Technically we were strangers, but I’ve felt she was my friend since I wrote about her in January 2009; hers is one of the seven stories in Vanished: True Stories of the Missing.
Her name is Hannah Klamecki, and she is 10 years old.
When she got stranded by herself in the woods, she was only five. Writers can get emotionally attached to people they profile, and for me, Hannah was an acute case. The thought of someone so young being so alone in such a potentially dangerous place is paralyzing, perhaps even more so since my own daughter was five when I was writing Vanished.
In writing about Hannah, I felt at once protective of her and guilty. (Because I didn’t reveal any details about Hannah and her family that hadn’t already been published, I have been able to talk myself out of some of the guilt.)
That said, I was still worried that her inclusion in the book could upset Hannah’s family. Of course I’m sure they don’t want to be reminded of their ordeal, especially by someone they don’t know well. Yet they have been the picture of loveliness about this. In fact, it was thanks to Hannah’s parents Mike and Carol (and two proactive Illinois elementary schools, North in Villa Park and Schafer in Lombard) that I had the honor of being a guest author at Hannah’s school.
Before the presentation, Mike and Carol introduced Hannah and me. Upon first seeing her, I wanted to hug her, but held off so as not to overwhelm her. First she lost her grandfather in an accident, then got lost in the woods, then a writer she didn’t know included her story in a book without talking with her first, and now the same writer has come to speak at her school—and bring up the traumatic incident in front of her entire grade (with the advanced permission of both Hannah’s parents and a very poised Hannah herself). Any one of those situations requires deep strength, and Hannah has handled them all with grace.
Her friends were great emotional bodyguards for her. I met one girl who had learned of Hannah from the news before they’d met in school, and I’m told this little firecracker said “I will be friends with her.” They did become friends, and five years later, they still are. Some of her classmates did not know her Vanished story before I mentioned it. I didn’t go into detail with the group. That would be up to Hannah, and when I heard kids asking her about it afterward, she was understandably quiet. But many of her peers now intend to read the book. I’m sure they will find it scary to a degree, but the lingering feelings (I hope, I think) will be awe and empowerment.
The morning after the presentation, her dad reported with a smiley “Looks like Hannah will be sharing her story with her 5th grade this Friday. All the requests won her over, I think.”
Me, meanwhile…well, let’s just say that after the presentation, some of the teachers were touched to see that I got nervous when I was talking about Hannah.
At Hannah’s school, I told the kids that some of the heroes I’ve written about wear capes, but that we were all in the presence of a real-life hero. The kids applauded heartily. It’s funny that, prior to my visit, Hannah thought I was the famous one. Hannah is not “famous” for being a victim. She is famous for being a survivor. She will always inspire people, including me.
After school, I had the additional privilege of going to the Klamecki home and then going for ice cream with the whole family. I chose a flavor I’d never seen before but which kept with a theme of the day:
Hannah posed with my cup of it—two sweet little things the color of bravery:
5/20/12 addendum: The Villa Park Argus and Lombard Spectator ran an article "Author meets Villa Park girl whose case was included in 2010 book." An excerpt:
Much of [Nobleman's] presentation focused on the superheroes featured in his books, but he told the students one of the most profound heroes whose story he told was about a student at their school: Hannah Klamecki.