Life Goes On

There is no Hollywood ending, yet for Shanae of Baltimore, featured in the youth-and-violence documentary 'Girlhood.' But she's trying.

November 19, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The little girl in pigtails is sitting on her bed, talking about the day she killed her friend during a fight on a Baltimore street corner.

"From what I remember, I stabbed her once," 14-year-old Shanae says matter-of-factly, her big brown eyes glancing up at the camera. "But from the autopsy reports, I stabbed her three times."

This scene, from the opening of the documentary Girlhood, is how viewers first meet Shanae, the baby-faced Baltimore girl locked up for murder at age 12. A counselor has told Shanae that she seemed "quite happy" for a person who'd committed such a serious crime. "Am I supposed to be upset?" Shanae asks. "Am I supposed to beat myself up over it or something like that? I don't know."

Despite such disturbing moments, Girlhood, which premieres locally tonight at the Charles Theatre, has been called a hopeful, even uplifting film, and the story of the little girl in pigtails is a good part of the reason why. During the three years chronicled in the documentary, Shanae grows to understand not only what she has done, but the power she has to overcome her past. She says goodbye to the supportive staff at the Thomas J.S. Waxter juvenile facility in Laurel and eventually moves home to East Baltimore, where she enrolls in a public high school and finishes her junior year near the top of her class. In the film's final moments, Shanae, then 17, emerges from her grandmother's rowhouse wearing a fuschia and black ballgown, steps into a white limousine and rides off to her junior prom. She plans to attend community college, the epilogue says, and hopes to study psychology and law. "It may be the least expected happy ending in years," one reviewer wrote.

Movies end, but real life keeps rolling. Last week, there was not a camera in sight as 18-year-old Shanae Watkins pushed her baby stroller into the women's clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She seemed older now, and not just because her pigtails were long gone. She sat down in the waiting room and reached into the stroller, gently adjusting the tubing that fed oxygen into her infant daughter's tiny nostrils. She set down the carrying case for the machine that pumped milk into the baby's feeding tube. She called a doctor on her cell phone, trying to get a referral for a pediatric lung specialist. But no one answered, and after leaving a message, Shanae sighed.

"This is my life," she said. "Hurry up and wait."

But the year-and-a-half since Shanae's junior prom had been anything but uneventful. In March, only 24 weeks pregnant, Shanae gave birth to a 1-pound, 5-ounce girl, a miracle baby she named Sharell. Three months later, with Sharell still in the hospital, Shanae graduated with her class at Frederick Douglass High School. Last month, Shanae's fiance - Sharell's father - was arrested on a murder charge. Now Shanae was living with her grandmother, worrying about how to make ends meet as she prepared to start a medical assistant training program in December. She spent much of her time caring for 8-month-old Sharell, whose health problems required a feeding tube and seven medications a day - responsibilities that Shanae handled with unflappable vigilance. Asked about tonight's premiere - held by the Maryland Film Festival and expected to be attended by many of the people in the film - Shanae said she was excited, "but not as excited as everybody else." In the waiting room last week, it wasn't hard to guess why. The film's happy ending was, for Shanae, just the beginning. In the clinic, Shanae kissed her daughter and sat back to wait: for her doctor's appointment, for a call from her fiance, for the next development in her constantly changing life. After all, only in the movies does the story end when the lights come up.

Suddenly things change

The trouble began at age 10, Shanae says. She started with drinking games, then began having sex. She skipped school and ran away from home; her single mother was at a loss to control her.

The stabbing took place on April 29, 1997, at the corner of Howard and Saratoga streets. Shanae was 12; her victim 13. They fought because of a boy, says Shanae, a detail she wishes had been in the film, a lesson to other girls that "this is what boys get you."

Shanae had been incarcerated for almost two years when she first met documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who was researching a project on boys at the Cheltenham Youth Facility. Shanae doesn't remember the day she approached Garbus and asked the filmmaker when she was going to "do something" on girls in juvenile detention. But the little girl with pigtails and a murder record made such a strong impression that Garbus ultimately changed the focus of her film from boys to girls. Shanae became one of two main characters; Megan, a teen-ager with a history of assault and running away from foster homes, was the other. (Megan was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)

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