At first, no one wanted the moose.
The little stuffed animal with a hard body and floppy antlers stayed firmly in Nikole Hannah-Jones' grasp as she surveyed the room of 13 students and their editors.
It was Diversity Night at the High School Journalism Institute, an eight-day summer camp held at Oregon State University in Corvallis, and The Oregonian reporter had asked the teenagers gathered in a dorm lounge to share how their race, cultural and family backgrounds shaped who they were. Only the person holding the moose could talk.
No one in the room could have anticipated what heart-wrenching stories that moose would unleash once it left Nikole's hand.
I was one of seven word editors at the camp, which included a small army of Oregonian photographers, reporters and editors helping the students put out a 32-page newspaper in one week.
Each word editor had two students to mentor while they conducted interviews, wrote profiles, news stories, blogs and commentaries, and shot photos and video.
Many of the students had written for their high school newspaper, but for others, this was their first foray into journalism. And it was grueling, exhilarating.
Nikole, who blogs about race, gave the diverse group of students one more chance to volunteer for the moose. All stared at each other or at the floor, anywhere but at Nikole. Finally, she threw the unwanted creature toward a couch overstuffed with two boys and three girls. It landed in the lap of one of my students.
With eloquence and honesty, the 17-year-old told a more personal story of how her life was thrown into turmoil when her parents divorced.
After her explosive father stormed out of the house following another in a long history of fights with her mother, my student didn't see her dad for a year. Money became tight, and they almost lost their home. She now hates to ask her mom for money, even for taking the SATs to get into college.
Her story unleashed the anguish others felt about their own families that night. One by one, stories of pain, disappointment, perseverance and triumph tumbled from their souls as each student passed the moose and, eventually, toilet paper someone rushed in to wipe away tears.
One girl at age 14 found her beloved sister dead of suicide. Another remembers sitting in the back of a patrol car after her father pushed her mother down the stairs, not knowing whether her mother was alive and refusing a policeman's repeated attempts to give her cookies to make her feel better. To this day, she will not eat cookies.
A 15-year-old girl must raise her siblings, 9 and 5, while her parents work long hours to keep their home out of foreclosure. An Iranian-American girl remembers being called a "terrorist" in middle school.
As I listened to their stories, I was struck by how nearly every one ended on a note of hope. They had learned something important about themselves, or had forgiven their parents, or were looking forward to the day they would graduate and make a life of their own.
The moose at last landed with my other student, a 17-year-old girl born with cerebral palsy who must use a wheelchair to get around. On the day I met her, she made it clear she's not the "hero" people try to make her out to be.
"When people say, 'Oh, you're such an inspiration,' that really bugs me," she said. "I'm not trying to inspire anybody. I don't want to be a role model to anyone because I won't live up to it."
Everyone in the camp loved her smile, her sense of humor, the way she delved deeper into issues than her peers, how she stubbornly refused to let someone help her when she could do it herself.
What we didn't know was the pain behind this little soldier who lived her life as best she could. When she was born in Kolkata, India, she was abandoned in a shoebox. An American family adopted her when she was 6 months old.
Sobbing, she told of the invasive questions she's endured over the years from ignorant children and even teachers, one of whom told her she shouldn't have children because she'd pass on her "disease."
But, like the students before her, she ended her story with something positive: How everyone in the camp accepted her for who she was, had made her feel like part of a beautiful family.
When Diversity Night ended, the students went out to the soccer fields to hang out on blankets and talk about the really heavy stuff, like whether boys and girls can be just "friends."
We editors went back to our rooms with opened hearts, deeply moved by our students' capacity not only to survive, but to see hope through the darkness.