

***

Storyboard contributor Chip Scanlan is an award-winning reporter who taught at the Poynter Institute for for 15 years. He now writers and coaches other writers from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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